Which does more harm in the world, cynical self-interest or blind idealism? The Quiet American by Graham Greene explores this question. It is set in Vietnam, mostly in Saigon, before the French left. Its main characters are an English reporter named Thomas Fowler, an American spy called Alden Pyle, and a Vietnamese woman of Chinese descent, Phuong. Cynical Fowler is a drug addict, an opium smoker. Phuong probably got him addicted. He seems to have been a life-long philanderer, who finally destroyed his marriage when he fell in love. He is hiding in Vietnam, from the broken marriage and from a sense that he has used up all his options.
Yet he is not presented as an evil man, even though he is dishonest with his lover Phuong and has his rival killed. Naive Alden Pyle wants to protect Phuong. He is enamored of political theories he knows only from books, and does terrible harm in his innocence. Fowler sums him up: “I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings. ” At Harvard Pyle was nicknamed Bat, for his blindness. Phuong is not well developed as a character. Is Greene only emphasizing that neither of these men knows her? She is described as child-like and obedient.
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She likes looking at illustrated stories about royalty. She delights in her collection of silk scarves. She is not truthful, but she is loyal to whoever is kind to her. She does what her sister tells her, and goes to the man her sister chooses. She is eighteen when Fowler finds her, a slight child who arouses Pyle’s protective instincts, and Fowler’s need. He denigrates her when he describes her: “She’ll never suffer like we do, from thoughts… ” Yet in another place he tells Pyle: “She looks so small and breakable and unlike our women, but don’t think of her as – – as an ornament. “
Published in 1955, the story displays the social and moral evils of colonialism. There is a sense of outrage about it. Greene describes his work in the book as reporting. He did actually work as a reporter in “Indo-China”, and was present at some of the incidents he fictionalizes. If this is a political allegory, then Fowler represents cynical old England, Pyle is ignorant young America, and Phoung stands in for subjugated Vietnam. (Phoung’s sister is China, and Vigot is France. ) The book cannot be a simple expose of the harm done by spying, however. Greene himself was a lifelong intelligence officer.
He most likely objected to uninformed meddling. As America’s involvement in Vietnam deepened, many did consider the book a prescient condemnation of intervention in Southeast Asia. That description may be incomplete. The name Thomas reminds us of doubting Thomas, while Police Inspector Vigot lightly suggests Thomas Fowler try faith. Phuong herself mentions skipping a shopping trip because of a feast day. Was she Catholic? Atheistic Fowler himself turns to God at his low point, and Pyle is accompanied by a black dog, an associate of the devil in British folklore, and a portent of death.
The first film made from the book, released in 1958 in America, exonerates Pyle completely, and denies Fowler Phoung. Fowler does refer to McCarthyism, when he describes the children Pyle and Phuong might have:” Bright young American citizens, ready to testify. ” The film version released in 2002 is different. “Innocence is a kind of insanity,” Thomas Fowler says. Insanity in the sense that an innocent’s actions are not grounded in reality, as a lunatic’s are not. Pyle, though not stupid, was an innocent who was sure he knew what he was doing, and therefore he was a dangerous American. The Quiet American is available on Amazon and elsewhere.