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Narrative Style of Ford; Impressionist With Many Meanings
Ford Madox Ford s narrative of The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion engages you as a silent but active listener and reveals details about people acting as themselves. The Good Soldier, unlike what the title suggests, is not a novel about war or an allegory about the defects of society traced back to the defects of human nature. Rather, it is a novel that depicts the defects of the human character and questions the worth of civilization through the first person narration of Ford s main character, John Dowell. In short, The Good Soldier questions, how men can find a workable relationship between their instincts and civilized life. Ford s writing is personable, which makes him a storyteller rather than a character of the book. He gives details one at a time and jumps in many directions, much like a story told to you. By using this form of narration, Ford leaves a lasting impression or series of impressions were traditional linear line narration fall short. Through the mind of Dowell, Ford Madox Ford s creates a narrative with an impressionist structure that enables him to construct queer and shifty notions of human relationships, an illusion of reality that grants motives to behavior that might otherwise appear obscure and penetrate into the symbolic meaning of the human heart.
Ford considered The Good Soldier as one of his best novels and piece of writing because of its structure and narrative style. He felt that The Good Soldier was the best example of what he could do with writing and his sense of what a novel should contain. Sondra Stang tells us about Ford, The good Soldier, as its readers know from Ford s dedicatory letter to Stella put everything he knew about the art of the novel into one book, it would be the book that would represent him more honorably and accurately than anything he had ever done. However, The Good Soldier has become the subject of controversy concerning the ambiguity of John Dowell. Often times, readers believe that the values of Ford are portrayed through Dowell s character. The problem becomes trying to discover if this notion is true. Ford does not directly tell us or leave any clues if he reflects his own self through Dowell. While, it has been argued that Dowell s lack of sex with Florence portrays a time when Ford was having relationship troubles, the argument by itself is simply too inconclusive.
Wanting us to form our own opinion, Ford constructs Dowell with many different character traits. On one hand we see Dowell as a man incapable of passion . . . who suffered from the sluggish insanity of defective love to a narrator who fits the [Conrad-Ford] ideal better than Conrad s Marlow, being even less of idiosyncratic observer. Dowell s character is by no means an easy character to predict or derive a certain criteria for because of the many levels Dowell is presented.
The fictional character that emerges from an impressionist writing reveals different truths about their personality that might be otherwise constricted by conventional writing. As in Flaubert, the author would be important, impersonal, hidden. Narratives would be broken into fragments of remembered events, and such shards of meanings, set side by side, would produce an additional impact, often of irony, always of psychological suspense, upon the reader. An impressionist uses the mind of only one character to tell the story. The thoughts, actions, opinions and arguments are all constructed from a single individuals viewpoint. In the case of The Good Soldier, Dowell plays this role to show the many discrepancies that exist between him and the other characters around him. While at first, The Good Soldier seems like a simple and easily narrative style to read into, there are many problems that are associated with its construction, like Dowell s constant questioning, his many levels of characterization and it chronology.
John Dowel, functions on more than one level. He functions as a husband, a friend, character of passion, shame and as a narrator. He presents his hardships and complicated nature through the rendering of his story. He tells his story not in chronological order, but as a series of impressions, as they are remembered and realized in his mind. Dowell s creative storytelling engages us to take a more proactive role and realize that he is simply talking through his story. He often switches back and forth from one time period to another, while sometimes giving more detail than before. The intent of the narrator is to reconstruct for the reader the current experience after it has been depicted and examined from prior knowledge. For example Dowel, tells us directly,
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when on discusses an affair A long affair one goes back, on goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. The will then seems most real.
Ford was conscience that he was creating Dowell in this manner. If he had made Dowell a narrator who could word for word, chronologically tell his story, he would not be a believable character. He would not draw sympathy nor would he receive praise. His actions would not seem as serious; nor would his despair, grief or happiness take on as great of an importance. Ford comments, Thus an Impressionist in a novel, or poem, will never render a long speech of one of his character verbatim, because the mind of the reader would at once lose some of the illusion of the good faith of the narrator. Ford wants us to think of Dowell much like a person who is telling a story in real life, like general conversation or rhetoric.
Thus, The Good Soldier is also impressionistic novel rather than a naturalistic one, even if Ford was not aware of it. Dowell is seen as a person who narrates but also renders impressions of his own life with the time shifts being evidence of his incompetence. The choice of narrator is therefore essential to the rendering of impressions, and Ford chose a narrator who is centrally involved in the situation. Time and the order of events, rather than given in a strait-forward manner, are delivered through memories and past accounts. Indeed, Ford deliberately, through his narrator, focuses attention on the facts of time so that the careful reader will realize that what is important is not calendar of clock time, but the psychological and symbolic interrelationships of events. The time shifts play a key and important role in separating Dowell s rendering, to that of his tale. This allows the reader to realize Dowel s ideas and thoughts go into the characters minds, without giving their opinion of what they are saying. Dowell never violates chorology: he shuffles it. So he is at a distance from his past and treats it as a series. Yet he still manages to treat it as a series of appearances rather than facts, even while he acclaims as facts the impressions his memory pulls out. Since the events are ordered in relation to Dowell s development of truth, we are given importance in relation to what he feels is the most important event to tell.
This can be seen form Dowell s understanding of Florence s suicide and affair. It is only through the process of shifting events and time, that he later discovers the truth about her death. Instead of her death caused by heart problems, as it is given in the beginning, he later reviles to us that in fact it was a suicide. For example, in part one a reader learns that Florence is dead. Then in part 2, we further learn that Dowell believes she died because of a hear attack. Finally in part three, he discovers from Lenora, that in fact she died because of suicide. Each of these three events is only relieved to us when Dowell finds it the right time to tell us, or when he for himself discovers them. In the mean time, we are left to guess. While we might have a notion that Florence did not just die a natural death, we are left to wonder until Dowell wants to tell us.
Often times, this rendering can be misleading to the reader and difficult to understand because there is no way an author can give us outside opinion to the narrator s thoughts and actions. We are only given what the narrator wants us to hear. As a result, our thoughts about the narrator are only determined through our own realizations and ideas. At first, readers might put up a front or wall in order to protect themselves of Dowell s rendering because we can only take his words for the truth. Much ambiguity arises because Ford himself, questions the notion of being an impressionist. He says, even as far as literary Impressionism goes I claim no Papacy in the matter. A few years ago, if anybody had called me and Impressionist I should languidly have denied that I was anything of the sort or that I knew anything about the school, if there could be said to be any school. So, while we are trying to make sense of time and the way Ford constructs Dowell, Ford himself may not have been aware that he was creating so much ambiguity with his character.
The Good Soldier is a tale of seduction, adultery and suicide. Thus, there are many levels of concentration a reader must dedicate to the overall unraveling of the work. Not only is time, chronology and themes mixed throughout the work but so is the mind of Dowell. At first glance, Dowell seems peculiarly ill-equipped to tell this story, because he is to tell this story, because he is ill-equipped to know a tale of passion . . .He is a stranger to human affairs; he tells his wife s aunts that he does nothing because he has never seen any call to. And he is an American, a stranger to the society in which his story takes place. Dowell is constantly telling us that in fact he is confused and uncertain of his way of thinking. He says, Who in this world knows anything of any other heart- or of his own. . . But one cannot be certain of the way any man will behave in every case- and until one can do that a character is of no use to anyone. Thus, Dowell tells his story as a puzzled man himself, almost incapable of deriving his own conclusions about the minds and ways people.
Dowell is caught in a maze and is trying to figure a way out by using what he knows, then questioning it. His questions, while they might be explained later, can misdirect the reader to believe a thought or action that has nothing to do with the theme or plot. At the same time, however, his questions draw the reader in to examine if they can find an answer.
John Dowell, struggles with his presumptions of what he sees. His struggles with his friends, his wife and own complicated mentality, show him searching for inner truth of what it means to be human. It is impossible to read The Good Soldier without being moved, indeed almost rocked, by the emotional force Dowell s plea for idealism and self-sacrifice on the one hand and for the legitimacy of intense physical passion on the other. Dowell claims that his thoughts crowd upon him and cause him trouble. He wants to understand why other characters (Florence and Edward in particular) act in the manner that they do. He produces and lingers over his story much like an old man in a cabin because he is trying to derive a solution. It is Dowell, who dubs what he sees as the saddest story. For seven years he has sacrificed himself to Florence, his wife, whom he believes has a weak heart. For seven years, Dowell has been her patient and slave while she and Edward, who he though was his friend, deceives him. Off this subject it is easy to see how this is a sad story. He says, I call this the Saddest Story, rather then The Ashburnham Tragedy , just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it nothing of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about it not nemesis, no destiny.
As the story is revealed, the symbolic meaning of the human heart becomes a center of what is deceiving Dowell. Heart disease plays an important literary device that unpacks many character traits about Florence and Edward. It is revealed that Florence and Edward are both faking their sicknesses in order to service their affair with each other. Florence is fabricating her heart trouble to keep Dowell out of her bed, denying him of any form of passion. While in the beginning, Dowell believes her heart problems kill her; it is in fact her broken heart that leads to her downfall. Similarly, Edward fakes his illness to escape his military service to go to Germany. The false heart disease seen through these two characters is a metaphor to the downfall of other characters. For example, Little Maisil Maidan s heart simply stops when she learns that Edward falls in love with Florence. Maisil Maidan is the only true innocent character of the novel, yet she is the only one who truly suffers from a heart condition and dies. What her heart problems suggest is that she is the only one to truly preserve her innocence because her heart problem is real, while the others are not.
The ultimate down fall is the bleeding of Dowell s own heart. While, Dowell does not blame his emotional pain on something as simple as a heart condition, he does suffer from the rottenness that exists in other people. The diseased heart shows the defects of society because it questions the truthfulness of the human character. However, just because Dowell is honest and pure does not make him better off. Having a heart does not make for a better, and certainly not for a happier, life; not having one means one lives less. By viewing the different ideas of what the physical heart means to Ford s characters, he is able to show the true nature of the human mind. In fact, it is only Leonora Ashburnham who does not suffer from a heart condition. She is left victorious, thriving to become happily married and pregnant. She has a strong heart and while she has many reasons to be sad, has a strong will and get past her weaknesses without blame.
What becomes unbelievable and questionable is John Dowell s naive sense of his own wife, who he has been married to for seven years. Ford creates an illusion of Dowell s sense of his wife s actions. While on one hand, he believes her to be sick; he also fails to notice her wickedness on the other. Indeed, it is his heart that needs soul searching to answer his questions, but it is also his sense of being. He fails to notice her cold-heartedness towards his sexual needs and her obvious passion for Edward. Dowell acts defenseless, not knowing what to think of his marriage or how to fix it. He lacks the sense to take control of his own situations and life problems.
He knows Florence is walking over him and he fails not to do anything about it. Supporting this subject Hoffman writes, And Dowell s role as nurse, related as it to the theme of the sick heart, is a key to the primary theme of the novel, for the dark forest of the heart, the core of the rottenness, is this disease of the heart which creates an evil not only out of basic human drives, but also out of the subtler morality of manners. Dowell is closed minded not to notice Florence s passionate love for Edward, when Lenora could see it immediately. Again, Dowell s character is in question when he continues to praise Edward after his death, even after he realizes that Edward pushed his devoted friend Nancy to complete madness. It is hard not to laugh yet feel sympathy for Dowell because he lets his sense of being become trampled by those that are close to him.
Ford, however, by writing as impressionist wanted us to question what the meaning is behind Dowell s character. Ford does this by making Dowell s most characteristic form of address to the reader is through questions about his own actions, the actions of others and from what he sees. Towards the beginning of his story, Dowell sets this precedence early. He questions, I don t know; I don t know; was that last remark of hers the remark of a harlot, or is it what every decent woman, country family or not country family, thinks at the bottom of her heart? Or thinks all the time for the matter of that? Who knows? He continues this form of questioning throughout the course of the novel giving few answers. He asks why men find it impossible to be happy and live to ignore their instincts.
While is might appear that Dowell has difficulties with society, it is himself that he has trouble understanding. It is not only until later in different sections of his story, which we can come to derive any sort of conclusion. Dowell ultimately did not reveal any insight to the overall feeling of Florence until after the end of his story. He tells us in the concluding chapter of his story, The villains- for obviously Edward and the girl were villains- have been punished by suicide and madness. Dowell does not relieve much to us until after he has thought it over. This creates an illusion to his reality that we normally would not see in a third person narrator. It is through Dowell s mind that the pattern of The Good Soldier develops. It is a pattern of sexual conflict, which is pressed to the limits of credibility because Dowell s own inconsistencies.
Florence can also be seen on differentiating levels. Florence serves in the last half of The Good Soldier as a vehicle. There is an ironic twist in events from the introduction. We first see Florence as simply deceitful and Edward as lustful. However, Ford merely uses these simply characterizes and sequences to later prepare us for a more dramatic effect. In the first action of the plot, Nancy reveals that she is partly responsible for the suicide of Florence. It was she that Edward kissed on the same night Florence decided to take her life.
The development of a triangular relationship among Nancy, Edward, and Leonora, which the death of Florence helps create, mirrors much of what Dowell has been struggling with, which is a serious and unrequited love to Florence. While on one hand, Florence is struggling to find love, so is Dowell only that is more sincere. As Ford reaches the midpoint of the novel with the death of Florence, he is faced with the problem of shifting the focus of events form Florence, who has played a big role in part one and two, to Nancy, who has barely been mentioned in the novel at this point. In Dowell s mind, Ford has been anticipation this moment since he first alluded to Nancy and Edward and their tragic situation in the beginning of the first chapter. Dowell has also been foreshadowing of many events to come but would not go into great detail about events surrounding his feelings. It can be determined that Ford s rearrangement of chronology has been to achieve a unity of circumstances and events by this point. In the beginning Ford surrounds us with the death of Florence with a swift and fast pasted moving of events. This gives the reader little chance to render any opinions about the matter and rather we can only believe what Dowell tells us. Ford deliberately arranges this circumstance because he can later bring Florence s supposed accidental death to take a turn in the mind of Dowell, who continues to believe that Florence s death was because of a heart attack many months later.
In the second half of the novel, Dowell in the final pages is not made so believable as he could be. Dowell was present at very few events and we don t have his eyewitness accounts to physical action as we saw in the firs half of the novel. Thus, Dowell can only present accounts of other characters in sometimes their own words and sometimes in his own. He often uses both participants to give insight to a scene.
Ford s sense of time, reflected in his constant use of the time-shift, is artistic rather than of philosophical concern. He is concerned, as in a sense all writers are, with the transience of man s life, with the structure of values man erects in his hope of warding of change. The structure of The Good Soldier would seem to support the point that Ford seems to be saying that life is a long series of connection mirrors, being never able to see the image behind us and never seeing the image of the next frame. No event is the same twice; even our memory of an event is different each time. And yet the continuity of human experience is precisely that is does repeat itself. Thus, the whole pattern of the novel has been the preparation for a final love affair.
By creating a narrative that presents the inner mind of one man, Ford Madox Ford is able to intermix many different themes and ideas about the different ways people interact with each other. Ford creates Dowell as a simple yet highly complicated individual who is able to show the many different workings of the human mind. By so doing, he is able to present a story that not only talks about the problem of human relationships, but also he is able to draw the listener-reader in, to construct their own understanding of Dowell s story narrative.
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