The Quiet American

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The Quiet American Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Graham Greene
 Graham Greene was born in Hertfordshire to a prominent local family: his father was a housemaster (administrator) at a prestigious local boarding school, and his mother was one of the owners of the famous Greene King Brewery company. Greene was a heavy drinker and a devout Catholic from an early age—two qualities that he passed on to most of his protagonists. Greene studied at Oxford, where he experimented with Communism, a doctrine that he ultimately rejected. He was lonely and depressed at Oxford, but devoted himself to writing poetry and short fiction. After graduating, he worked as a journalist for a variety of English and Irish publications. His first successful novel was his fourth, Stamboul Train (1932). An “adventure yarn,” Stamboul Train was highly popular, and inspired Greene to write a long series of skillful but “lowbrow” entertainments, such as Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Third Man (1949). In his early 30s, Greene was recruited to work for MI6, the United Kingdom’s espionage agency (the rough counterpart of the CIA in America). As an MI6 agent, Greene traveled to many countries around the world—including Cuba, Liberia, Mexico, Vietnam, and Haiti—and reported on the state of society. Though Greene was rarely in any serious danger during these missions, they inspired him to write novels of espionage and intrigue, including The Quiet American. Greene’s masterpiece, The Power and the Glory (1940), was inspired by his travels through Mexico. Greene lived an exceptionally long life, and continued to write prolifically well into his 80s. He was often considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he never won it (after his death, it was revealed that Greene had been nominated for the prize four times). He died in 1991 of leukemia.
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Historical Context of The Quiet American
 The central historical event connected to The Quiet American is the conflict in Vietnam. Throughout the 19th century, the country now known as Vietnam was a part of French Indochina, a huge colonial territory spanning Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and parts of China. The French influence on Vietnam can still be seen in the region today, particularly in the city of Saigon, where The Quiet American takes place. In 1945, the northern areas of Vietnam, organized by the charismatic Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, declared independence from French Indochina. Over the next decade and a half, the French military, already severely weakened by World War II, tried to hang on to its colonial outposts in Vietnam—a source of enormous wealth for France. It was believed that the rise of Communism in French Indochina would start a “chain reaction” (alluded to several times in The Quiet American) of Communist regimes in the region—a hypothesis known as the “Domino Theory” in the United States. Because the government of the United States opposed the spread of Communism in the Third World, it sent military aid to the French forces in Vietnam. This process began during the early years of the Eisenhower regime—a time during which Greene was living in Vietnam, reporting on the status quo. Conspicuously absent from the political conflict in Indochina was the United Kingdom, which had lost the vast majority of its colonial territories during World War II. It’s possible to read The Quiet American as an allegory for the historical changes in the world during the early 1950s: the United Kingdom (symbolized by Thomas Fowler) was losing its power, America (symbolized by Alden Pyle) was quickly becoming the world’s preeminent superpower, and Vietnam (symbolized, arguably, by Phuong Hei) was struggling to decide what path to choose for itself. Even Greene would have been amazed to see how the conflict in Vietnam grew in the two decades after he published The Quiet American, however—the United States became the sole foreign power still fighting in Vietnam, fighting a long, bloody war with the Northern Vietnamese forces.
Other Books Related to The Quiet American
 The archetype of the virtuous Westerner who “goes native” when he travels into the exotic East hardly begins with Alden Pyle in The Quiet American. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1900) offers perhaps the most famous example of this archetype via the character of Colonel Kurtz, who “goes native” when he travels to the Congo. Kurtz, the product of a luxurious upbringing and a fine education, may have influenced Greene’s portrayal of Alden Pyle. It’s worth noting that Greene, a lifelong Catholic, is profoundly influenced by the teachings of the Holy Bible: his account of guilt, forgiveness, and the self-inflicted punishment of sin emanates from a belief in the fundamental tenets of Catholicism. The Quiet American also reflects the growing number of dark, morally ambiguous spy novels that emerged in the years following World War II. In these works, good and evil aren’t easily distinguishable, and the protagonist’s allies often devolve into enemies before becoming allies once again. Arguably the master of this genre is John le Carré (like Greene, an MI6 agent turned novelist), whose books include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Key Facts about The Quiet American
  • Full Title: The Quiet American
  • Where Written: French Indochina and the United Kingdom
  • When Published: December 1955
  • Literary Period: Cold War spy novels
  • Genre: Spy novel, thriller, war novel
  • Setting: Vietnam, mid-1950s
  • Climax: The death of Alden Pyle (an event that’s never directly described in the novel)
  • Antagonist: General Thé / York Harding
  • Point of View: First person
Extra Credit for The Quiet American

Greene and the movies: Although Graham Greene was a great novelist, many of his readers don’t realize that he was an equally accomplished screenwriter. To date, more than 60 of Greene’s works have been adapted for the screen (The Quiet American alone has been adapted twice!), many of them featuring screenplays written by Greene himself. Green was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for the 1948 film The Fallen Idol, adapted from his short story, The Basement Room. Greene’s greatest cinematic achievement is arguably his screenplay for The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed’s classic film noir. The film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is often listed as one of the greatest films ever made.

Second comes right after first: During his lifetime, Greene was one of the most popular authors on the planet. His writing style—short, declarative sentences, drenched in irony and world-weariness—became so well-known that in 1949, the British magazine the New Statesman held a Graham Greene contest, in which contestants were asked to submit brief parodies of Greene’s writing style. Greene himself submitted a parody of his own style under the pseudonym N. Wilkinson. For his efforts, he was awarded second place.