The Quiet American

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Vietnam and the West Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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Impartiality and Action Theme Icon
Inevitability of Death Theme Icon
Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Romance and Sex Theme Icon
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Vietnam and the West Theme Icon

Set in Vietnam from 1952-1955, The Quiet American examines the country’s colonial history and its relationship to Europe and America at that time. France colonized and controlled Vietnam from 1887 to 1954. In a brief period after World War II, the communist leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam from France, but British and French troops soon reasserted French colonial power. Ho Chi Minh led local communist forces from the north (Vietminh) in a fight for independence. America began to aid the local southern government in order to end French colonialism with the broader goal of establishing a locally run and democratic South Vietnamese government capable of stopping the spread of Communism. In 1954, the French gave the North Vietnamese independence, but South Vietnam and the United States rejected this agreement. The Quiet American focuses on the early stages of U.S. involvement in the political unrest that led to the Vietnam War. The novel explores the nuances among French, American, and British social and political relations with Vietnam.

French culture saturates Vietnamese society. French is the common language between the Vietnamese and the Westerners. Gamblers commonly play a French dice game called Quatre Cent Vingt-et-un (Four Hundred Twenty-One). Still, the novel highlights that many Vietnamese do not speak fluent French, pointing to the cultural clash resulting from colonialism. Alden Pyle ascribes to the ideas of the fictional political theorist York Harding and believes that the only way to ultimately thwart the communists is for the development of a “Third Force” in Vietnam, which is not communist but also not something imposed by foreign, colonialist leaders. Pyle believes the Third Force would have to combine democracy with local traditions and leaders to create strong local protection against the spread of communism.

In addition to the overt discussion of the political climate in Vietnam, Graham Greene uses the relationships between the characters Fowler (British), Pyle (American), and Phuong (Vietnamese) to mirror the relations between their respective international powers. Fowler and Pyle compete for Phuong, much like America and colonialist Europe were fighting over Vietnam. Fowler’s role as a Brit is complicated, since England, a colonialist European power, was implicated in maintaining French colonial rule, and yet not directly involved. Pyle believes he knows what is best for Phuong, and Greene points to the fact that the younger, wealthier, and marriageable American would probably be the more sensible partner for Phoung. Fowler is unable to marry Phuong yet seeks the continued benefits of living with Phuong, suggesting a partnership that looks more like colonization. However, Greene never explores Phuong’s desires on the matter, instead depicting her as a willing and loyal lover of either man. The story is told through Fowler’s eyes, and while he is supposed to be the suitor that better understands Phuong and Vietnam, Greene suggests that neither of the Western participants are fully aware of the thoughts or desires of the natives, and instead vie for control over it for their own purposes.

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Vietnam and the West Quotes in The Quiet American

Below you will find the important quotes in The Quiet American related to the theme of Vietnam and the West.
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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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 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.

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 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 2, Chapter 3, Section 3 Quotes

“Yes. I wish you hadn’t written it.”
“Because it was a pack of lies. I trusted you, Thomas.”
“You shouldn’t trust anyone when there’s a woman in the case.”
“Then you needn’t trust me after this. I’ll come sneaking up here when you go out, I’ll write letters in typewritten envelopes. Maybe I’m growing up, Thomas.” But there were tears in his voice, and he looked younger than he had ever done. “Couldn’t you have won without lying?”
“No. This is European duplicity, Pyle. We have to make up for our lack of supplies.”

Related Characters: Thomas Fowler (speaker), Alden Pyle (speaker), Phuong Hei
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pyle confronts Fowler for his deceptions--he's tricked Pyle into thinking that he's going to stay in Vietnam to be with Phuong, when in fact he's going back to England presently. Pyle is genuinely shocked that Fowler would tell him a lie--Pyle is so open and honest that he can't conceive of a grown man with "lower" morals than his own.

Once again, Fowler frames the difference between himself and Pyle in nationalistic terms: Pyle is a representative American, while Fowler is a classic Englishman. Although England is an older, weaker country, it's capable of using its experience and moral deviousness against America--by the same token, Fowler has outmaneuvered Pyle. (The irony of the passage is that Pyle is actually capable of great deviousness--he conspires to murder innocent civilians in Vietnam, as his philosophical beliefs compel him to sacrifice his own strong moral values.)

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.

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 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.