What Are You Trying To Say?
John Dowell’s Unreliable Story
As Portrayed in The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
When we tell a story about something that happened, we often choose to tell it solely from our own perspective – imbuing the story with our biases and often changing or adding details here and there to make the story sound favorable to ourselves. This is what John Dowell does in The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion by Ford Madox Ford. Dowell tells the story of the Ashburnhams, his wife, Florence, and himself not in a carefully-organized, chronological, and factual manner, but in a way that is random and haphazard, completely disregarding the appearance of his tale. Even as he tells the story to the reader, he shows moments of confusion and doubt as to what really happened. In addition to this, throughout his story, he insists on describing Edward Ashburnham is a “good soldier,” even though the readers are aware that this is not true. The effect of all of this is interesting; It makes John Dowell a realistic character, a real person, while at the same time making him an unreliable narrator. In the end, John Dowell does not only fool the readers with his story, but he also fools himself.
It is important to organize one’s thoughts before conveying them to others in order to create clear understanding. If one conveys thoughts in a disorganized, confusing manner, it is easy to lose the listener’s attention, as well as their trust and respect. John Dowell does exactly this, and he does this on purpose so that readers will not be able to tell whether Dowell is a sane person who may be trying to sound foolish, or whether he is actually a fool. Earlier in the novel, Dowell says, “I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down – whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from this distance of time, as it reached me from the lips of Leonora or from those of Edward himself” (44). Dowell is telling a story of events that took place many years ago. This means that the facts may not be as fresh in his mind as they would have been if the events had taken place recently. In addition to this, he wonders if he should tell the story as he heard from Leonora or Edward, which puts even greater distance from the reader and the actual story. After muddling the facts as much as possible, Dowell tells the readers, “I don’t know. I leave it to you” (Ford, 223).
By the time I finished Dowell’s story, I had to re-adjust some of my perceptions of the characters in Dowell’s story. I also felt confused as to what had really happened, and John Dowell’s gullibility and ignorance shocked me until I found the following quote in Smith’s article. Smith asks, “[d]oes it follow that Dowell, from start to finish, is simply telling a tall tale? This question can be rephrased to come better to the point: does it follow that Dowell is inside, as well as outside, the tale Ford tells through him? Inside it twice, that is?” (327). This seemed very possible. After all, Dowell waits for a long time before telling his story, and even while telling his story, he takes his time. At certain points, he even puts in “knowledge” that are doubtful and questionable. In his article, Smith goes on to explain that only way for Dowell to be both inside and outside the story would be if Dowell were to dupe himself, or as Smith says, “if a dupe can dupe himself” (327). Maybe Dowell truly wanted to believe Edward Ashburnham was a good man, despite the flashing signs that proved he wasn’t. Maybe he wanted to share his story with others to make sense of what happened, but he wanted to make sure he himself sounded like a good guy, and that just wasn’t possible if he told the story straight from the beginning to the end without changing anything. Whatever the case may be, when the readers realize they had been fooled by Dowell by the end of the story, it is possible that they are not the only ones fooled. By telling the story the way he did, Dowell may have also fooled himself.
Stories are interesting because, depending on who tells them, the main message of the stories will be different. This is natural. After all, when people go through the same experience, they all remember different parts of it as being the most memorable. Because of this, John Dowell’s version of the story cannot be fully trusted. We never hear from the other characters. Of course, Dowell does many other things to make himself especially more unreliable as a narrator. He tells a story of events that happened a long time ago, many parts of which he is not very sure of. He switches the order of events in his narrative so that readers are often left with a huge gap that is unexplained. Throughout it all, he makes readers wonder whether his feelings for Edward Ashburnham may go beyond just friendship. By choosing to tell a story without any particular organization, where revelations are made a bit late, Dowell manages to keep the readers in darkness where nothing that Dowell tells them can be trusted completely. Most importantly, Dowell does not just lead the readers into listening to his tale. By portraying himself as one of the characters in his “fabricated” tale, Dowell manages to be fooled by himself. So who do we fool with our tales?
Ford, Ford Madox, Kenneth Womack, and William Baker. The good soldier a tale of passion. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview literary texts, 2002. Print.
Smith, Grover. “Dowell as Untrustworthy Narrator.” The good soldier: authoritative text, textual appendices, contemporary reviews, literary impressionism, biographical and critical commentary. By Ford Madox Ford and Martin Stannard. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. 325-30. Print.