Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
The Good Soldier
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
Who can resist an opening line like this one? Especially if you’ve amassed a few sad stories of your own, the invitation to catharsis, or at least schadenfreude, is too tempting. It helps that the story that follows, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (#31), draws you in immediately with its sardonic tone and charmingly unreliable narrator.
You might think that with this title and this preamble, the story would be about war and the noble type of sadness it engenders. It is instead about something even sadder: personal betrayal.
The Good Soldier came out on the eve of World War I. Its characters might not have any portent of the upheaval the world would soon experience but they’re busy enough upheaving their own world. The best novels stand outside their own time as well as in it, and this is one of those novels. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to consider the shift in perspective that would come within just a few years of this novel’s publication, as reflected in other novels on the Modern Library’s list. How would these characters have acted, given the same settings and circumstances, if one or more of them had lived through the European war fields? Would the narrator have been able to engage the amused observational attitude and ironic self-deprecation that he does?
It is the telling that makes this story. This narrator, Dowell, is not the type of observer that Nick Carraway is in The Great Gatsby, watching thing happen to other people. He is not quite the astute chronicler that Jake is in The Sun Also Rises, participating and reporting at the same time. This narrator has cast himself, with dubious success, as a secondary character in his own story. He behaves as if it is a story happening to someone else, when really it is happening to him. He keeps his distance from the narrative, unnaturally and thus painfully so.
As with many of the novels on the Modern Library’s list that stem from the first half of the 20th century, the characters and settings in The Good Soldier belong to the privileged classes. Read enough of these novels and you start to read this lifestyle as familiar. Though they worry and talk quite a lot about money, no one goes to a job every morning. They travel all over the place. They stay in hotels and get waited on. They have plenty of time to think about their dispositions toward one another and to play their elaborate game of shifting affections and allegiances.
This sad story involves four people—an English couple and an American couple. The American wife and the English husband both are in a fragile state of health, which the narrator refers to as having “a heart,” presumably meaning a heart weakened by some previous illness. The health of these individuals brings the two couples together and they become fast friends and companions. What happens as a result of the dynamic among the four of them constitutes the basis for the tragedy, this “saddest story.”
Dowell discloses the story in a highly digressive manner. He speaks directly to the reader, like a friend who calls you up and says, “Hey, I have to tell you what happened while I was over in Europe this summer.” Details come out tantalizingly slowly. First he has to fill you in on this person’s background, then he has to describe the particular hotel so you can picture what went on there, then he has to tell you this other side story because it is germane to the main story. Oh, and isn’t the whole thing so ridiculous and so sad? You are amused and intrigued, and you couldn’t interrupt even if you wanted to.
And in the end, this is the saddest story, made so not so much by the facts of it but by its artful unfolding. It might not be the sad story you expected but it has the anticipated result: it moves your heart.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.