At the center of The Good Soldier are two marriages—one between John and Florence Dowell, the other between Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Although marriage is recognized as a valuable institution by John and Leonora, it is completely disregarded by their respective spouses Florence and Edward. Throughout the course of the story, Florence and Edward partake in multiple extramarital affairs, including one with each another. These affairs give Florence and Edward their vitality, as both characters feel the most alive when cheating on their partners. In this way, the concept of marriage does provide some utility for Florence and Edward because they revel in flouting it. This is particularly true of Edward, who cannot help but begin a new affair as soon as the last one ends, no matter how destructive his previous experience was. For instance, after his initial and relatively innocent incident with a servant girl in the back of a carriage, Edward immediately moves on to an affair with La Dolciquita. La Dolciquita is the mistress of a Grand Duke who sleeps with Edward once and then tells him he must pay her great sums of money if he wants to continue the affair. Edward accepts the offer and carries on the affair for another week before becoming bored. This pattern repeats itself throughout the novel; Edward starts an affair, grows bored, ends the affair, and then begins another.
It is only at the end of their lives that Edward and Florence discover the value of prolonged intimacy between two people and only two people. For Florence, this realization occurs during her affair with Edward. She finds herself in love with Edward and cannot stand the fact that he is courting yet another woman. As a result of Edward’s philandering, she ends her life. Later in the novel, Edward finds himself in a similar situation. He loves Nancy Rufford but knows he cannot be with her. As a result of his tragic circumstances, Edward also ends his life.
However, although it does not endorse Edward and Florence’s infidelities, the novel doesn’t praise traditional marriage, either. After all, Edward and Florence only found people who they truly loved by ignoring the rules set down by marriage. Additionally, those who do not violate the boundaries of marriage are also symbolically punished in the story. Nancy’s fate is especially cruel, as she did everything she could to avoid ruining a marriage but suffers a mental breakdown as a direct result. Ultimately, then, the novel does not provide a definitive moral statement on marriage and infidelity. Rather, it examines the state of male/female relationships and questions whether marriage is still a worthwhile institution at the beginning of the 20th century.
Marriage and Infidelity ThemeTracker
Marriage and Infidelity Quotes in The Good Soldier
I don't know. And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness.
Yes, that is how I most exactly remember her, in that dress, in that hat, looking over her shoulder at me so that the eyes flashed very blue—dark pebble blue...
And, what the devil! For whose benefit did she do it? For that of the bath attendant? of the passers-by? I don't know. Anyhow, it can't have been for me, for never, in all the years of her life, never on any possible occasion, or in any other place did she so smile to me, mockingly, invitingly. Ah, she was a riddle; but then, all other women are riddles.
Good God, what did they all see in him? for I swear there was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier. Yet, Leonora adored him with a passion that was like an agony, and hated him with an agony that was as bitter as the sea. How could he arouse anything like a sentiment, in anybody?
I loved Leonora always and, today, I would very cheerfully lay down my life, what is left of it, in her service. But I am sure I never had the beginnings of a trace of what is called the sex instinct towards her. And I suppose—no I am certain that she never had it towards me.
She continued, looking up into Captain Ashburnham’s eyes: “It's because of that piece of paper that you're honest, sober, industrious, provident, and clean-lived. If it weren’t for that piece of paper you’d be like the Irish or the Italians or the Poles, but particularly the Irish....”
And she laid one finger upon Captain Ashburnham’s wrist.
But just think of that poor wretch.... I, who have surely the right, beg you to think of that poor wretch. Is it possible that such a luckless devil should be so tormented by blind and inscrutable destiny? For there is no other way to think of it. None. I have the right to say it, since for years he was my wife's lover, since he killed her, since he broke up all the pleasantnesses that there were in my life. There is no priest that has the right to tell me that I must not ask pity for him, from you, silent listener beyond the hearth-stone, from the world, or from the God who created in him those desires, those madnesses....
You ask how it feels to be a deceived husband. Just Heavens, I do not know. It feels just nothing at all. It is not Hell, certainly it is not necessarily Heaven. So I suppose it is the intermediate stage. What do they call it? Limbo. No, I feel nothing at all about that. They are dead; they have gone before their Judge who, I hope, will open to them the springs of His compassion.
And, do you know, at the thought of that intense solitude I feel an overwhelming desire to rush forward and comfort her. You cannot, you see, have acted as nurse to a person for twelve years without wishing to go on nursing them, even though you hate them with the hatred of the adder, and even in the palm of God. But, in the nights, with that vision of judgement before me, I know that I hold myself back. For I hate Florence. I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of loneliness. She need not have done what she did. She was an American, a New Englander. She had not the hot passions of these Europeans.
A long time afterwards I pulled myself out of the lounge and went up to Florence’s room. She had not locked the door—for the first time of our married life. She was lying, quite respectably arranged, unlike Mrs. Maidan, on her bed. She had a little phial that rightly should have contained nitrate of amyl, in her right hand. That was on the 4th of August, 1913.
And the longer I think about them the more certain I become that Florence was a contaminating influence—she depressed and deteriorated poor Edward; she deteriorated, hopelessly, the miserable Leonora. There is no doubt that she caused Leonora’s character to deteriorate.
“This is the most atrocious thing you have done in your atrocious life.” He never moved and he never looked at her. God knows what was in Leonora’s mind exactly.
I like to think that, uppermost in it was concern and horror at the thought of the poor girl’s going back to a father whose voice made her shriek in the night. And, indeed, that motive was very strong with Leonora. But I think there was also present the thought that she wanted to go on torturing Edward with the girl’s presence. She was, at that time, capable of that.
“He is going to telephone to your mother,” Leonora said. “He will make it all right for her.” She got up and closed the door. She came back to the fire, and added bitterly: “He can always make it all right for everybody, except me—excepting me!”