The Quiet American

The Quiet American Literary Elements


War Novel; Mystery; Drama; Political Drama; Fiction

Setting and Context

Saigon, Vietnam (French Indochina) Early 1950s

Narrator and Point of View

Thomas Fowler is the narrator, and the story is told from his point of view.

Tone and Mood

Tragic, Anti-War

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonist: Humanity/Thomas Fowler; Antagonist: Idealism/Alden Pyle

Major Conflict

Who killed Alden Pyle and why?


The climax of the novel takes place at the end of Part Three, when Alden Pyle's complicity in the public bombing forces Thomas Fowler to take a side. He immediately goes to see Mr. Heng, and after that, arranges for Pyle's murder.


- In Part I, Chapter One, Vigot tells Fowler that Pyle's body was found under the bridge to Dakow. Fowler thinks, "It wasn't safe to cross the bridge at night, for all the far side of the river was in the hands of th Vietminh after dark" (11). This foreshadows Fowler's later revelation that Pyle was crossing the bridge to meet him, and he had engineered the meeting specifically so that Mr. Heng (a Communist operative) could murder Pyle as he passed by.

- In Part I, Chapter Three, Pyle wants to protect Phuong from a sexually suggestive dance performance. This foreshadows his protecting her from the bombing in the square at the end of Part III, and reveals that Pyle is more interested in keeping Phuong safe even if he does not care about the other innocents' fate.


- "'The trouble is,' I said, 'he got mixed up'" (11). Fowler knows that Pyle engineered a deadly bombing that killed many innocent people, and draws attention to this fact with his understatement of Pyle's complicity.

- "Go away and play with your plastics" (125). Here, Fowler sarcastically refers to Pyle's work with plastics as "play" as a way of indicating his knowledge that Pyle is helping General The build bombs.


- "If Hitler had come into the conversation, [Phuong] would have interrupted to ask who he was" (4). This allusion to Hitler and World War II reveals Phuong's ignorance about the geopolitical landscape of her home country.

- "Perhaps only ten days ago [Pyle] had been walking across the Common in Boston, his arms full of books he had been reading in advance on the Far East and the problems of China" (10). Greene uses this allusion to Boston, a city with many renowned universities (including Harvard in nearby Cambridge, MA), to associate Pyle with academics as opposed to Fowler's experience.


See section on "Imagery"


- In Part One, Chapter 2, Pyle tells the American Economic Attache that "they killed Pyle because he was too innocent to live" (23). Pyle actually died because he was guilty, but his guilt was a result of his innocence. He was so innocent about the ways of the world and so committed to his textbooks that he could not see how many people his actions were hurting. Therefore, paradoxically, Pyle was both too innocent and too guilty to live.

- In Part One, Chapter 4, Fowler thinks to himself, “I hate war" (45). However, he continues to profess his neutrality even though he has clearly formed an opinion. This paradox reveals the reality behind Captain Trouin and Mr. Heng's arguments: that it is not possible to be both human and neutral in certain instances. Fowler then realizes that his self-perception is a paradox: he has been trying to maintain his humanity by refusing to take a side. Ultimately, his hatred for war forces him to get involved - which perpetuates the violence. Such is the paradox of war, and this message is ultimately what makes The Quiet American an anti-war novel.


-"I have read so often of people's thoughts in the moment of fear: of God, or family, or a woman" (83). Fowler has questioned his faith in all three of these concepts throughout the novel, and thinks to himself, "I admire their control. I thought of nothing."

This use of parallelism reveals Fowler's loneliness in life - the fact that faith or family might meant he would be thinking about something besides himself in this moment.

- "The whole affair, as it turned out, was not worth more than a paragraph, a humorous paragraph at that. It bore no relation to the sad and heavy war in the north, those canals in Phat Diem choked with the grey days-old bodies, the pounding of the mortars, the white glare of napalm" (133).

Here, Greene uses understatement (and irony) as well as parallelism to comment on the heavily biased media portrayal of the war. European and American journalists are expected to write propaganda, not actually report on what is happening on the ground in Vietnam.

Metonymy and Synecdoche


- "Several times he seemed to shrink up within himself at the noise of the American Press on the terrace above..." (15).
Here, Greene uses "American Press" to refer to the American journalists who are there.

- "The French control the main roads until seven in the evening" (17).
"The French" refers to all the French soldiers stationed in that part of Vietnam.

- "There was no protection here for the civilian" (30).
"The civilian" refers to all Americans who are not soldiers.

-"We couldn't land at the naval station because it was cut off by the enemy who completely surrounded the town at a range of six hundred yards..." (38).
"The Enemy" refers to enemy soldiers


-"' Have you read York Harding?' he asked. 'No. No, I don't think so. What did he write?'" (15).
Here, the name of the writer is used to refer to his writing.


-"Out on the waterfront slept the ships" (6).

- "She quickly got up, shaking the yellow tree so that it showered its petals again over my typewriter" (7).

Both of these examples serve to personify Saigon itself, which Fowler describes as a living, breathing character in the novel. It is the site of conflict and heartbreak, war and death, but despite all that, Saigon is still a city that existed long before the war and will continue to exist long after - even if it is very different.

- "Aren't we all better dead? the opium reasoned within me" (10). Here, Fowler's personification of the opium serves to detach him from the guilt he is dealing with regarding his role in Alden Pyle's death.