When Dowell arrived at Branshaw after being summoned by Edward and Leonora, he notes that everything appeared to be perfectly fine; they never dropped the appearance of a perfectly normal, happy family. Dowell took Leonora aside one day to ask her for permission to marry Nancy. She answered that she could not possibly think of a better husband for the girl, but that perhaps it was best if Nancy saw more of the world before taking such an important step into marriage. In reality, Leonora did not want Nancy to be settled within a mile and a half of Branshaw, where Dowell proposed to settle. Dowell accepted this reason. He thought that he should allow Nancy to go to India, and then follow her there and propose in six months time.
One day, before Nancy was to be put on the train, Dowell wandered into Edward's gun room. Edward confessed to Dowell that he was dying of love for Nancy Rufford. He told Dowell his side of the story. A few days later, Edward and Dowell took Nancy to the station to leave for India. Edward was distraught, but Leonora walked around with a triumphant smile on her face. She had long ago lost all thought of winning her husband back to herself. Under his breath, Edward admits, "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean." Days later, while Edward and Dowell are in the stable, Edward receives a telegram from Nancy reading: "safe Brindisi. Having a rattling good time. Nancy." He pulls out a small pen-knife, asks Dowell to take the telegram to Leonora, and says good-bye, that it is time for him to have some rest. He cuts his throat with the knife.
Dowell reflects that "the normal, the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful must flourish" while the "passionate, headstrong, and too truthful are condemned to madness and suicide." He reasons sarcastically that Nancy and Edward must be the villains of this story. Dowell now cares for Nancy, who repeats the word "shuttlecocks" every so often. He thinks it must refer to the way she had been tossed back and forth between Edward and Leonora for those few months. Dowell concludes that he sympathizes with Edward the most, that he loves him "because he was just myself." He reasons that if he had the courage and virility of Edward Ashburnham, he would have done much the same thing. He believes that he, like Edward, is a sentimentalist.
The Good Soldier is a novel of two crises: one of man's moral order and one of narrative structure. Dowell's disorganized tale is evidence of a mind that has lost all sense of order and reason. He can trace his own breakdown to his wife and to their relationship with some "good people" they met one beautiful evening in Nauheim, the Ashburnhams. As the adulteress of the novel, Florence threatens the stability of their "extraordinarily safe castle." Her affairs, first with Jimmy, and later with Edward Ashburnham, undermine the relations between the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, but more importantly, they undermine Dowell's entire sense of order and reality. By feigning a serious heart condition and using this excuse as a means to avoid all conjugal relations with her husband, Florence transforms Dowell into a sexless "male nurse." When Dowell realizes that ten years of his life have been devoted to Florence's lie, he suffers an emotional breakdown, a crisis of reality. Just as Dowell suffers from the reality of his wife's adultery, so Dowell's narrative tale suffers from his state of confusion and bewilderment.
In the final chapters, Dowell reflects on the sadness and misery of their lives. However, we are not meant to faithfully accept the judgments that Dowell makes. In the end, he compares himself to Edward Ashburnham, and thinks that they are just alike. But Edward and Dowell could not be more different; Edward is virile, courageous, and passionate. Dowell's life is passionless; he cares for women who are not even aware of his existence. He is inactive and utterly impotent in his dealings with others. Thus, Dowell's conclusion that he and Edward are "just the same" is clearly unreliable. We are forced to question who the heroines and the villains are, and whether heroes and villains can even exist in a world without moral order.