Theme: "You may live with another for years and years in a condition of the closest daily intimacy and never know what goes on in your companion." Layer by layer, Ford reveals the mysteriousness of other people: individuals are frenetically driven by loneliness and lust but strive to appear buttoned- up and well-mannered. The "real" world dissolves into a series of peculiarly angled points of view.
Style: The story creeps out crabwise. Dowell changes his mind, tinkers with events, re-adjusts the reader's judgement. Ford invigorates his narrator's cliches with the injection of melodrama; the polished flatness of the prose mirrors exactly Dowell's sophisticated naivety.
Chief strengths: The tone is inextricably both pathetic and funny. Dowell's plight should evoke sympathy; but his baroque obtuseness and lack of self- reflection transform him into a clownish cuckold. Ford also unstabilises the notion of character: Edward Ashburnham is an uptight gentleman farmer beloved by tenants and a potential child molester. Uncomfortable for him and the reader.
Chief weakness: Ford's compulsion to gild the lily in several coats of emulsion diminishes some of the final impact: only Hamlet has so many casually violent deaths.
What they thought of it then: 1915 was not an auspicious year for experimental fiction. Conrad, Ford's old chum, remarked with unhelpful elusiveness: "the whole vision of the subject is perfectly amazing".
What we think of it now: Too clever. "Ford is obstructed less by his defects than by the effusiveness of total ability" (V.S. Pritchett). Damned as "a minor masterpiece".
Responsible for: Graham Greene's hommage, the equally underrated The End of the Affair.