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104 THE QUESTION OF JAMES'S INFLUENCE ON FORD'S THE GOOD SOLDIER By Kathryn C. Rentz (University of Illinois) As several critics have observed, Ford Madox Ford's effort to make The Good Soldier his masterpiece was to a considerable extent an effort to free himself from his dependence on Henry James's methods, a dependence that Ford publicly acknowledged. His success has been challenged by some reviewers, who suggest that The Good Soldier is yet another "Jamesian pastiche'' or even an extensive parody of the Master's techniques and values.3 it is indisputable that James's works supplied Ford's novel with much of its raw material. The central situation of The Good Soldier - that of a naive American in a foreign land who becomes disillusioned with people he has trusted is a Jamesian hallmark, and the characters typically found in James's handling of this situation are reproduced, to varying degrees, in Ford's vasion. But Ford has significantly revised these Jamesian features to produce a chaotic, violent novel quite different from the comparatively tidy and restrained Jamesian works. Informed by a more pessimistic, ironic vision of life than James ever implied, The Good Soldier is a cohesive Fordian achievement transcending the jamesian characteristics that Ford admired. Henry James : A Critical Study, which Ford completed just prior to beginning The Good Soldier, provides descriptions of the Jamesian effects that Ford liked and soon extended for his own ends in his novel. He greatly respected the fact that James, in Ford's opinion, refrained from pointing a moral, choosing instead to present readers with a disinterested view of reality: "Mr. James alone, it seems to me, in this entire weltering universe, has kept his head, has bestowed his sympathies upon no human being and upon no cause," and that virtue makes him, according to Ford, "the only unbiased, voluminous and truthful historian of our day."-3 Ford further applauds James's realistic treatment of characters, who show "not so much that there are no such things as oppressors and oppressed, but that, even in the act of oppressing,,the oppressor isn't having a very much better time than his victims." Especially impressive to Ford was James's "supreme trick" of having his characters "talk about the musical glasses," or other banalities, while their "lives crumble to pieces" around them. "That, you know, is what life really is," Ford continues, " - a series of such meaningless episodes beneath the shadow of doom - or of impending bliss, if you prefer it," and the mind must pass "perpetually backwards and forwards„between the apparent aspect of things and the essentials of life."' These commails apply more accurately to The Good Soldier than to James's novels. In them, as a rule, the threaT"of aestruction is very real, but it is usually circumvented by characters who can read the dangers and then thwart them through restraint and selflessness. Even when a breakdown in relationships does occur, the sensitive characters , as well as the readers, have developed a moral awareness through their experiences that will presumably come to their aid in future 105 situations. In Ford's novel, by contrast, lives do "crumble to pieces ," and much more violently and irrevocably than those of James's characters. In addition, neither Ford's "oppressors" nor 'oppressed" - if they can indeed be divided that neatly - gain anything. They have learned no lesson that will benefit them later on, and the reader of this story that has no "right" interpretation suffers the same fate. The mind's movement between appearance and reality, sustained throughout a Jamesian novel, ceases when James's characters and readers arrive at the truth; but neither the readers nor the narrator of The Good Soldier knows what to make of the book's events. By reworking a typical Jamesian situation and altering Jamesian characters, and by devising a structure that complicates matters rather than elucidating them, Ford presents readers with the disturbing fact that the ruin of people's lives is sometimes both unavoidable and meaningless , an implication that James's work never so powerfully or relentlessly pursues. Ford's transformations of Jamesian features toward this end get well underway...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 104-114
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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