The Quiet American

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

Part Two, Chapter 2


Fowler has just arrived in the town of Tanyin, 80 km northwest of Saigon, to report on the annual Caodaist festival. Fowler explains that Caodaism is "a synthesis of the three religions" invented by a "Cochin civil servant" (103). He describes the route to Tanyin as busy and crowded because it requires the transversal of rice fields controlled by the French, and Hoa Hao territory after that, and finally, through fields that belong to the Caodaists. The only way to tell which group controls which field is to identify the flag flying on top of each respective watchtower.

After the celebratory parade, Fowler interviews the Pope's deputy, who claims that "in the Caodaist faith, all truths are reconciled, and truth is love" (106). After Fowler concludes his interview, he spots Pyle, who is struggling to start his Buick. Fowler comments that the two men have continued to run into one another, and that Pyle has been heavily emphasizing the strength of their friendship despite their argument over Phuong.

After a brief chat with his former romantic rival, Fowler wanders to the cathedral while Pyle waits for a mechanic to arrive. In the cathedral, Fowler ponders the believability of religion and the endless human quest for understanding the inexplicable. His thoughts wonder to his wife, from whom he has not yet received a reply. Nevertheless, he is hopeful that her long delay in responding is actually a good sign. On his way out of the cathedral, Fowler finds Pyle in the same place he left him. Pyle’s car is still not fixed, and Fowler offers to give him a ride so they can get back to Saigon before curfew is enforced in the Hoa Hao and French territories. 

Pyle brings up Phuong fairly early in their conversation, but the two men are unable to discuss the issue in detail because Fowler's car runs out of gas. Fowler is baffled because he purchased sufficient fuel before departing, but then he realizes that thieves in Tanyin have drained the tank. Fowler and Pyle are now in a difficult situation: if they do not find shelter and/or fuel soon, they will be in danger of running into the Viet Minh forces, who engage in guerrilla warfare at night. They spot a guard tower and approach it, hoping the soldiers inside will have extra fuel to sell them. Fowler begins to ascend the ladder into the watchtower, fully aware that he may come face-to-face with a gun upon entering the tower. However, he survives entry and comes upon two young Vietnamese soldiers huddled around a small candle. They do not shoot him, nor do they have any gas. Seeing no other option, Fowler invites himself and Pyle to stay in watchtower for the night, deeming it safer than sleeping in his fuel-less car.

When Pyle arrives, he is immediately weary of their two young companions. He voices his belief that if the Viet Minh do attack, the guards will sacrifice the foreign strangers in order to save their own lives. Nevertheless, Pyle chooses to stay with Fowler. As they wait for the night to pass, Fowler and Pyle engage in a series of conversations about the people of Vietnam and the moral justifications for the war. Fowler clearly enjoys provoking Pyle, asking him, “Do you think [the Vietnamese] know they are fighting for democracy? We ought to have York Harding here to explain it to them” (118). Fowler expresses his opinions on colonialism, contrary to his previous claims that he is completely impartial. At one point, Fowler leaves the watchtower to to retrieve a blanket from the car – and while he is gone, Pyle takes one of the Vietnamese soldiers' guns for protection.

Pyle and Fowler eventually stop talking about politics and, after discovering that neither of them can fall asleep, the subject shifts to sex. Fowler tells Pyle about how he met Phuong at the Grand Monde, and Pyle regrets that he has “never had a girl, not properly” (129). Pyle asks Fowler about the women he’s been with, and Fowler tells him that four women have meant a lot to him, though he’s been with forty-odd others. Fowler explains that companionship has become more important to him as he has gotten older. "I just don't want to be alone in my last decade, that's all," he says. It is hard for Pyle to engage in the conversation because he has clearly learned about love and sex in academic studies like the Kinsey report as opposed to experiencing these feelings himself.

Fowler and Pyle's conversation is interrupted when a Vietnamese voice comes booming through a megaphone. Neither Pyle nor Fowler can understand it, but they suspect that a Viet Minh fighter may ascend the ladder or fire a bazooka into the tower - either way, they need to leave the tower immediately. They plan to run towards the rice paddies and hide in the water. As they are descending the ladder, Fowler thinks that something is crawling up the ladder and releases his grip in fear. He jumps to the ground. There is nothing on the ladder, but as Fowler tries to stand, he feels a searing pain – he has broken his leg. Pyle does not realize the extent of his companion's injury at first, and he continues onward into the night.

Fowler lies on the ground, content to die, when a bazooka explosion decimates the tower looming above them. Pyle returns to help Fowler move, practically carrying his entire weight. They hide in the rice paddies to avoid the Viet Minh gunfire. Once the danger has passed, Pyle decides to go down the road to flag down the patrol for help. Fowler, meanwhile, is still overcome with pain, but he can hear a crying voice in the distance – it is one of the guards from the tower, who must still be alive in the rubble. Fowler wants to help the man and moves towards the voice, but the pain in his leg is so severe that Fowler says, “Let me die or faint” aloud as he is walking (146). Upon reflection, Fowler supposes he did faint, and only regained consciousness as a needle of morphine entered his leg. Pyle saved his life. 


The description of Caodaism in this chapter is brief, but it references an important aspect of the cultural history of Vietnam during colonization. Caodaism is a monotheistic religion that was founded in the Vietnamese city of Tay Ninh (Taynin in The Quiet American) in 1926. Cao Dai, which literally means, “Highest Lord” or “Highest Power,” is the highest deity. Shortly after its establishment, Caodaism, which espouses non-materialism and nonviolence, crossed into political territory and became the unifying umbrella for many of South Vietnam's smaller nationalist sects. This was important because it gave these formerly underground voices a chance to be heard over the deafening conflict between the South Vietnamese government and their French colonizers. For a long time, Caodaists were not perceived as a threat; Fowler describes the annual celebration in Tanyin as "a way to keep the peasants quiet" (75), and his interview with the Pope's deputy sounds like the ramblings of a stoned college student. Nevertheless, Caodaism was a mass movement, and its ongoing political critique did have an impact - the Communist government even proscribed Caodaism after Saigon fell in 1975. Caodaists were not granted religious freedom until 1997. Today, estimates of current membership vary, with anywhere from 3 – 6 million adherents. The majority of Caodaists are ethnic Vietnamese, though not all of them live in Vietnam: there are Caodaists communities in United States, Europe, and Australia.

Therefore, the Caodaist parade at the beginning of this chapter suggests the abundance of Vietnamese opinions on the war, further emphasizing the murkiness around the concepts of "aggressor" and "victim" in this particular conflict. Later, while Fowler and Pyle are sitting in the watchtower, they present contrasting Western perspectives on the foreign presence in Vietnam. Fowler mocks Pyle’s beliefs, asking him, “Do you think [the Vietnamese soldiers] know they are fighting for democracy? We ought to have York Harding here to explain it to them” (118). Fowler is pointing out the fact that because Pyle has been extremely focused on the textual analysis of the war, he is blind to its effects on Vietnamese civilians.

Because of his experience and professed attempts to remain neutral, Fowler has developed a much more critical and dynamic view of colonialism than his American companion. Fowler dismisses Pyle's overly academic explanations as "Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer - all right. I'm against him...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?" (120 - 121). While Pyle bases his actions on the visionary ideas of great thinkers, Fowler prefers to examine individual cases and draw conclusions from them.

Pyle, meanwhile, has the naive tendency to adhere to textual, clear-cut definitions. He sees the French as the colonial intruders, but he is blind to the negative effects of the American role in the conflict. Pyle, despite his youth and education, is a relic of colonialism, trying to impose his "Western wisdom" on the Vietnamese. He doesn't take the time to reflect on his import of plastic and how that product affects the economic production and sustainability of the country. Pyle does not realize that just like the soldiers in the watchtower, he is following orders - except his orders come from York Harding and the like. Pyle tries to fend off Fowler's criticisms by invoking the savior-like rhetoric that American political leaders used to justify their involvement, which sounds eerily similar to how the French explained their own presence in Vietnam years before. 

Once again, the narrative reveals additional layers of Pyle and Fowler's friendship, deepening the mystery surrounding Fowler's possible involvement in Pyle's death. Despite the tension over the contest for Phuong's affections, fate consistently flings these two men together in desperate moments. Considering the way that Fowler describes Pyle at the beginning of the novel, as well as his relative lack of emotion when Pyle turns up dead, it is surprising to discover that Pyle heroically saved Fowler's life. Until this point in the novel, Fowler has never exhibited any hint of gratitude for Pyle's efforts, in fact, more often than not he seems to question the genuineness of Pyle's actions. However, it is important to remember that Fowler is narrating this story after Pyle's death - which certainly affects his lens into the past. While recalling Pyle's successful rescue attempt, Fowler seems to be sneering at Pyle for "being careful as he had been careful boating down the river into Phat Diem, with the caution of a hero in a boy's adventure story, proud of his caution like a Scout's badge and quite unaware of the absurdity and the improbability of his adventure" (104). Here, Fowler's sarcasm conveys his knowledge that after this encounter, Pyle would not be able to fend off death for long - his survival in the face of so many risks was simply dumb luck.