The Quiet American

The Quiet American Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Is it possible to remain neutral in life, as Fowler attempts to do for most of the novel?

    The essay about this question could be structured around personal experiences or the writer could use quotes from the novel as evidence. Based on the novel, the answer is most likely negative because Fowler eventually abandons his neutrality; an emotional experience forces him to take a side, just as Captain Trouin predicts. An important quote to address is: "'Sooner or later,' Heng said, and I was reminded of Captain Trouin speaking in the opium house, 'one has to take sides - if one is to remain human'" (230). 

  2. 2

    Explain Fowler's journey to the point of "taking a side." How do you think his decision will affect the rest of his life?

    Even though Fowler is adamant about remaining neutral, the bombing in the public square forces him to take a side. The answer to this question should take into account all of the emotionally jarring images Fowler witnesses while shadowing soldiers in the north, which start the process of Fowler abandoning his neutrality. It is not until he sees a specific person (Pyle) as the cause of tragedy that the weight of the atrocities fully hits him. After involving himself in the conflict, Fowler says to himself that nothing will ever be the same again. Now that he has taken a side, it will be more difficult to become detached and simply report what he sees without bias. 

  3. 3

    Do you think Fowler genuinely loves Phuong? Give specific examples to support your answer.

    If the reader does not think that Fowler's love for Phuong is genuine, his or her examples should cite Fowler's conversations with Pyle in which he calls Phuong just a warm body next to him in bed - nothing more. These responses should detail Fowler's fear of being alone, as well as his reflection on the women he has truly loved. If the reader does believe that Fowler's love is genuine, it would be wise to hone in on Fowler's panic when he thinks that Phuong is in the square during the bombing; his visceral reaction shows how much he loves Phuong. In this case, it is possible that Fowler has called Phuong a warm body just to make Pyle angry. 

  4. 4

    Fowler criticizes Pyle for being overly reliant on books. Do you agree with his critique? Why or why not?

    Fowler raises this critique several times, mostly because Pyle is not open to interpreting new information he learns while on the ground. He simply refuses to adjust his academically informed opinion. He is obsessed with York Harding's work, and a textbook guides his global perspective. The student can choose either side in his or her answer, but it must engage with how frequently Pyle brings up York Harding and the effect that the books have on his life. 

  5. 5

    What is Phuong's role in the The Quiet American? Do you think she is a fully realized character - why or why not? 

    The answer to this question should address whether or not Phuong is simply a "love interest" serving as the fulcrum of the love triangle or whether the reader sees her as a three-dimensional character. Consider Phuong's role in representing the women of Vietnam during this time - how does her behavior make a more general statement about the role of women in this male-dominated society? What does her subservience imply? Compare Phuong to the women at The House of the 500 Women. What does she have in common with them and how are they different? It is important to consider what is important to Phuong: she is not politically savvy, and she is not particularly concerned with matters of the heart. She simply wants to escape her situation and knows that marrying a wealthy foreigner is the only way for her to do that. 

  6. 6

    How do Fowler's experiences witnessing the battle field adjust the reader's perception of him?

    While Greene typically characterizes Fowler as cold and reserved while he is living in the relative comfort of Saigon, his time on the battlefield humanizes him. He is deeply affected by seeing the violence of the war, which causes unexpected outpourings of emotion. These experiences build nuance into Fowler's character and create the image of a very complicated man.

  7. 7

    Contrast Pyle and Fowler's reactions to the bombing in the square. What does the event reveal about these two characters?

    Fowler has a very visceral reaction to the deaths in the square, and he has an unquenchable urge to press pass the barricades to find Phuong. It is one of the few moments in which Fowler shows such passionate distress over Phuong, hinting that he loves her more than he tries to let on. Pyle is not surprised, however, because he knows about the explosion. His callous response renders him unlikable and inhumane, particularly because he shows no emotion towards the dead and injured around him. In the face of so much suffering, he has the gall to mention that he must clean the blood off his shoes before seeing the Minister.

  8. 8

    How do you perceive the role of Vietnamese women in the novel? What does this say about the society there at that time? 

    Greene portrays Saigon as a paternalistic society, emphasized by the influx of foreign soldiers. Americans and Europeans frequently mistake Phuong for a prostitute, and men like Granger have no qualms about frequenting whorehouses; Fowler alludes to the cliche of foreign newspaper correspondents taking local lovers while they are abroad. Throughout the novel, the male characters objectify Vietnamese women, and the scene in the House of 500 Women illustrates most viscerally. Meanwhile, the female characters in the novel are secondary characters with little influence - neither Phuong nor her sister possess the nuance of Fowler (and even Granger's) characters. 

  9. 9

    What genre is The Quiet American

    There is not just one correct answer to this question, but The Quiet American contains a love story intertwined with an anti-war narrative. The war shapes Fowler and Pyle, which affects the way they interact with one another and how they approach their contest for Phuong's heart. Greene expertly portrays the all-encompassing nature of the war, particularly the unexpected guerrilla strikes. He shows that life on the ground must go on in the face of tragedy and in the character of Fowler, he gives a voice to those who oppose the use of military power to resolve a conflict. 

  10. 10

    Fowler says that Pyle was killed "because he was too innocent to live" and that he was "young and ignorant and silly and he got involved" (32). Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?

    It is ironic that Fowler cites Pyle's innocence as the reason for his Pyle's death because it was Pyle's guilt in the square bombing that led Fowler to arrange for his murder. This is the underlying paradox of Pyle's character. Fowler is using the word "innocent" here to describe Pyle's naïveté, not his lack of complicity. Pyle was too ignorant to get involved, and his youth and inexperience informed his bad decisions. On top of that, Pyle's stubbornness and almost fanatical adherence to York Harding's ideology kept him blind to the reality of what was happening around him. It is important for the student to consider whether or not Fowler thinks he had a choice when it came to eliminating Pyle. Also, it is possible that Fowler's reasoning is a cover for his guilt and/or his jealousy over Phuong.