The Quiet American
The Quiet American is Graham Greene’s novel that is set in the 1950s in Vietnam. It happened during the ongoing conflict between the South Vietnamese supported by French troops and Viet Minh. The protagonist Thomas Fowler, who is also a narrator, meets an American employee for the Economic Aid Mission, young Alden Pyle. Having lived in Saigon for a while, Fowler knew a lot about the ongoing conflict because he was also a British war journalist. Two characters differ not only on political matters but Pyle, upon arrival in Saigon, falls in love with Fowler’s Vietnamese girlfriend, Phuong. Their love triangle, coupled with Pyle’s hidden political ambitions to establish General The as the Third Force in the ongoing war, leads to Fowler’s assistance of a communist leader in the assassination of Pyle, who had bombed a public square.
One of the most vivid issues in the novel is the one of violence. To begin with, the novel is set in a war zone in Saigon, Vietnam. The narrator witnesses many deaths that he reports back to his home country. Pyle, Fowler’s friend, is involved in the bombing of a public square. Fowler, who does not like violence, is forced to stop Pyle in his tracks by playing a part in assassination of the latter. This case brings about several issues that are reminiscent of today’s society. During the recent Arab Spring and the ongoing conflict in Syria, for example, the United States is said to secretly have assisted rebels in toppling governments in the Middle East and North Africa. Such issues are important to contemporary society given that countries’ sovereignty is at stake.
Disengagement is also an important part of the novel. The main character, Thomas Fowler, knows that the right step to take is to eliminate his friend and love rival, Pyle. However, he knows that direct involvement in his friend’s death will not only risk his life but also risk future of his home country, Britain. Thus, he decides to play a part in Pyle’s death but in a disengaged manner so that the assassination cannot be easily linked to him. In many ways today, the politics of many countries has powers in the background which determine the direction of the country. For example, many third world nations are controlled by their superpower counterparts such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund.
On the other hand, there is an issue of direct engagement in the ongoing issues in the book. For instance, The American-backed General The, who is being supported as the third force (the first and second forces are Viet Minh and the South Vietnamese), intends to play a direct role in the war. Indeed, today’s political landscape has two sides in most countries, namely the ruling party and the opposition party(s). In their love triangle, Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong played direct and engaged roles. Although Pyle played an almost indirect role in the triangle, he intended to seduce Phuong away from Fowler since he knew the latter could not marry her since he had a wife back home. In a way, this triangle is what gave Fowler an urge to assassinate Pyle.
One of the perspectives harnessed in the novel is a distant view of the war. To the international community, it was a war like any other. The assumption was that the two sides were tussling for resources and political and economic power just like any other countries. A distant perspective also exists that the world believes about the war. The world knows that the war is simply between the local Vietnamese people, and that it is only between the two main factions, namely the Viet Minh and the South Vietnamese. In a way, distant perspective hides the truth from outsiders. The same case is widely applicable today. During the invasion of Iraq by the US forces in March 2003, there was propaganda about the brutality of the Iraqi forces when, in reality, all the allegations were false.
On the other hand, the close-up perspective of the novel comes in the form of the information that Pyle and Fowler have about the ongoing conflict. While both characters are disguised as employees of their respective organizations, the truth is that they know of the underlying directions of the conflict. Pyle pretends to be an employee of the Economic Aid Mission, yet he is secretly engaged in deadly espionage in the form of helping the American government to establish the guerilla General The as the third force in conflict. However, Fowler, who is a British journalist, gets wind of the plot and aids in the killing of Pyle. This scenario is akin to what is happening in Syria today where the world believes that the conflict is between the ruling party and the rebels, yet these rebels are backed by other governments.
Another interesting aspect in The Quiet American is religion. Like many of Greene’s other novels, The Quiet American focuses on what religion requires of humanity in trying times. In the ongoing war described in the novel, applying religion is a difficult undertaking. For example, when Fowler realized that his friend Pyle is associated with the American government that aims at establishing a third force in the war, his religious beliefs were out to the ultimate test. Religion would dictate that he spares his life while logic would require that he puts an end to him and his actions. The same is true in the contemporary society. What religion requires of humanity is difficult to apply.
Man’s Place in the World
A man’s place in this world is closely related to the issue of religion. The novel brings out the notion that every single person has a bigger role to play than they think. For instance, the actions of a single man are seen to be able to change the course of the war in this novel. By assisting in the assassination of Pyle, Fowler proved that his role as a man and member of the Vietnamese community went beyond simply saving his life. He knew, if Pyle and America succeeded in establishing General The as the third force, a lot of lives would have been lost in the conflict. The same holds for each person today. Everyone has the responsibility of ensuring their environment is secure at all times no matter the costs of the lesser evil.
In this novel, the thorny issue of colonization is handled. The first kind of colonization is a traditional one where one country establishes its sovereignty over another one like the French colonization of Vietnam. It can be seen from the novel that a lot of the influence from the French affected the war. France supported the South Vietnamese side since it shared its ideologies as opposed to the Viet Minh. It can be seen from the novel that colonial masters play very important role in the political landscape of the country. In most countries around the world, the influence of their political masters can be seen until nowadays regarding social setups and economic and political landscapes. Even to this day, Vietnam has a lot of French influence within its society.
The other type of colonization presented in this book is colonialism. New form of colonialism differs from the traditional one given that countries do not establish political institutions in their colonies directly. Rather, they do this through the part of the country that they help attain power; then they run the country through them. The guerilla General The is the best example from the novel. America had plans of implanting its policies in Vietnam through The’s ruling. If General The entered the war and won owing to his association with America, he would be America’s path to colonizing Vietnam in a modern way. The same is true in many conflicts going on today. If, for instance, the American-backed rebels in Syria win the war, they will indeed offer America a way of influencing the nation heavily. The same has been witnessed in many other countries all over the world.
The Quiet American also speaks a lot about love. Thomas Fowler had a wife back home. However, he has a Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. She is the same girl Pyle falls in love with, and, knowing that Fowler has a wife back home and thus cannot marry Phuong, Pyle aims at seducing her away from Fowler. Although the book does not explicitly state that the love conflict between Pyle and Fowler fueled much problems in there, it is true that their rivalry contributed to the depth of their differences in political matters. It is correct to say that Fowler loved Vietnamese people because of his genuine love for Phuong, unlike the sneaky Pyle. Throughout history of man, many sacrifices have been made in the name of love, and Pyle’s death is simply one of them.
Empathy and understanding other people in the novel are closely bound to love. On one hand, Fowler understood that what the Vietnamese people needed was not a third force under General The. Rather, they needed peace that could only be achieved by the end of the war. One way of ending the war was killing Pyle and stopping the Americans. On the other hand, Pyle did not understand the needs of the people including Phuong’s ones. He was a self-centered individual whose only aim was to see to the achievement of his goals despite the costs to other people. The issue of empathy can be understood by the involvement of foreign powers in the civil wars around the world. The foreign powers do not understand what the citizens of the fighting nations want since only their interests matter.
It can be seen from the novel under discussion that Orientalism is one of the main issues being put into perspective. Fowler, in his lecture to Pyle (Part II), told him that the Vietnamese people only needed “one day to be much the same as another,” “enough rice,” and the Americans were “trying to make a war with the help of people who just [weren’t] interested”. In this way, the author brought out the fact that the people in the Orient nations such as Vietnam were poor folks who only needed peace and nothing more. This evidence debunks the myth that people from the Oriental nations love war as popular media has painted them. Indeed, the book gave a first-hand perspective of the issues that people in the Oriental nation of Vietnam face every day.
One cannot read this great novel without noticing the issue of knowledge acquisition by two main characters, Pyle and Fowler. On one hand, Fowler is a wise man who prefers the capabilities of experience rather than reading from books or other secondary sources. On the other hand, Pyle prefers to use the work of York Harding as his guide to the country of Vietnam. Although Fowler warns him of the danger of using Harding’s work as the author himself spent very little time in Vietnam, Pyle does not listen to him. His stubbornness leads to his undoing. The wiser Fowler was able to remain neutral in the war until circumstances forced him to join a side. This incident serves as a lesson in today’s society. People should choose practical experience of acquired knowledge.
Fowler’s travel to the north as a reporter reveals sad part of the war. The Vietnamese commoners, especially the women, men, and their children, were crowded together in a cathedral. To them, religion, political ideologies, and war were distant ideologies that had driven them out of their homes. Their innocence comes out as one of the themes that repetitively come out in the novel. In many areas where there are civil wars today, many innocent people suffer, yet they may not even be aware of the reason why, in the first place, the war exists. Stories are told of African rebels abducting innocent girls from schools, yet the girls are not aware why the war is on. As Greene states in his lecture to Pyle, people were not interested in the ongoing war at all.
Anybody reading The Quiet American would not fail to notice that the narrator and main character, Thomas Fowler, cannot be fully relied upon telling the truth. Although he confesses to having loved Phuong, he lies to her severally to protect himself. Fowler further displays this behavior by having known about Pyle’s death before Vigot told him of it. However, he denies any involvement in it. In many instances in the book, Fowler comes out as an unreliable source of information. This trait it also revealed by his wife who accuses him of offering love in a temporary manner and changing his stance the moment he goes away. This trait has been in many journalists and reporters as they often exaggerate the facts in order to gain favorable audiences. Thomas Fowler must have been exhibiting more of the trait.
Pyle’s behavior is very paternalistic in nature. First of all, he is paternalistic towards Phuong as he believes that he can give her what she needs in terms of love and security besides her other needs. He is also paternalistic towards the Vietnamese nation and believes that the only way the country can be saved is through his supporting of the third force. He does not care about what the Vietnamese people want for themselves. In a way, Pyle’s tendencies are much like what the First World nations believe about the third world. They are paternalistic yet mistaken as far as the needs of the third world nations are concerned. Fowler was also paternalistic towards Pyle in his advice to him to stay out of trouble with his political ambitions.
The thoughts of the famous Niccolo Machiavelli sprout in many incidences in this story. Machiavelli, throughout his famous book titled The Prince, severally talks for the difference between political ambitions and life. One has often to be lost for the other in terms of gaining something. In his vouching for the third force in the war, Pyle wonders about the number of lives that will be lost for the force to establish itself. In modern warfare, nations often debate between saving civilian lives and ending of the bad people such as rebels’ and insurgents’ lives. When Pyle’s plan to bomb the soldiers on parade leads to the death of innocent civilians, he regrets about his action. His aim was only to kill the soldiers as this act would have had a bigger impact on the war than the death of civilians.
War involves the loss of life and, most definitely, the expression of fear in several ways. Some people expressed fear by hiding such as the Vietnamese citizens who hid in the cathedral away from the battlefield. Others, such as Pyle, who had the fear of failure, responds by killing and maiming the innocents. Indeed, fear determines the activities that each character takes. For example, Phuong’s fear of losing her life and home made her friendly to the foreigners. On the other hand, after staying on the fence throughout the novel, Fowler was forced to take part in the war for fear of seeing innocent people suffering, and it affected his conscience negatively. Even today, fear drives the decisions of people in powerful positions. Many dictators in the world become themselves owing to the fear of being powerless in the eyes of their enemies.
The issue of mortality is also coupled with fear. Although the author developed his characters so well that, towards the end of the story, they seemed indomitable, he goes reminding the reader that, after all, they were human beings prone to the same type of mistakes. In all his York Harding knowledge, Pyle ends up with a casualty of the war that he was not supposed to be taking part in the first place. The neutral Fowler also decides to take a side in the war as a result of his mortality. His human side could not allow him to watch innocent people die. The United States has often found itself participating in wars it could avoid owing to its mission to keep peace all over the world.
The last evident theme in this great novel is isolation. Some of the characters are isolated in their beliefs and perceptions of life. Pyle, for instance, believes that the third force is the only way to bring peace to Vietnam. Although the United States shared his point of view, the people who knew him closely such as Fowler and Phuong did not support his ideologies. Pyle thought that only more war could make Vietnam a truly peaceful nation. On a lower level, Fowler was also isolated in his secrecy and love in his life. He had a shaky relationship with Phuong to whom he lies on several occasions. On the other hand, his wife did not like the way he expressed his love for her and said that his love was “temporary.”
Coming to the conclusion of this paper, one reveals several aspects of The Quiet American. Besides being a story about the negative effects of any war, the novel also focuses on personal conflicts, failures, and triumphs of the characters. It is easy to see that the narrator is not the liveliest person in the story. Besides having met Phuong before Pyle did (and managing to hold onto her even with Pyle’s trials), Fowler comes across as a flat character whose only advantage lay in his experience with war matters and life in general. He is able to overcome successfully several hurdles throughout the story and is arguably the wisest character. The anti-war message of the story is also strong. Pyle, a character that is developing so well that the reader is connected with him on several levels, dies because he was not careful enough to avoid involvement in a war that he knew very little about.