The Good Soldier is narrated by the character John Dowell, half of one of the couples whose dissolving relationships form the subject of the novel. Dowell tells the stories of those dissolutions as well as the deaths of three characters and the madness of a fourth, in a rambling, non-chronological fashion that leaves gaps for the reader to fill. The "plot" is not then the real story; the reader is asked to consider whether s/he believes Dowell and what part he truly played in how this "saddest story ever told" actually plays out.
Events as narrated
The novel opens with the famous line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Dowell explains that for nine years he, his wife Florence and their friends Captain Edward Ashburnham (the “good soldier” of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora had an ostensibly normal friendship while Edward and Florence sought treatment for their heart ailments at a spa in Nauheim, Germany.
As it turns out, nothing in the relationships or in the characters is as it first seems. Florence’s heart ailment is a fiction she perpetrated on John to force them to stay in Europe so that she could continue her affair with an American thug named Jimmy. Edward and Leonora have a loveless, imbalanced marriage broken by his constant infidelities (both of body and heart) and Leonora’s attempts to control Edward’s affairs (both financial and romantic). Dowell is a fool and is coming to realize how much of a fool he is, as Florence and Edward had an affair under his nose for nine years without John knowing until Florence was dead.
Florence’s affair with Edward leads her to commit suicide when she realizes that Edward is falling in love with his and Leonora’s young ward, Nancy Rufford, the daughter of Leonora's closest friend. Florence sees the two in an intimate conversation and rushes back into the resort, where she sees John talking to a man she knows (and who knows of her affair with Jimmy) but whom John doesn’t know. Assuming that her relationship with Edward and her marriage to John are over, Florence takes prussic acid – which she has carried for years in a vial that John thought held her heart medicine – and dies.
With that story told, Dowell moves on to tell the story of Edward and Leonora’s relationship, which appears normal but which is a power struggle that Leonora wins. Dowell runs through several of Edward’s affairs and peccadilloes, including his possibly innocent attempt to comfort a crying servant on a train; his affair with the married Maisie Maidan, the one character in the book whose heart problem was unquestionably real, and his bizarre tryst in Monte Carlo and Antibes with a kept woman known as La Dolciquita. Edward’s philandering ends up costing them a fortune in bribes, blackmail and gifts for his lovers, leading Leonora to take control of Edward’s financial affairs. She gradually gets him out of debt.
Edward’s last affair is his most scandalous, as he becomes infatuated with their young ward, Nancy. Nancy came to live with them after leaving a convent where her parents had sent her; her mother was a violent alcoholic, and her father (it is later suggested that this man may not be Nancy’s biological father) may have abused her. Edward, tearing himself apart because he does not want to spoil Nancy's innocence, arranges to have her sent to India to live with her father, even though this frightens her terribly. Once Leonora knows that Edward intends to keep his passion for Nancy chaste, but only wants Nancy to continue to love him from afar, Leonora torments him by making this wish impossible—she pretends to offer to divorce him so he can marry Nancy, but informs Nancy of his sordid sexual history, destroying Nancy’s innocent love for him. After Nancy's departure, Edward commits suicide. When Nancy reaches Aden and sees the obituary in the paper, she becomes catatonic.
The novel’s last section has Dowell writing from Edward’s old estate in England, where he takes care of Nancy, whom he cannot marry because of her mental illness. Nancy is only capable of repeating two things – a Latin phrase meaning “I believe in an omnipotent God” and the word “shuttlecocks.” Dowell states that the story is sad because no one got what they wanted. Leonora wanted Edward but lost him and married the normal (but dull) Rodney Bayham. Edward wanted Nancy but lost her. Dowell wanted a wife but ended up a nurse to two sick women, one a fake.
As if in an afterthought, Dowell closes the novel by telling the story of Edward’s suicide. Edward receives a telegram from Nancy that reads, “Safe Brindisi. Having a rattling good time. Nancy.” He asks Dowell to take the telegram to his wife, pulls out his pen knife, says that it’s time he had some rest and slits his own throat.
Dowell ends up generally unsure about where to lay the blame but expressing sympathy for Edward, because Dowell thinks himself to be similar to Edward in nature. The fact is he has been a disengaged,a voyeur, and perhaps the most manipulative character of the novel. He is guilty of caring for no one but himself, and while the others have their flaws, he is the one character who has never participated in life and the one who is revealed to be the most despicable when he dashes up a hill, thereby leaving Edward to slit his throat with a very small pen knife.
Careful textual deconstruction of the novel reveals inconsistencies of narration that suggest different, hidden plot elements. For example, Dowell marries an heiress who ostensibly has a bad heart, despite not loving her, and despite her having stated openly that she does not love him. Dowell states repeatedly that he has no need or interest in her money — one might argue that he protests his disinterest rather too much. Florence eventually dies, ostensibly by suicide, much like Madame Bovary. If the readers suspend their trust in the narrator, they are left with the impression that the narrator is obfuscating, happy she died and not doing anything to prevent it; just as he does nothing throughout the entire book. Thus, behind the explicit narrative lurks the implicit counter-narrative that Dowell is a sociopath, caring for no one but himself, an observer of others who are living while never actively engaging in life himself, only a voyeur relishing the demise of others. It is the story of a manipulative man trying to elicit the sympathy of the audience he speaks/writes to, who must decide whether he is a deluded victim or a heartless manipulator who is trying to pull our heartstrings.
Florence supposedly poisons herself in a very painful manner, and Edward supposedly cuts his own throat, but we only have Dowell's word for it, and he epitomizes the "unreliable narrator." In both cases, he stands by, knowing what is likely to happen. We are almost certainly intended to position ourselves within the ambiguity of the events that unfold, and to decide just how much of the complete truth Dowell reveals. It may be that Dowell, who is considered by all, and presented by himself, as passive, murdered both Florence and Edward. Thus the entire story is his justification for doing so without admitting his guilt outright.
Also, although Edward is the only actual soldier in the story, the title "The Good Soldier" functions as a mechanism for exploring, comparing and contrasting all the main characters. What defines "duty?" What defines "honor?" What separates right from wrong? These are the questions asked but not exactly answered.