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.
Inevitability of Death Theme Icon

Covering the war between the French colonialists and the communist rebels means Fowler must face death throughout the novel. And what he sees—bomb victims and slain women and children—cause Fowler to hate war. However, Fowler frets over the fact that his presence in the war, like accompanying a bombing mission that he is not even allowed to report on, makes him complicit in the death. The inevitability of death weighs heavily on Fowler. He often reflects on death as the one absolute in the world. His own old age and his frequent confrontations with death on a large scale make Fowler doubtful that anything could be considered permanent, since death is an inevitable and approaching end. His belief that nothing will be permanent brings about his passive behavior toward change. And yet, even so, he hates the change he sees coming. He is caught in a kind of stasis: he sees little point in life and claims to want to die, but is afraid of death and change. Fowler also relates his feelings about death to his feelings about relationships. Leaving his wife was a kind of cowardly death, he says. Furthermore, his happiness when with Phuong prevents him from wanting death to come. Yet, the relationship, like any for Fowler, is bittersweet because he fixates on its end, which he believes to be as inevitable as death.

Though Fowler does not kill Pyle himself, he helps arrange Pyle’s assassination. Though distanced, Fowler is still actively complicit in Pyle’s death, which mirrors Fowler’s relationship to reporting on the war. The climate of death spurred on by the war pervades Fowler’s personal life. To settle the “fight” over Phuong, Fowler resorts to assassination. The fleeting but horrid images of war dead in The Quiet American, coupled with its portrayal of the pervasiveness of cruelty in war, form a striking anti-war novel. While death is inevitable, as so plagues Fowler, Greene focuses on the needless casualties of war – mainly women and children – to condemn the vast toll war and the death it causes takes on individual human life and on society at large.

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Inevitability of Death Quotes in The Quiet American

Below you will find the important quotes in The Quiet American related to the theme of Inevitability of Death.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

I walked back with Phuong towards my flat. I was no longer on my dignity. Death takes away vanity—even the vanity of the cuckold who mustn’t show his pain.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle , Phuong Hei
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Fowler contemplates the death of Alden Pyle, the young, optimistic American agent in Vietnam whom Fowler himself has had a hand in killing. The passage is illuminating because it tell us, first, that Alden and Fowler were competing for the same woman, Phuong, and second, that Pyle has died very recently.

Notice that Greene portrays Fowler as being obsessed with his appearance--he's trying, desperately, to hide his pain at Pyle's death. Furthermore, it's important to notice that Fowler seems to feel some traces of sympathy for Pyle, even though it's implied that he and Pyle were fighting over Phuong. There's an unwritten "code" of honor and respect between men in Greene's books. Fowler is no exception to the code--when Pyle is dead, he shows respect and remorse, whatever he thought of Pyle personally.


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Part 1, Chapter 3, Section 2 Quotes

From childhood I had never believed in permanence, and yet I had longed for it. Always I was afraid of losing happiness. This month, next year, Phuong would leave me. If not next year, in three years. Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again for ever. I envied those who could believe in a God and I distrusted them. I felt they were keeping their courage up with a fable of the changeless and the permanent. Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Fowler cynically considers his situation in life, and finds nothing to be happy about. He's afraid that Phuong, his young, beautiful Vietnamese girlfriend, is going to leave him for someone else (perhaps Alden Pyle). In general, Fowler is frightened by the impermanence of life itself--every happy moment fades away into sadness, given enough time.

The passage is a great example of Fowler's simultaneous cynicism and machismo--he is praising and even embracing death here. Death, he notes, is the only perfect thing in the world, because death alone never changes. One could say that Fowler--bereft of any belief in God--only focuses on death as giving life meaning. Thus he risks his life to report on the war, drinks and smokes heavily, and generally embraces the inevitability of dying.

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 4 Quotes

“You saved my life there,” I said, and Pyle cleared his throat for the conventional response,
“So that I could die here. I prefer dry land.”
“Better not talk,” Pyle said as though to an invalid.
“Who the hell asked you to save my life? I came east to be killed. It’s like your damned impertinence . . .” I staggered in the mud and Pyle hoisted my arm around his shoulder. “Ease it off,” he said.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker)
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pyle has saved Fowler's life in the Vietnamese wilderness. Pyle could have left Fowler for dead; Pyle could even have hurt Fowler as revenge for stealing Phuong away. Instead, Pyle treats Fowler mercifully, getting him to a hospital as soon as possible. Fowler doesn't want to be saved--not by Pyle, and not by anyone else. He's so used to embracing death in his journalism and his drinking that he seems totally prepared to die.

The passage makes it clear that Fowler is every bit as callous and cynical as he claims to be. Fowler really would prefer dying to being in Pyle's debt--and not just because Pyle is his romantic rival. Fowler hates the idea of owing anyone a debt--he prefers the individualized machismo of embracing death and tragedy. Now that Fowler owes Pyle his life, however, there's a strong bond of honor and loyalty between the two men, much to Fowler's annoyance.

Part 4, Chapter 1 Quotes

“No. I’m not so stupid. One doesn’t take one’s enemy’s book as a souvenir. There it is on your shelf. The Rôle of the West. Who is this York Harding?” “He’s the man you are looking for, Vigot. He killed Pyle—at long range.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Vigot (speaker), Alden Pyle , York Harding
Related Symbols: The Role of the West
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

After the death of Alden Pyle, Fowler crosses paths with Vigot, the police inspector who’s been tasked with investigating Pyle’s death. Vigot notices a copy of The Role of the West, Pyle’s favorite book, in Fowler’s home. When he asks Fowler about the book, Fowler claims that it was York Harding (the author) who truly killed Pyle.

Fowler’s remarks are both totally self-serving and totally accurate. Fowler is himself responsible for Pyle’s death—terrified by Pyle’s politics and jealous of his romantic success with Phuong, Fowler allowed Pyle to be murdered. By blaming Harding for Pyle’s death, Fowler is cynically trying to absolve himself of guilt. But in another sense, Fowler is right to blame Harding. Pyle lived his adult life according to a set of lofty, unrealistic ideals. In so doing, he entered into a world of violence and bloodshed, in which he wasn’t equipped to last very long--and in which he did great harm.

Part 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental, with his eye on the soda-fountain across the way. Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, things seem to be looking up for Fowler. His wife has granted him a divorce, he’s living with Phuong, etc. And yet Fowler is still haunted by Pyle’s death, in which Fowler himself had a hand. In a strange way, Fowler’s guilt suggests that he valued and respected Pyle—for all their differences and rivalries, they were still friends.

The passage is crucial to the end of the novel because it shows how someone like Fowler—someone who’s been shown to be sometimes devious and untrustworthy, and who doesn’t seem to believe in God or a set of rigid morals—deals with guilt. Fowler seems to wish that he could embrace his Catholic faith—he wishes that he could confess his sins and transcend them. Instead, Fowler feels that he’s above all redemption—he’s so thoroughly guilty that Pyle’s death will haunt him forever and ever. The almost childish simplicity of Fowler’s wish—that he could say, “I’m sorry”—reinforces his isolation and moral confusion—as the novel ends, he’s truly, profoundly alone.