Greene – The Quiet American

1 Sep

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955)


The term “innocence” continues to appear in The Quiet American and we learn very quickly that Fowler has his own definition.  “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering around the world, meaning no harm.”  Innocence is also dangerous according to Fowler.  He considers Pyle to be the most dangerous man he knows.  Fowler knows that Pyle is intelligent (a Harvard boy), and has good intentions at heart, but he is entirely ignorant with regard to the local politics.  He wants to benevolently spread his book-learned democracy to the suffering and repressed Vietnamese.  The problem is that he wholeheartedly (and rather blindly) endorses the democratic ideals of his idol, York Harding, and so goes searching for a worthy “Third Power” to solve the political crisis.  Pyle’s innocent selection of the loose cannon, General The, leads to the deaths of several innocent civilians, and ultimately Pyle’s own demise at the hands of the Vietminh.  Pyle also acts as a clumsy and interruptive Third Force in Fowler’s relationship with Phuong.


Liking this book almost seems un-American, but Greene addresses some thought-provoking (and still relevant) political points.  At times, Fowler is extremely harsh on the Americans, but how can one blame him; his slice of America is made up of: 1) Pyle, who though a genuine person, is ideally myopic (not to mention stealing Fowler’s girl) 2) Granger, a loud-mouthed, ignorant drunk, and 3) Joe the quick-talking, surname-less, bureaucrat.  The Americans are trying to aid a people they know nothing about and they muck things up badly.


Fowler is an emotional coward.  He fears commitment as evidenced by the slew of women that he picks up and drops in Europe (his wife in particular).  He does like Pyle to an extent (or at least pity his innocence), but he has no real emotional connection with any of the other characters in the book, including Phuong.  Yet he is afraid of being lonely.  Perhaps that’s why Phuong is perfect for him; she is totally passive, she takes care of him and she has sex with him—and asks for almost nothing in return, except for the occasional scarf allowance.  Fowler values Phuong as a possession and a comfort.  He does cry outside of the American Legation office; however, those are solely tears of self-pity.  He sympathizes only with the corpses of the innocent (by true definition) Vietnamese.

Fowler is also entirely removed.  He stands outside of religion.  He drinks and smokes opium to remove himself mentally and emotionally.  He hates to be involved in anything and spends the majority of the novel avoiding the title “engage.”  He refuses to take sides until he has to: the climax of the novel.


I always take a look at the names in Greene’s novels because he’s quite good at naming (or not naming as in The Power and the Glory) his characters.

Fowler is rather obvious.  Thomas, as Pyle refers to him, may have a little more to it; Pyle asks Fowler for his “Christian” name to which Fowler replies, “Thomas.”  After humorously disallowing Pyle to refer to him as “Tom,” it is also made clear that Fowler would rather be referred to as “Fowler” both to reinforce the lack of friendship between he and Pyle and perhaps suggest his distaste for Christianity/religion.

Pyle literally ends up a pile at the beginning of the novel, lifelessly heaped in the mud.  Dead bodies are often piled at wartime and so this may allude to his responsibility for war casualties as a result of backing the Third Force.  Pyle is also a letter away from pyre—morbid to say the least.  Alden is interesting.  It is the surname of one of the Mayflower’s puritan (and British defecting) passengers which points to Pyle’s New England heritage.  Alden is also an Old English meaning “old friend.” (thanks,!)

I also particularly like the name York Harding, York having geographical roots in both England and New America and Harding hinting at Pyle’s staunch belief in his studies.  I admittedly did not spend too much time with Phuong as Greene tells the reader in a note in the forward that he used a friend’s name because it is “simple, beautiful and easy to pronounce.”


Like other novels by Greene, the main character is often fleshed by the interactions with secondary characters.  Although Pyle is a memorable character, he and Phuong are used largely to create a more dynamic Fowler.  He is not altogether a likable character.  He is pretentious, sardonic, and at the novel’s end, villainous.

Overall, I liked the book very much, but not quite as much as The End of the Affair or The Power and the Glory.  I found it more difficult to be sympathetic with Fowler than the protagonists of the aforementioned novels.  Absolutely worth a read though.

Rating: ****

PS – I have never seen the movie and nor do I plan to.  I really enjoy Michael Caine, however, I cannot stomach Brendan Fraser.  I hope he at least put up a performance on par with Encino Man or George of the Jungle.

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