Ford Madox Ford’s ‘Parade’s End’ – Comedy, Irony and Endings


A reaction to:

Alan Edward Kennedy (1966), Parade’s End as a Comic Novel,

MA thesis, University of British Columbia

1 Comedy and Irony

In his thesis Mr Kennedy draws heavily on Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.  He refers to traditional comic types – impostors, self-deprecators, buffoons and rustic churls.  One character can play more than one role: Christopher is regarded both as a self-deprecator (“he continually sacrifices his own interests for others” [p22]) and also as an impostor (“insofar as he is obstructing his own desires” [ibid]); Sylvia is seen as an impostor; Valentine is not classified.

Mr Edwards argues that Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End is fundamentally both comic and ironic, despite its depiction of much human suffering.  Firstly, it is comic: numerous scenes illustrate human folly and absurdity; the ending is interpreted as happy; several characters appear to conform to comic types (see above).

Secondly, Parade’ End is ironic because of the “dual vision” of Christopher Tietjens as both heroic and “villainous” [page iii]. The last term is explained by Christopher’s standing in the way of his own happiness (with Valentine): he is his own worst enemy.  Mr Kennedy describes Christopher as:

“an inhibitor of festivity who gradually, through the experience of war, is born into the comic hero, breaks with anxiety and sets out to establish a new society in the pastoral world of the fourth novel”.  [page iii]

The argumentation is ingenious.

2 Endings

Towards the end of his thesis, Mr Edwards considers the relative merits of A Man Could Stand Up- and The Last Post.

About the third novel he says: “The best novel is probably A Man Could Stand Up.  It is precisely and tightly structured and perfectly caps the whole of the comic action.” [pp93f]

About the fourth novel he comments:

The Last Post does seem satisfying partly because it gives more information about the characters which are so fascinating in the rest of Parade’ End, but mainly because it continues and completes the comic structure of the tetralogy.”  [pp94f]

He also comments as follows:

“The Last Post suffers from the fact that it appears to be tacked on.  I believe it is necessary because it satisfies a curiosity about how Tietjens fared and what became of everybody else.  The fact that so many new characters are introduced, however, detracts from the unity.”  [p94]

Mark and Marie-Léonie Tietjens, prominent here, are, moreover, “relatively flat and uninteresting in comparison with Christopher, Valentine and Sylvia.”  For her part, indeed, “Sylvia becomes too pathetic and melodramatic.”  [page 94]

So, what constitutes a happy ending?

The first two books, Some Do Not— and No More Parades have sad endings: Valentine and Christopher part and he goes back to war; Christopher is sent to the Front and will face even greater danger.  At the end of A Man Could Stand Up-, Valentine and Christopher have already progressed to dancing together for the first time: the reader feels assured that they will go on to make love and “continue the conversation”.  This is a happy ending and is very satisfactory.

The Last Post is striking because of the long internal monologues, notably those of Mark and Marie-Léonie, somewhat reminiscent of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  It is also characterised by numerous references to all the events of Armistice Day.  Too much happens, both in the present and in the recalled past; the reader is overwhelmed by details.  A tantalisingly brief reference is made to the arrival of Sylvia at the matrimonial home, now occupied by Valentine and Christopher, and her failure to undermine their relationship.  (This confrontation is brought to life in the final episode of the BBC’s 2012 dramatisation of Parade’s End.)  Most importantly, the ending is very ambiguous: the relationship of Valentine and Christopher is under strain, because of their struggle to make ends meet; the birth of a child is awaited – generally regarded a happy event; Valentine takes a lesson from the dying Mark that she should not scold her man in front of their child.

The Last Post is worth reading, because of the quality of the writing; but it can be omitted from a re-reading of Parade’s End, with little loss of enjoyment.

David Harries

17 July 2013