Literary Allusions

The two epigraphs

(i) A.H. Clough

“I do not like being moved: for the will is excited; and action
Is a most dangerous thing; I tremble for something factitious,
Some malpractice of heart and illegitimate process,
We are prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty.”

A. H. Clough Canto 2, Verse XI ‘Claude to Eustace’ from Amours de Voyage (1849)

Arthur Clough’s Amours de Voyage is a verse novel that is based on the writer’s own troubled journey through Europe in 1848-49. He saw Paris in tatters and Rome under siege. Like Fowler, Clough’s travels and the destruction he observes mirrors his own troubled soul.

One can see what Greene saw in this jaded and turbulent verse novel. The narrator, Claude, observes the disorder and devastation around him in a world weary and cynical manner. The only moral anchorage the narrator has is his religious faith which although occasionally questioned remains rigid and serves as the only beacon of hope for the future. Claude is disenchanted with the modern world, appalled at the damage done by zealous ideologues and cynical about what the future may hold. He writes – “I wander and question, unsatisfied ever, / Reverent so I accept, doubtful because I revere.”

The impact of the physical carnage is well documented throughout the poem. What also seems relevant to Greene’s novel is Claude’s interaction with the common people whom he meets, observes and empathises with. Initially he wants to be detached but he is transformed: “So, I have seen a man killed... what a fearful scene and for what cause? / Oh the barbarism of instincts inflamed by misplaced ideas...” Claude continues later in Canto II saying – [Who] would be justified even, in taking away from the world that / Precious creature, himself … On the whole, we are meant to look after ourselves; it is certain / Each has to eat for himself, digest for himself, and in general / Care for his own dear life, and see to his own preservation.”

Clough saw the vulnerability of human beings as they toil to get on with their lives and struggle against political forces and injustices that threaten to engulf them. Whilst resisting political action and sceptical of political commitment and duty, Claude upholds the sanctity and uniqueness of the individual amidst such upheavals. If we look at the complete Canto that Greene uses it becomes very useful and insightful for our understanding of the concerns of The Quiet American.

There are two different kinds, I believe, of human attraction:

One which simply disturbs, unsettles, and makes you uneasy,
And another that poises, retains, and fixes and holds you.
I have no doubt, for myself, in giving my voice for the latter.
I do not wish to be moved, for growing where I was growing,
There more truly to grow, to live where as yet I have languished.
I do not like being moved. for the will is excited, and action
Is a most dangerous thing; I tremble for something factitious,
Some malpractice of heart and illegitimate process,
We are so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty.

Pyle represents the ideas in line two (“disturbs, unsettles and makes you uneasy”). Pyle’s arrival in Vietnam certainly unsettles Fowler and forces him out of a ‘languishing’ complacency to finally ‘commit’ at a personal and public level. Phuong personifies the latter characteristics we see in line three (“posies, retains and fixes and holds you”). Although comforting – as we discover in the novel – Fowler’s idea of Phuong is deceptive and driven by a complacent obliviousness. It takes Pyle to force him to express feelings that have been both dormant and anesthetised. In many ways, Fowler has been ‘languishing’ rather than ‘living’. His choice of being dégagé , is a repudiation of his humanity and a denial of feelings and emotions that we see very clearly even when he is denying them.

By equating ‘action’ and ‘duty’ with temptation driven by an excited ‘will’, Clough is on the one hand suggesting that such commitments are always bound to fail because they are fuelled by irrational emotions not contained by reason and – on the contrary – masquerading as ‘duty’ and ‘comm.itment’. It is a type of ‘blind faith’ or uncritical, innocent commitment that loses control and imposes a purpose (factitious) on an action that leads to wanton and unnecessary suffering for a ‘cause’. On the other hand, how can a human being remain detached and objective or not be ‘moved’ in an extreme situation? Such tempting actions may also reveal a kind of moral fibre: they would have behind them the ratifying force of a character like Fowler’s “best self,” his disgust at imperialist manipulation and Pyle’s “dangerous innocence” and Claude’s humane contempt of blind zealotry at the expense of a common humanity and justice.

(ii) Byron

‘This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions.’

Canto 1, verse CXMII, Don Juan , Lord Byron (1822-23)

Don Juan is another rambling verse poem but this time the narrative voice is both cynical and sardonic. Like Clough’s work, Byron’s uses travel to explore his own narrator’s consciousness and provide a politically charged appraisal of the social and religious views of the time. Byron was an atheist and not as conservative as Clough.

The extract that Greene chooses is fairly straight forward. Byron’s narrator equates modern progress, political and religious dogma with a self-justifying and coldly rationalising form of ‘killing’ which is masked under the evasive terms of ‘sacrifice’ and a ‘commitment to a higher cause’. The complete canto explores, sarcastically, how modern technology is used to enslave and destroy human beings —

This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions;
Sir Humphry Davy’s lantern, by which coals
Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions,
Tombuctoo travels, voyages to the Poles,
Are ways to benefit mankind, as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.

Apart from the section Greene chose, Byron’s poem in general is a useful indicator of a theme central to The Quiet American – transformation and self-deception. The poem is an exploration of what ‘seems’ to ‘what is’. Byron’s vision is bleak. Like Fowler, the poet sees the human condition as hopeless. If there is a moral to this wayward but rewarding masterpiece it is that human beings must break down self-deception to understand themselves and the world around them. Consider the characters of Fowler and Pyle. Both are on a journey of sorts. Fowler begins the novel in denial about his complicity in Pyle’s death. He also denies any desire to commit himself or take sides. His conception of himself is based on a number of self-deceptions. Greene’s acute psychological awareness gives us clear reasons for his narrator’s self deception. His enforced entrapment, low self regard and isolation serves his skewered image of himself. Fowler is a victim of the pain of experience. Pyle is also self-deceptive but his ignorance is based on an inexperience and innocence that refuses to ‘see’ the world outside the comfortable and stable barriers of ‘good intentioned’ dogma.

Another interesting parallel to The Quiet American is Byron’s defence for writing Don Juan. He wrote to his friend Douglas Kinnaird in 1819 that the verse poem is confronting mankind’s wayward state and is suggesting that the only way to achieve self-realisation is to “Confess, confess – you dog and be candid.” If Fowler comprehends his own limitations, guilt and wretchedness (something that Pyle does not) this makes him not only understand himself more but also connects him with other fragile human beings in the sordid landscape of destruction and personal betrayals that constitute The Quiet American . It is therefore no surprise that Fowler repeats Byron’s defence at the end of the novel as he seeks to find someone to confess to after he has told us of his traumatic journey.


Below is a translation of the opening stanza of the poem that appears in French on page 14 of the text. Baudelaire’s poem captures both the transient sensual joys and bitter disappointments of love and passion.

The Invitation to the Voyage

Imagine the magic
Of living together
There, with all the time in the world
For loving each other,
For loving and dying
Where even the landscape resembles you:
The suns dissolved In overcast eyes
Have the same mysterious charm for me
As your wayward eyes
Through crystal tears My sister, my child!

Charles Baudelaire (1866)

•  Note the sensual nature of the poem which reflects Fowler’s own intuitive sensual appreciation of the world.

•  Images of a self contained world, dissolution and losing oneself in sensual joy. This is about escapism and retreat from the demands of a reality that is inhibiting and uncomfortably intrusive. The poem luxuriates in seeking a type of sensual oblivion.

•  The dissolving or merging of the ideas of love and death. Both are a type of abandonment and dissolution: a type of escapism. We see how Fowler craves a ‘death’ and he repeats this desire throughout the text. The ‘death’ that he seeks though is multilayered, metaphysical rather than physical. We discover he is ‘spiritually’ dead at the beginning of the novel and as he confronts the realities of physical death, he is jolted to appreciate the joys of living.

•  The paternalism of ‘sister’ and ‘child’ is something that is critical to the novel. The lovers in Baudelaire’s poem are intertwined both spiritually and physically. Fowler persists in stating his physical need for Phuong. What he denies is both his connection to her and his love of Vietnam. Children and subliminal paternal concerns are scattered throughout Fowler’s narrative as we shall see.

•  The reference to tears, loss and pain are also fundamental to the novel. Fowler (like Pyle and Granger) plays the ‘tough’ guy but this belies his sensitive and fragile nature. He is a man who is compassionate, ridden with guilt and petrified of being left alone. His fear of commitment (of both a personal and political kind) is revealed to be driven by an even greater fear of betrayal and pain.


In Dante’s ‘Inferno’, which was begun around 1308 (part of The Divine Comedy ), the character Dante is lead down (another journey) to the seven circles of hell. Along the way he encounters various people who have been punished for their misdeeds in life. In many ways Fowler’s journey echoes Dante’s text. First, like Dante he is “Midway along the journey of [his] life”. Fowler is somewhere between 40-45 years of age. Second, he has a guide (the ‘pagan’ poet – Virgil). Fowler has Pyle. Finally, Dante and Fowler witness various forms of suffering along the way with the difference being that in Greene’s novel we see innocent people being punished. Dante eventually emerges from his descent unscathed but wiser. Fowler too emerges unscathed and certainly wiser about himself although he feels both guilty and remorseful about what has transpired.

On page 67 of the novel, Fowler makes a specific reference to the most famous episode in the ‘Inferno’, (Canto V) the punishment of lovers Paolo and Francesca. They have been punished for committing adultery. Their specific punishment was to be locked together in an embrace and then be swept along by the icy winds of hell. They face each other but they cannot kiss. Fowler refers to these two when he receives a telegram from his newspaper ordering him home. Greene writes – “Dante never thought up that turn of the screw for his condemned lovers. Paolo was never returned to Purgatory.” For Fowler, returning to England is a type of purgatory. Does that mean that he identifies his time in Vietnam as hell?

Another interesting aside is that Dante wrote his masterpiece after he had been forcefully exiled from his beloved Florence. Again this reverberates with the two epigraphs at the beginning of the novel and Fowler’s own form of ‘self’ exile.


The reference to Oedipus on page 182 is even more telling. He is invited by Wilkins (another newsman) to view an adventure-romance film which to the cynical and worldly Fowler seems to be a wild escapist fantasy. Fowler describing the film says: “It was what they call a film for boys, but the sight of Oedipus emerging with his bleeding eyeballs from the palace at Thebes would surely give a better training for life today. No life is charmed.” In pursuing the truth relentlessly, Oedipus eventually unmasks who the guilty person is and at the same time discovers his real identity. Oedipus is heroic because he acknowledges his guilt, is selfless and altruistic in his desire to save his city, and acknowledges his fallibilities as a human being. Oedipus also places himself clearly in the bigger picture. Although his suffering seems unfair and unreasonable, he accepts that the Gods have a reason for his plight no matter how mysterious and unfathomable it is to human beings. If you consider the way both Greene’s novel and Sophocles’ great play are structured you will note similarities. Both start in the present and descend into the past. Both texts are eventually about a murder investigation and both texts focus on central characters who claim to pursue truth and the facts. Finally, in both texts the characters are implicated in the murders. Both texts deal with the inevitability of suffering and human agency. When do the similarities between Fowler and Oedipus end though? Is Fowler as honest and heroic as Oedipus? What does Fowler mean by “no life is charmed”?  

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).

Importance of Vigot’s love of the French mathematician and philosopher. Pascal in his essays Les Pensees attempted to reconcile religious faith with scientific reason. He also tried to reconstruct a unified sense of faith in light of the Reformation that had torn religious certainty in two.

The pattern of all Pascal’s religious writing is the stark contrast between humanity in its state of fallen nature and in a state of grace. For Pascal, following Augustinian philosophy, human nature was so corrupted by the Fall that only the direct intervention of God’s grace, mediated by the redeeming power of Christ, could enable a human being to do good and be saved. This grace could never be earned, and man could never put God under an obligation to save him, but man could try to remove some of the chief obstacles to grace and thus create in himself a disposition more favourable to his reception.

For Pascal, man is so deeply self-immersed and narcissistic that he has trouble looking beyond himself to seek answers. He defines the human condition as one of ‘inconstancy, boredom and anxiety.’ In other words, by ‘internalizing’ man continues to be wretched and limit the possibility of connecting with God. Fowler illustrates this perfectly in his ‘attempted’ disconnection with others and his self-imposed internalisation. Pascal continues by saying that as long as man does not have to think, he may yet live out his days anaesthetized by activity, meaningless in itself, but strenuous enough to absorb his energies. Philosophers, searching for the sovereign good, have been no more successful than the ordinary man, whose only goal is happiness. From this Pascal argues that, wretched as he truly is, man would not so frantically pursue elusive happiness unless somewhere within him remained a glimmer of past felicity. The impasse lies within man: only imperfection can be found in a perfect being, and, until man looks outside himself for his goal, his problem can never be resolved. For Pascal, quite simply, man must listen to God.

For Vigot belief in an entity outside oneself is central to existence. The reference to the Pascalian wager (p.138) is important: ‘let us weigh the gain and loss in wagering that God is, let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. But he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault. They are both in the wrong. True course is not to wager at all.” For Pascal to wager on a certainty (God’s existence) is absurd. For him it was incontrovertible. Faith is outside reason and chance. In the twentieth century where the certainty of God’s existence has been eroded and questioned one must, according to Vigot, “wager... it is not optional” One has to take sides, commit him/her self to something outside him/her self. Fowler pretends that he does not believe in committing himself to anything so the thought of ‘waging’ is irrelevant as he is certain that any commitment is futile. Vigot, knowing better, continues and says to Fowler: ‘you don’t follow you principles, Fowler. You’re engage, like the rest of us’ (p.138). Fowler’s actions and motivations are clear to Vigot. His actions betray his heart and his decision to take sides. Vigot recognises that despite Fowler’s own self-definitions of being dégagé, his essential decency has forced him to make a decision which exposes his moral stance and ultimately his humanity. He can lie, wise-crack and indulge in abstract philosophical discussions with Vigot, but Fowler’s essential and fallible humanity shines through. His heart betrays his reason, to paraphrase Pascal. As Heng says “Sooner or later, one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.” (p.174)

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