An Introduction to Graham Greene

The Quiet American is set in Vietnam in the early 1950s and covers the time when French colonial rule was coming to an end and American interest and support for the anti-communist forces in Asia was on the rise. Like several of Greene’s novels that precede it, it is the result of his personal experiences in that part of the world. And like his earlier novels, it is recognisable in form and his desire to differentiate the two dichotomies: good/evil and right/wrong. There are some, however, who feel that this novel has a somewhat hackneyed feel after the spiritual/religious explorations in The Power and the Glory. Interestingly, it seems that Greene produced his best work when he was at his lowest ebb psychologically. When he was writing The Quiet American, his life seems to have been on a relatively even keel.

(Harry) Graham Greene was born in Berkhamstead in England in 1904. His father was the Headmaster of the local school and this in itself caused the young Greene some difficulties. At boarding school, he proved no good at games, an ingredient essential to acceptance in the school system of the time. The bullying of which he was a victim for much of his early school life, led eventually to a break down at the age of fifteen, and periodic episodes of depression and suicidal thoughts plagued him for the rest of his life. After he completed his secondary schooling, Greene was accepted into Balliol College at Oxford University and, whilst there, developed his taste for dangerous activities, cementing his friendship with spy, Kim Philby, and playing Russian Roulette six times, obviously with more than a little luck. After graduation, he turned to journalism and with his taste for danger and excitement whetted, set off for Africa where he discovered that everything he thought of as ‘seedy’ appeared to be of European origin, whereas everything exotic and beautiful was African. And so began his long love affair with travel and the mysterious worlds of colonial settlement.

In 1926, Greene converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, Vivien. His writing became the main source of financial support for his family, although his journalistic experiences continued to inform his work. We see this in The Quiet American where his main protagonist, Thomas Fowler, is a journalist or a ‘reporter’ as Fowler’s non-involved persona would prefer, and Greene uses reportage and the first person narrator to give his story a ‘realistic’ and objective feel. This sensation is increased by the use of the retrospective narrative style and the frequent changes in time that link the days before and after Pyle’s death. Like Fowler, too, Greene also appears to have been a serial adulterer and whilst in South East Asia in 1951 turned to opium to deal with his depression. In these ways, parts of the novel can be seen to be autobiographical, with many of Fowler’s habits reflecting those of Greene himself. But many commentators feel that to say that Fowler is Greene would be to stretch the connection too far.

The novel is an interesting mix of fact and fiction. Greene alludes to this in the letter to Réné and Phuong included before the introductory poetic extracts. He claims that the main characters are fictional and that he has altered the order of events for his own purposes. However, there are some who claim that The Quiet American ‘ought to be required reading for anyone planning a visit to Vietnam.’ [1] It is still possible to visit many of the places Greene mentions in the text just as one can book tours in Vienna to visit the haunts inhabited by another of Greene’s inventions, Harry Lime. It is this basis of fact that underpins the narrative of The Quiet American and combines with the reporter’s voice to give an air of authenticity to what Greene insists is ‘a story and not a piece of history.’ One of the ironies of this claim came to light with the coincidence of the release of the latest film of the novel and the events of September 11, 2001. The accusations of anti-Americanism that had confronted Greene at the time of the book’s publication, took on a new significance in the light of the world-changing events in New York and, as a result, the release of the film was delayed. By then Graham Greene had been dead a decade but no doubt he would have been intrigued to know how the events and ideas he explored still had relevance four decades after he first canvassed them.

[1] Tom Curry, Literary Traveller,

From your reading and research on Graham Greene, could Greene’s leftist tendencies be interpreted in another way? For example, as simple humanitarian concern for ordinary people? Justify your answer.
2 Greene was critical of the USA, but was he ‘anti-American’? Support your view.


More information about Graham Greene
(Greenland: The World of Graham Greene. Official website)
(Brief biography with excellent links to essays about his works)
(Biography and bibliography)
(Biography and bibliography)
(Complete bibliogropahy)
(Biography and bibliography)

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