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203 IRONIC STRUCTURE IN THE GOOD SOIDIER By H. Wayne Schow (Idaho State University) On one point virtually all the critics of The Good Soldier have agreed s that Ford Madox Ford is here fully in control of his materials, a writer who understands how to tell a story. The novel has been characteristically praised as "a brilliant show of technique," as "an immensely complex and subtle and fascinating . . . marvel of craftsmanship." "Judged as a technical feat alone," Walter Allen has written, "The Good Soldier is dazzling, as near perfection as a novel can be."T The difficulties over which critics part company begin when they attempt to get beyond technique to questions of meaning. In an influential essay written in 1951t Mark Schorer assessed the problem in this way: "The mechanical structure of The Good Soldier is controlled to a degree nothing less than taut, while the structure of meaning is almost blandly open, capable of limitless refractions."2 The great number and variety of interpretations which the novel has called forth lend some weight to Schorer*s assertion. While the subject of this work has been seen by one critic as "the fall of a great civilization and the consequent necessity that the narrator feels to . . . extract some kind of meaning from the cataclysm and to speculate about the very nature of civilization and its value,"3 most interpreters have focused their discussions less broadly on either Edward Ashburnham, the good soldier of the title, or John Dowell, the involved narrator of the story. Edward has been variously regarded, from a genuinely tragic hero to an outmoded, shallow sentimentalist.^ The preponderance of recent criticism has centered on the enigmatic Dowell, who in one view is considered the epitome of passive ineffectuality, in another a partial representation of tragic modern man, in still another a dual personality whose behavior as protagonist is contradicted by his duplicity as narrator . 5 Valuable as much of this sifting of the text has been, it has not always recognized (1) that the structure of meaning in this novel is extraordinarily dependent on the mechanical structure (the technical brilliance, if you will), and (2) that, from a structural standpoint, Edward and Dowell cannot be understood independently of each other. My intention in this essay is to reexamine these relationships in the light of some formal implications, hoping in the process to make clearer the novel's moral vision. Our understanding of the interrelationship of form and meaning is enlarged once we recognize the importance of a structural double perspective. There is on the one hand a focus on the action, precisely limited and neatly contained in a strict Aristotelian sense. At its center is Edward Ashburnham, the English gentleman soldier early retired. Clustered about him 204 are his wife Leonora, his ward Nancy Rufford, and Florence Dowell who, along with her husband John, has been closely acquainted with the Ashburnhams over a nine-year period at Nauheim, a fashionable German spa. In this action, Dowell's role is largely passive - Dowell as steady friend, cuckold, and non-seeing observer. On the other hand, there is the focus on Dowell as a narrator after the fact, on Dowell as the person through whose consciousness our whole view of this "sad story" passes. For decidedly the book is as much a revelation of him as it is anything else. To slight either of these formalistic perspectives would be to lose something vital, for the meaning of the novel ultimately emerges from the tensions generated between them. It will be helpful to consider the novel against the background of several ideas relating to technique which Ford had worked out with Joseph Conrad somewhat earlier (about 1902). They felt "that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind," which meant for them a rejection of straightforward chronological narration in favor of a more complicated but more life-like (or mind-like) rendering of impressions of events. They accepted the label "impressionistic" not unwillingly, for it conveyed their intention of rendering through relevant associations rather than "narrating," of effacing the author (an intruder in the rendition of life) as much as...


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pp. 203-211
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Will Be Archived 2021
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