Critical Perspective 2

Power, Politics and War

The Quiet American is concerned with several themes which recur constantly in Greene’s novels but there are two of especial importance. The first is that one of the steps necessary for achieving maturity and identity as an adult is the loss of the innocence that is associated with childhood. The notion of ‘innocence’ recurs repeatedly throughout the novel and Greene clearly has ambivalent feelings towards it. Sometimes he sees innocent people as being unfortunate and helpless victims of the devastation others wreak, like the soldiers who are killed when Pyle and Fowler shelter in their tower. More often, though, he regards innocence as a kind of pre-moral condition. There are frequent references to the egotism or the ignorance of the totally innocent adult. In a child, or a child-woman like Phuong innocence is natural; in an adult it may lead to the murderous righteousness of a Pyle. ‘God save us always,’ says Fowler early in the novel, ‘from the innocent and the good’ (p. 18), and it is an idea that is repeated throughout the novel.

One of the most basic elements in Greene’s view of the human condition is that of suffering. One must suffer in order to become a human being. Pain inflicts an individual consciousness, a kind of brand of identity upon the soul. Greene is concerned with what happens to a man who has grown up without ever having shed his initial state of innocence, without ever having lost the naive ideals of youth. Fowler is able to sum up Pyle in a few words:

He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, ‘Go ahead. Win the East for democracy.’ He never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body he couldn’t even see the wounds. ‘A Red menace, a soldier of democracy.’ (p. 31)

Pyle is completely unaffected by the reality of human suffering he confronts in Vietnam and it is this inability to think except in terms of abstracts, of ideals, of numbers, that is at the heart of his character. In his mind there is a perpetual translation of experiences into abstract formulation so that even when he quite literally steps in the blood he has helped spill he looks at his shoes and thinks only, ‘I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister’ (p. 161).

Pyle’s character, then, is fairly straightforward. What makes us interested in him is the effect of his inexperienced assaults on the realities of the Vietnamese situation. Pyle’s innocence is a kind of armour plating. It protects him from the doubt that comes to everyone who has the ability to see that there are two sides to every question. It leaves him completely and frustratingly impervious to Fowler’s attempts to demonstrate the real causes of the war in Indo-China. And it blinds him to the human suffering and anguish his irresponsible meddling has caused. Fowler’s attempt to open his eyes to the legless man twitching at the edge of the garden, the blood splashing his boots, is useless.

It is at this point that Greene introduces his second theme the dilemma of a man forced to choose between individual friendship and the common good. Fowler is faced with the choice of keeping to his philosophy of non-involvement, frequently reiterated throughout the novel, or at some stage asserting his humanity and taking sides. The question is complicated by the fact that he is forced to doubt his own motives: how much of his desire to have Pyle’s activities disturbed is the result of his jealousy over Phuong’s desertion of him for the American?

After he fails to dissuade Pyle from his ‘Third Force’ activities, Fowler says:

I thought, ‘What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’ (p. 162)

Accordingly, he shares in the ‘elimination’ of Pyle. He sacrifices his best friend to prevent further needless deaths, but Greene is ambiguous about the questions of how far his motives are disinterestedly honest ones, and whether the abstract notion of humanity that he holds is any more real than Pyle’s. Late in the novel there is a curious incident in which another reporter, a loud-mouthed American named Granger whom Fowler dislikes intensely, suddenly confides that his son is dangerously ill with polio. Fowler questions himself: “Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain? (p. 184)

It is surprising – and typical of Greene’s honesty and maturity in dealing with the moral choices he raises – that it is Pyle who has to remind Fowler of the supremacy of individual relationships, and not vice versa. Pyle (perhaps partly through his innocent indifference) sees Phuong as more important than all the deaths of the bombing incident put together; and Fowler has to subscribe to the truth of this view, though for different motives:

Perhaps she would never know security: what right had I to value her less than the dead bodies in the square? Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel. I had judged like a journalist in terms of quantity and I had betrayed my own principles; I had become as engagé Pyle, and it seemed to me that no decision could ever be simple again. (p. 181)

Thus Fowler is left at the end with a rather hollow victory: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry”. (p. 187)

The Pursuit of Power

Early in the novel Fowler says of the American Pyle, ‘he was determined – I learnt that very soon – to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve’ (p. 18). Greene focuses on the theme of political action, the motives for which it is undertaken and the moral dangers that can be associated with it, by concentrating on two sharply opposed central characters.

Pyle is a genuinely idealistic man. He is absolutely sincere in his desire to do good and bring democracy and all its benefits to Asia and he believes he can do so by establishing a ‘Third Force’ under General Thé, an army which would be ‘free from Communism and the taint of colonialism’, an example of ‘national democracy’ (p. 124).

Fowler, on the other hand, seems cynical and world-weary. He insists constantly on his non-engagement in the war:

‘You can rule me out,’ I said. ‘I’m not involved. Not involved,’ I repeated. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; 1 preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action even an opinion is a kind of action. (p. 28)

In various forms, Fowler’s insistence that he is not involved is repeated throughout the novel. Eventually, however, he is forced to take sides as he realizes the consequence of Pyle’s pursuit of political ends with no thought of the human complexities involved. Although Greene carefully weaves in and out of the novel the sub-plot of the two men’s rivalry for Phuong, so that there is some ambiguity about Fowler’s motives, essentially what leads him to decide to intervene is his recognition of Pyle’s obliviousness to the suffering he is causing. After an explosion in the square of the city for which Pyle had been indirectly responsible he sees blood on his shoes and says, ‘I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister’(p. 162). Even here he is incapable of taking in the loss of life for which he is responsible.

The Motives for Political Action

One of the impressive qualities of The Quiet American is that it does not make the debate between Fowler and Pyle and their respective ways of looking at political action one-sided or over-simplified. Although the story is told through the narration of Fowler and although in the central debate between them as they sit up all night in the tower (pp. 93-8) one might argue that Fowler is given most of the best lines, there is a case put for Pyle. As the pilot Captain Trouin tells Fowler with prophetic accuracy, ‘One day something will happen. You will take a side’ (p. 151).

There is an element of cynicism and even complacency in Fowler’s constant insistence that “I’m not involved. Not involved’, in contrast to which, as Fowler is honest enough to admit eventually, Pyle’s genuine desire to do good cannot be wholly dismissed. As Fowler says,

All the time that his innocence had angered me, some judge within myself had summed up in his favour, had compared his idealism, his half-baked ideas founded on the works of York Harding, with my cynicism. Oh, I was right about the facts, but wasn’t he right too to be young and mistaken, and wasn’t he perhaps a better man for a girl to spend her life with? (p. 156)

At the same time, however, the case against Pyle rests, paradoxically, on what Greene calls the ‘innocence’ of his motives. Yes, the novel seems to argue, it may be necessary to make political decisions which will involve the loss of human life but the least one can do is be aware and agonize over the inevitable misery one causes in taking such decisions. Even if Pyle were correct in his view of the value of his Third Force in making Vietnam a peaceful country (and I think we are obliged to accept the novel’s view that he is not) it is his indifference to the reality of human lives being lost that most enrages Fowler, and he ascribes this to what he calls Pyle’s innocence.

The Futility of War

There is perhaps one further justification for Fowler’s cynicism, and this is that throughout the novel Greene makes it very clear that this particular war has no hope of a satisfactory outcome. Except for Pyle, even the combatants themselves recognize this and the French view of the war they themselves are fighting is a totally cynical one as well. In this particular situation, the manner in which power is being exercised is a misconceived and pointless one.

Although the central dilemmas of the novel are moral and intellectual ones, Greene is careful to keep the actuality of the war before our eyes, especially in chapter 4 when Fowler goes out on patrol with the French lieutenant and his men and in chapter 2 of part 2, when Fowler and Pyle are trapped in the tower. Greene is able to give an overpoweringly physical sense of the atmosphere in Indo-China (as it was then known), an atmosphere which has the matter-of-fact quality of an everyday experience. It is this that is most terrifying of all – the casual arbitrariness with which a normal, peaceful scene suddenly erupts into an explosive nightmare, as in the bomb explosion in the square of Saigon. As he watches two American girls, obviously tourists, Fowler thinks bitterly:

It was impossible to conceive either of them a prey to untidy passion: they did not belong to rumpled sheets and the sweat of sex. Did they take deodorants to bed with them? I found myself for a moment envying them their sterilized world, so different from this world that I inhabited – which suddenly inexplicably broke in pieces. Two of the mirrors on the wall flew at me and collapsed half-way....The explosion had been so close that my ear-drums had still to recover from the pressure. (pp. 159-60)

The violence of Fowler’s anti-Americanism (which Greene partiallyshares) is explicable to some extent in terms of the distance – both psychological and geographical – that the United States is from the actual scene of the combat, and the effect this has on the thinking of theorists like York Harding. To the French, faced with the grim but mundane reality of actually having to conduct the war, there are no causes and nothing to save. This is brilliantly demonstrated by Greene in several scenes but most notably in the poignant yet comic account of the press conference where the French colonel is mercilessly badgered by the American correspondent Granger (pp. 64-67). But none of their sense of the war’s futility must seep through to the outside world – to the hundreds and thousands of Alden Pyles, fed on lectures and demonstrations by innumerable York Hardings, all ready to come and play their part for democracy. The violence of the explosion dramatizes the gulf that exists between the realities of the war and the American tourists’ conception of it


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