Archetypal Modernism in Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier

The originality of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier has compelled many critics to situate the novel in the realm of scholarship as a literary masterpiece

The brilliance and originality of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a novel that predates the grand launching of Modernism in 1916 by a year, have compelled many critics to situate the novel in the spatial realm of scholarship as a literary masterpiece in the canon of Modernism.

Rich Themes in The Good Soldier

In addition to its themes of alienation, fragmentation, waste, and pressures on the modern man to extricate himself from traditional values of gentility in a vastly industrial world, which emphasize and accentuate some of life’s crucial essences and truths as well as hopelessness of the human condition, Ford sets the paradigms and paragons of Modernism in The Good Soldier with its non-chronological time shifts, nomenclature, and point of view.

It is not characterized by the religious absolutisms and moral certainties of the Victorian Age, but it is replete with the narrator’s intellectual relativism and human subjectivity. Early critics like Mark Schorer, who critiqued the novel about sixty years ago, sawThe Good Soldier from purely an emotional perspective and excoriates the narrator as an individual, devoid of any visceral feelings in the affairs of the heart.

The Good Soldier as a Monograph

However, other critics assign a more intellectual fervor to the novel and consider it as a great literary canon in Modernism. As John A. Meixner points out, “The Good Soldier is one of the literary triumphs of the twentieth century—a creation of the very highest art which must also be ranked among the more powerful novels that have been written” (qtd in DLB).

Richard Peterson asserts: “The Good Soldier stands out as a masterpiece of modern fiction, a masterstroke of impressionistic fiction that ranks with other modern classics in its balance of point of view, character, and theme.” (qtd in DLB). Toward that end, The Good Soldier is firmly anchored in the eternal realm of Modernism as a brilliant impressionistic fiction because it is non-chronological, cinematic, and ahistorical.

Ford created a narrator, John Dowell, who tells the story from the vantage first person point of view with effective strokes in time shifts. In his narration, Dowell does not tell the story about married couples, adultery, fornication, prevarication, hypocrisy, and moral stasis that lead to madness, suicides, and alienation in a sequential chronological form but shifts the times and milieu in which events occur.

As Dowell points out, “I have told this story in a rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze” (108). Indeed, Ford succeeds in creating a perfect maze for the reader as the labyrinth path navigated in the narration, the back and forth oscillations of events and the characters, gives the novel its profound outlook.

For example, Dowell tells of the deaths of Maisie Maidan and Florence Dowell before he reveals with sustained brilliance in diction, their amorous affairs with Edward Ashburnham that lead to Maidan dying of heart attack and Florence, the narrator’s wife, committing suicide.

In the end, Ashburnham, stuck between the tension of the traditional rural gentleman and modern industrial man, commits suicide after receiving a telegram from Nancy Rufford that she was having a life of mirth and bliss on her voyage to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). And, Nancy loses her mind after reading in a newspaper that Ashburnham had committed suicide.

Protagonist’s Wife Emerges Triumphant

Leonora, Ashburnham’s wife, emerges triumphant and marries her boyfriend, Rodney Bayham, even as the narrator becomes alienated without a wife and without a girlfriend.

The cinematic trajectory of the narration in which Dowell uses effective diction to negotiate his way into the minds of readers, creates a powerful impact on the imagination. A classic case of illustration occurs when Dowell describes the love Nancy has for Ashburnham as based primarily on her knowledge of him from an exogenous perspective.

He ascertains: “She certainly had loved him for…the public side of his record—for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord that he was and the good sportsman” (144). Photography, painting, and music are as much a part of Modernism as pragmatism is part of realism, so Nancy is photographed during her days in the Convent to accentuate her moral fortitude, and she plays music to mollify an apparent soul that’s in a state of ember.

Prototype of Madam Bovary

Finally, although the novel has some historical allusions, it is, indeed, ahistorical as it does not follow any historical pattern. Because of the instances of adultery in the novel, some post-modern critics view the novel as a prototype of Gustav Flaubert’sMadam Bovary while some have postulated that its themes mimic Edith Gaskell’s Cranford.

Clearly, Ford in The Good Soldier set a paradigmatic paragon for Modernism even as dreams, which according to Sigmund Freud, are projections into future occurrences, are mentioned in the novel. Indeed, whatever his shortcomings were in his lifetime, one thing that nobody can take from Ford is that he wrote a masterpiece that has become an archetype facilitates the hermeneutical appraisal of Modernism.

Samuel Doku



About Dr. Sam Doku
Dr. Samuel O. Doku is a professor and a writer. He earned his Ph.D. in English with concentration in African American Literature from Howard University. He is a W.E.B. Du Bois scholar whose book is titled Cosmopolitanism in the Fictive Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward the Realization of a Revolutionary Art. His articles have been published on Google Scholar, in the International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities, and College English Association Magazine (CEAMAG).