The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion was published in 1915, a time of great turbulence in Ford's own personal life--he was involved in the difficult negotiations of being married to two women (Elsie Hueffer and Violet Hunt), and in love with a third (Brigit Patmore); additionally, he was experiencing strained relations with at least two of his closest friends, Arthur Pierson Marwood (Ford's business manager and financial backer for the English Review) and Joseph Conrad. There are two manuscripts in existence; the first manuscript contains information on Edward as the father of illegitimate children--this was later taken out, perhaps, to render a more plausibly sympathetic portrait of Edward.
The first four and a half chapters were published initially in Wyndham Lewis's magazine Blast on June 20, 1914. Although the installment ended with a "To be Continued," the next number of Blast did not come out for another 13 months which was four months after the novel was published in book form. The magazine and the book form do not differ significantly from one another.
Ford's original title of the book was actually The Saddest Story but this title was rejected by his publishers.
The first person narrator (American James Dowell) begins the story famously: "This is the saddest story that I have ever heard." Of course, the readers soon find out that this is not just any "heard" story, but a story of affective entanglements in which the narrator was very much embroiled. The narration starts by fits and starts, Dowell explicitly repeating "I don't know," and ending his first chapter with "It is all a darkness." What the reader gathers in the initial chapters are the bare facts of the major events in this story: that Florence, Dowell's wife, was dead, and that she had cuckolded him through having an affair with his friend (a former decorated soldier and magistrate), Edward Ashburnham. Dowell tells of Florence's heart condition (we find out later that Dowell deliberately withholds the information that it is a fake condition as he is narrating at this point) and of how she needed to had to recover at some baths in Nauheim, a resort town in Germany. Dowell lingers on a coquettish look that Florence used to give him while turning her head to go off to her bath. At Nauheim, Florence and Dowell meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, the English couple that, for the next nine years, would become their constant companions.
In the remainder of the first part, Dowell tells of a certain incident which occurred during the four friends' visit to M-- (Marburg) castle. In the bedroom of Martin Luther, Leonora has an outburst after Florence briefly touches Edward's wrist, and Dowell may have discovered the import then. But, the outburst is ambiguous, and Leonora covers up the outburst as owing to her feeling that Florence, in going on and on about Luther, and insulted her Roman Catholic beliefs. Following the relaying of this incident, Dowell goes into a history of Edward's cheating, and Leonora's decisions to put up with it and exert control over Edward through other means, primarily by controlling his money. Dowell reflects on Leonora's religious beliefs and how they would not allow her the option of divorce. We get the first mention of Edward's affair with one Mrs. Maisie Maidan, a young woman that they had taken in as a servant. Mrs. Maidan, we learn, dies on the day of the Marburg castle visit. The first part closes, finally, with some more details on a heated exchange between Florence and Leonora after Leonora has found out about Florence. Dowell reveals Mrs. Maidan's grotesque death--her heart fails and she falls into her suitcase, which closes on her, just as she was packing to leave.
The second part is brief. Dowell tells of how he came to marry Florence (who is from Pennsylvania), and how he takes her to England. Florence, as it turns out, had already had an affair with a lower class servant named Jimmy at the beginning of their marriage, and she used the excuse of her heart condition to pretty much lock Dowell out of her bedroom. On August 4, 1913, Leonora sends Florence out to accompany Edward and a young girl, Nancy Rufford (daughter of a friend whom the Ashburnham's have taken in) on an outing, where Florence witnesses some intimate moments (though not explicit, in any way) between Edward and Nancy. Florence runs home, where Dowell is having dinner with one Bagashawe, who turns out to have known about Jimmy. Horrified, Florence runs upstairs and kills herself by drinking prussic acid.
In the third part, Dowell reveals how he receives news from Leonora of Florence's affair with Edward after both Florence and Edward have died. Yet, Dowell defends Edward, describing him as a victim of too much sentimentalism. Upon Florence's death, Dowell decides that he would like to marry Nancy. The focus then shifts onto Nancy, and her rough history with an abusive father, a difficult mother, and then education at a convent. Leonora and Edward had taken her in, and she had regarded the two of them as a sort of aunt and uncle. According to Dowell, though Edward would really have liked to be with Nancy, his restraint was his triumph. Leonora, however, was unhappy with his triumph. Dowell then spends a few chapters on the nature and history of Leonora and Edward's unhappy marriage, revealing more details on Edward's first instance of cheating (kissing a servant girl in Kilsyte at a train station, which then turned into a public case), and his running into the arms of a wealthy woman by the name of La Dolciquita later on. Dowell defends Edward and emphasizes Leonora's coldness, and the "world having put ideas into his head" in the Kilsyte case, thus paving the way for his affairs later on. Dowell does give a short account of Leonora's side, but it is one in which he unflatteringly dissects her controlling nature, her passion for wanting Edward to come back to her yet regard for him as someone she could psychologically dissect and manipulate.
In the fourth and final part of the novel, the narrator reveals that he is aware of the rambling character of his narrative. He continues with an account of Nancy's thoughts while becoming involved in the saga of Leonora and Edward; naive and instructed only in the ways of the world through novels and scattered reading, Nancy begins to see the truth about Edward's love for her. She feels a certain degree of power, but Edward, in his restraint, tries to send her back to India, where her mother and father still live. Leonora, however, essentially doesn't want Edward to have the satisfaction of a kind of moral high ground, and she refuses. In the meantime, Leonora reveals to Nancy that Edward needs her, and encourages her to go to him. All of this Dowell describes as Leonora and Nancy being cruel to Edward. The novel finally ends with the narrator going to Edward's old estate to take care of Nancy, who has become mad, famously repeating the word "shuttlecocks," Leonora's remarriage to a "normal," faithful man, and Edward's gruesome suicide through slitting his own throat.
The rambling, first-person narrator who tells a story in bits and pieces, fits and starts, has taken us far from the largely chronological, at least semi-omniscient narration so characteristic of the Victorian novel. Ford's dedicatory to Stella Ford, his wife at the time (1927), also reveals another important in way in which the novel form has progressed by the beginning of the twentieth century. It is clear that Ford intended his work to be his masterpiece, to be a novel whose significance would change the face of English reading and representation. Ford was trying to develop a technique based on impressionism, calculated to produce impressions upon a reader. Like in many of Conrad's works, The Good Soldier seems to use the device of the first person narrator in order to create deeper, truer impressions, because the single narrator is scaled to individual perception.
Critics have read The Good Soldier under a number of rubrics, now that interest in Ford Madox Ford as a viable modernist has increased: the failed marriages in the work explode and frustrate the Victorian marriage plot, the "darkness" and the importance of the "heart" in the novel resonates with the darkness of empire, the inaccessibility of the human heart represents an epistemological crisis, and finally, a number of readers have also explored the work as a new incarnation of detective fiction, in which Dowell is a highly unreliable detective who must rely heavily on conjecture and the eyewitness accounts given to him by Edward and Leonora largely after the major tragedies of their lives have unfolded.
One of the aspects of Dowell's narration that interests me in particular is his oscillation between narrative tics which seem to "block" productivity and moments of effusive psychological dissection. The tics that I am referring to generally signal a lack of epistemological certainty and a sense of therefore giving up the possibility of knowing in face of such uncertainty: for instance, "God knows," "Heaven knows," Jesus knows," "I don't know," and "I leave it to you" at the very end). At other times, such as when Dowell describes Leonora's Roman Catholicism and its huge effect on her character and her actions, or when he describes Edward's sentimentalism and passion, he could not sound more sure than a naive psychologist who has definitely pronounced his diagnosis.
What is the relationship between this oscillating narrator and the reader? As a reader, I found it easy to become swept up in some of Dowell's moments of certainty and effusion; the withholding perpetuated by his stilted moments perpetuates the reader's desire for more knowledge. We desire, along with Dowell, to know about these characters, and yet like Dowell, the reader feels hopelessly blocked--the only account we have is Dowell's, a man who did not know, for nine years, that his wife was having affair with his friend, and whose account of his own life was largely reconstructed retrospectively from the accounts of others who were also directly involved. I think then, that The Good Soldier is very much about granting the reader a true experience of what it is to live life--it is to be so embroiled as to not be able to know, and yet so embroiled that the desire to know can't be conquered.
For some related comments on reader experience and temporality in The Good Soldier, see my paragraph on The Good Soldier in conjunction with Ricoeur's Time and Narrative.