The Quiet American
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|Publisher||William Heinemann London|
|Preceded by||The End of the Affair (1951)|
|Followed by||Loser Takes All (1955)|
The Quiet American is a 1955 novel by English author Graham Greene which depicts French and British colonialism in Vietnam being uprooted by the Americans during the 1950s. The novel implicitly questions the foundations of growing American involvement in Vietnam in the 1950s and is unique in its exploration of the subject topic through the links between its three main characters - Fowler, Pyle and Phuong. The novel has received much attention due to its prediction of the outcome of the Vietnam War and subsequent American foreign policy since the 1950s. Graham Greene portrays a U.S. official named Pyle as so blinded by American exceptionalism that he cannot see the calamities he brings upon the Vietnamese. It was adapted as two different movies during 1958 and 2002. The book uses 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 during 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”.
Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has covered the French war in Vietnam for more than two years. He meets a young American idealist named Alden Pyle, a CIA agent working undercover. Pyle lives his life and forms his opinions based on foreign policy books written by York Harding with no real experience in Southeast Asia matters. Harding's theory is that neither communism nor colonialism are proper in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a "Third Force"—usually a combination of traditions—works best. When they first meet, the earnest Pyle asks Fowler to help him understand more about the country, but the older man's cynical realism does not sink in. Pyle is certain that American power can put the Third Force in charge, but he knows little about Indochina and is recasting it into theoretical categories.
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 the upstart dances.
Fowler goes to Phat Diem to witness 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 pending 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 guard tower where they discuss topics ranging from sexual experiences to religion. Their presence endangers the local guards by attracting an attack by the Viet Minh. The soldiers simply want to live their lives, but they are doomed by their contact with foreign intrigue. Pyle saves Fowler's life as they escape. Fowler goes back to Saigon, where he lies to Phuong that his wife will divorce him. Pyle exposes the lie and Phuong must choose between him and Fowler. Like a small country caught between imperial rivals, Phuong considers her own interests realistically and without sentiment. She moves in 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 witness 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 pending marriage to Phuong. Later that week, a car bomb is detonated and many innocent civilians are killed. Fowler realizes that Pyle was involved, having allied himself with General The, a renegade commander supposed to be the "Third Force" described in Harding's book. Pyle thus brings disaster upon innocents, all the while certain he is bringing a third way to Vietnam. Fowler is emotionally conflicted about this discovery, but ultimately decides to aid in the assassination of Pyle. Though the police suspect 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 will begin divorce proceedings. The novel ends with Fowler thinking about his first meeting with Phuong, and the death of Pyle. Graham Greene was aware early of American infiltration of Vietnam by the CIA during the Eisenhower administration and correctly predicted the ensuing catastrophe this became.
Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for more than 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 intensifies the conflict of the story, especially between Fowler and Pyle.
Alden Pyle is the "quiet American" of the title. A CIA agent working undercover, 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 whose picture 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 cited as a model for Pyle's character.
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 considered by Fowler as a lover to be taken for granted and by Pyle as someone to be protected. 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.
Vigot, a French inspector at the Sûreté, investigates Pyle's death. He is a man anguished between doing his duty (pursuing Pyle's death and questioning Fowler) and doing what is best for the country (letting the matter be unsolved). 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 of their faith: Vigot is a Roman Catholic and Fowler an atheist.
Literary significance and reception
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The novel 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, featuring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser and earning the former a Best Actor nomination. However, after its publication in the USA during 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". The title of a 1958 book, The Ugly American, was a play on Greene's title, however authors Eugene Burdick and William Lederer thoroughly misunderstood the novel. Their book argued that the American diplomatic corp needed to be more modern, technically proficient, and friendly in assisting Third World countries—some of the exact qualities that blinded Alden Pyle. A 1958 film of The Quiet American inverted the novel, turning it into an anticommunist tale instead of a cautionary one. The 2002 version is truer to the book.
- BBC Radio 4, Classic Serial, dramatised in 3 x 60' episodes by Gregory Evans (1991).
- ABC Australia documentary Graham Greene: "The Quiet American"
- Existential Ennui: Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s
- World Socialist Web Site review of the 2002 film Retrieved 27 June 2011
- Greene, Graham (2004) . The Quiet American. p xv: Vintage. ISBN 978-0-09-947839-3.
- Quoted in "The Quiet American" by Joe Nordgren
- Graham Greene: "The Quiet American"
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