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.
Romance and Sex Theme Icon

Fowler and Pyle’s desire for Phuong prompts much discussion over differing views of intimate relationships. Fowler, an older, more experienced lover, has a more detached opinion toward relationships. He dwells on their inevitable end, yet hopes to prolong his relationship with Phuong as long as possible. He also claims to be disinterested in Phuong’s feelings, only using the relationship for his own physical pleasure, but it is clear that he has deep feelings for her. It is easier for Fowler to deny his own feelings knowing that his relationship with her will likely end soon than to face the difficulties of ending an emotionally invested relationship. On the other hand, Pyle has strong emotional feelings toward Phuong, yet his upright moral background prevents him from pursuing a passionate relationship before their future together, separate from Fowler, is assured. For example, when he dances with Phuong, he maintains a distance from her that Fowler finds comical. Fowler corresponds with his wife, who lives in England. They were separated and could not maintain their marriage, but his wife’s religion prohibits them from getting a divorce. Thus, Fowler cannot marry Phuong, as he is already technically married. Pyle, who has a less experienced and more traditional view of romance, believes that Fowler is doing a disservice to Phuong and that she deserves to be married.

For her part, Phuong’s approach to love is practical. When Fowler asks for a kiss, for example, she pauses her story, kisses him, and resumes her story with no indication of romantic attachment. She obeys Fowler’s commands and maintains a purely domestic role that mostly consists of preparing Fowler’s opium pipes and having sex with him. Phuong’s older sister, Miss Hei, has a financially-driven view on partnership and marriage. She heavily pressures Phuong to go with Pyle, the richer suitor, which causes anxiety for Fowler. Ultimately, both Fowler and Pyle act in a way that treats her as an object to be won rather than a human being with her own feelings. Thus, on the surface, neither Fowler nor Pyle seem to exhibit real love for Phuong. Instead, Pyle displays the excitement and desire that come with romance and Fowler focuses on the physical pleasure of sex in his relationship with Phuong. Under the surface, however, Greene suggests that each suppress their true feelings of love toward Phuong in their own way, Fowler by being detached, and Pyle by waiting for more traditionally appropriate relationship conditions (getting engaged to Phuong).

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Romance and Sex Quotes in The Quiet American

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

Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years. Democracy was another subject of his—he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world. Phuong on the other hand was wonderfully ignorant; if Hitler had come into the conversation she would have interrupted to ask who he was. The explanation would be all the more difficult because she had never met a German or a Pole and had only the vaguest knowledge of European geography, though about Princess Margaret of course she knew more than I. I heard her put a tray down on the end of the bed.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle , Phuong Hei
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we're introduced to the dynamic between the three central characters of the novel, Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong. Fowler is a wise, experienced British journalist--world-weary, a heavy drinker, and, it's been suggested, a self-portrait of Greene himself. Pyle, by contrast, is young, optimistic, and energetic. He's been reading pseudo-Marxist literature, which has convinced him to use violence to install a new form of government in Vietnam, where the novel is set. Greene conveys the imbalance between Pyle and Fowler with the phrase "As many months as I had years." The message is clear: Pyle is young and naive, while Fowler is older and more realistic in his thinking.

But what about Phuong? Phuong is young and beautiful, but she's portrayed as hopelessly naive--she doesn't even know who Hitler is. One could say that Phuong is Greene's portrait of Vietnam itself: beautiful but basically ignorant of the outside world, and therefore in need of domination (in every sense of the word) from a Western figure like Fowler or Pyle. (Greene's account of Phuong has been criticized for its sexism--see Themes for more details.)


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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.

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).

Part 1, Chapter 3, Section 2 Quotes

“Home?” I said and laughed, and Pyle looked at me as though I were another Granger. Suddenly I saw myself as he saw me, a man of middle age, with eyes a little bloodshot, beginning to put on weight, ungraceful in love, less noisy than Granger perhaps but more cynical, less innocent, and I saw Phuong for a moment as I had seen her first, dancing past my table at the Grand Monde in a white ball-dress, eighteen years old, watched by an elder sister who had been determined on a good European marriage. An American had bought a ticket and asked her for a dance: he was a little drunk—not harmfully, and I suppose he was new to the country and thought the hostesses of the Grand Monde were whores. He held her much too close as they went round the floor the first time, and then suddenly there she was, going back to sit with her sister, and he was left, stranded and lost among the dancers, not knowing what had happened or why. And the girl whose name I didn’t know sat quietly there, occasionally sipping her orange juice, owning herself completely.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle , Phuong Hei , Bill Granger
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the love triangle between Pyle, Fowler, and Phuong first becomes clear. Somehow, the mere presence of Pyle is enough to make Fowler feel old and ugly--Pyle is so young and handsome that Fowler becomes deeply conscious of his drunkenness, his weight, etc. (he even compares himself to Granger, a man he despises).

The passage sets up the basic dynamic between Pyle and Fowler. As Greene himself acknowledged, Pyle and Fowler could be considered embodiments of their respective countries: as Greene sees it, Great Britain is a lot like Fowler--older and more experienced than the U.S., and possessed of a code of honor that an American could never quite understand--even though America is more successful in the present (as Pyle eventually wins over Phuong).

This passage also contains a remarkably poignant description of how Fowler first met Phuong and fell in love with her. Throughout the book Phuong is a rather problematic and sometimes dehumanized character, and Fowler doesn't always treat her well, but here it's suggested that he was immediately attracted to her precisely because of her individuality and personhood: she "owned herself completely."

Part 1, Chapter 4, Section 2 Quotes

“Of course,” he said without conviction, “she may choose to stay with you.”
“What would you do then?”
“I’d apply for a transfer.”
“Why don’t you just go away, Pyle, without causing trouble?”
“It wouldn’t be fair to her, Thomas,” he said quite seriously. I never knew a man who had better motives…

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker), Phuong Hei
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the sexual rivalry between Fowler and Pyle comes to its peak. Fowler and Pyle acknowledge that they both love Phuong, and they also decide that they should let Phuong choose between the two of them. To Fowler's amazement, Pyle is being completely principled in his competition--he even believes that abandoning Vietnam would be "unfair" to Phuong. Pyle seems to think of his relationship with Phuong as being completely magnamimous--he loves Phuong because he wants to help her. (In this way, Pyle's relationship with Phuong may be emblematic of the rather deluded American relationship with Vietnam itself.)

Greene draws a stark contrast between Fowler--old, cynical, and devious--and Pyle--who's young and virtuous, but also causes greater harm through his good intentions.

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

Pyle said, “I think I ought to put all my cards on the table. I’m not rich. But when my father dies I’ll have about fifty thousand dollars. I’m in good health—I’ve got a medical certificate only two months old, and I can let her know my blood-group.”
“I don’t know how to translate that. What’s it for ?”
“Well, to make certain we can have children together.” “Is that how you make love in America—figures of income and blood-group?”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker), Phuong Hei
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Pyle and Fowler have confronted Phuong, asking her, point-blank, to choose between them. Fowler is put in the odd position of having to translate his romantic rival's statements to Phuong. Here, for instance, Pyle tells Fowler to communicate to Phuong that Pyle has some money and is in good health. Fowler can't help but mock Pyle for his childishness in wooing Phuong--it's certainly a little odd and not very romantic that Pyle is telling Phuong his blood-type as a way of winning her over.

The passage uses comedy to convey the differences between Pyle and Fowler. Pyle may be younger and handsomer than Fowler, but he's a little clueless about how to go about wooing a woman. Fowler, on the other hand, is a little old for Phuong, but she's attracted to his experience and insight. As we should expect by now, Fowler "nationalizes" his criticism of Pyle, suggesting that Pyle's cluelessness in wooing Phuong is representative of America's cluelessness in other similar departments.

Part 2, Chapter 2, Section 3 Quotes

“But she loves you, doesn’t she?”

“Not like that. It isn’t in their nature. You’ll find that out. It’s a cliché to call them children— but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them—they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like—just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, Pyle, it’s very secure—she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.” I hadn’t meant to hurt him. I only realized I had done it when he said with muffled anger, “She might prefer greater security or more kindness.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker), Phuong Hei
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Fowler tells Pyle what he thinks of Phuong. Fowler's words are harsh, bitter, and rather racist--he claims that he doesn't really think of Phuong as an adult at all; rather, he considers her a child. It's interesting to note that Fowler speaks in terms of "them," not "she." Although the supposed subject of his speech is Phuong, he's really talking about Vietnam and Vietnamese people themselves. This is typical of racist ideas--seeing one individual as a representative of his or her race, and making vast generalizations based on personal experience--but it also reinforces the symbolic, allegorical structure of the novel.

Fowler realizes too late that his words are harsh--he genuinely didn't realize that Pyle would be so offended by his callous attitude toward Phuong. Fowler's surprise is a sign that he's grown so accustomed to his own cynicism and callousness that he can barely remember a time when he acted any other way. Pyle, who's still young and romantic, loves Phuong (albeit in his own idealistic and condescending way) and believes that Phuong loves him in return.

Part 3, Chapter 1, Section 3 Quotes

I went into the passage. There was a door opposite me marked Men. I went in and locked the door and sitting with my head against the cold wall I cried. I hadn’t cried until now. Even their lavatories were air-conditioned, and presently the temperate tempered air dried my tears as it dries the spit in your mouth and the seed in your body.

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Fowler has just found out that Phuong is conducting a romantic affair with Pyle. All of Fowler’s machinations have been in vain—in the end, Phuong has chosen the younger, handsomer man. Fowler is so overcome with emotion that he goes into the bathroom and cries.The scene is remarkable because it’s the only time in the novel that Fowler shows any bona fide expression sadness. He often feels sad, but it’s only in this scene that he breaks down and shows external signs of his misery.

The ironic juxtaposition of the “Men” sign and Fowler’s weak, stereotypically-feminine tears reminds us that Fowler has always considered himself a manly, stoic man, for whom crying is a hideous show of weakness—for Fowler to cry, then is a mark of genuine anguish. And Greene also conveys the transitive nature of life here. Even Fowler’s tears are short-lived—they dry almost immediately. In the universe of The Quiet American, everything (even or especially emotion) is always on the verge of disappearing.

Part 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

I said to Phuong, “Do you miss him much?”
“Pyle.” Strange how even now, even to her, it was impossible to use his first name. “Can I go, please? My sister will be so excited.”
“You spoke his name once in your sleep.”
“I never remember my dreams.”
“There was so much you could have done together. He was young.”
“You are not old.”
“The skyscrapers. The Empire State Building.”
She said with a small hesitation, “I want to see the Cheddar Gorge.” “It isn’t the Grand Canyon.” I pulled her down on to the bed. “I’m sorry, Phuong.”

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

In this passage, Fowler talks to Phuong about Pyle, who’s been killed recently. Fowler, who was partly responsible for Pyle’s death, asks Phuong if she misses Pyle, and Phuong claims that she barely thinks about Pyle at all. Fowler is suspicious of Phuong, and even when she tells him she’s eager to go to England with him, he still feels strangely inadequate.

Fowler is haunted by Pyle’s death. It’s not clear if Phuong has truly forgotten Pyle as she claims, or if she’s secretly missing him (it’s certainly possible that Phuong, as a rather cynical opportunist, has merely latched on to whomever will take her out of Vietnam). In either case, though, it’s clear that Fowler continues to fear that Phuong still loves Pyle. And even though Pyle is dead, and Fowler feared that he was the only one who "cared," Pyle's memory still lives on strongly in Fowler's consciousness.