Getting into the Ideas of the Text
Can we remain human if we refuse to take sides in social conflicts? Can we remain human if we refuse to form lasting relationships? What makes actions right or wrong in politics? What sorts of people make good rulers? Is there a conflict between private and public morality? These are some of the questions Graham Greene confronts us with in The Quiet American. We have to face these questions when we evaluate the lives and behaviour of his three main characters.
Whom Should We Fear?
Aiden Pyle wears a crew-cut, drinks Vit-Health lime juice, boxed at college, was virginal and god-fearing, and does not smoke. He is puritanical and idealistic; callous and naive. He is the sort of man we should all fear.
Thomas Fowler smokes opium, likes to sleep with his hand between his ‘girl’s’ thighs, has slept with over forty women, is sensual and lazy, and longs for death. He claims to have no opinions about anything. he resists involvement with both politics and people. In the end we see him as overwhelmingly compassionate; but he initiates the murder of his friend Pyle. Perhaps we should fear his sort, too?
Phoung wears elaborate hair styles, has fragile bones, and claims to be the daughter of a mandarin. Patiently and passively she serves her lover’s needs. She is fundamentally indifferent to men and politics. Life’s meaning for her is her own survival and the doings of Princess Margaret. Perhaps she is the sort of person we should fear most?
Fowler is a paradoxical character. He constantly declares his indifference: ‘I’m not engagé ’ (p. 96; ‘I was to be a reporter no longer: I was to have opinions . . .’ (p. 67); ‘I had never desired faith’ (p. 88). But these statements are misleading; he has always been involved. We see his compassion when he and Pyle take refuge in the guard box on the highway. The two Vietnamese they meet are scared, ill-equipped and fighting for Democracy, a mental concept they neither believe in nor understand. Pyle, the missionary of Democracy, who hopes to democratise Vietnam, would have killed the two young guards for fear they would have handed him and Fowler over. However, the Englishman feels deeply for these two shivering young men. He scorns Pyle’s missionary zeal: ‘You and your people are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested ... They want one day to be just like the other’ (p. 94). When Pyle returns later with help, Fowler waves to them to look to the demolished tower, to attend first to the still crying and wounded Vietnamese boy. And he says: ‘I had prided myself on my detachment, on not belonging to this war, but those wounds had been inflicted by me’ (p. 113).
A second example of his compassion is his offer to go on a trip to the north for the American reporter Granger. He has really found this man to be pretty odious, but is moved to help him because his son is sick with polio. Connolly, Granger’s assistant, ought to have gone as a substitute for his boss, but Connolly happens to be ‘chasing a bit of tail in Singapore’. In a moment of emotion, risking involvement, Fowler is prepared to cover for both of them.
The most obvious example of his compassion for the people around him occurs when the bomb goes off in the Rue Catinat. Fowler sees a man without his legs, twitching at the edge of the ornamental gardens; he sees a woman cover what is left of her baby with her straw peasant hat; he is disgusted by Pyle’s indifference to the death and misery. Rather than being horrified at what he and his allies have done, Pyle’s main worry is to clean the blood off his shoes before he has to meet his superior officer. Deeply outraged, the English journalist concludes that Pyle would always be innocent, and that ‘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. 163). And then, on impulse, Fowler catches a motor-trishaw to meet the communist agent Mr Heng and arranges the murder of Pyle.
Everyone who intervenes in public events runs the risk of getting badly hurt, or earning a great deal of unnecessary suffering and of receiving no thanks anyway. Greene thinks we should all take the risk of committing ourselves on public issues. But we don’t have to go that far do we? Don’t our families, and personal relationships confront us almost daily with the dilemma of either working for what we believe in or going for cover and playing safe? How do you face up to this problem?
Fowler decisively puts his safety second. He knowingly acts as a decoy so that the communists can kill Pyle. He is an accomplice before the event. He risks arrest for murder, retaliation by the US government and the destruction of his career.
In his personal relationships Fowler is prepared at the end of the story to take the risk of a permanent commitment to Phuong in marriage. Greene is happy to make explicit the connection he sees between war and love: ‘It is not a matter of reason or injustice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and love-they have always been compared’ (p. 152).
Pyle is a paradoxical character no less than Fowler. Innocently good-willed, he hopes to give the Vietnamese people a taste for democracy and its benefits. But with his sense of American cultural superiority he does not use democratic methods to spread his gifts. Working clandestinely and making secret pacts with one of the local war lords, he imports diolactin for use in a campaign of terror against the French and Vietnamese authorities.
While Fowler operates on impulses of compassion for individual humans, Pyle is spurred on by mental concepts. His ideas have been derived from reading the works of York Harding, and he lacks any power to adjust himself to the complex reality of the Vietnamese situation. Nor does he really love Phuong, but believes he can offer her a better way of life than Fowler can. He wants to take her home and make her a middle-American mother. Here in love, as in war, he is paternalistic as well as arrogantly innocent.
Heart or Head?
It seems easy to prefer Fowler to Pyle. The journalist seems far more knowing, compassionate and wise. He ties up the loose connections in the book and does the right thing by his girl in the end. Greene obviously favours the Englishman, while depicting the American as a representative of a culture he despises. But if we were to use our reading of the book to develop our own code of behaviour, how reliable a model would Fowler be for us to imitate? Is his type as dangerous and one-sided as Pyle? Can the heart alone be any more an adequate a guide in political behaviour than can the head? Ghandi had compassion for the masses, but didn’t he also need an ability to develop his policies and strategies intellectually?
If Pyle is so wrong to use illegal means to achieve his aims, what then gives Fowler the right to take the law into his own hands and arrange the murder of his ex-friend? Does Fowler have any excuse for not going to Vigot and disclosing Pyle’s underground activities? Could not the feelings of his heart have been criteria for public action as arbitrary as Pyle’s reading is for him?
This theme of political man asks what sort of persons become leaders of human communities and why do some people seek power? Some famous thinkers had answers for these questions. Erasmus, in his Praise of Folly , would seem to agree with Fowler and probably Greene: ‘If you look at history you’ll find that no state has been so plagued by its rulers as when power has fallen into the hands of some dabbler in philosophy or literary addict.’ Socrates is reported to have said in similar vein, that ‘the wise man should steer clear of taking part in politics’. Plato would seem to contradict both of these sentiments when he says in his famous words that: ‘Happy are states where either philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers’.
Whatever the ideal personality for rulers is, Greene seems to be saying that the masses are not bothered with theoretical systems when they come to work out their political attitudes. Their position is formed by an unerring appetite for being left alone to work through each day in security. They know that to hope for too much from politics is to endanger what chance for a secure life that they have. Pyle is never happier than when he has the whole world to reform. But the Vietnamese people, Fowler claims, don’t believe in anything: ‘They want enough rice . . . They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as the other’ (p. 94).
Phuong epitomises this lack of commitment to everything besides the everyday. She has no reformist drive, no lust for permanence or death. She is content to serve either Pyle or Fowler, it doesn’t matter much who. She fills in her time going to the pictures, dancing, buying coloured scarves, and scanning old magazines for pictures of the English royal family. She lives a life where she is totally self-concerned, indifferent to the movements around her that could shape her future.
Is her life a better model for us to imitate than either Pyle’s or Fowler’s? Is it viable to live the way she does? Is neutrality, possible? Captain Trouin informs us that when the communists were driven out of Hanoi in 1946 that ‘they left terrible relics among their own people-people they thought had helped us. There was one girl in the mortuary – they had not only cut off her breasts, they had mutilated her lover and stuffed his. . .’ (p. 152). Perhaps Phuong will suffer a similar fate when the communists eventually take all Vietnam. The neutrality that she thinks will keep her safe will in the end see her executed for collaboration.
Neutrality Is No Escape
Pyle and the communists are the men of abstract ideas, both certain they are right and both prepared to be vicious with their victims. Phuong’s apparent neutrality offers no real escape from the historical movements set up by the ideologues. Fowler recognises the threat to ordinary people from the men of ideas and violence. But does his way represent a valid and human middle way between the extremes of the zealots and the indifferents? Perhaps all he does is to take sides with one extreme group, the communists, against the other, the Americans, and therefore he becomes guilty of complicity in all their other atrocities as well. When Captain Trouin tells Fowler of the incident in Hanoi in 1946 the journalist replies: ‘That’s why I won’t be involved’ (p. 152). But he is, isn’t he! It is one of the nicer ironies in the book.
Moderates Must Choose
Moderates find life in politics very difficult. Especially in times of crisis, power tends to fall into the hands of dedicated utopians. When this happens, moderates, to have some influence for good, are forced to side with one extreme or the other, or be totally crushed. As soon as they make an alliance they are forced to defend or tolerate whatever their new ally does. They share the guilt of its actions and lose credibility with their original supporters. This dilemma is exemplified by small parties in Australian politics who achieve the balance of power in the Senate and then have to decide with which major party to side when votes are taken, or how to distribute their preferences at election time.
Fowler does make his decision, he does take sides. He supports the native communist revolutionaries against the colonialist French and Americans. Thus, in Greene’s words, he retains his humanity. But perhaps like us all he is left with a guilt that is reluctant to let him go. He has preserved his humanity by killing a human: ‘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. 189).
Who Are We to Act?
Wherever we live, however old we are, we often face the dilemma Fowler faced. If we are still at school, do we take a risk and report to the principal what seems to us to be stupid and dangerous behaviour by some of the students? We may be acting out of compassion and a sense of responsibility, but as soon as we act we have influenced and intervened in other people’s lives. Compassion is a feeling that unites us with those around us, but at the moment of irreversible action and isolated decision, we are very alone and probably afraid. This fear of loneliness can persuade us not to act even more than the fear of retaliation by people or events. We ask ourselves, who are we to act? How can we be sure that we are right? But often the answer comes, there is no one else, and yet it must be done. Each of us must be able to act alone.
Human life, especially in “Greeneland”, is muddied, even chaotic. Utopian idealists like Pyle have an overpowering desire to systematise and purify us and our societies. Inevitably these utopians, who hope for the most from human life, create the most human misery (think of the Khmer Rouge, and all the others, and the recent and current troubles in the Middle East). They use political and military power to make awkward reality fit their ideal picture of society. Most humans, Greene seems to be arguing, want only to be left alone to fight for survival in their own way. But this makes them, like the Vietnamese, pretty defenceless against the ruthless dreamers who are only too happy to run their life for them. As a cure for all of this Greene offers us the regretful Fowler.
The dilemmas faced by the characters in The Quiet American at the personal and national levels, also confront us in international relationships. If we look at the behaviour of countries towards each other, we can see the same patterns of conduct recurring. Some act like Pyle, some vacillate like Fowler, and some are self-concerned like Phuong.
It would be over-simple to make identifications between contemporary countries and the characters in the book. But it is pretty obvious that some act like Pyle. With immense self-esteem they believe that any tyranny they impose on others will benefit everybody in the long run. They believe that human society has fortuitously reached its peak of evolution with themselves and the torch of progress is held by their leaders. Every fifty to a hundred years we have a new country claiming the world as its sphere of influence. In the last two hundred years we have seen France, England, Germany, America and Russia all offering to liberate us from our backwardness and ignorance.
We are used too to seeing the forces of goodness making strange allies and ending up with their own share of guilt. In 1978 president Julius Nyerere of Tanzania sent his troops into Uganda to purge it of Idi Amin. However it was not long before the Ugandans found the uncontrolled troops of their liberators to be as sadistic as those of their recent tyrant, while the Tanzanian president bankrupted his own economy to keep his men in the field. What has been happening between the Middle East and the West since the 1990s?
Thirdly, there are nations which attempt to find their security by being introverted and totally self-concerned. They may be safe in their passivity in certain environments, but make themselves vulnerable when those environments change. Perhaps Australia has modelled itself on Phuong in its foreign affairs conduct. We have fickly changed from one big ally to another, from the British to the Americans and will we, when the Americans decline, become uneasy and drift? Like Phuong our hedonistic lives have been trivialised by affluence. Like Fowler we need to make allies with more ruthless and aggressive factors in the political equation, and we share their guilt, even if we do not have enough of our own.
Back in the late 1970s / early 1980s Australia faced a moral dilemma when the Indonesians moved into East Timor. Here was a minute country with independence thrust on it long before arrangements could be made for the transition. We would normally have been sympathetic to the Timorese, given our democratic ideology, but we were wary of it becoming to us what Cuba is to America, and so were loathe to offend the Indonesians. Aware too of our ineffectual forces, we sullenly allowed the Indonesians to absorb East Timor.
When the British came to the Australian continent they carried with them a framework of ideas which made them completely oblivious of the subtleties of Aboriginal culture. Innocently they tore their culture apart and attempted to use force to engrave their own image on the Aborigines. The natives henceforth would wear trousers, wash their hands before meals, use a knife and fork for eating and all would be well. Graham Greene is indirectly accusing the Americans, especially Pyle, of having this same explosive blend of innocent arrogance. They were never happier than when they had a whole world to reform and when they trying to turn Hanoi into Michigan. As a cure for this arrogance what would Greene offer us?
In this review I have tried to spotlight what The Quiet American is saying to us about morality and political action, and about the type of men who seek power. Events do not occur inevitably, but can be largely influenced by will power, translated into canny political action. We should take the political opportunities presented to us and respond to the obligation to be involved. For perhaps it is the apathy of the Phuongs that encourages the arbitrary compassion of the Fowlers, and the destructive rationality of the Pyles. That is why we should fear the Phuongs most of all.