"It Is All a Darkness": Death, Narrative Therapy, and Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier'

By Womack, Kenneth | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

"It Is All a Darkness": Death, Narrative Therapy, and Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier'


Womack, Kenneth, Papers on Language & Literature


Despite the publication of numerous essays that explore Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) in terms of its many intriguing narratological, aesthetic, comedic, and temporal aspects, the scholarship regarding Ford's most celebrated novel has yet to consider the role of death in The Good Soldier's richly nuanced narrative. For John Dowell, Ford's bewildered narrator, the text of the novel functions as a form of narrative therapy, as the means via which he comes to terms with the suicides of his wife Florence and of his friend Edward Ashburnham, as well as the untimely passing of Maisie Maidan and the spiritual death of Nancy Rufford. The composition of his narrative after their deaths allows Dowell to comprehend--slowly and often confoundingly--the genuine text of his own life. The Good Soldier also affords him with a means for finally understanding Florence, Edward, and Leonora Ashburnham's deceptive roles in the construction of his existence. The manner in which he deals with Florence and Edward's loss--both in terms of his grief and his belated recognition of their numerous acts of betrayal--underscores the various ways in which The Good Soldier functions as Dowell's ultimate act of narrative therapy. Interpreting Dowell's experiences in The Good Soldier using the parlance of family systems psychotherapy, moreover, provides readers with a revelatory means for understanding the often complex effects of death in Ford's novel.

Both as a form of therapeutic treatment and as an interpretive methodology, family systems psychotherapy--in contrast with Freudian and other psychoanalytic approaches--maintains that the family presupposes the individual as the matrix of identity. In The Theory and Technique of Family Therapy, Charles P. Barnard and Ramon Garrido Corrales observe that "the members of one's family are one's significant others par excellence" (9). Proponents of family systems psychotherapy acknowledge that the family's most important role is fraught with difficulty: as an inherently open system, the family must at once provide support for its individual members' integration into a solid family unit, as well as their differentiation, or emotional and psychological separation, into relatively autonomous selves. (1) This mutual developmental process possesses the capacity for producing functional and dysfunctional families. In functional families, individual members evolve into fully realized selves that allow them to act, think, and feel for themselves. In dysfunctional families, however, family members develop pseudo-selves--often fostered by fear and anxiety within the system--and thus, such individuals frequently remain unable to maintain any real equilibrium between their inner feelings and their outward behavior (Barnard and Corrales 85-87). In addition to its therapeutic applications, family systems psychotherapy's clinical vocabulary affords literary scholars with a critical mode for investigating the role of the family in fictional narratives both as an agent of change and as a mechanism for maintaining stasis. (2)

Family systems psychotherapy also provides us with a valuable terminology for understanding the significant roles of death, the grieving process, and narrative therapy in The Good Soldier. The relationship between the Dowells and the Ashburnhams functions in the novel as a de facto family system, albeit a dysfunctional one. Dowell variously describes their quaternion in The Good Soldier as a "four-square coterie" and as an "extraordinarily safe castle": "We were," he writes, "one of those tall ships with the white sails upon a blue sea, one of those things that seem the proudest and the safest of all the beautiful and safe things that God has permitted the mind of men to frame. Where better could one take refuge? Where better?" he asks. "Permanence? Stability? I can't believe it's gone" (11). Ford's befuddled narrator only learns the extent of the Dowell's and the Ashburnham's collective dysfunctionality after Florence and Edward's suicides.

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