Structure, Language and Syle

Narrative Structure

The novel is structured around the death of Pyle. It opens on the night of Pyle’s murder and shows Fowler being summoned to the police station to identify Pyle’s body. It then follows Fowler for several weeks after the murder, interjecting these scenes with Fowler’s flashbacks to his various encounters with Pyle. The time period covered by the narrative is thus split into two sections: the framing narrative, which goes from the night of the murder until approximately two weeks later, and the flashbacks, which start with Fowler and Pyle’s meeting and carry on through to the night of Pyle’s death. These flashbacks occur in chronological order, as does the framing narrative.

Make a summary of the text that shows these two different narrative timeframes, distinguishing between them by putting the flashbacks in italics, for example, or using different colours. This will show you how much time is devoted to each event and this, in turn, helps you understand which events are more significant.
2 How does the structure of the novel add to the suspense?
3 When does the denouement occur?
4 How is time structured?
5 What are the four major subplots?
6 How do each of these four major subplots begin to reflect on each other?
7 How are the four major subplots interwoven?


Although the novel starts with the death of Pyle, we are then able to get to know Pyle through Fowler’s flashbacks and understand what has led up to his murder. The flashbacks cover Pyle and Fowler’s initial meeting, Pyle’s passion for Phuong, the conflict between the two men and finally Fowler’s decision that Pyle has gone too far.

The flashbacks lead up to the starting point of the novel, going full circle by filling in all the information we need to know about the lead-up to the death, while the main narrative continues several weeks beyond this point to show the aftermath. Fowler has got what he wanted – to have Pyle gone from his life and to be back with Phuong, yet when he tells Phuong, “[i]t’s like it used to be, a year ago” (p.188), we see that he is lying. We can assume that Fowler’s flashbacks of his relationship with Pyle are an attempt to understand why things are no longer like they used to be and we can also infer that Fowler has changed somehow. We need to read the text closely to try and find what has made Fowler think this way.

The text’s narrative structure is thus a direct clue to the importance of the various events. Studying the structure and asking why the story is told in this way will give you an insight into characters’ motivations and significant incidents.

Language and Style

The text is not self-consciously ‘literary’. The prose is plain, for the most part. There are quite a few touches of irony (‘he was sincere in his way: it was coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others’), as Fowler both describes Pyle and offers a dissenting editorial commentary on him.

The style, the ‘voice’ of Fowler effectively – is an artful mix of unadorned description (‘She followed me upstairs’), he is after all a reporter – and sophisticated interior monologue (‘The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved’). Pictorial details are few and far between – the streets of Saigon, the warehouse at Quai Mytho, the war zone of Phat Diern, the brothel in Haiphong – since he is far more interested in the inner conflicts of his characters than he is in a travelogue commentary. Vietnam is the backdrop for his political and moral drama – no more.

Other characteristics of the text’s style are Fowler’s cynicism and his dry wit. Some passages and descriptions are humorous and mocking in tone, such as when he refers to Pyle’s beliefs. Mockery is often used to belittle another character: by poking fun at them, it is harder to take them seriously.

(a) Observation

Fowler is the narrator: it is through him that we access the other characters, and it is his voice that colours the events of the story according to the way he sees them. The language of the text is characterised by its level of observation, which suits Fowler’s profession as a newspaper reporter. It is much more literary and descriptive, however, than the kind of language used to write press reports. Fowler is able to make keen and perceptive comments, often aided by carefully chosen images that capture moods and people and convey a lot of information to the reader. Fowler’s insistence that he has never found anything to be inexplicable, that ‘[t]he job of a reporter is to expose and record’ (p.88) is somewhat contradicted by his literary style. His language and style are always open to multiple interpretations and work not by explaining things clearly, but rather by suggesting and evoking them.

Part of Fowler’s talent for observation is his ability to make accurate judgments about people. It is ironic that Fowler claims for much of the text that he does not take sides or have opinions because all of his descriptions of other characters contain judgments. Fowler, however, would probably consider that he is just seeing the ‘truth’ of the character.

(b) Use of wit

Other characteristics of the text’s style are Fowler’s cynicism and his dry wit. Some passages and descriptions are humorous and mocking in tone, such as when he refers to Pyle’s beliefs. Mockery is often used to belittle another character: by poking fun at them, it is harder to take them seriously.

(c) Dialogue

The text contains a lot of dialogue. Dialogue is important as it is the only opportunity we get as readers to hear characters speak without the filter of Fowler’s interpretation of events.

Take some of the dialogues between Pyle and Fowler. Read only the direct speech (the parts in quotation marks). Now re-read the dialogue with everything in it, including the comments made by Fowler in indirect speech, to see how your opinion of Pyle is shaped.
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