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.
Vietnam and the West ThemeTracker
Vietnam and the West Quotes in The Quiet American
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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?
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”