Friday, December 07, 2007

The Good Soldier: Character list and relationships

John Dowell
A Quaker from Philadelphia, John Dowell is the direct narrator of the story. His family came from England with William Penn, settling in Pennsylvania. He controls property in Philadelphia and is able to maintain a wealthy lifestyle. John prides himself on being attentive and nursing.

Florence (Hurlbird) Dowell
Florence is a Protestant who lives with two aunts (who try to discourage John from marrying her) in Stamford, Connecticut. She graduated from Vasser and loves to appear as an authority on culture. She tells John what she is looking for in a husband:
She wanted to marry a gentleman of leisure; she wanted a European establishment. She wanted her husband to have an English accent, an income of fifty thousand dollars a year from real estate and no ambitions to increase that income. And—she faintly hinted--she did not want much physical passion in the affair.

Edward Ashburnham
The “good soldier” of the book title. Captain in the British army (Fourteenth Hussars) who views himself as a genteel landlord, interested in his tenants long-term well-being. Wins many medals and demonstrates acts of bravery in his army career. At first appearance, a model Victorian/Edwardian man.

Leonora (Powys) Ashburnham
An Irish Catholic who has taken to heart her father’s careful management of money. Her father (a Colonel) was friends with Edward’s father (also a Colonel) and arranged for Edward to marry one of his seven girls. Leonora shows a talent for kindness and cruelty, usually simultaneously.

Nancy Rufford
Becomes a ward of Edward and Leonora when her mother abandons her and her father goes to India. She calls the Ashburnhams aunt and uncle and views them as having the perfect marriage. Educated in a convent school, she displays a naïveté of the world that proves dangerous to her and to the Ashburnhams.

Maisie Maidan
An Irish Catholic, having attended the same convent school as Leonora. Around 23, her husband was in the army with Edward. The Ashburnhams bring her from Burma to Nauheim with them for treatment of her weak heart. She is described by John Dowell as gentle and submissive.

A cabin boy that travels with Uncle John and Florence on their round-the-world-trip. Florence has an affair with him that is noticed by others. She continues her affair with him after her marriage until Edward drives him away.

While that isn’t a complete listing, I think it covers the significant players in the book. I’ll look at some of the relationships in the next section.

The Dowells
John agrees to marry Florence in spite of her requirements (listed above). And when John comes to elope with Florence, she keeps him waiting two hours at the foot of the ladder (planning her course of action to carry on her affair with Jimmy). Shortly after leaving the United States on their trip to Europe, she fakes heart problems. Once in Europe, doctors tell John that he “had better refrain from manifestations of affection” to protect her heart. John’s response? “I was ready enough.”

Since doctors recommend that the Dowells remain in Europe (on the continent), Florence is frustrated in her plan to settle in an English estate. The Dowells travel from health spa to health spa while maintaining a place in Paris. It is at Nauheim (a resort near Frankfurt) that they meet the Ashburnhams.

John is mistaken in almost everything about Florence. A couple of examples: He deduces that the aunts didn’t want him to marry her because of her weak heart when in reality they are trying to save him from her wayward behavior. He first states “I believe that for the twelve years her life lasted, after the storm that seemed irretrievably to have weakened her heart--I don't believe that for one minute she was out of my sight, except when she was safely tucked up in bed and I should be downstairs…” when upon reflection he opines “When I come to think of it she was out of my sight most of the time.” One interesting characteristic is to watch John quietly dispute or undercut Florence’s comments.

The Ashburnhams
The Ashburnhams’ marriage is tested early on with the Kilsyte case, in which Edward kisses a crying servant girl. Leonora rallies behind Edward, which is what he needs at the time. A few years later, Edward began a series of affairs where his passions took a physical, mental and sometimes financial toll on him. After the La Dolciquita affair cost him a huge sum, Leonora insists he transfer to India and she takes control of the couple’s finances. By economizing and extracting more money from the management of Branshaw, she improves their lot but at the cost of emasculating Edward.

In Edward’s series of affairs, he carries over his chivalric sense of protection from his estate to the women he believes he loves. Leonora not only forgives him his wayward forays but also helps him acquire new conquests. She is relieved when the objects of affection are well-to-do since she knows there won’t be a scandal—she values the appearance of a perfect marriage more than having one. When they accompany Maisie to Nauheim, Leonora believes things are actually improving with Edward even though they no longer speak in private.

The Ashburnhams to some extent remind me of Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby: “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In addition to harming those around them, the Ashburnhams also inflict massive damage to themselves.

The “minuet”
John Dowell initially describes the time with the Ashburnhams as a beautiful minuet in which each participant is in tune with the others’ actions. He corrects himself immediately by saying it was really a prison of screaming hysterics, which highlights his coming to terms with the true history between the couples. The couples’ trip to the castle at M---- is a pivotal point in the novel, described several times from different vantage points or with different knowledge provided each time. Florence takes the lead, happy to show how knowledgeable she is (even as John silently disputes much of what she says), and clearly shows her designs on Edward. Leonora’s happiness over the improvement with Edward has already been dashed by discovering Major Basil’s blackmail, and Florence’s designs (and the look in Edward’s eyes) push her to the edge of despair. John refuses to see what is going on, however, and Leonora generously decides to spare him the details.

As time goes on there is no longer any pretending between Florence and Leonora. It becomes clear that Florence is more interested in the control the affair gives her than the sex. Leonora’s behavior toward Florence in private becomes contemptuous: “"You come to me straight out of his bed to tell me that that is my proper place. I know it, thank you." Once Leonora tells Florence “You want to tell me that you are Edward's mistress. You can be. I have no use for him," the control Florence once had is broken. Florence’s despair in thinking she was being replaced by Nancy is enough to send things crashing down around her. But when she sees Mr. Bagshawe and suspects he has told her husband about the affair with Jimmy, she realizes she has lost control over John as well.

Once Leonora recovers from her breakdown, she takes her cruelty out on Edward and Nancy. In trying to drive Nancy into Edward’s bed, Leonora strips Nancy of her innocence (and eventually her mind). In addition, Edward is stripped of his manhood and ultimately his life while trying to behave properly.

Next topic: the method of narration


The Rush Blog said...

You really dislike Leonora, don't you?

Dwight said...

No, I don't think dislike is the right word. She puts up with so much in a kind (and calculating) way. It's when she snaps...when she can't take any more...that her cruelty comes through. Or maybe even just develops.

While not putting all of the blame on her, I look at the toll her cruelty racks up and I wonder if she hadn't been so nice early on could all of that have been avoided. But then it apparently wasn't in her nature, as developed in the novel, to be that way until her breakdown.