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Discrepancies in the Time-Scheme of TAe Good Soldier JAMES T. ADAMS The Lawrenceville School DISTINGUISHED CRITICS, we are told, have agreed that "Ford's The Good Soldier is one of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our century."1 That general encomium, alas, is about all on which they can agree with respect to Ford Madox Ford's "great auk's egg." Ever since John Dowell's exasperating fireside chat with our "sympathetic soul[s]" began back in 1915, it has defied even vague critical consensus, let alone definitive interpretation. This brilliant quicksilver, it seems, will not be nailed to stay put, for the complexity of Ford's narrative technique and the stultifying opacity of the narrator himself present formidable difficulties indeed. So formidable, in fact, that critics have chosen to ignore another of the novel's frustrations, the discrepancies in the time-scheme. That there are a few "mistakes" in the time-scheme has been observed, but those careful enough to notice them have been careless enough to suppose them inadvertent and relatively harmless.2 Ford, however, tells us in his "Dedicatory Letter" that translating the novel into French forced him "to give it much closer attention than would be the case in any reading however minute" (emphasis added), and he was "astounded at the work [he] must have put into the construction of the book, at the tangle of references and cross-references."3 Ford himself, then, would certainly have noticed the same discrepancies that so many critics—who have not translated the novel into French—have observed. That these discrepancies remain in the text, therefore, is intentional; that they are intentional suggests we ought to take the trouble to make something of them. Let us see what we can make of them. We are told early on that the Dowells and the Ashburnhams first met at Nauheim, in the dining room of the Hotel Excelsior, on an 153 ELT: VOLUME 34:2, 1991 evening in August, 1904; and if a few readers have wondered whether Dowell's recollection is a bit off and that this dinner may in fact have occurred in July, no one has questioned the year. Certainly, we say, Dowell cannot be mistaken about that, as it is from 1904 that he dates the "nine years and six months less four days" shelf hfe of his "goodly apple," and we acquiesce—as we acquiesce initially to so many pronouncements of Dowell that subsequent discoveries force us to reject. But is it really reasonable to suppose that Ford, insistent as he is that we record the dates and as meticulous as he tells us he was in his own close examination of his novel, would have failed to notice that he has Florence taking on Edward Ashburnham in 1903? "And, by the time she was sick of Jimmy—which happened in the year 1903—she had taken on Edward Ashburnham."4 Conveniently set off by dashes, this key phrase is hard to miss even for a cursory reader, to say nothing of a translating author, so we are obliged to accept it. Its implications are profound. One consequence is to force a completely different reading—and appreciation—of "the aspect of many things" at the Excelsior Hotel that August evening in 1904. Dowell, seeing Edward Ashburnham for the first time in his hfe, saw "two distinct expressions flicker across his immobile eyes." The first was an expression "of pride, of satisfaction, of the possessor." The second was a "measuring look; a challenging look" as if to say, "it might just be done."5 Dowell assumes the looks were directed at Ashburnham's wife, Leonora, and Dowell's wife, Florence, respectively, who have just entered the room together behind Dowell. We have no reason at this point to doubt that Ashburnham, like any man, might look at his wife with the pride of "the possessor," or that Ashburnham, like any philanderer, might ogle a strange woman with a "challenging look;" but we subsequently learn that Ashburnham has by 1904 been stripped by Leonora of control of his estate and of his commission—as well as of Leonora's sexual companionship —so...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 153-164
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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