A heart can be a very dangerous thing to have. It can betray a person in a blink of an eye or an intake of breath. Aside from spontaneously giving out due to any number of outward factors, the heart can turn fickle and grow board easily with old acquirements. It will want new things; things that are perhaps forbidden and against societal normality.
Florence, remember, had a very weak heart. Dowell begins by saying that the two months they spent at the baths were “only just enough to keep poorFlorencealive from year to year (9).” But was her heart really weak? Or was it just that she easily tired of having such a feminine man? Perhaps what she longed for was a tall, strapping man who was masculine in every sense of the word. She was tired of the trained lap dog that sat at her feet. She wanted a dangerous wolf to play with. And that’s exactly what she got.
Edward “Teddy” Ashburnham was an accomplished soldier. He was a most handsome man who was married to a stately woman. And he had countless liaisons with women galore. To name just a few of his fancies, there was Maise Maidan, young Nancy, a servant girl, and, of course, the piece de résistance,Florence. Not to mention that he, too, also had a weak heart – in more ways than one. He was board with his domineering wife, Leonora. And so his fickle, weak heart went on to other things that caught his interest – for a time, at least.
Dowell, strangely, was the only one who didn’t have a weak heart in the sense that his health was affected. Verily, he made the point of saying that he was a nurse toFlorence, stressing the fact that he was a male. Was he, too, seduced by the charming Ashburnham? As aforementioned, he is a very feminine man. The reader doesn’t know if he andFlorencehave even consummated their marriage. The reader sees him as a fairly sexless man – one who has no desires at all.
Toward women, at least. Several times throughout the novel, Dowell calls Ashburnham a “good soldier” and, more specifically, a “libertine (15).” Could the Captain’s encompassing blue eyes like those of a humid summer sky have caught the man up in rapture just as they did countless women?
Dowell spends some of page 29 and most of page 30 just describing Ashburnham’s eyes. “I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches…. The gaze was perfectly level and perfectly direct and perfectly unchanging…. At any rate, the expression was that of pride, of satisfaction, of the possessor.” And, of course, the climax of it all is on page 29 where Dowell says that, “he regarded me not so much as a man. I had to be regarded as a woman…” That is, of course, what Dowell assumes about himself and Ashburnham when they speak. And on page 27, he graces the reader with a most intriguing portrait of the man. “His hair was fair, extraordinarily ordered in a wave, running for the left temple to the right; his face was a light brick-red, perfectly uniform in tint up to the roots of the hair itself; his yellow moustache was as stiff as a toothbrush and I verily believe that he had his black smoking jacket thickened a little over the shoulder-blades so as to give himself the air of the slightest possible stoop.”
Dowell sees himself like a Lady-in-Wait. Page 26 shows this as he waits placidly forFlorenceto finish with her bath as he contemplates how he fits in with the rest of the people there. He knows he’s different, and not just because he’s an American, for even he says he stands out in that grouping as well. And he says that the coming of the Ashburnhams to the baths mean something to him. It wasn’t only because they were dear friends; verily, it was because he got to see his strapping “good soldier”, his wild “libertine”.
Think of the words he uses to describe Ashburnham and the things he notices about the other man. Dowell isn’t a particularly observant man. Yet he sees the stiffness of a moustache, the tint of a face. The intensity of a gaze, and the color of the eyes. Ashburnham’s shoulders. These are all the little things that a lover or admirer would notice, for they are nothing grand in and of themselves. They’re just inane little details. And there are the words he uses to describe the other man – words like “perfect” and “libertine” – or, in other words, a playboy, and, to be a bit more vulgar, a stud.
Dowell plays so daft about the affair happening between his wife and Ashburnham because he is jealous that it wasFlorenceand not him who was getting the attention of Ashburnham. Dowell wanted that intense, blistering gaze to fall upon him the same way it fell up his wife and numerous others. That is why he omits details here and there or leaves off on important thoughts. That is why he uses words like “I don’t know” and throws thoughts in left and right. He’s trying to cover the fact that he’s hurt that Ashburnham ignores him. He’s trying to hide the fact that his heart yearns for that of Ashburnham. He would rather play dumb than accept the fact that Teddy will never view him in the light that Dowell wants him to.
Indeed, it is the saddest story that anyone has ever heard, for it is a tale of what was thought of to be lurid, unacceptable love. More than that, verily. Unrequited love.
It is wholly possible that Dowell was carrying on his own love affair. He could have had a fickle heart as well – perhaps the most fickle of them all, because his love would forever be unrequited. He was not blameless in the whole business of affairs, for he had his own. Dowell’s fickle heart had longed to make Ashburnham his good soldier. As he says on page 168, “the human heart is a very mysterious thing.”
1. Ford, Ford Madox. The Good Soldier.New York: Barns & Noble Books, 2005