The Quiet American

The Quiet American Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapter 2

Part One, Chapter 2


The second chapter flashes back to the morning after Pyle's arrival at the Continental Hotel in Saigon, the day that he and Fowler first met. Fowler remembers the American as a "very very serious" man who "criticized nobody" (20). In their first conversation, Pyle and Fowler discuss the work of York Harding, a writer whose work Pyle relies on to understand the situation in Vietnam. Fowler tries to supplement Pyle's limited conception of the war, offering a brief summary of what is happening in the north and south. Afterwards, Fowler goes on his usual walk down the rue Catinat and thinks about what Phuong is doing: he "always knew where she was in those days" (18). 

Back in present day, Fowler and Phuong awaken and neither of them mentions Pyle's death. Fowler asks Phuong if she will stay again tonight, and she responds that she needs to get some things from Pyle's flat. Fowler decides to accompany her because there may be police there, searching the place or waiting to ask Phuong more questions regarding Pyle's death. His suspicions are correct, and the street leading to the flat is filled with police cars. The immediate area around the flat is cordoned off, and the police refuse Phuong entry into the flat. Fowler presents his press credentials and goes to retrieve Phuong's belongings from Pyle's place. Inside, Vigot reports his latest findings: Pyle's car is still in the garage, so he must been traveling by trishaw, by foot, or in someone else's car. Beyond that discovery, the police have not made much progress in their investigation. 

Fowler offers many theories for Pyle's death. There are many warring factions fighting within the larger battle, meaning that Pyle could have been up caught in some kind of political crossfire. Fowler speculates that Pyle could have been murdered by the Vietminh, the Vietnamese Surete, the Caodaists, General The, or even the Hao-Haos as a punishment "for making passes at the General's concubines" (19). As Fowler recounts all of these possible perpetrators, it becomes clear that Pyle had many different conflicting connections to the groups involved in the Vietnam War. He asks Vigot, "Are you really looking for people who killed him?" (27). However, Vigot answers that the report has already been closed. They have ruled Pyle's death an act of war, just one of thousands occurring every year. Nevertheless, Fowler makes sure to insist that the police can take him off their suspect list. "I'm not involved. Not involved," he repeats, internally reflecting on his professional philosophy that a journalist's job is simply to report the news and not to form opinions. Later, Fowler takes a moment to look through Pyle's personal library, which includes several books by York Harding. He decides that Pyle was obsessed with being "involved" even if that meant forming his opinions through books rather than experience (28). 

Vigot tries to ask Fowler a few more questions, insisting that any information he gives won't be held against him - "my report's all tied up," Vigot says as a promise of security (26). Fowler has nothing else to share despite Vigot's threats that the police have the power to delay his application for an exit permit should Fowler choose to file one. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the American Economic Attache, who was close to Pyle and thought of him as a son. Fowler has little respect for the man, and their conversation is sharp and cutting. When the attache laments Pyle's death, Fowler launches into a rant, blaming Pyle's death on his youth and inexperience. "He was too ignorant and silly and he got involved," Fowler grumbles. The attache reproaches Fowler, saying, "I thought you were his friend" (32).  


In this chapter, Fowler once again describes Pyle as a "quiet American." However, whereas in the previous chapter this phrase was a macabre allusion to Pyle's death, Fowler now uses it to refer to Pyle's secret identity. The American Economic Attache admits that Pyle "had special duties," to which Fowler responds, "Oh, yes, we all guessed that" (32). The attache instantly becomes worried that Pyle may have revealed sensitive state secrets, but Fowler reassures him by saying, "Oh, no, he was a very quiet American" (32). This exchange sets the tone for the rest of the chapter, which presents a series of questions about the true nature of Pyle's involvement in the Vietnam War and Fowler's real feelings about the late American. 

In addition to the questions surrounding the specifics of Pyle's involvement, Fowler also casts a shadow over the Pyle's ethical justification for his involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Fowler clearly looks down on Pyle's reliance on books and second-hand knowledge to understand the war and to determine his position. He criticizes Pyle's belief that "it was his job to 'Win the East for democracy" (32). Meanwhile, Fowler despises the idea of involving himself in the conflict, even opting to call himself a "reporter" rather than a "correspondent" like many of his colleagues. He only wants to report the news and claims that he does not even want to form opinions, much less share them. Here, it is important to recall that Fowler is an unreliable narrator. Certainly, his criticisms of Pyle are tainted by the fact the man cuckolded him. Furthermore, Fowler's outburst in front of the attache certainly does reveal his opinion about the overall American position in Vietnam. The reader therefore must question (alongside Fowler) whether it is possible to share information without forming an opinion. This question is important to consider, especially as the broader themes of colonialism develop throughout the novel. 

This chapter also puts Pyle's death in perspective against the broader context of war. The police simply classify Pyle's death as another tragic loss, one of the thousands that occur every year in the midst of the violence. In fact, the inquiry has already been closed -  In the perspective of the police force, Pyle's death is unremarkable and unfortunately routine. Therefore, Fowler does not even need to keep insisting on his innocence, but he does. It becomes clear in this chapter that rote administrators like Vigot and the attache are embroiled in their day-to-day duties and do not look at Pyle's death as emblematic of a systemic problem in the way that Fowler does. Fowler internally fumes, "I was tired of the whole pack of them [the Americans] with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their too wide cars and their not quite latest guns." Moments later, he accuses the attache of being complicit in Pyle's demise, saying, "[Pyle] 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'" (23). 

In the early 1950s, while Graham was writing The Quiet American, the Vietnamese Resistance had become a serious threat to French colonial power structure in Indochina. President Truman's decision to send American troops into Vietnam was strategic: his administration stressed the importance of maintaining France as an ally. Despite the influx of American support, the French effort to contain Indochina ended disastrously at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, when the North Vietnamese Communist forces claimed a definitive victory. The war in Vietnam was rooted in conflicting ideologies, but any philosophical victories were lost on the people who suffered the most: innocent Vietnamese civilians. Therefore, Fowler's accusation of the attache represents a common criticism of the American presence in the region - they justified brutality by claiming to be acting in the best interest of humanity but America, like Pyle, was not equipped to understand (or anticipate) the physical cost of war.