The Good Soldier
is so heartbreakingly beautiful. I wonder if I have ever felt so conflicted when a book came to an end, on the one hand I didn't want the experience to end - I unearthed gems on every page, gems of solemnity, disappointment, angst, and insight; on the other, each page filled me with renewed heartbreak. The "saddest story" is about two couples, the upright up-class English Ashburnhams (Edward (the eponymous, ironic "good soldier") and Leonora) and the American Dowells (John (our tragically naive or self-deceptive narrator), and Florence). Th Good Soldier
is "about" two couple's disintegration, poisoned by infidelity and deception; but more deeply than that it is about the impotence of the human condition (represented in the specific and literal impotence of John Dowell). This book finishes where it begins, and the whole distillation of it can be summed up best as by John Dowell:
It is a queer and fantastic world. Why can't people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has got the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me. Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness?
Why can't people have what they want? That's really the pivotal question of all literature, of everything it means to be human. Everyone wants something, someone, but can't have everything they want - and if they get everything they want, it lacks novelty and then they want novelty above all else. Because we're human, we want what we don't have, and oftenest what we can't have. Dowell's allusion to the "terrestrial paradise" - to Adam and Eve's paradise - is perfect, poignant. We give up perfection for something that is flawed but forbidden. Since it is unknown to us we cannot know it's flaws, know it's true consequences, until we break with what we have and try it. But what if to try it is to lose everything? This struggle, this self-burning passion for "something other than what we have" is elucidated by Proust, who compares our longing to "an idle harp, [which] wants to resonate under some hand, even a rough one, and even if it might be broken by it." And this tactile desire, to be touched
- even if it is by a rough hand, a worse hand - is central to the dilemma of infidelity. So many eternal novels revolve on the axis of infidelity, and we read them, and we love
them, we feel that we relate
to them even when we are models of fidelity.
As a society we relate to these marital transgressions because we know what it's like to feel both content and dissatisfied with what we have. We don't really want to be satisfied, we want to be surfeit, and we feel that we can never know if that over-fullness of joy is possible unless we take impossible chances, risk losing everything. But few of us are really willing to risk everything if we don't have to. We feel that by discretion or mock devotion we can keep what we have while we seek what we want - and this is the Janus-faced desire at the heart of The Good Soldier
. The character of Edward Ashburnam is the complete essence of this desire (though it is apparent in the four main characters), his transgressions are not about sex, nor necessarily about "love" - but about a romantic vision of what love should be
, which is often defined by what he doesn't have with Leonora. Whether it is with Nancy or Florence, or any of his other mistresses, he is endlessly looking for something, but never knows what it is. But despite his errant heart, it never is willing to stray completely from Leonora. Even though she is cold to him, and grows colder, some part of him loves her to the state of devotion, of, ultimately, sacrifice of that desire and of his life.
Leonora wants nothing more than her husband's love, but she will never let herself have it. As a result at first of stifling convention of her upbringing, and her own insecurities, she cannot bring herself to give herself up to Edward. As they grow older and he strays from her, her love for him become a love only of possession and control - she controls him by forgiving him, but by inwardly hating her own forgiveness. Edward knows that he has harmed his wife, that he has made her cold to him, and his own compunction keeps him from breaking with her completely. Leonora, who has almost perfect knowledge of the melodrama happenings in the novel, perhaps wishes most, unconsciously, to have the naivete of John Dowell. Her diligent, but mirthless, hunt for knowledge, is self-immolating. She convinces herself of Edwards guilt and persecutes him with her coldness, but in doing so makes attainment of his love impossible. Her problem parallel's John's, though her knowledge makes her marriage impossible to enjoy: "If for nine years I have possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn't it true to say that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?"
Unlike Dowell, Leonora assumes from the start that Edward is rotten at the core, and so she forgoes even a honeymoon happiness.
Florence is, perhaps, the most difficult character to understand. At turns she is portrayed by her husband-cuckold-narrator in terms of pre-disillusionment idealism, and post-disillusionment vitriol; paragon of demur innocence, and reviled harlot. In some ways I think she risks everything when she marries Dowell, and then regrets it, and her's is the story of trying to escape her own choices. On the surface, she may be literally seeking sexual satisfaction, which her impotent husband cannot offer her, but I suspect her problem is not so simple. I don't think I believe that she ever really loved Dowell, but I also don't believe that she ever loved Edward either - I think that she doesn't know what love is, and perhaps equates it with some amalgam of sex and romance - two things which the painter and Edward both fulfill her with. But love has to have some element of spiritual, passionate devotion, something that is adds value to the Self and adds value to the Other - something like looking though a window at the one you love, but seeing also your reflection in the glass. Florence can only see through the medium, she can only picture the value of the other, as something which has a set price, and which she can shop for, she never receives anything in her extra-marital exchanges, at least nothing like what Dowell is willing to offer her - everything he has, everything he can be. And she throws it away, and sometimes we all do that. We throw away something either because we see something better, or maybe we throw it away by accident, by forgetfulness.
Despite the difficulties, the heartbreak, despite the cruel ironies and bitter inconsistencies of the Ashburnams (primarily) and the Dowells (secondarily), this is a truly beautiful novel - a testament that all human emotion, even pain, has beauty. What struck me most was John Dowell as the narrator, his constant back-and-forth dance in time, the strange significance on coincidence and the date of August 2, when many of the novel's events take place, though years apart, made me question his mental faculties. Health is so recurring a motif in the novel, the weak "hearts" of Florence and Edward, the sanatorium in Nauheim where they meet, the confused illness of Florence's family, etc. and the claim that Nancy has become an invalid at the end. But we never hear about how the psyche of Dowell survived the self-styled saddest story, at least not directly. This novel, which I love, which is perhaps one of my favorites for ever, owes its complete brilliance of emotion, splendor of style, and so forth, to it's narrator - the wonderfully crafted and contradicted and confused John Dowell. I was lulled and enchanted by his solemn insightfulness, his somber story-telling, his impotent view of the human condition. I love Dowell. He is naive, he is imperfect and flawed, he self-deceives and is too-quick to trust those who deceive him - but that's so human, and I sympathize with him at the same time as I criticize his human foolishness.