The narrator, John Dowell, promises to tell the saddest story he’s ever heard. The story relates to the narrator, his wife Florence (who is now dead), and the Ashburnhams, another married couple. John and Florence are Americans, while the Ashburnhams—Edward and Leonora—are English. Although the narrator has known English people for a long time, he is only now realizing that he’s never known an Englishman or an Englishwoman on a deep level, including his friends, the Ashburnhams.
John Dowell, the narrator of The Good Soldier, is a notoriously unreliable narrator. John tells his story in non-chronological order and often hints at or explicitly comments on certain events before he actually narrates them. Rhetorically, this allows John to manipulate how the reader responds to these events when he narrates them later on. For instance, he frames his entire tale as “the saddest story” he knows. This framing makes the reader sympathetic to John and his story, even before any details have been provided. Indeed, read one way, John’s story is incredibly sad for everyone involved, John included. However, read another way, as the reader will later see, the story is a great triumph for John—a triumph he wants to minimize.
Both Florence and Edward Ashburnham have heart problems. Florence’s issues are the result of a difficult sea voyage, while Edward’s came from competitive sports. Both the Dowells and the Ashburnhams always travel to Nauheim from July to September because the trip is supposed to help Florence’s and Edward’s heart conditions. While the trip certainly helps Edward, it is absolutely necessary for Florence’s survival. John, Florence, Edward, and Leonora are all roughly the same age and come from notable families.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was not uncommon for members of the upper class to spend significant portions of their year relaxing in temperate climates to treat any number of conditions.
John says he wants to tell this sad story as a way of purging it from his mind. He compares his situation to the destruction of a city; things have fallen apart, and he is now keenly aware that nothing is permanent. John also likens the couples to a house with decaying supports and suggests that two members of the group, in particular, are to blame. Evidently, he does not consider himself one of the guilty parties, as he claims that he did not know about the decay until it was too late. Although John thought Florence was always by his side, now he realizes that she wasn’t. He doesn’t blame her for what’s happened, but he implies that she is one of the two people responsible for the destruction of the group.
John frames his story like a great tragedy, complete with melodramatic images of a crumbling empire. Such imagery allows John to manipulate reality in his favor, making readers sympathetic to his plight. According to this description, John is the victim in this great tragedy, while Florence is partially responsible for what has happened. John says he doesn’t blame Florence, but this is a claim that readers should question as the novel progresses and more information comes to light.
John speaks highly of the Ashburnhams, who he considers morally upstanding members of society. Edward is a magistrate and “a first rate soldier” who you “could have trusted your wife with.” Meanwhile, Leonora is beautiful and entirely devoted to her husband. As proof of Leonora’s devotion, John tells a story that Leonora once told him, in which Leonora almost had an affair but called it off because the situation made her physically ill.
Even as John emphasizes the strong moral character of the Ashburnhams, he is criticizing exactly what he claims to praise. Though his description of Edward as someone you “could have trusted your wife with” reads like a compliment, the fact that John delivers it in the past tense suggests that this description is no longer true. Additionally, Leonora’s attempt at an affair, even if it didn’t come to fruition, is not the example someone would typically use to illustrate a friend’s moral sensibility—at least not if one is trying to provide a positive image of that person.
As for himself, John claims to be morally pure, both in thought and action. However, he wonders whether morality is just “a folly and a mockery.” From his present situation, he sees that the moral guidelines governing sex have broken down, and he worries that everything else will follow. After all, the rules governing sex are relatively straightforward and morality can get much more complicated in other areas. Hopelessly, John professes that morality “is all a darkness.”
John’s notion that morality “is all a darkness” echoes the anxieties that were present in England during the early 20th century. After the end of the Victorian era in 1901, social attitudes toward sex became laxer, resulting in a great deal of moral confusion. John’s worldview is particularly bleak—he seems to think that if the rules governing sex erode, then all of society could devolve into moral chaos. Of course, as with anything John says, there is always the possibility that he is lying, thus readers could view his claims of moral purity as suspect.