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  • Am I no better than a eunuch?":Narrating Masculinity and Empire in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier
  • Karen A. Hoffman

"Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man—the man with the right to existence—a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbour's womenkind?"1 With these words John Dowell, the narrator of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915), articulates the anxieties that prompt his incessant revisions of his identity.2 The disjunction between his own self-conception and his new understanding of masculinity creates his central crisis. Throughout the novel, Ford presents the operative definition of patriarchal masculinity in late Victorian/Edwardian England as inextricably linked to the assumptions and practices of imperialism, likening the expectation that men transgress boundaries in order to possess ever more women to the scramble for colonies among colonial powers. While this imperialistic definition of masculinity grants a certain degree of power to those male characters that enact it, the definition not only limits the female characters but disables the male characters as well. Ford depicts late Victorian/Edwardian culture offering no alternatives to this definition of masculinity: the male characters either follow the definition compulsively, even at times against their explicitly stated wishes, or they do not compete and consequently are emasculated or destroyed.

For decades critics have discussed The Good Soldier in terms of its narrative technique, but the novel's treatment of imperialism, its reflection upon the mutually reinforcing relationship between imperialism and patriarchy, and its exploration of narrative in relation to these topics remain virtually [End Page 30] unexplored.3 I see Ford emphasizing narrative as a means of negotiating anxiety and ambivalence about identity, in particular the crisis of imperialistic masculinity. Paralyzed by the intersection of masculinity and imperialism and shaken by threats to the gentry system, patriarchy, and, by extension, British imperialism, Dowell turns to narrative to manage his anxieties, yet even his narrative at times becomes a medium for enacting imperialistic crossings of identity borders.

By bringing Dowell's narrative act to the foreground, Ford positions Dowell as a fictive autobiographer who shapes his self-presentation to meet his specific desires and anxieties at the time of "writing."4 While much modernist literature is known for self-consciously drawing attention to itself as text, The Good Soldier particularly stands out for its explicit commentary on the narrative process and its enactment of Dowell's repeated revisions. As Richard A. Hood articulates, Ford turns "away from the conventions of narrative and toward a direct confrontation with the action of narrating."5 Ford shows Dowell raising the question of how to tell his story: "I don't know how it is best to put this thing down—whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from this distance of time [. . .]" (p. 15). In fact, Dowell tells the story both ways simultaneously, not only representing himself and others according to his past understanding but also bursting into his own narrative with abrupt revisions of events and identities. ("No, by God, it is false! It wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison—a prison full of screaming hysterics [. . .]. And yet I swear by the sacred name of my creator that it was true. It was true sunshine; the true music; the true plash of the fountains from the mouth of stone dolphins" (p. 12)).6 Most obviously, Dowell's shifts between his previously and presently-held views can be read as vacillations between denial and acknowledgement that Florence and Edward have both had extramarital affairs, including with each other. But these shifts also allow Ford to draw attention [End Page 31] to the ideological contradictions that destabilize Dowell's sense of his own identity and send into motion his narrative as a performance of his identity in the present. When Dowell states, "I don't know that analysis of my own psychology matters at all to the story," he could not be further from the truth (p. 73).

In depicting Dowell's anxieties through fictional events from 1892-1913, Ford reflects...


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