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Only a Dead American Is Quiet.
Posted: 19 Apr 2009

Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” is a literal masterpiece that successfully draws a bigger picture of the real world from a small-scale fiction. The plot starts when Fowler, a British journalist, meets a young American named Pyle in Saigon in 1951 when Vietnam is in the First Indochina War fought between French colonialists assisted by the British and the Vietnamese communists. Pyle comes to love Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress, Phuong as they build up their friendship. They maintain their relationship even after Pyle steals Phuong, but Pyle is found as a drowned body when he is about to marry her.

Greene buildes Pyle’s character through Fowler, who once remarks: “I’ve never met a man who had better motives for all the troubles he’s caused.”  Pyle has a strong sense of righteousness. He believes in York Harding, who is a proponent of the “Third Force” theory. It proposes that the U.S. should intervene in Vietnam as a third force to bring about popular democracy free from colonialism or communism. Pyle would sincerely like to help the Vietnamese and puts Harding’s theory into practice as it is. He is engaged in covert operations as an OSS agent and deals with plastics that are used for making bombs. He supports General Thệ, who never shares Pyle’s democratic ideal. Despite his good intensions, Pyle never does any good to the Vietnamese. Pyle is so self-righteous that he is nonchalant even when General Thệ stirred a bicycle bombing. He rather cares about spots on his shoes than the dead Vietnamese. Fowler is disappointed at Pyle and finally lends his hands to communists to assassinate Pyle.

Greene is very critical of Pyle. Innocence is sometimes guilty. Pyle is almost colonialist while he is innocent of it for himself. He seemingly treats Phuong equally but not in reality. He scales everything on his standards since he believes all he does is for Phuong. Pyle’s logic is an analogy of colonialists’ one that they rule the "uncivilized savages" for their good. Greene implies Pyle’s innocence with which Fowler cannot put up causes troubles in Vietnam. He is harsh on Harding and the U.S. as well as Pyle. Pyle represents the United States in a way. Pyle is an innocent, ignorant and passionate young American. Pyle’s virginity connotes the U.S.’s immaturity as a great power. That Pyle deals with plastics also symbolizes that the U.S. is still a new power in the 1950s.

Although Greene is harsh on American innocence, he admits certain good points of their heroism. Pyle saves Fowler’s life in the story. His innocent heroism works out once in a while and he is pitiful in a sense that he is plotted to be murdered by the man whose life he saved. Furthermore, he regards Fowler as the best friend until his death. Fowler has better understandings about Vietnam, but he is unwilling to do anything good for the Vietnamese unlike Pyle. He is rather apathetic about politics and takes no side to be a neutral journalist. He wants the status quo, which his unwillingness to marry Phuong indicates.

Greene is not necessarily in favor of Fowler either. Greene intentionally weaves an irony that the only thing that Fowler does for the Vietnamese is helping to kill his savior. Fowler might seem wiser than Pyle, but he is also shrewd and cynical. He gets Phuong back after Pyle’s death and lives as if nothing happened. He shows only superficial regrets about killing Pyle in the last part of the story. This contrast between the experienced, cunning Europeans and innocent, idealistic but inexperienced Americans is one of this story’s main themes. The contrast has been internationally demonstrated since the Paris Peace Conference in which European shrewdness and cynicism mercilessly defeated Woodrow Wilson’s idealism.

Greene here employs his great skill to draw a bigger picture from a small-scale story in that the relationship of Pyle and Fowler eloquently speaks about the special Anglo-American relations. As Pyle steals Phuong from Fowler, Britain suffers from its declining international hegemony, which has shifted to the U.S., in the 1950s. As a British, Greene is bitter on it and describes the U.S. as a new rich country. There is a symbolic scene in which Fowler suspects that Pyle’s confidence to talk Phuong into marrying him comes from the U.S. dollar’s ascendency over the U.K. pound. While the U.S.’s enlarged economy and military strengthens its presence in the world, it is still a developing great power. The Americans have to rely on European experiences as Pyle relies on Fowler for translation to communicate with Phuong. Otherwise, the Americans are deemed trapped in a deadlock as Pyle is assassinated. However, as mentioned, Greene does not highly value European experiences either. The Europeans’ preference to sustain the status quo does nothing but sustaining colonialism after all. As early as in the 1950s, Greene amazingly penetrates that there is no outside force that can solute Vietnam’s problems.   

The Vietnamese want neither traditional colonial power nor imposed democracy. They just have no say and are given little attention. Greene does not spend so many pages for Phuong’s character development. The title, “The Quiet American” is puzzling since Phuong is much quieter than Pyle. The story seems to lack Asian perspectives. However, as for Phuong, silence speaks for itself. Greene implicitly shows his deeper respects to the toughness of the Vietnamese. They are pragmatic enough not to get trapped in isms. Their experiences enable them to pick up survival skills in a chaotic world. Phuong always acts on her interests and sways between Pyle and Fowler. When she judges that Pyle offers her more benefits, she is willing to marry Pyle. Once she realizes Pyle’s the facade of rhetoric, however, she calmly comes back to Fowler. Some readers might feel that Greene feminizes Vietnam and the survival skills are not honorable, but Greene is rather impressed with their tenacity to surviving the stern reality.

One should rule out a simple assumption that Pyle alone symbolizes all the American characteristics, Fowler all the British ones, or Phuong all the Vietnamese ones. They all represent some tendencies of their own people’s behavior, but certainly not all of them. Greene provides many resources to avoid over-generalization. Pyle is young elite from Boston who is more likely to be an armchair scholar in Washington than the average American. While Pyle is a typical American in a way, Granger presents another image of American. Likewise, Phuong and her sister show two different types of survival skills possessed by the Vietnamese. It is also noteworthy that Pyle is a Unitarian and Fowler is an atheist. Fowler apparently is not a "typical" British. Pyle is more religious than Fowler but has a unique sense of God because of his Unitarianism, which is a heresy due to its denial of the trinity. Pyle is not a typical American in that sense.   

Although Greene never simplifies anything and provides many aspects of the situations in Vietnam in the 1950s, he basically has strong antipathy against the European and American policies presided by elites like Fowler or Pyle. Greene’s foresight is remarkable in that he already predicts the result of the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam as early as in the 1950s. He accurately points out that the U.S. always fails when it turns to ideology as is proven in Vietnam and Iraq War. Vietnam’s victorious independence satisfies his deeper appreciations of the Vietnamese survival techniques.

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