The Good Soldier (1915)
by Ford Madox Ford
I would say I've learned more about the varieties of human suffering that stem from marriage in the last two-three years of reading classic Novels than I had learned in the prior 36 or so years of my life. That includes what I learned from my own divorce. One of the reasons it's should a good idea to familiarize yourself with the world of serious art is that it takes the sting off the idea that your particular brand of emotional pain might in any way be unique or unusual. I'm talking about pain related to failed love here, nothing more.
"The depiction of an unhappy marriage" is almost a definition for the novel as an art-form, and The Good Soldier is yet another step in a growing narrative sophistication for tales (unhappy marriage novels) of this sort. Here, we have two unhappy couples, an "unreliable" (cuckold) narrator, and trips backwards and forward in time. Couple one is John Dowell (narrator) and Florence- Americans- he a wealthy dilletante, and she a sweet young thing with a "heart condition" that requires her to be isolated from her husband at night, from 10 at night till 10 the next day.
John Dowell is not the first "unreliable narrator"- the approach was not unknown during the sensation novels of the mid 19th century, but Dowell is the first unreliable narrator in the genre of the marriage novel. He's not the first Author to use "impressionist"/stream of consciousness narrative technique, but the lack of knowledge and the way the knowledge (of her wife's affair with their bosom companion Edward Ashburnham) changes his perspective is the central technical concern of this book.
Ashburnham is a bluff Englishman with a penchant for leisure and cheating on his wife, Lenora. Dowell revels in his ignorance, throughout the first hundred pages it is very much as if he doesn't want to reveal the truth: the affair, his wife committing suicide, the fact that Lenora knew about the affair. He also learns that his wife had a prior affair, prior to their marriage, with a "low class" boy named Jimmy.
Florence commits suicide after hearing Ashburnham, in the garden, with his young ward, Nancy- just released from a convent education. The Nancy/Ashburnham's/John Dowell love rectangle also ends in blood and tears: Edward Ashburnham commits suicide, Nancy goes mad, and Dowell ends the story up caring for her. Only Florence, who takes a dramatic turn towards villainess status in the third act, ends up happy-ish.
It is an undeniably dark vision, pre-World War I in place and plot, but with a layer of dark, dark cynicism that guarantees it's relevance a hundred years later.