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In some ways, Greene’s characters are representations of these various positions and, as such, have an element of contrivance about them. Fowler and Pyle, for instance, appear diametrically opposed: Fowler, the older Englishman, symbolic of the rational and calm attitudes brought about by experience and decency, Pyle, young, naïve and overwhelmingly confident in his ability to create a better world, symbolic of the newness of America as a world power. Then there are Granger, the American journalist, loud, brash, mildly corrupt and always spoiling for a fight, and Vigot, the French policeman. In a book where most embrace an atheistic stance despite expressing the wish that they would like to believe in God, there would seem to be no place for a priest, a character common to many others of Greene’s earlier works. Therefore, the Pascal-reading policeman to whom Fowler wishes to confess fills that role adding the requisite spiritual dimension.

There are other characters, cameos really, who work symbolically within the text. Mr Heng when set against Colonel Thé allows us to see the morality of the two forces fighting for dominance in the country. Fowler’s support of Mr Heng positions us to be more sceptical of the anti-communist line and therefore serves to increase our suspicion of Pyle and the growing American presence in the area. This is interesting in that Fowler spends a lot of time telling us that he feels quite kindly towards Pyle, yet he has him killed. Perhaps from Greene’s point of view, it is necessary that readers disapprove of Pyle independently of what they are being told by the narrator.

And where to place Phuong? Apart from her sister, Miss Hei, she is the only female with a speaking role in the book. Even so, there is very little development of her character, and, once again, she is useful more for what she represents than for what she is. First of all, she is the prize for which Pyle and Fowler must contest. Through her we see their contrasting values and it is through her, too, that Fowler comes to understand more about himself and about the nature of love and its place in his life. But Phuong is also there to provide us with some understanding of Vietnam and its people. Just as we must gain understanding of the men in the tower through the agency of Fowler, Phuong and her people come to us distilled through his view as well. Pyle’s insistence that the Vietnamese are like children is dismissed by Fowler and shown to be a dangerous over-simplification.


  1. How deep were Fowler’s feelings for Pyle? Was he genuinely fond of the younger man? Did he honestly regret his part in Pyle’s death?
  2. “… my home had shifted its ground eight thousand miles” (p.25). What does Fowler mean by this comment?
  3. How do you read Fowler: do you think that he has been trying to avoid emotional and political commitment for most of his life? What do you think would be the reasons for this?
  4. Look closely at Fowler’s language and his reactions to other people. Is he really as detached as he says he is? Is he perhaps too sensitive to cope with the amount of suffering in the world?
  5. In the end, does Fowler’s choice to take sides corrupt him or save him?


  1. Is Pyle’s sense of duty responsible for his destructive actions?
  2. Phuong, Fowler and Vigot all refer to Pyle as quiet. What do they mean and how significant is their description?
  3. Do you think that Pyle changes and becomes a deeper character? Or is change impossible for someone like him?


  1. How strong an influence is Miss Hei in Phuong’s life?
  2. How significant is Phuong’s name in terms of her life as portrayed in the book and in terms of her being a symbol for Vietnam itself?
  3. Do you think that Phuong is ultimately an unknowable character? Or is this just another Western stereotype of Asian people as ‘inscrutable’ (impenetrable)? Phuong can also be read as embodying Vietnam, whom different nations (France and the United States) fight over and want to possess.
  4. To what extent could both Pyle and Fowler’s attitudes toward Phuong be described as colonial?

General Thé

  • General Thé is a minor character in the novel yet his influence is significant. Why is this?

Mr Heng and Dominguez

  • What is the connection between Dominguez and Mr Heng?


  1. Does Vigot seriously suspect Fowler of Pyle’s murder?
  2. Just as Phuong can be seen as a symbol of Vietnam, can Vigot be seen as symbolic of France’s position in the world at the time? What are some of the parallels between Vigot’s life and what was happening to France?

The Economic Attaché and Granger

  1. What is the basis for Fowler’s dislike of these two men?
  2. If Phuong and Vigot can be seen to reflect their nation’s situation in terms of the bigger picture, can the same be said of Granger? And if so, what sort of place is the America being depicted by him?


  1. What function does Helen serve in the novel?
  2. What do we gain from reading Helen’s letters?


  • In what ways is Chou similar to Fowler yet different?
The Quiet American : An English website unit developed by George Marootus with additional material by VATE and contributions by Bianca de Vos and Sam Bryant. Website designed and constructed by George Marotous.
Contact.© English Faculty, Melbourne High School. 12 July 2010