Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)

This might be the saddest story ever! 

Our man marries the girl he loves - Florence. She then tells him just after the wedding that she has a heart disease. So he looks after her for years. He cares for her, nurses her, and accepts that they cannot make love because of her condition. The couple meet and make friends with a charming British husband and wife, Edward and Leanora. They have a nice time until one night, our man finds Florence... dead. He sees a bottle of heart medication next to her body, and assumes her heart has killed her. He mourns bitterly. 

To his horror, he later finds out that his wife has committed suicide. Further she had been having an affair for ten years with Edward, the British husband, and she killed herself because she realised that Edward had started to love someone else: a young pretty girl called Nancy. Even worse, our man finds out that his wife Florence’s heart problem turns out to be a lie that she told to trap him (what a hussy!)

To make things even sadder, Nancy moves away, and Edward the British Husband slits his own throat in depression. Nancy goes crazy, and our man - who has begun to love her - spends the rest of his days looking after her. But she can’t say a word.

Gripping stuff.

The Good Soldier is a brilliant story. It is also very told in a very clever way. The writer Ford M. Ford builds up the story in layers. Just like toffee ripple ice-cream. The whole thing is like a friend telling you a story next to a hot fire. He’s got a big glass of wine in his hand, and misses bits out, goes back over things, and generally just pulls you into his tale. Like a friend, he forgets things, misses things out, and accidentally tells untruths whilst spilling his wine and commenting on how big and white the moon is. I felt like a friend was crying on my shoulder in a bar. And I wanted to buy him another drink.

What it teaches you about life

Whenever I read a good book, I always want to try and pull out lessons from it. What is it going to teach me about life?

The Good Soldier has lots of lessons.

Number 1. - Bad things happen.

Without getting all Buddhist; suffering is part of life. It is completely unavoidable, even if you’re basically a good person. So how you deal with it is incredibly important. Our man handles it in completely the wrong way.

When he realises his wife has messed him around, he blames himself. And then he repeats his mistakes, but taking care of another invalid who doesn’t love him - Nancy.

The obvious lesson is to learn from your mistakes. But it’s a hard lesson to learn. Beating yourself up for things that have gone wrong - whatever they are - is pointless. But it’s easier than doing things differently. The easy route, is not always the best one. Sometimes, you just have take responsibility and change the thing that you did wrong.

Number 2.  -  Being a good person, doesn’t mean you do good things.

Edward is a charming British philanderer. He is a really good person. He saves people from drowning. He risks his own life to help others. And he is always friendly. Through and through, he’s a thoroughly decent chap. The best of British.

But he cheats on his wife relentlessly. Perhaps he just loves the world too much.

Psychologists call it the halo effect. If you see one good trait, you will assume someone has others too. We think someone who is warm and friendly, will likely be a better friend. 

It’s worth remembering though that good character traits are completely uncorrelated. Someone might seem like a nice guy, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how they’re going to behave. 

In fact, no one is a good person. Or a bad person. If we’re going to judge, we should judge actions, not people. And that includes when we judge ourselves.

The last word

Woah. The Good Soldier is sad. Like seriously go-home-and-cry-under-your-duvet-sad. But you know what, at the end, it made me feel pretty good about life. Pretty good about people too. There are lots of bad things in this book, but there is no whining or moaning. Just a man telling a good story. And I like that. It’s a great attitude. If life goes well - great! If life screws you over, then at least you get to tell a good story.

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