Talking About: Unreliable Narrators and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier

The lovely British (or American depending on who you ask) writer Henry James once wrote in the Preface to his novel The Portrait of a Lady that 'The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million- a number of possible windows not to be reckoned; rather, every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.'

In other words, what James is saying is that a work of fiction is like a house, and it has all these windows that are each bound to give you varying points of view. If you look in from the living room window, surely you'll see quite a contrasting sight from what you might find peering in through that of an upstairs bedroom. There are levels of reading, and that's why I think this quote is so relevant to Ford Madox Ford's excellent early twentieth century novel, The Good Soldier.

On the surface, Ford's novel is about a couples friendship, that of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, who meet yearly for nine years between 1904 and 1913 at a fashionable German spa for the world's wealthy elite. The narrator, John Dowell with his wife Florence forms the American couple, and he recounts their years of friendship with the British Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora, that were filled with conversation, culture, and laughter, until he learns of the deceit, intrigue and scandal that unknowingly went on right beneath his eyes.

If you read a novel that is narrated from the first person perspective, I always say that you can never trust them, because just like when you listen to someone tell a story in real life, and are on guard for possible lies and embellishments, you need to be wary of whether the speaker is telling the truth. And this, when it comes down to it, is what The Good Soldier is really about: its about storytelling, about memory, about the elusiveness of the past, and about searching for a truth that perhaps can never be captured, that is bound to always escape our grasp.

Ford employs the device of the 'Unreliable Narrator' to a tee. Yes, there actually is a formal literary device called that, which is evident because there is a definition of it listed in the eleventh edition of 'A Handbook to Literature' written by William Harmon and Hugh Holman, a godsend of a book for professional and amateur literary critics.

Harmon and Holman describe the 'Unreliable Narrator' as 'A narrator who may be in error in his or her understanding or report of things and who thus leaves readers without the guides needed for making judgements'. It is clear that this is what we are dealing with in The Good Soldier because we are only a couple of sentences in when Dowell states tellingly, 'My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them... I knew nothing whatever.' If there is ever a narrator who at the outset so tellingly says he has no idea what's going on and, thus, cannot be trusted, this is him.

What this novel is more than anything is a maze: a maze of time as it jumps non-chronologically through twelve years of the narrator's life, a maze of relationships that are revealed to be not at all like what they seem, and a maze of truths that are contradictory and debatable. It raises questions as to how things change when looked at from multiple points of view, for Dowell spends a great deal of time going back and revisiting his memories, noticing what he couldn't see at the time and, as we all do in life, reinterpreting them differently with the knowledge he now has in his possession. Yet the question is whether he is simply re-examining these memories, or if he is revising them, altering them to fit with his present day understanding.

There is a quote early on in the novel by Dowell where he states, 'I can't believe it's gone. I can't believe that that long, tranquil life, which was just stepping a minuet, vanished in four crashing days at the end of nine years and six weeks.' And then, a page later, he exclaims, 'No, by God, it is false! It wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison- a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels'.

This shifting of perspective from page to page, this overturning of beliefs with new understandings: it's so poignant because this is the way we all make our way through life. We try and access the truth, to go back and find it somewhere in our memories so we can pin it down, but we are simply left circling around it, unsure of exactly what happened, what it all was, without any definitive answers.

It's clear that we cannot trust exactly what Dowell says for the reasons discussed above, but, furthermore, there is also the question of his role in the narrative. There are two major deaths that occur over the course of the novel, and although Dowell portrays himself as an innocent bystander, we, the reader, are left to wonder at his own actions. Is he really the bumbling, harmless fool he claims to be? Or is there a harsher, more deceptive, more vindictive shadow lurking beneath the surface that was eager to seek his own sinister form of revenge?

We'll never know, but that's the fun of it all. The Good Soldier is a novel I could read over and over again: it's so rich, and there's so much there to contemplate. As well, despite the fact that it starts with the line 'This is the saddest story I have ever heard', the novel is not really all that sad at all. In a lot of ways it is completely hilarious, the humour exuding from the ironic gap between Dowell's account, and the reality of the situation.

For all these reasons, Ford's novel is a beautifully designed work of architectural fiction, constructed with a million windows to look in at it from, depending on the angle you, as the reader, are interested in pursuing.