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.


The elusiveness of objective truth is a major theme of this work of fictional Impressionism. Not just the plot, but the difficulty of narrating it, comprises Dowell's story. The mysteriousness of human psychology, especially in the context of sexual relationships, is thematized by the central narrative trope of literal and figurative heart disease. Far from a transparent metaphor, this trope is an example of both enduring and historically dated cultural constructions of the heart, heart disease, the heart "sufferer" and the appropriate regimen for nursing chronic degenerative cardiac illness.

The meanings attached to the human heart and its "depths and shallows" in the double context of early psychology and early 20th century medicine made it possible for Ford to position the heart as the seat of the emotional life, and heart disease as something that removed one from active participation in that life. Medical culture made the heart an effective narrative device in more specific ways as well. In 1915, diseases of the heart were both relatively new objects of medical interest and knowledge, and the site of diagnostic imprecision. It might have been possible to live out one's life mistakenly diagnosed with cardiac trouble.

More to the point, it would have been possible to falsify a heart condition to an intimate partner, as Florence does. The contraindication of "excitement"-- in particular, sexual excitement that forms the core of the cardiac nursing regime of The Good Soldier (and one of the novel's recurrent ironies) is still a popular misconception about the care of cardiac patients.


Subtitled "A Tale of Passion." First published in 1915. Ford intended the novel to be called The Saddest Story, but the context of World War I made the publisher request a more uplifting title. The author was born Ford Hermann Hueffer.


Oxford Univ. Press

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Thomas C. Moser

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