The Quiet American

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Themes and Colors
Vietnam and the West Theme Icon
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Inevitability of Death Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Quiet American, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Impartiality and Action Theme Icon

The Quiet American deals with the difficulty of remaining neutral, or impartial, despite one's intentions. Graham Greene weaves the concept of impartiality into areas of journalism, politics, and personal relationships. Fowler’s profession as a journalist means he is only supposed to report on the war, not engage in it. Fowler highly values journalistic impartiality. He prefers to call himself a “reporter,” rather than a journalist. To him, “reporting” suggests relaying facts about what he sees, whereas “journalism” suggests recording a journal of opinions on Vietnam. He seeks to publish an objective account of the situation in Vietnam. Moreover, though he is from the West, his British nationality and lack of affiliation with the French or American forces allows him to claim political impartiality. The novel often uses the term engagé to describe active political participation, and Fowler prides himself on not being engagé. However, many people tell Fowler that it is impossible not to be engagé and that he must take a side. Though he never admits to being engagé, Fowler eventually sides with the Communists to arrange Pyle’s assassination, and thus demonstrates that he cannot maintain his impartiality. Contrary to Fowler’s passive stance, Pyle represents an active participant in regards to the war. Pyle believes in fighting against communism and instilling democracy. Though his involvement in the war becomes clear only gradually, Fowler eventually discovers that Pyle is a C.I.A. agent providing military counter-insurgency support in the form of plastic used to conceal bombs in bicycle pumps. These bicycle pump bombs were targeted at Communist leaders.

Much of The Quiet American explores themes in both political relationships on an international scale and personal relationships on an individual scale. In this way, Greene applies the discussion of impartiality to Fowler’s relationship to Pyle. Though Fowler often acts with passive disinterest toward Pyle, he eventually takes action against Pyle in the extreme by helping to arrange his assassination. Along with the journalistic aspect of impartiality comes the idea of investigation. In part, Fowler’s journalistically investigative missions into the Vietnamese war zone guide the plot. They make Fowler hate war, contributing to his desire to remain impartial in the war. Other parts of the novel are shaped by the investigation Vigot conducts surrounding Pyle’s death, in which Fowler has reluctantly become an active participant. The novel ultimately sides with the several characters who cautioned Pyle that everyone becomes engagé at some point. The extremity of war reaches even to civilians who wish to remain uninvolved and forces them into active participation in the war.

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Impartiality and Action Quotes in The Quiet American

Below you will find the important quotes in The Quiet American related to the theme of Impartiality and Action.
Part 1, Chapter 2, Section 1 Quotes

I liked his loyalty to Harding—whoever Harding was. It was a change from the denigrations of the Pressmen and their immature cynicism. I said, “Have another bottle of beer and I’ll try to give you an idea of things.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle , York Harding
Related Symbols: The Role of the West
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage jumps back in time to when Fowler and Pyle first meet, and Fowler gets a sense for Alden Pyle's intellectual curiosity. Pyle is an impressionable reader--as we'll see later on, his favorite author is Harding, an intellectual who inspires him to use violence to control the people of Vietnam. At first, Fowler is intrigued by the mere fact that Pyle is reading--he considers Pyle's behavior a welcome contrast from the usual boorishness and cynicism Fowler notices among many foreigners in Vietnam.

It's worth noting that Fowler's admiration for Pyle has a paternal flavor--Fowler seems to see something of his younger self in Pyle (it's literature, after all, that links Fowler and Pyle together: Fowler is a writer and Pyle is a reader). Greene will revisit the paternal bond between Fowler and Pyle (who's young enough to be Fowler's son) many times.


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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 4, Section 1 Quotes

The canal was full of bodies: I am reminded now of an Irish stew containing too much meat. The bodies overlapped: one head, seal-grey, and anonymous as a convict with a shaven scalp, stuck up out of the water like a buoy. There was no blood: I suppose it had flowed away a long time ago. I have no idea how many there were: they must have been caught in a cross-fire, trying to get back, and I suppose every man of us along the bank was thinking, “Two can play at that game.” I too took my eyes away; we didn’t want to be reminded of how little we counted, how quickly, simply and anonymously death came. Even though my reason wanted the state of death, I was afraid like a virgin of the act. I would have liked death to come with due warning, so that I could prepare myself. For what? I didn’t know, nor how, except by taking a look around at the little I would be leaving.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Fowler offers a gruesome description of some of the horrors of the Vietnam War: he compares a ditch full of bodies to an Irish stew. The sight of the bodies (which the solders come across) prompts some interesting thoughts for Fowler: he thinks about the inevitability of death for all human beings, himself included, but also expresses his desire to at least "take a look around" at life before he leaves it.

The passage reinforces the savagery and bloodiness of the Vietnam War, which is only in its early stages during the period in which the novel is set. Note the anonymity of death in the scene--Fowler has no way of knowing who the dead bodies belong to; death is faceless and depersonalized. In the Vietnam War, and perhaps in war in general, human beings don't count for much--they're just bodies sent to die defending an abstract political ideal. (The passage is a stunning rebuke to Alden Pyle's philosophy, especially his glib willingness to sacrifice lives for his political ends.)

Part 2, Chapter 2, Section 3 Quotes

“I’ve no reason to believe in a God. Do you?” “Yes. I’m a Unitarian.”
“How many hundred million Gods do people believe in? Why, even a Roman Catholic believes in quite a different God when he’s scared or happy or hungry.”
“Maybe, if there is a God, he’d be so vast he’d look different to everyone.”
“Like the great Buddha in Bangkok,” I said. “You can’t see all of him at once. Anyway he keeps still.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker)
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pyle and Fowler stay up late at night, frightened for their lives. The two men are stationed in a remote fort, and know that they could be found and captured. To pass the time, Fowler asks Pyle about God, and Pyle claims to believe in God. Notice that Pyle follows Unitarianism--often considered one of the more progressive, free-spirited sects of Christianity--while Fowler, who is an atheist, mentions Roman Catholicism--often considered one of the more traditional, austere sects of Christianity, and a kind of ancient cultural signifier (appropriate for the "Old-World" Fowler.

The passage is important because it suggests some common ground between Pyle and Fowler, who seem like polar opposites. Even if Fowler doesn't exactly believe in God, he seems to obey some code of personal behavior; he believes in principles like honor and loyalty that suggest a kind of religiosity.

“That’s just it,” Pyle said. “You shouldn’t be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism.”
“Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his laborer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife. I’ve seen a priest, so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old cup—a wooden platter. I don’t believe in God and yet I’m for that priest. Why don’t you call that colonialism?

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pyle and Fowler debate the role of colonialism in Vietnam. Pyle takes the position that the Vietnamese people must be compelled to adopt their own form of government, one that is neither Western and democratic nor Communist. Pyle's philosophy is a strange beast, and seemingly nonsensical in many ways: he rails against colonialism, and yet he's an American agent stationed in a foreign country, there to manipulate it to American interests.

Even if it's difficult to understand what, exactly, Pyle believes in, it's important to notice the way he favors ideology over the hard facts. Pyle is a loft, idealistic philosopher, willing to think in terms of big words like "colonialism" and "democracy." Fowler, the experienced journalist, believes in individual facts and details. As a result, he has a much harder time than Pyle believing that it's justifiable to sacrifice human lives for the good of a cause. Pyle looks at a priest and automatically concludes that he's an agent of imperialism and evil; Fowler, on the other hand, would examine the details of the same priest's life and see much to praise.

Part 2, Chapter 3, Section 2 Quotes

Mr. Heng turned away. “I only want you to remember what you have seen,” he said, walking back in the shadows of the junk-pile. “Perhaps one day you will have a reason for writing about it. But you must not say you saw the drum here.” “Nor the mould?” I asked. “Particularly not the mould.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Mr. Heng (speaker)
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important section, Fowler finds evidence of military technology in a small factory, owned by Mr. Heng. By this point in the novel, Fowler has a suspicion that Pyle is involved in covert military activity in Vietnam. Mr. Heng's advice to Fowler is a classic example of a "Chekhov's Pistol"--a detail that's introduced early on in a work of literature and is clearly going to be important later on.

The passage conveys Fowler's status as a reporter and a recorder of information. Fowler is an active participant in the events of the novel, but he's also the character who remembers the novel's events--he writes a whole book about them, after all. Fowler has a unique burden: he has the challenging job of writing down Pyle's story, honoring his memory while also exposing his flaws. Here, for instance, Fowler provides early evidence that Pyle is a murderer--someone who's willing to use plastic explosives (made from Mr. Heng's mould) to kill innocent civilians.

Part 3, Chapter 1, Section 5 Quotes

He watched me as I stretched out for my second pipe. “I envy you your means of escape.”
“You don’t know what I’m escaping from. It’s not from the war. That’s no concern of mine. I’m not involved.”
“You will all be. One day.”
“Not me.”
“You are still limping.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Captain Trouin (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Fowler argues with a French military commander, Captain Trouin, about his role in Vietnam. Fowler wants to believe that he’s basically uninvolved with life in Vietnam—he’s a reporter, passively observing and writing about the things he witnesses in the country. To be involved—"engagé"—is the last thing on his mind.

And yet as Captain Trouin points out—and as we’ve known for a long time!—Fowler is anything but disengaged from Vietnam. On the contrary, he’s deeply involved, both in the culture of Vietnam itself and in the military conflict there. Fowler has struck up a romantic relationship with Phuong, and as he investigates Pyle’s actions in more and more detail, he becomes increasingly involved in the country’s military struggles. Trouin (whether wittingly or not) conveys his point with a metaphorical example: that Fowler is still “limping,” suggesting the lasting scars he’s sustained on account of his involvement in Vietnam.

Part 3, Chapter 2, Section 1 Quotes

“We are the old colonial peoples, Pyle, but we’ve learnt a bit of reality, we’ve learned not to play with matches. This Third Force—it comes out of a book, that’s all. General Thé’s only a bandit with a few thousand men: he’s not a national democracy.” It was as if he had been staring at me through a letter-box to see who was there and now, letting the flap fall, had shut out the unwelcome intruder. His eyes were out of sight. “I don’t know what you mean, Thomas.” “Those bicycle bombs. They were a good joke, even though one man did lose a foot. But, Pyle, you can’t trust men like Thé. They aren’t going to save the East from Communism. We know their kind.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker), General Thé
Related Symbols: The Role of the West
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Fowler tries to talk Pyle out of his political plottings. Fowler knows that Pyle has been working on behalf of General Thé, a military strongman in Vietnam. Although Pyle barely knows Thé, he thinks of him as a symbol of everything his favorite book, The Role of the West, argues for. Pyle thinks that by helping the General, he’ll be able to install a new, virtuous form of self-government in Vietnam, ensuring peace and prosperity. As Fowler points out, however, Pyle has made a huge mistake in putting his faith in Thé. Even if The Role of the West is correct about the Third World, Pyle is wrong to think that Thé (in reality just a petty tyrant hungry for power) will be the one to change things in Vietnam.

As Fowler strongly implies, Pyle is a lofty idealist who simply doesn’t understand how people work. Pyle is so eager to believe in abstract ideals that he barely gives any thought to the way such ideals are realized. As a result, he’s willing to work for Thé, setting off bombs and hurting innocent people. Fowler, for all his supposed stoicism and indifference, can’t help but try to dissuade Pyle.