The Quiet American by Graham Greene
The Quiet American, is more than a political statement about whether or not America or any other country for that matter should become involved in the affairs of another country; Greene makes the question human and personal. The novel can be read as a political and moral reflection on the opening stages of the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia. Therefore, Greene’s novel becomes a commentary on the pointlessness of the United States’ later investment of men and material in a political action that could only end, as it did for the French, in defeat.
The Quiet American is considered one of Graham Greene’s major achievements. The story is told with excellent characterization and sophisticated irony. The plot bears a resemblance to that of a mystery story. A crime has been committed. Who is the murderer? As in most mystery stories, as much needs to be learned about the victim as about the villain.
Yet what is learned takes on political, moral, and religious significance. The story ends in mystery as well. Who exactly killed Pyle is not revealed, but the burden of the crime, like the burden of telling the story, is Fowler’s.
The large-scale political thesis of the novel is that American interference in the internal affairs of another country can only result in suffering, death, and defeat, and is not morally justifiable because of abstract idealism. This is not the only meaning of consequence in the novel, and given the course of later events, its importance may be blown out of proportion. The lesson, however, is clearly explained by a French aviator with “orders to shoot anything in sight. Captain Trouin confides to Fowler that he detests napalm bombing: “We all get involved in a moment of emotion, and then we cannot get out,” he explains. Trouin understands that the French cannot win the war in Indochina: “But we are professionals; we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop,” he says with bitter resignation. “Probably they will get together and agree to the same peace that we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years. Greene’s political objective is clearly to make a mockery the notion of a “Third Force” in Asian politics, countering the threat of Communism and replacing the rationale of colonialism as an explanation for Western involvement. Because of Greene’s apparent anti-American bias, the novel was not popular in the United States. It is no wonder then that Greene’s warning about Vietnam was not taken seriously, even though later events tended to validate the wisdom f his political analysis. Thus Graham Greene summarizes the lesson of Vietnam fully ten years before the American government expanded its military commitment to fill the vacuum left by the defeated French. The Quiet American is a shocking novel of political prophecy. Its mystery story characteristics perhaps better define its interest to the average reader, as Greene’s unreliable narrator gradually provides the details leading up to Pyle’s death.
The dramatic focus concerns the conflict between Fowler and Pyle over love and the politics of war, the contest between Fowler and Vigot, who knows that Fowler was responsible for Pyle’s death but cannot prove it, and, finally, Fowler’s internal conflict, his beliefs of noninvolvement transformed by circumstances and emotion to a position of murderous intervention. “Sooner or later,” the Communist Heng tells Fowler, “one has to take sides if one is to remain human. Perhaps Fowler finally “takes sides” because he understands how dangerous Pyle’s blind idealism can be, but his motives are not entirely clear because of his dependence on Phuong. Fowler does not idolize her, as does the more romantic Pyle, who sincerely cares for Phuong but is absolutely unfeeling about the rest of the native population. Pyle believes in the political theory of York Harding (a name that links a less-than-stunning American president with a patriotic war hero) and the need for a “Third Force” (American intervention) in Vietnam.
Yet Pyle’s naiveness is not entirely consistent with his intelligence, his training, and his Harvard degree. He is hopelessly innocent. In one of his strongest metaphors, Greene likens innocence to “a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm,” but obviously bearing contamination and corruption with him. Fowler is a fascinating character and narrator because he simultaneously reveals and conceals so much about himself and his involvement in the story. On the one hand, he is openly contemptuous of Pyle.
Like other Americans, Pyle is so obsessed with his mission to save the world that he does not register the reality around him. It is ridiculous for him to think that Phuong is an innocent he must rescue. She has stayed with Fowler because he offers her security. She leaves Fowler for Pyle because he offers her even more wealth and protection. Pyle is shocked because Fowler says he is merely using Phuong for his own pleasure and because of his need to have a woman beside him to stave off loneliness. It never occurs to Pyle that Phuong has acted just as selfishly or that Pyle imself is using people. On the other hand, Fowler is not entirely honest with himself. He claims to be disengaged, not only from politics but also from the sentiments of love Pyle professes. Yet Fowler’s passionate rejection of Pyle’s worldview and his defense of the Vietnamese, who he believes should be allowed to work out their own destiny, free of the French, the Americans, and any other intruding power, surely reveal anything but dishonesty. In this respect, Pyle is right to see good in a man who claims to be without sense of right and wrong.
In fact, Pyle loses his life because of Fowler’s moral outrage. Fowler is so appalled by the bombing atrocity at the cafe that he determines to put a stop to Pyle’s activities. Fowler’s passion is hardly consistent with his habit of staying reserved. Actually, he cares deeply about Phuong and about the Vietnamese. He believes in self-determination, which ironically is the ideology that Americans claim to support. Americans think they are supporting freedom by allying themselves with the anticommunists. Thus, there are multiple ironies in The Quiet American.
Fowler says he is a pessimist, but he acts like a wounded idealist. Pyle says he is an idealist, but his involvement with anticommunist thugs places him in disparaging and brutal situations. Phuong looks like a delicate, easily manipulated, and passive victim, and yet like many other Vietnamese she is a survivor who plays one side against the other and changes according to the current political issues. Fowler declares to Vigot that he is not guilty, then retells the story of his involvement with Fowler to clear his name, yet concludes by realizing that he is guilty.
The novel’s title is also ironic. In one sense, Pyle is quiet—even unassuming. He patiently questions Fowler about his tie to Phuong and even declares his love for her to Fowler before he marries her. Pyle is the opposite of loud, vulgar Americans such as his boss Joe, or the noisy American journalist Granger. In another sense, however, Pyle is anything but quiet. He stirs up Saigon with explosions and he turns Fowler’s life into turmoil. An even greater irony is that for all their differences, Fowler and Pyle are alike in their moral earnestness.
Fowler is the sophisticated European who has learned not to wear his heart on his sleeve. He denies any form of selfless behavior. Pyle is the naive American who is openhearted and believes he acts for the good of others. Yet both men cause great damage because they care about others. They are caught up in the evil that Fowler thinks he can avoid and that Pyle thinks he can remove. The political and moral divide between Fowler and Pyle is not as great as Fowler has supposed. His narrative ironically binds him to Pyle—a fate Fowler has consistently tried to avoid.
The novel dramatizes Fowler’s fate in the scene where he refuses to call Pyle by his first name. He also refuses to let Pyle call him Tom and insists on being called Thomas. No formalities can really separate the two men however. Fowler’s own narrative shows them to strongly connected. The Quiet American is concerned with the effect the superpowers have when they intervene in the politics of the developing nations, in this case, Vietnam during the last days of French colonial rule.
Greene himself is in an interesting position in that England, once a major colonial power, has increasingly surrendered that position to the United States since World War II. This weakened position makes Greene, like Fowler, something of an observer of the more active Americans. Fowler observes the covert actions of Pyle and finds them wrong. He thinks Americans are politically naive, dangerously idealistic, and too willing to hurt other people if they get in the way of their political goals. Greene has been accused of being anti-American but the novel and Fowler’s judgment of Pyle were obviously very relevant.
The novel was especially popular during the war in Vietnam, when many Americans came to share Fowler’s opinions. Although the war and the controversies surrounding it still plague the memories of many Americans, the war and the novel itself are not quite so topical as they were in the 1960s and early 1970s. Still it might be worth stressing that the novel was written well before America became deeply involved in Vietnam. In fact, America is now involved as a “Third Force” in Iraq, where the political concerns of the novel are still quite applicable.