A few weeks have passed since the events of 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 leave Vietnam and return to England. Phuong says that she’s going out—when Fowler reminds her that Pyle is coming, she explains that she’s annoyed with Pyle for ignoring her sister. She adds that Pyle orders a huge amount of “parcels,” some of which contain “plastic.”
We’re given an early hint that Pyle’s involvement in Vietnam is less innocent than it seemed at first. He’s ordering plastics, one of the most important ingredients in explosives. While we’re not yet sure why he does this, destruction seems to be his most obvious motive.
After Phuong leaves, Fowler writes a letter to his employers, arguing that, for the “good of the paper” he should be recalled to England, as he lacks the experience or insight to write about the state of affairs in Vietnam. Fowler adds that he has “private reasons” for wanting to leave, but crosses this information out before he sends the letter—writing this will only cause amusement to his editor.
Fowler seems perfectly willing to give up his career in order to escape from Pyle with Phuong. Fowler’s relationship with Phuong isn’t based on love, by his own admission, but he’s bound to her by a kind of affection and possessiveness that runs deeper than he’d admit. It’s significant that Fowler censors his own letter, cutting out anything personal or emotional.
Fowler hears a knock, and finds Pyle waiting at his door, accompanied by a dog, whose name is Duke. Fowler invites Pyle and the dog inside, explaining that he’s alone. Pyle, once again addressing Fowler as “Thomas,” tells Fowler that he wants to discuss Phuong while she’s present. Fowler, remembering Phuong’s words, sarcastically asks Pyle if he wants to talk about plastics. Pyle seems perturbed that people know about his mail.
It isn’t clear if Fowler knows that Pyle is using plastics as weapons—he seems to be probing Pyle for information, rather than accusing him, but he’s clearly suspicious of something. Pyle’s reaction also seems suspicious—he wants his mail to remain a secret, so he must be involved in something secretive.
Fowler asks Pyle if he’ll be “sensible” and mentally stable if Phuong were to die, and Pyle replies that he would—he’d continue to serve the government of the United States in Vietnam. Fowler seems skeptical of this explanation—he wonders how stable Pyle really is. As they argue, Phuong returns to the house. She greets Pyle in French, and Pyle confesses that his French is very poor. Fowler offers to serve as the interpreter for both of them. Pyle agrees, and tells Fowler to tell Phuong that he’s in love with her, and has been ever since he danced with her. Phuong listens carefully, but does not react. Pyle asks Fowler what Phuong is thinking, and adds, unexpectedly, that Fowler is his best friend.
There’s some light comedy in this section—one can imagine the absurd tableau of Fowler translating for his romantic rival. Yet we’re also given several indications that Fowler and Pyle have more in common than it seems. Fowler seems perfectly willing to translate Pyle’s message accurately, even though it would be easy for him to sabotage the message. Pyle, for his part, thinks that Fowler is his best friend.
After a long pause, Fowler asks Phuong if she’s going to leave him for Pyle. He explains that he’ll be unable to marry Phuong, but that Pyle will gladly marry her. Phuong asks Fowler if he’s going away—Fowler lies and says that he isn’t. Pyle adds that he’s not wealthy, but that he’s a trained doctor, meaning that he’ll be able to raise children with Phuong. Without translating any of this for Phuong, Fowler mocks Pyle for saying these things, and suggests that in America, love is a matter of “income and blood-group.”
Pyle’s affections for Phuong aren’t explained in any detail, and when Pyle himself tries to explain, his love sounds hilariously unromantic. While Greene evidently doesn’t subscribe to everything Fowler believes, there are points when he seems to be speaking directly through Fowler—like this scene, in which Fowler criticizes American romance.
As Pyle and Fowler argue, Phuong suddenly says, “No.” Pyle, surprised, asks Phuong, in clumsy French, if she’ll come away with him—she replies, “No,” once again. Fowler is cheered by this, and offers Pyle a whiskey, which Pyle reluctantly accepts. He tells Fowler that “The best man has won,” and begs him not to leave Phuong. Fowler replies that he won’t, and Pyle leaves Fowler’s home.
It seems as if Fowler is only pleasant with Pyle when he knows he has Phuong’s love—implying that the mens’ friendship with each other and their individual relationships with Phuong both have to do with rivalry and possessiveness. It’s still not clear why Pyle is so attracted to Phuong, aside from her physical beauty—he doesn’t know her at all.
Alone with Phuong, Fowler goes to write a letter to his wife, Helen. In the letter, he tells her that he’s returning to England, and asks her for a divorce. He explains that he’s fallen in love with someone, with whom he’s lived for two years. He also says that if he leaves her (Phuong), she’ll be “a little unhappy,” but nothing more.
We see Fowler at his most devious in this scene. He’s just preserved his relationship with Phuong by lying about his wife, and now he tries to divorce his wife in order to marry Phuong. More to the point, he describes Phuong as if he doesn’t really love her at all—indeed, he seems fairly indifferent to the possibility of leaving her behind.
Finishing his letter, Fowler goes to bed with Phuong. In bed, he tells Phuong that he’s been ordered home, and that he wants her to come with him. Phuong tells Fowler that she’ll come home with him even if he 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 she’ll need to go to America to find such things.
Even at a moment of apparent victory over Pyle, Fowler seems haunted by the possibility that Phuong will leave him for his young, American rival. Phuong’s attraction to Fowler seems as superficial as Fowler’s attraction to her—she’s interested in Western culture, even though she has little knowledge of it.