The Quiet American

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This article is about the 1955 war novel. For other uses, see Quiet American.
The Quiet American
QuietAmerican.jpg
First edition
Author Graham Greene
Cover artist "BGS"[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre War novel
Publisher William Heinemann London
Publication date
December 1955
Media type Print

The Quiet American is an anti-war novel by English author Graham Greene, first published in the United Kingdom in 1955 and in the United States in 1956. It was adapted into films in 1958 and 2002. The book draws on Greene's experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a "third force in Vietnam”.

Plot[edit]

Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for over two years. He meets a young American idealist named Alden Pyle, a CIA agent working under cover. Pyle lives his life and forms his opinions based on the books written by York Harding, who writes books on foreign policy, with no real experience in matters of Southeast Asia at all. Harding's theory is that neither Communism nor colonialism are the answer in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a "Third Force"—usually a combination of traditions—works best. When Pyle and Fowler first meet, Pyle says he would be delighted if Fowler could help him understand more about the country. Fowler is much older, more realistic and more cynical.

Fowler has a live-in lover, Phuong, who is only 20 years old and was previously a dancer at The Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) on Jaccareo Road, in Cholon. Her sister's intent is to arrange a marriage for Phuong that will benefit herself and her family. The sister disapproves of their relationship, as Fowler is already married and an atheist. So, at a dinner with Fowler and Phuong, Pyle meets her sister, who immediately starts questioning Pyle about his viability for marriage with Phuong. Towards the end of the dinner, Pyle dances with Phuong, and Fowler notes how poorly he dances.

Fowler goes to Phat Diem to cover a battle there. Pyle travels there to tell him that he has been in love with Phuong since the first night he saw her, and that he wants to marry her. They make a toast to nothing and Pyle leaves the next day. Fowler gets a letter from Pyle thanking him for being so nice. The letter annoys Fowler because of Pyle's arrogant confidence that Phuong will leave Fowler to marry him. Meanwhile, Fowler's editor wants him to transfer back to England.

Pyle comes to Fowler's residence and they ask Phuong to choose between them. She chooses Fowler, unaware that he is up for a transfer. Fowler writes to his wife to ask for a divorce in front of Phuong.

Fowler and Pyle meet again in a war zone. They end up in a tower, and their discussion topics range from their sexual experiences to religion. As they escape, Pyle saves Fowler's life. Fowler goes back to Saigon, where he lies to Phuong that his wife will divorce him. Pyle exposes the lie and Phuong moves in secretly with Pyle. After receiving a letter from Fowler, his editor decides that he can stay in Indo-China for another year. Fowler goes into the midst of the battlefield to cover the unfolding events.

When Fowler returns to Saigon, he goes to Pyle's office to confront him, but Pyle is out. Pyle comes over later for drinks and they talk about his upcoming marriage to Phuong. Later that week, a car bomb is detonated and many innocent civilians are killed from the blast. Fowler puts the pieces together and realises that Pyle is behind the bombing. Realising that Pyle is causing innocent people to die, Fowler takes part in an assassination plot against him. Although the police believe that Fowler is involved, they cannot prove anything. Phuong goes back to Fowler as if nothing had ever happened. In the last chapter, Fowler receives a telegram from his wife in which she states that she has changed her mind and that she will start divorce proceedings. The novel ends with Fowler reflecting on his first meeting with Phuong, and the death of Pyle.

Major characters[edit]

THOMAS FOWLER is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for over two years. He has become a very jaded and cynical man. He meets Alden Pyle and finds him naïve. Throughout the book Fowler is often caught in lies and sometimes there may be speculation that he is lying to himself. Fowler's relationship with Vietnamese woman Phuong often fuels the conflict in the story, especially between Fowler and Pyle. Fowler is also used as a metaphor to describe the character. The word foul is relatively similar to his last name and connections can be made about the character's actions in the book.

Alden Pyle is the "quiet American" of the title. A CIA agent working under cover, Pyle is thoughtful, soft-spoken, intellectual, serious, and idealistic. He comes from a privileged East Coast background. His father is a renowned professor of underwater erosion who has appeared on the cover of Time magazine; his mother is well respected in their community. Pyle is a brilliant graduate of Harvard University. He has studied theories of government and society, and is particularly devoted to a scholar named York Harding. Harding's theory is that neither Communism nor colonialism is the answer in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a "Third Force", usually a combination of traditions, works best. Pyle has read Harding's numerous books many times and has adopted Harding's thinking as his own. Pyle also strives to be a member of this "Third Force". US military counter-insurgency expert Edward Lansdale, who was stationed in Vietnam 1953–1957, is sometimes incorrectly cited as a model for Pyle's character.[2]

Phuong, Fowler's lover at the beginning of the novel, is a beautiful young Vietnamese woman who stays with him for security and protection, and leaves him for the same reason. She is viewed by Fowler as a lover to be taken for granted and by Pyle as a delicate flower to be protected, but Greene never makes clear which, if either, of these views is actually the truth. Pyle's desire for Phuong was largely interpreted by critics to parallel his desire for a non-communist south Vietnam. Her character is never fully developed or revealed. She is never able to show her emotions, as her older sister makes decisions for her. She is named after, but not based on, a Vietnamese friend of Greene's.[3]

Vigot, a French inspector at the Sûreté, investigates Pyle's death. He is a man torn between doing his duty (pursuing Pyle's death and questioning Fowler) and doing what is best for the country (letting the matter go). He and Fowler are oddly akin in some ways, both faintly cynical and weary of the world; hence their discussion of Blaise Pascal. But they are divided by the differences in their faith: Vigot is a Roman Catholic and Fowler an atheist.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

After its publication in the US in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticised by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people. According to critic Philip Stratford, “American readers were incensed, perhaps not so much because of the biased portrait of obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism in Alden Pyle, but because in this case it was drawn with such acid pleasure by a middle-class English snob like Thomas Fowler whom they were all too ready to identify with Greene himself”.[4] However, it was popular in England and over the years has achieved notable status, being adapted into films in 1958 and most recently in 2002 by Miramax, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser and earning the former a Best Actor nomination.

Adaptations[edit]

Film[edit]

Documentary[edit]

  • ABC Australia documentary Graham Greene: "The Quiet American"[5]

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ Existential Ennui: Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s
  2. ^ World Socialist Web Site review of the 2002 film Retrieved 27 June 2011
  3. ^ Greene, Graham (1955, 2004). The Quiet American. p xv: Vintage. ISBN 978-0-09-947839-3. 
  4. ^ Quoted in "The Quiet American" by Joe Nordgren
  5. ^ Graham Greene: "The Quiet American"

External links[edit]

  • This book was quoted by George W. Bush in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars Bush's Quiet Americans