- Holmes, Martha Stoddard
- Date of entry: Nov-02-1998
- Last revised: Feb-11-2010
The meeting of John and Florence Dowell and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham in a German health spa is the center of a train of lies, deceptions, adulterous love triangles, and deaths. John Dowell, a memorably "unreliable" narrator, calls it "the saddest story I have ever heard" (7). His narrative distance stems partly from the pastness of the events, partly from his absence for some of them, but mostly from his ignorance or denial of realities as intimate as his wife's serial deceptions of him.
Heart disease is the central narrative trope, a literary device easily unpacked as a site of irony: Each of the two major characters who have a "heart" (i.e. heart condition) is faking it, in service of his/her serial "affairs du coeur." Florence fabricates her heart trouble before her marriage is ever consummated, using it to turn Dowell into a cardiac nurse and keep him out of her bedroom. Edward Ashburnham fakes his illness to escape his military post and take his latest love object (and his stoically Catholic wife) to Germany.
The extramarital romps occasioned by Dowell's solicitude for Florence's "heart" comprise the main gag of this novel's comic beginning. When the focus shifts to Edward, Leonora, and their ward Nancy Rufford, The Good Soldier becomes a tragedy of emotional sadism, sentimental martyrdom, madness, and moral exhaustion that leaves us unsure about who in this novel has a literal or figurative heart.
Oxford Univ. Press
Thomas C. Moser