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21 THE SEEING EYE AND THE SLOTHFUL HEARTi THE NARRATOR OF FORD'S THE GOOD SOLDIER By Diane Stockmar Bonds (Southwest Texas State University) For a long time critics of Ford's The Good Soldier failed to make much of the obvious: John Dowell, Έηβ narrator, is not so much unreliable as he is "spectacularly obtuse."1 Recent critics like James Hurt, however, have begun to see that Dowell's "blindness is selective,"¿ that he in fact knows a great deal, and that the most engaging question about this narrator may well be not what he knows or how he knows it but rather how he could possibly be as ignorant as he claims to be. His avoidance of epistemological or moral involvement in the facts of his case - his own life story - is pathetic . As Sondra J. Stang writes, Dowell's disclaimers of knowledge are "a camouflage for his shrinking from conclusions, his fear of experience, and his failure to deal with it."-^ Similarly, John G. Hessler concludes that Dowell's "narrative stance as helpless questioner is, ultimately, an emotional strategy of evasion," one that allows his "static dwelling in ignorance."^ These critics correctly show that Dowell attempts to avoid understanding, but I want to argue further that Dowell may actually embark upon his tale as means of escaping awareness (and the feelings that awareness naturally would bring) only to find that some of his narrative techniques force upon him the very understanding that he seeks to avoid. Of particular importance is Dowell's tendency to pause and closely envision or imagine certain scenes, a tendency which may well be ambivalently motivated both as a reaching out toward the truth and as a strategy of evasion. In order to initiate his tale proper (that is, the story of his experiences with Florence, the Ashbrunhams , and Nancy Rufford), for instance, Dowell places himself in an imaginary situation which he pictures for us in detail: ... I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go to the door and look out at the great moon and say: 'Why, it is nearly as bright as in Provence!* And then we shall come back to the fireside , with just a touch of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are gay. Consider the lamentable history of Peire Vidal.5 The passage of course suggests Dowell's need for a sympathetic listener before he can proceed with the tale, but equally important to recognize here is the specificity with which he imagines the situation . This strategy for propelling himself into the narration of 22 his tale proper obviously at the same time retards the very progress of that tale; and in fact Dowell's habit of minutely picturing things frequently disrupts the flow of events being related. Thus "the lamentable history of Peire Vidal," itself a digression, only comes five pages after Dowell's initial reference to it; for the mention of Vidal reminds the narrator of a trip that he and Florence took to Las Tours, the home of Vidal's beloved, and he must describe his memories of the landscape! "a tortuous valley," "an immense pinnacle " topped by four castles, "the silver-grey olive leaves [that] appeared like hair flying in the wind," and "the tufts of rosemary [that]crept into the iron rocks that they might not be torn up by the roots" (p. 13). Dowell himself wonders if his detailed descriptions of Provence are digressions (p. 14), but some of the images that compel Dowell's attention in his digressions have the potential for opening up the meaning of his experience. That Dowell attempts to avoid the implications of such images is clear if we concentrate on Chapter II, where he seems to be struggling to determine what properly constitutes narrative - or at least his narrative. The chapter opens...


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