“The Saddest Story ” was Ford Maddox Ford’s original working title for “The Good Soldier”. In his preface to novel, Ford described the decision of his publishers to change the title for fear that his chosen words would be viewed by a public in the midst of the Great War(1914) who were currently experiencing their own personal grievances, as offensive. It was not until the first edition of the book was released in March in 1915 that Ford found out the change had been made.
The telling of the story of “The Good Soldier” is, from the beginning, one the narrator indicates will end badly. John Dowell, the American narrator leads into the first few pages of the novel by introducing himself, his also American wife Florence, and their closest friends Edward and Lenora Ashburnham whom they have met at a German spa for patients with ‘heart’ problems.
For nine years the couples are incredibly close: Dowell describes the friends as upper class people who spend their time attending public functions, dining, drinking, and traveling, and getting along marvelously. He views the relationship of Edward and Lenora as everyone around him likely does, as one of happiness and order. But things are not always what they seem.
Soon the reader is given small clues that something has occurred to disturb the balance Dowell has believed to exist for so long. Dowell quickly admits that something terrible has occurred. He is now aware that Edward and his own wife, Florence had been carrying on an affair he knew nothing about. Even Edward’s wife Lenora had been aware and did not want Dowell to know. Without a doubt Dowell writes himself as the helpless victim, evoking the reader’s sympathy. A large part of viewing him as the victim at this point in the novel is due to his insistence upon forgiving not only his wife, but her seducer, Edward. Dowell mentions time and again the pity he has for, ‘poor Edward’. Of course the reader is asking themselves how someone could be so incredibly stupid and forgiving.
Everything is told in retrospect and is revealed in segments. With each new sequence of information received, it seems the perspective of the reader is altered. At first the reader may feel Edward is wrong for his many infidelities and feel sympathy for Lenora. This is until it is revealed that Lenora never once mentions to Edward that she dislikes his behavior. It is also easy to understand Florence wanting a loving relationship with a man until it is revealed that she has had an affair before. Again and Again the author wraps you around his finger until you realize there may be absolutely no point in trying to sympathize or be angry at any particular character. This is the brilliance of the novel, for when have you encountered this circumstance in fiction before now??
While the story does involve the impact of Edward’s affair on Dowell, the main focus is Edward and Lenora’s relationship, its discrepancies, and the impact upon them as people. Dowell writes, “There is not even any villain in this story.” When reading a text or in life it is easy to want to blame someone or become angry, but things are never so simple. Even if someone has made mistakes, the fact of the matter exists that no single character is completely innocent, no one ever is. Perhaps what makes this story so realistic and “the saddest story” is that the people involved are trying their best to escape their own unhappiness, but cannot.
It may not come close to the saddest story ever told, but this is, of course, the point. In the beginning, one cannot sympathize at all with people who appear to have been handed every luxury in life only to waste it all away. However, a closer look shows a life chosen for them by society. “For I ask myself unceasingly, my mind going round and round in a weary, baffled space of pain-what should these people have done?” With the rest of the world and religious institutions demanding certain actions, those who did not conform did not fit. Having a kind soul, a beautiful heart, none of this mattered if you couldn’t do your duty. In that case, being forced to live a life you hate is exceedingly sad.
Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
Ford Maddox Ford Society: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/fordmadoxford-society/