The Good Soldier is about two couples: John and Florence Dowell and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. John, who narrates the story, and his wife are an American couple who meet the British Ashburnhams at a German resort for those with ailing hearts. Edward is the "good soldier" of the title, idolized by Dowell to the point of fawning, but he also conducts a years-long affair with Dowell's wife.
As it turns out, neither Florence nor Edward truly has a heart condition--not a physical one, at least. Edward is a serial philanderer, incapable of avoiding petty, sentimental affairs with beautiful young women, and comes to the resort in pursuit of a girl with a real "heart." Florence is a fake and an opportunist with designs on Branshaw Teleragh, Edward's estate and the ancestral home of Florence's family. Leonora seeks to endear herself to Edward by managing his love affairs, but throughout all of it Dowell is either painfully, idiotically unawares or represses his understanding, perhaps out of a powerful homosexual attraction for Edward. When, as above, Dowell says "I don't know..." it is a universal expression, as the full realization of the situation--which has caused the suicide both of Florence and Edward--causes him not only to doubt the genuineness of his friendships but his ability to understand any human being.
Dowell begins his tale by saying, "This is the saddest story I've ever heard." The Saddest Story was Ford's original title (and seems still to be Dowell's), but he changed it due to the outbreak of a story arguably sadder--World War I. As such, The Good Soldier is decidedly pre-modernist, as WWI is generally considered the origin of modernity, yet it prefigures so well the modernist model: Dowell's unreliability, the immense gap between the author and his narrator, the disjointed, out-of-sequence narrative. Yet, Graham Greene, an acquaintance and admirer of Ford, thought that he could see underneath it all a great amount of pain and anguish suffered by Ford himself.
I think that this is probably one of the greatest books of the twentieth century--I absolutely love it. It is peopled by generally loathsome characters, who nevertheless manage to make themselves exquisite in pity. Edward is a monster of sympathy, brimming over with such love for the sad young maidens of the world that he cannot help but give himself to them, compelled to be an eternal Christ figure. Leonora is a devout Catholic determined to salvage the wreckage of her marriage. Dowell is an utter fool, ravaged by a misery he does not understand, pursuing an unspoken love through a method that can only be described as self-deletion. Florence is unmistakably the cruelest of the lot, yet she is also the one who keeps with her a vial of prussic acid that she might kill herself should her malignancy be discovered. It is hard not to think of these people as Dowell himself thinks of the Ashburnhams:
But what were they? The just? The unjust? God knows! I think that the pair of them were only poor wretches, creeping over this earth in the shadow of an eternal wrath. It is very terrible....
Poor wretches, creeping over this earth in the shadow of an eternal wrath. I think perhaps much of the novel's power has to do with the fact that we are meant to wonder if we are not a little bit like the narrator, unable to see the things in ourselves that an audience, reading the story of our lives, may intuit immediately and pity us for them, and that, as Dowell says, "the record of humanity is a record of sorrows."