The characters

Phuong stands for Asia, and Vietnam, like a beautiful woman in grave danger, but harder than she seems, and with the capacity to rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of war.

Pyle is America – naive, idealistic, clumsy, surprised at the destruction he lit causes when his/its intentions were so good.

Fowler is the Old World, angst-ridden, cynical, despairing – not surprised at all by the corruption of human nature, or the atrocities that people of good will continually commit.


“Opium makes you quick-witted – perhaps only because it calms the nerves and stills the emotions. Nothing, not even death, seems so important.” (p.17)

Opium numbs Fowler. It provides sensual escape that fuse with his moral and emotional disengagement. In the character of Mr, Chou, we see how opium completely desensitizes and disables a human being. “Mr Chous memory is very much impaired” (p.127) we are told. Perhaps that is what Fowler seeks too – for his painful memories to be expunged. By ‘calming the nerves and stilling the emotions’ you turn into a robot – unfeeling and registering nothing. Certainly (to return to Clough’s phrase) “the will cannot get excite” but Fowler finds that this is what he seeks despite the resulting sexual impotence.

What opium also does is provide a surrogate for human warmth and company. Fowler says to Phuong: ”it was lucky I had this to fall back on ... What a fuss we Europeans make about nothing” (p.14). Daphria Erdinast-Vulcan writes “the drug which stills the emotions and calms the nerves, which may be taken as a substitute for love, reduces the need for another human being to ‘nothing’ (1988, p.63). Fowler’s flippant attitude is not far away from Mr. Chou’s actual state.

The use of thresholds and barriers

Fowler views the world through various barriers (e.g. at the start of the novel, note how Greene has him staring at the world below from above through a window. When Phuong first appears she is standing in a ’doorway’. Her relationship with Fowler is ill-defined. Has she come home? Is she coming from elsewhere? Again it is indication of Fowler’s perception of their liaison at this time. Barriers, thresholds, cages and other types of structures feature throughout the novel. Greene uses them to illustrate both Fowler’s detachment from the world and also the limited perspectives of other characters as well.

1 Add to the examples above — what other symbols does Greene use?
Discuss how Greene uses symbolism throughout the novel by supporting your answer with specific textual evidence.
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