I highlighted the religious affiliation of the characters in the descriptions because of the poor showing religion has in the novel. I’m not sure that priests would ever advise a wife to take her husband to Monte Carlo for “a touch of irresponsibility” but in everything else which sounds realistic they did a poor job (despite Dowell thinking “it was a good idea, but it worked out wrongly”). Religion, to some extent, was one of the major sticking points between Edward and Leonora, whether in Edward’s misguided attempt to build a chapel at Branshaw or their inability to agree on what religion their children should be. For a couple that didn’t usually allow religious tenets to influence their actions, the fact that religious differences could drive such a wedge between them adds one more irony to the work. Leonora cuts herself off from the church (in order to avoid confession) at precisely the moment it should have helped her most. Whether irrelevant as an institution or the source of contention, the inability of religion to provide any guidance in the novel definitely stands out.
Marriage, whether viewed as a religious or social institution comes in for a drubbing as well, although once again I think the problems reside more with the characters than with the institution. Maybe that is Ford’s point—when something is so widely ignored or irrelevant it is no longer useful. However Dowell raises one of his many false dichotomies in his regard to marriage and society:
Mind, I am not preaching anything contrary to accepted morality. I am not advocating free love in this or any other case. Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and to madness.
Those are not the only two options, but he is unable to see other choices. One additional institution that receives a drubbing is class and the gap these characters display between their behavior and their social standing. Edward tried to represent the kindly landlord but, because of his other failings, Leonora strips him of that standing. Dowell evidently feels class is extremely important since he mentions genealogy almost immediately. Despite being part of the moneyed class and staying at expensive spas, he is still taken advantage of by others of the same class. Not to mention being cuckolded by a baggage handler.
The love/hate feelings within the marriages are interesting to watch, with Edward and Leonora continually rebalancing respect and hate for each other. Leonora’s outward kindness masks the impact of her actions. The difference between Dowell and Florence are fairly static during their marriage—John loves her in his way and Florence treats him like dirt behind his back—but John rebalances things as he works on telling the story. The question Dowell has to work through is presented early: “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?” Lastly on all the institutions, for all the virtue and bravery Edward shows as “the good soldier,” it all ultimately rang hollow for him. None of those characteristics seem to carry over into his personal life to any benefit for him.
There are many more themes, motifs and symbols in the novel, but I think I’ve addressed more than enough and would like to move on. I did like the way most symbols or motifs ("heart" or Edward's baggage, for example) were easily worked into the story. One additional thing I wanted to mention before moving on is the total passivity of Dowell. It is hard to imagine someone that passive, that oblivious to what is going on around him. Yet his voice is so guileless, frank in its limitations that you initially trust him...want to hear his story. He is clearly airing his weaknesses in order to excuse himself as part of his attempt to justify his actions (or lack thereof). He draws you in, attempting to deceive you just like he has been tricking himself all along. The consistency in voice and action helps give his passivity credibility.
Next: the 1981 TV movie.