Monday, December 10, 2007

The Good Soldier: Method of narration and Dowell’s blindness

“I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it.” This quote, from the start of Part IV, sums up the method quite well. John Dowell has undertaken to tell “the saddest story” as if sitting beside the fireplace with a friend. The method is reminiscent of Conrad’s Marlow, but other than being very heavy on impressions the similarity ends there. Dowell’s narration is full of confessions of doubt, ignorance, and helplessness. He implies he is writing this story to clarify events, but it quickly becomes apparent he is trying to rationalize and justify his blindness.

I mentioned in the chronology post that assembling such a timeline takes away from the effect of the narration, but such a task is necessary to reconstruct what actually happened and to compare that reconstruction to Dowell’s account of events. Without doing this, the irony of the story would be lost. Dowell is constantly asking the reader questions, many of which are rhetorical or give false choices. The facts are revealed piecemeal and at times seemingly without Dowell even realizing it.

Dowell begins by telling the story from his point of view, but occasionally adds facts gleaned from Edward or Leonora in his talks with them after Florence’s death. It is interesting that Florence is the one person from the two couples who does not have a voice in the book. In addition to gradually adding other voices to the story, Dowell comes to grips with the facts as he is conveying them. His attitude toward the subjects vacillates, sometimes from sentence to sentence, contradicting how he feels about something.

Dowell shows us a dual impressionism: he describes his impression of events as they happened in addition to his current feelings toward those events (as he processes them while writing, for maybe the first time). That he has to wait eighteen months before he can accurately describe the final days of Edward’s life is telling. Facts about Edward’s suicide are revealed almost as an appendix, casually tossed off at the end. Even with all the time and facts at his disposal, Dowell still has trouble revealing the truth to others and to himself. Or maybe he just wishes to continue his self-deception. Dowell states several times that things are “a darkness” to him still. And when he views Nancy in her current state, his description of her beauty could double for his time with Florence and the Ashburnhams: “And to think that it all means nothing—that it is a picture without a meaning.”

Things are gradually revealed in the story so that when Dowell describes an incident for a second or third time there is additional knowledge as to what is truly happening. For example, the visit to the castle at M---- is fleshed out with the additional knowledge of Edward’s and Leonora’s history to that point and Leonora’s despair takes on an added depth you can’t realize upon the first telling. The willful blindness of Dowell on the events as the originally happened is highlighted in this re-telling. He takes his own inability to see things as they truly are and falsely elevates it to an inability for any of us to know. His description of his maid is just one example of conflating the specific with the universal:

That, for instance, was the way with Florence’s maid in Paris. We used to trust that girl with blank cheques for the payment of the tradesmen. For quite a time she was so trusted by us. Then, suddenly, she stole a ring. We should no have believed her capable of it; she would not have believed herself capable of it. It was nothing in her character.

Yet Dowell has already explained how the maid stole the ring in order to save her boyfriend from going to prison. Dowell sabotages his own attempt at using this specific example as a universal law that you can’t judge someone’s character. His tentative putting forth of facts and inability to derive any lessons to be learned is his pathological response to handling this story. One last example:

I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness.

This illustrates his inability to face up to what his life with Florence and the Ashburnhams truly was for the entire time of his relationship with each. To do so…to face up to the fact that the relationship with his wife has been a lie and his friends are cuckolding Dowell…undermines everything he has ever done with them. In Dowell’s narration he comes close to realizing and/or expressing the truth in several instances, but continually backs away from it. During the visit to the castle of M---- Dowell “was aware of something treacherous, something frightful, something evil in the day” but gladly accepts Leonora’s lie about being offended because of Florence’s comments about the Irish and the Catholics.

Dowell repeats this time and again, presenting a willful blindness in order to maintain a happy façade of meaning. As the façade crumbles, he repeatedly asks how he could have known so he can maintain at least a modicum of respect. One irony is the pride that Dowell takes in nursing Florence and being attentive to her needs—avoiding stressful subjects, respecting her locked bedroom door, etc. To be so attentive regarding a false state of affairs (which only assists her in carrying on affairs under his nose) would be quite a truth to face. And Dowell proves over and over that he can not. It is as if "You can't handle the truth" was tailor-made for him.

In the reviews I have read of the book, many of the criticisms believe such a method of narration is either unnecessary or Ford saying “look what I can do.” (I’m paraphrasing) However, I believe the method is critical to the book, providing a parallel narrative to the traditional storyline. Yes, you have to work more in piecing the two narratives together, irony is not always apparent on the first pass, and you realize the narrator can not be trusted. Yet I get the feeling that if John Dowell were to tell me the story, it would be exactly in this manner. I would have to question everything he told me and revisit previous things he said in order to gauge if it fits in or not. For such a story, the manner is consistent with the world that Ford has created.

Next topic: other pathologies and self-deceptions

1 comment:

mel u said...

I also believe the method of narration via the unreliable narrator is crucial to the deeper themes of the work-that one must work to understand what is in front of you and that life and reality are at least in part created by the stories we internalize-I also things it makes the book simply hilarious!