In his Dedicatory Letter of 1927 that prefaces The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford refers to his most famous novel as his “great auk's egg.” The metaphor might be unfortunate, but it originates from Ford's own personal image as an old writer in the midst of a revolution in artistic sensibility. However, this ardent artistic excitement never had a fair chance since the First World War broke out. Thus, the Good Solider remains a novel that points to the tapageur and turbulent new forms of Modernism that were just becoming apparent. It is certainly a thoroughly Modern novel, and most would indeed agree that it is definitely a great Modern novel. Readers come away from reading this novel feeling that they had taken part in a marvelously new artistic experience. It is its narrative structure that makes this novel work, but digging into it may not yield conclusive results.
Readers may actually come up with a wide range of opinions as far as the narrative structure of this novel is concerned, so it makes sense to start with some fundamentals of the actual narrative structure of this work. The Good Soldier can be described as a Modern novel and its meaning appears to depend on the existence of a self-consciously creative character to a great extent, who is also the narrator of this novel. The novel is written in a reflective, first-person voice, and begins with the narration of a story from the narrators past. His narration of the past is clearly distinguishable from his present stance as the narrator. For instance, he radically indicates this disjunction between his past and present in the final sentence of the opening passage when he states “till today, when I sit down” (Ford 5), which is the present tense, he leads to “I knew nothing” (Ford 5) the past tense.
The way the narrator's present stance is being emphasized upon in the narrative is significantly different from the conventional first-person, reflective voice in novels like Huckleberry Finn, where the narrator's present position never matters. However, in The Good Soldier, the opening of the novel directly refers to the narrator's present. When he notes that “six months ago [he] had never been England” (Ford 5) he forms an implicit relation between his present and his past story. The narrator keeps reminding the readers about where he is in the present and he is doing at the present moment. This separates the narrative frame of the novel from the remembered story. By the end of the first chapter, the readers learn two things, the narrator is emphasizing upon his present and that he does not know the story he trying to tell very well. As the second chapter begins, the narrator himself is unsure how he should be narrating the story.
In the opening of Chapter Two, the narrator restarts the novel, and picks a new narrative frame to tell the story. Now the narrator is clarifying the story that he not only experienced but heard from some, apparently “the saddest story [he has] heard” (Ford 5) However, even as he clarifies and reflects upon the events from his past, the narrator keeps on interrupting the narrative with new emotions, insights, and occurrences of the present, not only losing contact with his own narrative, but making it rather difficult for the readers to figure out exactly what story they are reading. The narrator's narrative makes the readers feel as if not only are they concerned with how he is trying to relate the past events that have somehow changed over the years, but they are doing so within an experiential time frame that is constantly changing. For instance, the narrator tells the readers that “only this afternoon [Leonora was] talking over the whole matter” (Ford 10), but she is again talking over the matter, but it was “a month ago” (Ford 110).
Then, the narrative recounting has its own time frame. The narrative recounting becomes an experienced action too. Indeed, the readers are seeing this action, which the narrator's process of creating the novel. Thus, the novel contains four sets of events or experiences. The first is the Dowell (the narrator), Edward, Florence, Leonora story as it was experienced by the narrator (Ford 51). Second is a retelling of the same story as it actually happened (Ford 94). Third is the “true” story as it was heard by the narrator from Edward and Leonora (Ford 194). And fourth is the narrative of the novel itself, and this is the only experience readers are seeing directly. Despite being earlier experiences or events, the other three are still a part of the novel's narrative. These are topped with the narrator's changing attitudes, feelings and experiences as he tries to relate the story. Thus, he is has three different perspectives of the same story and he tries to retell all three in a single narrative.
In simpler words, it is as if the narrator is attempting to make the narrative frame of his narration appear to be a part of the same “present” time frame of the readers, and yet his experiential time frame keeps on changing. It is this narrative that places The Good Soldier on the edge of a new wave of Modernism. Ford gives the readers an impressionistic narrative as perhaps Charles Marlow did. However, Ford's novel moves past literary Impressionism and becomes something else. The goal behind literary Impressionism is to recognize an impression, or momentary individual perspective, as the fundamental personal reality. An individual can never know more about an event or person than his own present impression because life does not narrate, but Ford pushes this concept to the extreme. In the Good Solider he is showing that narrative itself does not narrate because the narration is taking place within human experience, and the author is operating in his own narrative “reality,” collecting impressions as the narrative proceeds.
As the three perspectives from which the story is being narrative and the narrative itself merge, it implies the concept that past only exists through the narrator's present recollection rather as a reality. In The Good Solider, Ford is not providing a narrative; rather he is providing the implication that the novel that readers are reading is being produced, word by word, by a central character, the narrator. The narrator breaks the convention of narrative in order to try to realize the essence of the events due to the multiple perspectives. As a result, the narrative has an unfinished quality and the novel exists as pure narration. As Ford demonstrates that narrative does not narrate, he ends up constructing a novel that is actually in the process of becoming a novel, and this is how the narrative demonstrates its modernism, and this is why The Good Solider is indeed a Modern novel.
Ford, Ford Madox. The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC. 2007. Print.