Critical Perspective 3
Exploring the Personal and Public Politics
The love triangle central to The Quiet American is played out against the stormy background of the First Indo-China War. What might, at first appear to be just a sad love story becomes a much broader reflection on the folly of good intentions and simplistic solutions for complex political problems. Eventually, and inevitably, the personal and public politics merge with tragic consequences.
The novel is set in Saigon in 1952, before the already fraught political situation escalated into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War. Fowler, the world-weary and cynical English journalist has a tolerable life thanks to his daily pipes of opium and the presence of his young lover, Phuong. Although his work is covering the war, Fowler prides himself on his objectivity. He informs the reader, “let them fight, let them murder, I would not be involved.” Fowler “wrote what [he] saw” and “took no action” as “even an opinion is a type of action.” The entrance of the idealistic and young American, Pyle, upsets Fowler's fairly comfortable world and causes him to rethink his principles.
Pyle is inexperienced but keen and on his first overseas posting. He imposes a friendship on Fowler and then fails in love with Phuong. His courtship of her is conducted in a quaint and proper manner revealing his lack of experience of the world or of relationships. Pyle “solemnly”, expresses his “great love and respect for Phuong” as though he had “learned” the part “by heart”.
However, the same occasion also reveals pragmatic and somewhat callous aspects of Pyle's character. When Fowler asks him does he want to make a stronger protestation of his feelings he declines saying “that's too emotional”, also admitting that “it's not quite true either” and that he has “to go away”. Further, is his admission that “one gets over everything.”
The same pragmatic and callous approach reveals itself later in the novel when he dismisses the bombing victims in the square as “only war casualties” who “died in the right cause”, and can later be perceived as a factor in sealing his fate.
Fowler and Pyle tussle over Phuong in a very civilized way, with aggression usually kept below the surface. They unwittingly reveal a great deal about themselves. Pyle is both arrogant and insensitive. He assumes that Phuong will leave Fowler and come to him and is amazed when, initially she refuses him. Pyle is quite unable to interpret Fowler's state of mind and keeps telling him that he is being “swell”. Both Pyle's arrogance and his insensitivity are due to his youth and at this point he is merely annoying, both to Fowler and the reader. However, his limitations are to have tragic consequences when he begins to act on the larger political stage.
Fowler, as narrator, reveals himself in all his weakness and need. He clings to Phuong because she is a way of keeping age at bay. His need of her is selfish, because he is fairly sure that he will never be able to marry her. He tells Pyle that he'd “rather ruin her and sleep with her, than ... look after her damned interests.”
The third member of the love triangle is the beautiful and seemingly fragile Phuong, who has a “hard core” of self-preservation. Encouraged by her sister to look after her own interests, she eventually does this and leaves Fowler for Pyle, attaching herself to “youth and hope and seriousness”. When Pyle is murdered, with typical practicality, she returns to Fowler.
The personal politics in The Quiet American are always blended with the public politics in the novel. The contrast between the two men is pointed out through their differing approach to the politics of the region. The conversation in the watch-tower as they wait for the Vietminh exemplifies the contrast. Fowler says he sides with no-one and believes that the French and the Americans “are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested”. Further, he attempts to convince Pyle that “they don't want our white skins around telling them what they want”.
In contrast, Pyle firmly believes in the right of outsiders to intervene in the political situation. He justifies his position by talking of fighting for “democracy” or liberty” and he is unreservedly convinced of the rightness of his course of action. In this conversation, the reader is made further aware of Pyle's simplistic approach to what is a very complicated situation. As we already know, his approach will have dire consequences later in the text. In Pyle, Greene has created a young man, not unlikeable, but rigid in his thinking who is given too much power and freedom by his superiors. He is the well-meaning but dangerous face of foreign intervention.
The love story is played out against the background of the turbulent political situation. The pervasiveness of the war is conveyed through the accumulation of details. The terrace bar at the Continental is “popularly believed to be safe from hand-grenades” and in the background there is always “the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon”. The beauty of the countryside is often juxtaposed with a reminder of the presence of war as in, the description of the golden groves among the great humps and arches of porous stone” which are representative of the wounds of murder” which have ceased to bleed'.
The various descriptions of Fowler's engagement in the war zone, at Phat Diem, at the watch-tower and Haiphong, serve to disprove his claim to be uninvolved. Although he says that he does not take sides, he is affected by the fate of the innocent casualties of war. These various incidents foreshadow the bomb in the square which proves to be the catalyst for Fowler's change of heart which sees him taking a side and involving himself in the public politics.
Pyle's role in the public politics of the country is revealed little by little. At first he presents himself as a member of the Economic Aid Mission, overseeing trachoma teams. The pieces of the puzzle of his real function are presented one by one, involving the reader in the mystery and leaving questions unanswered until the final denouement of the huge bomb blast.
The personal and public politics of The Quiet American come together in the death of Pyle. Fowler is driven by his sense of outrage at Pyle's callous and pragmatic approach to the carnage in the square to take desperate action. We only have Fowler's account of his motives, but he would not be human if Pyle's relationship with Phuong was not a factor in his decision.
Whether Fowler acts out of outrage, out of selfishness, or both, the fact remains that Pyle's removal leaves the way open for Fowler to re-establish his relationship with Phuong. The question which remains at the end of the novel is whether Fowler will be able to live with his guilt or whether it will poison the relationship. In his own words, he asserts that I had betrayed my own principles” and that he had become as “engagé as Pyle”. Fowler realises, as the reader has perhaps already considered, “no decision would ever be simple again”. The reader is also left wondering if becoming involved in the public politics has destroyed any chance of a comfortable life for him.
The personal and public politics are skilfully blended in The Quiet American . Greene is concerned to present the dangers of simplistic solutions for complex problems. In addition, the love story with all its tensions is played out against the bigger picture of the fraught political situation depicted in the novel. Finally, the two worlds collide and the result is tragedy.