A point Ford repeatedly makes is the need for an author to properly establish each character right from the first appearance. This first impression is critical; if you don’t get it quite right, nothing you say later will really budge the reader from that initial wrong idea.
Always consider the impressions that you are making upon the mind of the reader, and always consider that the first impression with which you present him will be so strong that it will be all that you can ever do to efface it, to alter it or even quite slightly to modify it. Maupassant’s gentleman with red whiskers, who always pushed in front of people when it was a matter of going throug h a doorway, will remain, for the mind of the reader, that man and no other.[*] The impressoin is as hard and as definite as a tin-tack. And I rather doubt whether, supposing MAupassant represented him afterwards as kneeling on the ground to wipe the tears away from a small child who had lost a penny down a drain—I doubt whether such a definite statement of fact would ever efface the first impression from the reader’s mind. They would think that the gentleman with the red whiskers was perpetrating that act of benevolence with ulterior motives—to impress the bystanders, perhaps.
So, what are the first impressions of the major players in The Good Soldier? No, wait. Does it actually matter what these first impressions are, how accurate, or, better, how much Dowell would have us change them as he tells his story? Because Dowell’s narration meta-izes the problem of the first impression; it’s him trying to get us to modify those impressions, not Ford, and he’s doing it as he modifies those impressions himself. Time passes in the telling of this story, and while Dowell never comes to a real enlightenment, he does learn and process and build his personal, internal narrative of the tragedy of his life.
Meanwhile, the first first impression we get of a character is of Dowell himself. The very famous first line of the novel, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” is in fact an almost perfect encapsulation of Dowell in one sentence. (I will leave this wild claim completely unjustified; read the novel and disagree with me.) The entire opening passage, as it purports to introduce all the characters (well, except one, one very important one, but that’s Dowell all over too), says much more about the narrator:
We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or rather, with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair. I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.
Here is Dowell. Obsessed with knowing. Unable to leave a statement lie uncontradicted—”an extreme intimacy” or “an acquaintanceship…loose and easy”? Or, by qualifying things with “in another sense,” Dowell embraces the problem of the unknowability of reality: they did know the Ashburnhams as well as possible, which is to say, not at all. Puzzling things out. Dealing with a sad affair. Ignorant of hearts. Unsure, but sure that he is unsure. Taking back half his statements as soon as he’s given them. This is your first impression of the man who will tell you his sad story.
Literary impressionism relies on suggestion; a sympathetic link between author and reader is needed, and, as Arthur Mizener notes in “Ford, Dowell, and the Sex Instinct,” “[w]e can know how to take a dramatized narrator only if we share the author’s values. The author cannot tell the reader what these are; each reader must guess; and what each reader usually guesses is that the author has the same values he has.” So while I have a certain idea of Dowell, and how right or wrong or in which direction unreliable, yours is a little different, and Mizener’s is a little different. And some people’s are quite a lot different.
For example, Mark Schorer, whose “The Good Soldier as Comedy” is the first critical essay focused on the novel’s interpretation in the Norton Critical Edition. Schorer argues that The Good Soldier is “a comedy of humor, and the humor is phlegm,” based largely on a conception of Dowell as a “failure,” “bitter and paltry,” “simple, infatuated,” full of “the dull hysteria of sloth…the sluggish insanity of defective love.”
This reading seemed so limiting to me, or do I mean limited? It feels like we are laughing at Dowell—what kind of man is so pathetic as to not have sex with his wife for their whole marriage? nyah nyah!—as if his story isn’t a tragedy. Samuel Hynes argues against this reading in “The Epistemology of The Good Soldier“:
First, Dowell’s failures—his failure to act, his failure to understand the people around him, his failure to ‘connect’—are shared by all the other characters in the novel, and thus would seem to constitute a generalization about the human condition rather than a moral state peculiar to him. Alienation, silence, loneliness, repression—these describe Ashburnham and Leonora and Nancy, and even ‘poor Florence’ as well as they describe Dowell….
Second, Dowell does have certain positive qualities which perhaps, in the light of recent criticism of the novel, require some rehabilitation. For instance, if his moral doubt prevents positive action, it also restrains him from passing judgment, even on those who have most wronged him.
Really, I think we can put it much more simply than this: the whole novel is about Dowell coming to grips with his inadequacies, as Schorer would have them. He spends time writing us this account so he can work through his knowledge problem and give real consideration to the moral issues at stake. Moral doubt does not make him a nonentity. Of course, Dowell is foolish, he is ridiculous, he is gullible, he is out of touch with the people around him. Are you so sure you are not? My point is: Dowell’s unreliability does not point to a hidden truth for us to discover and bang over his dense head. This novel is not that easy. There isn’t an answer. The novel is the answer.
Mizener gives lots of other reasons why Schorer is wrong about Dowell. Some of them are pretty fun, with tidbits like the fact that “Ford believed with some reason that he was making this dramatic detail [the 'white marriage' of Dowell and Florence] more plausible by making Dowell an American.”
*Ford says these “words of Maupassant” are a “working model” for characterization: “C’était un monsieur à favoris rouges qui entrait toujours le premier.” (That is, “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a door,” in Ford’s rendering.)