"They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about, and you gave him money and York Harding's books on the East and said, 'Go ahead. Win the East for democracy.' He never saw anything he hadn't heard in a lecture hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him."
When Fowler meets the American Economic Attaché outside of Pyle's old flat, he gives this explanation for Pyle's death. At this point, the reader does not know anything about the American's demise, but Fowler's statement gains significance by the end of the novel. Pyle had become so wrapped up in "winning the East for democracy" and York Harding's theories that he was blinded by the negative externalities of his plan. He was willing to kill innocent people to establish a Third Force in Vietnam, but he failed to understand the toll it would take on the people around him. Pyle's character is a microcosmic representation of how unprepared the American forces were when they came to Vietnam in the middle of the 20th century, which is the core of Greene's anti-American critique.
He called out, "Fowler, Could you explain to this darned driver..."
He said, "But that's just what I told him, but he always pretends not to understand French."
"It may be a matter of accent."
"I was three years in Paris. My accent's good enough for one of these darned Vietnamese."
"The voice of Democracy," I said.
The disrespect and disregard that the Americans and Europeans have towards the Vietnamese people becomes increasingly evident as the novel progresses. This exchange between Joe, the American Economic Attaché, and Fowler outside of Pyle's old flat establishes the American presence in Vietnam. Both Joe and Pyle are unable to appreciate the opinions and lifestyles of the Vietnamese, yet they refuse to see themselves as colonialists. They believe that they are superior to the "typical" colonialist, but they are also interfering in Vietnamese affairs and trying to engineer a situation that is in their best interest.
“He belongs to the American Economic Mission. You know the kind of thing – electrical sewing machines for starving seamstresses.”
“Are there any?”
“I don’t know.”
“But they don’t use sewing machines. There wouldn’t be any electricity where they live.” She was a very literal woman.
“You’ll have to ask Pyle,” I said.
Before Greene begins making serious criticisms of the American presence in Vietnam, he writes smaller quips that poke fun of Pyle and his colleagues at the Economic Mission. In this conversation with Miss Hei, Phuong's sister, Fowler is sarcastically describing Pyle's responsibilities in Vietnam. He claims that Pyle is distributing sewing machines, which are completely useless here. Miss Hei does not realize that Fowler is mocking Pyle, but her responses reinforce the idea that the Americans have developed a savior complex without doing very much research into the needs of the Vietnamese people. This is just an early indicator of the more overt anti-American sentiment that emerges later in Greene's novel.
“The canal was full of bodies; I am reminded now of an Irish stew containing too much meat. The bodies overlapped; one head, seal-grey, and anonymous as a convict with a shaven scalp, stuck up out of the water like a buoy. There was no blood; I suppose it had flowed away a long time ago. I have no idea how many there were; they must have been caught in a cross-fire trying to get back, and I suppose every man of us along the bank was thinking, Two can play at that game. I too took my eyes away; we didn’t want to be reminded of how little we counted, how quickly, simply, and anonymously death came. Even though my reason wanted the state of death, I was afraid like a virgin of the act. I would have liked death to come with due warning, so that I could prepare myself. For what? I didn’t know, nor how, except by taking a look around at the little I would be leaving.”
This excerpt comes from Fowler's first trip to the battlefield north of Hanoi. The French troops have heavily controlled the news leaving the front, and this is Fowler's first understanding of the level of violence that has occurred there. He is deeply affected by what he sees on the front, and it prompts meaningful self-reflection. In this portion of the narrative, Fowler thinks about death and his self-worth. He realizes that his life is insignificant in the larger scheme of things. He also admits that he fears death. Fowler previously shows little emotion when speaking about the war or life in general, but this scene serves to humanize him as a character.
“Twenty yards beyond the farm buildings, in a narrow ditch, we came on what we sought: a woman and a small boy. They were clearly very dead – a small neat clot of blood on the woman’s forehead, and the child might have been sleeping. He was about six years old, and he lay like an embryo in the womb with his little bony knees drawn up. “Malchance,” the lieutenant said. He bent down and turned the child over. He was wearing a holy medal around his neck, and I said to myself, The juju doesn’t work. There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, I hate war.”
This passage comes right after Fowler has seen the dead bodies in the water. Now he is confronted with two dead innocent civilians, shot by one of the soldiers in the group with which he is traveling. The lieutenant dismisses the deaths as "bad luck," but Fowler cannot swallow the horrors of war so flippantly. He looks at the holy medal that the child is wearing and realizes how useless faith is at this moment. Even though Fowler claims not to have taken a side in the war, he repeatedly vocalizes how much he hates it.
“And, waking that morning months later with Phuong beside me, I thought, And did you understand her either? Could you have anticipated this situation? Phuong so happily asleep beside me and you dead? Time has its revenges, but revenges seem so often sour. Wouldn’t we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife a husband, a lover a mistress, nor a parent a child? Perhaps that’s why men have invented God – a being capable of understanding. Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader-writers.”
This passage is typical of Fowler's confessional narrative. He is constantly moving forward and backward in time, and these transitions are often driven by self-reflection. His mention of revenge hints that he may be more involved upset about Phuong's desertion than he initially let on, but he does not reveal much more - yet. When he questions the value of attempting to understand the world or human beings, he is justifying his own belief in not engaging with the war. If he wanted to form opinions or convince himself that it is worthwhile to form opinions, he would actually have to "bamboozle" himself into doing so.
"Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer - all right. I'm against him. He hasn't been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he'd beat his wife. I've seen a priest, so poor he hasn't a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old cup - a wooden platter. I don't believe in God and yet I'm for that priest. Why don't you call that colonialism?"
Fowler and Pyle discuss colonialism and the war while they are trying to stay safe in the watchtower at night. Pyle sees the world through a black and white lens, he believes that everything can be defined by 'isms and ocracies.' Fowler prefers to see the nuances of the world around him, and this marks a clear contrast between the two men. Fowler is explaining to Pyle that he prefers to make judgments based on specific examples; he wants the American to see that decisions and judgments go beyond basic binaries. Pyle's inability to move beyond his firmly-clutched ideas, however, shows his naiveté and inexperience in the world. He can only see the world in the way that York Harding describes it and refuses to question Harding's interpretations.
"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."
Fowler has long refused to engage in the conflict in Vietnam. Throughout the novel, he claims that he is a reporter, not a correspondent, because he merely reports the facts - he does not form opinions. Over and over again, Fowler says that he is not engaged in the situation and it often seems as though he is trying to convince himself. However, after the bombing in the square he no longer can stand to be neutral. He has gone through a traumatic and emotional experience, and he feels that he has to engage. He goes to Mr. Heng, and Mr. Heng says something very similar to what Captain Trouin told him - insinuating that he must take a side. Here, Mr. Heng raises the stakes for making a decision, implying that Fowler must engage with the situation in order to remain human.
"Unlike them, I had reason for thankfulness, for wasn't Phuong alive? Hadn't Phuong been "warned"? But what I remembered was the torso in the square, the baby on its mother's lap. They had not been warned; they had not been sufficiently important. And if the parade had taken place would they not have been there just the same, out of curiosity, to see the solders, and hear the speakers, and throw the flowers? A two-hundred-pound bomb does not discriminate. How many dead colonels justify a child's or a trishaw driver's death when you are building a national democratic front? I stopped a motor trishaw and told the driver to take me to the Quai Mytho."
This is the moment when Fowler takes a side and engages in the conflict. He is horrified by the carnage that Pyle has caused even though Pyle warned Phuong, the woman Fowler loves, to stay away. Fowler is grateful for Phuong's safety but he is angry that Pyle thinks he can value the lives of some over others. Why should Phuong's life be worth more than the mother and her baby? He believes it is unfair that Phuong, or any other person, gets preferential treatment just because she knows the right people. Fowler is fed up with Pyle's ignorant determination to find a Third Force and bring democracy to Vietnam, regardless of how many innocent lives are claimed in the process.
"It is not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion, and then we cannot get out. War and love- they have always been compared."
This is the moment in which Fowler starts moving in the direction of taking a stance. He is upset by the violence he has witnessed during the vertical strike, and discusses it with the pilot of the jet, Captain Trouin, over a drink. The Captain has rationalized his own role in the war, and he predicts that Fowler will eventually have to make a decision as well. There will be an emotional moment that forces him to become engaged in the events going on around him, just as the Captain has done. This quote foreshadows the bombing in the square; the "moment of emotion" that forces Fowler to take a side.
The Quiet American Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Quiet American is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think that themes are more effective than morals. Still, if you need a moral, you might consider that violence is always bad for both a people and their country. Check out the GradeSaver themes page below: