"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." So the reader is told by John Dowell who proceeds to tell of the tragedy which befell him and his friends in the space of nine years. In 1904, the John and his wife Florence are incredibly rich Americans who've arrived at the pleasant town of Nauheim in Germany to help heal Florence's "weak heart" through a series of prescribed spa treatments and thermal baths. By chance they form an acquaintance with the Ashburnhams, an Edwardian English couple who are also at the spa to the seek treatment for a heart ailment, that of Edward the husband. Also a decorated Army officer, a captain whose served in countries like India and South Africa, Edward seems the quintissential English gentleman and makes quite the impression on both John and Florence with his stoic bearing and seemingly implacable demeanor, always the courteous, courtly escort with Florence and an accommodating whiskey drinker and cardplayer with John. Over the preceding summers as John tells it--the couples parted ways in the intervening seasons, the Dowells touring the continent and the Ashburnhams back to their Surrey estate--the friendship between the two couples grew immensely, their fondness for one another remaining all the way up until one night when Florence's "weak heart" gave way and she died.
John Dowell's arrival at the Ashburnham's home in England, following a series of letters requesting that he visit, abruptly turns everything on its head as he's brought to the gripping truth which erases all of his his existing preconceptions on the past few years. Related to him by Leonora, and told in pieces interspersed throughout the narrative, is the infidelity of Florence and Capt. Ashburnham, the pair's torrid love affair being carried on right under his nose. Even more arresting is that Leonora knew (had always known) about Edward's string of illicit love affairs, his hopeless inability to remain faithful to his wife and Leonora's hellish lifestyle of basically having to be complicit in the ordeal--the couple's wealth was basically bankrupted by Edward's notably desperate liasons with a steady stream of needy lovers. Edward's affairs, his past and present have offset a plethora of miseries. Florence's death, not unlike that of Maisie Maiden, another spa attendant who'd been led on by Edward, was in fact a suicide. In truth, nothing was ever wrong with Florences' heart. She'd only fabricated the condition to get John to take her away from her own past which included her own series of scandalous affairs. The illuminated truth is not only something to which the past has suffered, it is now something that will have lasting reverberations and immediate repurcussions on a disillusioned John for the remainder of his life.
Ford actually based The Good Soldier on his own life; at the time he'd made a complete mess of his existing marriage through extramarital dalliances with more than a few "family acquaintances". What's so great about the story though is the way it reflects a culture at large just prior to the earth-shattering trauma of World War I. It is indeed a grim vision of things to come for a world at the brink. The posh, comfortable lives of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams have seemingly everything going for them. Neither want for anything and each couple embues the standard of aristocratic distinction, Capt. Ashburnham especially resplendant as the dashing officer, the "good soldier", and Florence the darling product of a blue-blooded New England family, a shining example of American capitalism, ingenuity and good breeding. And yet everything is crumbling before their eyes; the very core of the British Empire is corrupt and the backbone of the American Protestant system, its Calvinist work ethic and Puritan foundation, is a fraudulent hypocrisy. As Dowell, as unreliable a narrator (a device Ford uses to perfection) as their ever was, puts it, "It is a queer and fantastic world . . . Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men's lives like the lives of us good people — like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords — broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?" (FIC FORD)