"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." (The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford)There's an opening line to draw instinctive protestation, if I ever read one. The world is over-flowing with sadness; we blind ourselves in order to survive. One's own feels no less unbearable for the realisation that it's only the tip of an unthinkable iceberg. For a story to self-advertise as "the saddest" takes some cheek. And yet, having now read to the end of Ford Madox Ford's mini masterpiece, I'm half inclined to say the same myself.
The novel charts the miserable disintegration of two couples' marriages and lives. It is written in the most remarkably effective nonlinear, 'unreliable' narrative, so that the true characters of the people involved, and the actual events, are revealed gradually -- piecemeal and out-of-order and repeatedly revised. The narrator's own understanding and perspective -- and his honesty with himself and with the reader -- are in flux, so that by the end his feelings towards the people and the circumstances of his life are strikingly transformed from what they appeared at the start. From this gripping story-telling process emerges a web of conflicting desires, hidden tensions, unidentified motives, unchecked passions, confusions, anguish; love and loathing inseparably mingled; betrayal and faithful kindness simultaneously expressed. It is a truly stunning bit of writing, and of psychology for that matter.
The reason it is quite so very sad is that it needn't be so. The protagonists are wealthy, well-positioned, and capable. They have every opportunity to lead (by standard worldly standards) decent, peaceful, fruitful lives. All of their heartache is self- or mutually-inflicted as they grasp and grapple for their shifting, indistinct desires to be met and as they punish one another when left wanting. It is all too easy for the reader to see ways they might have spared themselves: if only they had a little more self-control, a little less self-deceit, a little more forgiveness. If only they had restrained themselves from lashing out when wounded, if only they had been circumspect enough to recognise their own failings and to bear with those of others. In particular, if only they had talked about things openly from the outset instead of being so depressingly concerned with keeping up appearances (a prominent theme of the book). As somebody who, along with the rest of my birth family, very much likes to "get it all out in the open" (outbursts and barneys and 'displays' along the way as necessary), having married into a family who (by my biased reckoning) go to undesirable lengths to avoid confrontation, I feel this point rather keenly. "…I think that it would have been better in the eyes of God if they had all attempted to gouge each other's eyes with carving knives. But they were 'good people' ".
If only...if only... They could have worked things out between them all -- not perfectly, perhaps, but nothing in this life is perfect. Certainly less painfully, less hopelessly than the scene on which the novel closes. "The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing."
Of course, that's easy enough to say from the outside, especially of a fiction. In reality, when caught up in the emotion of the moment and the struggle to make sense of life and to be understood, respected or affirmed... In the confusion of some ill-defined desire to be made to feel a certain way that one could not put into words even if one realised there was such a longing lingering beneath the surface... In the pain of being stung or misunderstood or unjustly treated or simply of not finding that mysterious desire met... Well, it is very hard to be sensible in the middle of 'it all', whatever 'it' happens to be at any given moment. It is heartbreaking to consider just how very very good we are at making a mess of our own and other's lives. At least, that's how it seems; perhaps (I hope, but I hope not as well) it is just me.
The Bible points repeatedly towards the possibility of the type of personal peace and healed relationships that The Good Soldier makes me long for and despair of. All the elements so conspicuously lacking in Ford's cheerless picture find endorsement in its pages: healthy introspection [4,9], repentance [1,2,9], communication [1,3,7,8], honesty [1,2], forgiveness [1,2,6,7], reconciliation [2,7], kindness [1,2], patience [2,3,8], self-control [1,6,8], gratitude , contentment , mercy [2,5,6] and the like... But it's surely not enough to know that this is what we should be like. Throwing an unattainable ideal into the mix of general emotional turmoil seems to me more likely to produce guilt and paralysis than any sort of positive character transformation. But what if, as Christians are so keen to stress and apt to forget, it's actually something that happens by God's grace as He fills us with His Holy Spirit and changes us from the inside out?
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23)I've witnessed an abundance of this 'fruit' in other's lives as they've courageously and humbly placed themselves in God's hands. And I tentatively posit that I have even seen the beginnings in myself and, by consequence, my own relationships with others -- sad though it is to think that I have previously been even more lacking in the above than I am now :-/ Ohh, anyway, I suspect self-pitying self-reproach is specifically at odds with what I'm trying to say, so enough of that. Suffice to say, some stuff is different, bring on the more of it...
 "Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:25-32)
 "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:5-17)
 "“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:43-45)
 "But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them." (Luke 6:27-31)
 "“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [...] Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." (Matthew 18:15-17, 21-22)
 "“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny." (Matthew 5:21-26)
 "“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”" (Matthew 18:10-14)