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Themes and Issues

Innocence

•  “God save us always ... from the innocent and the good” (p.18)
•  “They killed him because he was too innocent to live...” (p.31)
•  “Innocence always calls mutely for protection...” (p.36)
•  “Sometimes this is mistaken by the innocent for unselfishness...” (p.113)
•  “Unfortunately the innocent are always involved in any conflict...” (p.118)

DIY
Consider carefully the notions of innocence that Greene puts forward in the novel. What do you think he understands by the term and in what ways is it relevant to the central issues of the novel?

Involvement versus Detachment

The key word ‘engagé ’ occurs throughout the text. Engagé is the French term for involvement or commitment, particularly in a political sense. It was used in the 1940s and 1950s to refer to writers and intellectuals who took a political stance through their writing. At one point Fowler says that he is dégagé , which we can take as meaning detached, or non-committed. Fowler’s main dilemma centres around whether or not to get involved, both in relationships and in politics. Eventually he realises that even inaction is a form of action, as it too has repercussions on the people around him. On the one hand, Fowler is right to not take sides in the Indochina War too hastily: he understands the complexity of the issues and the deep emotions that drive the main actors. He does not want to reduce the situation to a black-and-white textbook example, as Pyle does. Yet he comes to realise, as Captain Trouin tells him, that “one day something will happen. You will take a side” (p.151). Mr Heng reiterates this, saying “one has to take sides. If one is to remain human” (p.174).

DIY
1

Does the book suggest that it is more dangerous to be involved or detached?

2

“Both 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.” (Fowler)
“Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. You don’t follow your own principles. Fowler you are engage like the rest of us.” (Vigot p.138)

What does this quote suggest about the nature of involvement? Do the events of the book support Vigot’s sentiments?

3

Which events and conversations convince Fowler to take sides? What evidence is there that he wavers in his decision right up until the last moment?

4

Do you see Fowler’s reluctance to become engagé as an avoidance of responsibility?

5

In the end, does Fowler’s choice to take sides corrupt or save him?

Adherence to ideology

The Quiet American seems to be arguing against the kind of American intervention in which Pyle is involved. It says that regardless of what needs to be done, it should be accompanied by in-depth knowledge of the country of Vietnam and its people, and by tailoring action to suit these people. It questions the values of Western, first-world countries by showing that a concept such as democracy has little relevance or applicability to a country that has functioned for a long time according to a completely different set of concepts (for example, those of Buddhism and Hinduism) and material circumstances (for example, extreme poverty and an agricultural economy). It shows the absurdity of coming in and trying to apply concepts from another system. This applies on the personal level, such as the attempted Phuong-Pyle relationship, as much as it does to the political situation. Fowler articulates the doubts about the American, paternalistic approach and provides not answers, but a more complex insight into why these views are not applicable.

DIY
1 Does the novel suggest that individuals can be “blinded” by a strict adherence to an ideology?
2 “You’ve got the Third Force and National Democracy all over your right shoe.” (Fowler to Pyle p.162)
3 How does the bombing of the Rue Catinat demonstrate the dangers of blindly adhering to ideology?
4 In what way might Fowler’s adherence to being uninvolved be regarded as dangerous?
5
Is there any justification for Pyle’s actions in attempting to bring democracy and liberty to the Indo-Chinese people?

Love and Relationships

The Quiet American raises the question of expectations of love and relationships by showing that the concept of love varies from person to person. Fowler and Phuong both have more realistic, even mundane, understandings of love than Pyle: it is for companionship in old age (p.105), for sexual gratification (p.59), for financial security (p.120) – material reasons associated with comfort and making life more bearable. Pyle’s ideas about love can be called romantic because they impose ideals onto individuals, rather than starting with the individual and their particular circumstance. Pyle falls in love with Phuong partly because he sees it as an opportunity to help a person, which mirrors on a small scale his desire to help the Vietnamese nation as a whole. Fowler refers to Pyle’s love as a ‘dollar love’ that has ‘good intentions, a clear conscience, and to Hell with everybody’ (p.63).

DIY
1 How do the major characters’ views of love differ?
2 How does the age of both Pyle and Fowler affect their attitudes toward love?
3 Is Fowler genuinely grief stricken when Phuong leaves him or is he simply angry that she has left him for Pyle?
4 Look closely at pp.132-134. What are Folwer’s impressions of Pyle’s attitude towards love and Phuong?
5 Are Folwer and Phuong in love? What do each of them gain from their relationship?
6 Discuss Captain Trouin’s statement: “War and Love – they have always been compared” (p.152).

Imperialism and Colonialism

The Quiet American explores the ethics of Western involvement in other parts of the world. It asks whether we, the Western colonisers and observers, can know what is best for other people and whether we should act for them or let them act for themselves. It asks when well-intentioned help becomes interference. This is shown both on personal levels, in Pyle’s desire to help Phuong, and on the national level. Through Fowler we see the absurdity of trying to read other cultures through the prism of our own, and the necessity instead of trying to understand these cultures on their own terms and in their own contexts.

DIY
1
How does the novel explores the negative effects of imperialism and colonialism on individuals and societies?
2
“They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.” (Pyle to Fowler p.95)
3
What is the irony of Pyle’s comment? Even though the American’s and Pyle say they are fighting for democracy how does Greene portray them as another meddling imperial power?
4
How are the French portrayed as a corrupt and decaying colonial power by the novel?

Pursuit of Power

DIY
1 Who are the most politically powerful figures in the novel?
2 How is power exerted in the personal relationships in the novel?
3 How are the French and Americans portrayed as abusing their power in Vietnam?
4 Although Pyle sees General Thé as a viable Third Force, does Thé seek democracy?

Reality of War

DIY
1 “What I detest is napalm bombing. From 3,000 feet, in safety ... You see the forest catching fire. God knows what you would see from the ground” (p.151)
2 “York Harding is the man you’re looking for, Vigot. He killed Pyle – at long range” (p.167)
3 The dual motifs of the view from the tower and view from the ground – the distant and the close-up – are central to the novel. How does Greene force us to view the reality of war?
4 According to Greene, why do wars persist?

The Value of Life and the Role of Death

“From childhood I had never believed in permanence, and yet I had longed for it. Always I was afraid of losing happiness.... Death was the only absolute value in my world .... Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the daily possibility of love dying.”

Why should Fowler want to die? Because life seems so empty. Nothing is permanent. Friends and lovers come and go. Love doesn’t last. Ideals are hollow. Happiness is fleeting. There is the fleeting comfort of the flesh, but an inner (emotional) numbness. All around are the signs of human wickedness. And yet how can a rationalist believe in an all powerful God? The only thing that seems reliable is the inevitability of death. We know that we will die – that at least is certain. So why wait?

Greene is not an Existentialist in the classic sense, but he does share some of their attitudes. Writers like Sartre and Camus (his contemporaries) saw life as a fragile thing, to be lived from moment to moment (they saw ‘existence’ itself as the only reality, hence their label), with beliefs and long term plans as illusory, and death as the only certainty. And Greene’s protagonist has something of the same view. Fowler snatches moments of happiness with Phuong, but worries constantly about losing it (and her), and when he thinks about life realises that happiness is a mirage (can anyone who really understands life be happy?). Death overshadows life, for him. Worse, death is ambiguous – is it a terror or a relief from life’s torments?

The Quiet American questions the value of life through Fowler’s questioning of his own life and through its description of the senseless killings ordered for political point-scoring. Fowler looks forward to death as a kind of release from the pain and ambiguity of life, yet he also fears having to live through a lonely old age before he gets there. He realises the value of life when he sees the dead child in Phat Diem and again the dead baby in the square after Thé’s bomb has exploded. He sees that the death of just one person is momentous: ‘[s]uffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel’ (p.183). It is as though Fowler has lost the capability to distance himself from the mass killings of the war, as he was able to a short while earlier when he said that ‘the wounds of murder ceased to bleed’ (p.150). He has also started to appreciate the significance of death again.

DIY
1
What makes Fowler realise that he has become engage despite his best intentions?
2
Why does Granger choose Fowler to hear his story of pain and guilt?
3
What is the significance of Helen’s ‘forgiveness’ at the end of the novel?
4
The final sentence of this extract and of this chapter, juxtaposes “without hope” and the finding of Phuong. What is the impact of this sentence after the seeming irrelevance of Granger’s anecdote and Pyle’s death, which has presumably occurred during the telling of it?

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

This issue is at the heart of Greene’s novel. It is also one of the most ancient of all political or ethical problems. Consider the following questions:

DIY
1
What is permissible in terms of achieving righteous ethical objectives? Is violence justified by noble ends?
2
Is hurting people (punishment) reasonable as a method of improving them?
3
Is bloody revolution a proper tool of social reform, if the old regime is bad enough?
4
Is mass murder (that’s what war is) acceptable to get rid of a regime that is corrupt or murderous?
5
What goal justifies morally unacceptable behaviour? History is littered with examples of this dilemma.
6
Is there any justification for Pyle’s actions in attempting to bring democracy and liberty to the Indo-Chinese people?
         
   
   
   
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