The Quiet American

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Alcohol and Opium Symbol Analysis

Alcohol and Opium Symbol Icon
Graham Greene was famous for his drinking, and the protagonist of The Quiet American, Thomas Fowler, shares this trait. At many points in the novel, other characters, particularly those who are in the military, also drink heavily or smoke opium. At the simplest level, alcohol and opium symbolize the “escape” with which Fowler tries to distract himself from the basic wretchedness of his situation in Vietnam: he’s trapped in an unstable relationship to Phuong Hei, he’s competing with Alden Pyle for her love, and, above all, he’s seen incredible violence and death—without alcohol, he feels, he’d go insane. As a general rule of thumb, the characters who have experienced the greatest misery are the heaviest drinkers—alcohol represents their sadness, their trauma, and their inability to live with their own experiences and memories.

Alcohol and Opium Quotes in The Quiet American

The The Quiet American quotes below all refer to the symbol of Alcohol and Opium. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of The Quiet American published in 2004.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

That night I woke from one of those short deep opium sleeps, ten minutes long, that seem a whole night’s rest, and found my hand where it had always lain at night, between her legs. She was asleep and I could hardly hear her breathing. Once again after so many months I was not alone, and yet I thought suddenly with anger, remembering Vigot and his eye-shade in the police station and the quiet corridors of the Legation with no one about and the soft hairless skin under my hand, “Am I the only one who really cared for Pyle?”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle , Phuong Hei
Related Symbols: Alcohol and Opium
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final part of the first chapter of the novel, Greene sets up the premise of the book: Fowler is remembering his experiences with Pyle, the mysterious American agent with whom Fowler had a conflicted relationship. It is Fowler's duty (as a journalist, as an older man, as a writer) to record Pyle's life--nobody else is going to do it, after all.

The passage is also strange in the way that it suggests a close relationship between Fowler and Pyle. Fowler seems almost surprised to find himself caring so deeply for Pyle, a man with whom he competed frequently. And Fowler's attitude toward Pyle exemplifies the "Greene code" of masculine behavior: there's a grudging respect between the men in Greene's novels, even if they hate one another. There's also a paternal element in Fowler's attitude toward Pyle--he thinks of himself as a reluctant father-figure to Pyle (perhaps paralleling the way that England could be considered a "father" to the United States, the countries from which the two men respectively come).

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Part 1, Chapter 3, Section 1 Quotes

“Do you think I’d really go near their stinking highway? Stephen Crane could describe a war without seeing one. Why shouldn’t I? Its only a damned colonial war anyway. Get me another drink. And then let’s go and find a girl. You’ve got a piece of tail. I want a piece of tail too.”

Related Characters: Bill Granger (speaker), Thomas Fowler , Alden Pyle , Phuong Hei
Related Symbols: Alcohol and Opium
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we meet Bill Granger, an obnoxious journalist with whom Fowler is totally disgusted. Granger is drunk and annoying; moreover, he's totally dismissive of the Vietnamese people, despite the fact that, like Fowler, he's been flown to Vietnam to report on the war. Granger is so unprincipled that he makes up the details of a recent news story he's written on the Vietnam War (which is still in its early stages when the novel takes place).

Granger is an important character in the novel, because he helps us understand Fowler's code of behavior more clearly. Granger and Fowler aren't really so different--they're both drinkers, both writers, and both willing to bend the truth at times. But where Granger thinks of his writing as a mere "racket," good for making money, Fowler thinks of his writing as an almost sacred business--he'd never think of falsifying a story. Furthermore, Fowler is possessed of more respect for Vietnam itself than Granger is--Fowler has come to love a Vietnamese woman, while Granger seems interested in having sex with Vietnamese women, but nothing more.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

We began to throw and it seemed impossible to me that I could ever have a life again, away from the rue Gambetta and the rue Catinat, the flat taste of vermouth cassis, the homely click of dice, and the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon. I said, “I’m going back.” “Home?” Pietri asked, throwing a four-to-one. “No. England.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Pietri (speaker)
Related Symbols: Alcohol and Opium
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Fowler decides that it's time for him to return to England. He's been competing with Pyle for Phuong's affections, but he senses that he'll be unable to win Phuong, since Pyle is younger, handsomer, and more earnest. Resigned to his failure, Fowler prepares to go back--but as he makes clear, he doesn't think of England as his "home" on any level.

Where, then, is Fowler's true home? Greene implies that Fowler--a globe-trotting, world-weary journalist--has no home at all. Fowler has spent his entire adult life traveling around, forming momentary attachments to the local people in the countries where he's stationed. (For all we know, he's had a comparable adventure in another country before the events of the novel even begin.) Paradoxically, Fowler's remarks help us understand why he was so attached to Phuong--he has no real friends or family back in England (except for a wife whom he despises), and so Phuong represented a chance at a new life in Vietnam.

Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

She gave me a quick look over the needle and registered her mistake. Then as she kneaded the opium she began to talk at random of what clothes she would wear in London, where we should live, of the tube-trains she had read about in a novel, and the double-decker buses: would we fly or go by sea?
“And the Statue of Liberty…” she said.
“No, Phuong, that’s American too.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Phuong Hei
Related Symbols: Alcohol and Opium
Page Number: 73-74
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opium-influenced dialogue, Phuong tells Fowler that she's excited to spend the rest of her life with him. Phuong thinks that she and Fowler are going to get married and travel back to England--there, Phuong looks forward to seeing the famous sights of the Western world.

But as the passage makes clear, Phuong doesn't really understand the first thing about the Western world--she even thinks the Statue of Liberty is in England, rather than America. As Fowler seems to interpret it, Phuong's mistake suggests that some part of her is still more attracted to Pyle the American than to Fowler the Englishman. Ina broader sense, though, Phuong's words make us wonder if she's really in love with either Pyle or Fowler. It's entirely possible that she thinks of Fowler as a means to an end--a way for her to get out of Vietnam and make a better life for herself--rather than a loving husband. Fowler has suggested that he really doesn't know much about Phuong or Phuong's culture, and here, it's implied that Phuong doesn't know anything about Fowler.

Part 2, Chapter 2, Section 2 Quotes

I have read so often of people’s thoughts in the moment of fear: of God, or family, or a woman. I admire their control. I thought of nothing, not even of the trap-door above me: I ceased, for those seconds, to exist: I was fear taken neat. At the top of the ladder I banged my head because fear couldn’t count steps, hear, or see. Then my head came over the earth floor and nobody shot at me and fear seeped away.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker)
Related Symbols: Alcohol and Opium
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Fowler describes a harrowing moment in which he and Pyle sneak into a French fortress in the middle of the Vietnamese wilderness. Fowler is genuinely frightened as he climbs up the ladder into the fort--even though he's an experienced journalist, and has seen all sorts of things in his career.

It's interesting to consider the way Greene depicts Fowler's fear as both a weakness and a strength. Fowler describes himself as feeling "fear taken neat"--i.e., he's comparing his fear to an alcoholic beverage served without ice to dilute it: something pure but also harsh. And yet even if Fowler is extremely frightened of losing his life, his loneliness and atheism seem to give him strength--he thinks of "nothing," and seems to cease to exist altogether. Paradoxically, Fowler's ability to disappear into his own fear makes him capable of taking action, even when he's very frightened. Fowler's refusal to have a family or believe in God gives him a peculiar, nihilistic strength.

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Alcohol and Opium Symbol Timeline in The Quiet American

The timeline below shows where the symbol Alcohol and Opium appears in The Quiet American. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
Phuong begins the laborious task of preparing an opium pipe for Fowler to smoke. According to Vietnamese superstition, a lover who smoked opium would... (full context)
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
Fowler smokes a second pipe of opium and tells Phuong that when she left him for Pyle, he fell back into heavy... (full context)
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
...long after, Fowler and Phuong arrive at the police office. Fowler is still high on opium. The French officer questioning them is named Vigot, a polite man whom Fowler has met... (full context)
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Inevitability of Death Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
...interrogation room with Vigot and Phuong—Fowler guesses that Pyle is dead, which Vigot confirms. The opium makes Pyle’s death less meaningful to Fowler. (full context)
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
...dead. Fowler claims he’s not guilty of murdering Pyle, but the narration suggests that the opium is suppressing some feelings of guilt. With Phuong still in the room but silent, Vigot... (full context)
Inevitability of Death Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
...reveals to Phuong in French that Pyle is dead. She reacts calmly and makes more opium for Fowler. She stays with him that night, and he wakes up to find his... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 1
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
...the previous chapter: Fowler is back in Saigon, and Pyle has “invited himself” for a drink. Fowler sits in his home with Phuong, who has no idea that he’s planning to... (full context)
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
...doesn’t succeed in getting a divorce from his wife. Phuong packs a pipe full of opium, and inhales. She asks Fowler if there are skyscrapers in England. Fowler tells her that... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 3, Section 1
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
...says that he doesn’t know—Helen hasn’t made up her mind yet. Phuong and Fowler smoke opium together, and Fowler lies and tells Phuong that Helen is consulting a lawyer about divorce... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 1, Section 5
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Inevitability of Death Theme Icon
...spends the evening with Captain Trouin, an important officer of the Gascogne Squadron. As they drink and gamble together, Fowler asks Trouin if the areas the squadron bombed that afternoon were... (full context)
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
Fowler and Trouin smoke opium, and shortly thereafter, Fowler retires to have sex with a prostitute, whom Trouin recommends very... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 2, Section 2
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
...talk. While he waits for Pyle to receive the note he goes to have a drink at the Continental. He sees workers repairing the damage caused by the explosion a few... (full context)