The Quiet American

The Quiet American Themes

Acquisition of Knowledge

The means of acquiring knowledge is frequently a point of tension between Fowler and Pyle. Fowler, a much older man, is not opposed to learning from textbooks, but he prefers to let observation inform his perspective. Therefore, Fowler prefers specificity over generalized situations and draws conclusions based on individual instances. Pyle, on the other hand, prefers to gather knowledge from scholarly sources. When he arrives in Vietnam, he believes that he already knows everything he could possibly need to know about the political situation in the country. He relies heavily on the work of York Harding in particular, even though Fowler tries to tell him that Harding did not spend much time in Vietnam and therefore, has not based his opinions on reality. Fowler does not put any faith in Harding's theories, and he believes that Pyle is asking for trouble by trying to enforce Harding's ideas.

Despite their different learning styles and attitudes towards knowledge acquisition, both Fowler and Pyle are stubborn. Neither man likes to be questioned. Even though Fowler is open to learning, it takes an extremely emotional event for him to finally let go of his professed neutrality and take a stance in the war. Pyle, however, never even considers changing his mind - which is ultimately part of his undoing. 


The fate of innocent people is a frequent point of contention in The Quiet American. When Fowler travels north to report on the war, he experiences the reality for most normal Vietnamese civilians who are simply trying to survive. He observes men, women, and children from all faiths and beliefs crowding together in a cathedral because it is the only place they will be safe - political ideology and religion are only distant concepts here, and yet - it is these lofty ideals that have driven these people from their homes to suffer in the cold. Fowler witnesses a confused French soldier kill a mother and her toddler and later, he accompanies Captain Trouin on a vertical strike. The press are typically not allowed on vertical strikes because they result in many civilian casualties, but Fowler agrees not to write about it. Nevertheless, he is sickened by the repetition and the frequency of the attacks on a remote village, where there may not even be any Viet Minh guerrillas. The attackers are so far removed from the people below them that they are unable to understand the extend of the suffering they cause. Ultimately, the injustice of so many innocent deaths is what drive Fowler to take a stance in the war. 


Greene explores the theme of violence through Fowler's reflections on his time in Vietnam. Fowler often goes back and forth about the concept of guilt in the act of committing violence, allowing violence, or failing to stop violence from occurring. Fowler witnesses the aftermath of violence when he crosses the canal filled with dead civilian bodies up north, but in not taking a stance in the war - he sees himself as innocent because he does not engineer violence. However, he later realizes that in remaining neutral, he does not stop violence, either, which also makes him guilty. Meanwhile, Pyle allows violence to happen by giving General Thé supplies to make bombs, but he sees these aggressive acts as necessary means to an end; the people in the square must die for democracy to flourish in Vietnam. Fowler is horrified to discover Pyle's complicity in this terrorism, and it drives him to enable a violent act as well - he leads Pyle to Mr. Heng, who kills him. It is important to note that when Pyle and Fowler enable acts of violence, they believe that their actions are necessary to stop further violence from occurring and yet, they are only perpetuating the cycle of war. Therefore, The Quiet American is an anti-war novel because it projects no positive outcome. 


Because Fowler is the only narrator of The Quiet American, it is important to be skeptical of him as a source of information. His sincerity is always murky because in most cases, he avoids revealing his true emotions. When Vigot suspects Fowler of Pyle's murder, Fowler insists that he has nothing to do with it, but certain inconsistencies make it unclear if the reader can even trust Fowler. For example, Fowler already knows that Pyle is dead even before Vigot tells him. As the story unfolds, Fowler reveals additional information about his relationship with Pyle and their tussle over Phuong, which only increases the probability of Fowler's involvement in Pyle's death by giving him a motive. Furthermore, is also important to consider Fowler's sincerity towards Phuong, a woman whom he may or may not have been willing to kill for. Does he really love her, or is he only afraid of being lonely? He lies to her a number of times in order to protect himself, thus revealing his manipulative tendencies. Later, Fowler's estranged wife accuses him of only offering "temporary" love, saying that he tells the truth in the moment, but his truths change often. Greene uses Fowler's unreliability in conjunction with the non-linear narrative structure to create the suspense that propels the reader through The Quiet American. 

Machiavellian Reasoning

Both Fowler and Pyle find themselves at crossroads where they have to figure out if "the ends justify the means." For both characters, this question surrounds a life and death decision. Pyle, determined to establish a Third Force, weighs the loss of innocent human lives with the possibility of bringing democracy to Vietnam. He originally intends to bomb a military parade to target South Vietnamese generals, but the parade is cancelled and instead, only civilians die. Even though the attack does not go as planned, Pyle still believes that the end justified the means. He says that the civilians "died in the right cause." Fowler's life-or-death decision has a much smaller body count but it is much more personal. Shocked by the damage that Pyle has done, he decides that the American needs to be stopped. With Mr. Heng's encouragement, Fowler starts to believe that the only way to truly stop Pyle is to kill him. Fowler considers the possibility of saving people from further destruction, and finally agrees to lead Pyle to Heng. While Pyle is firm in his belief that the ends justified the means, Fowler is not as sure. He goes back and forth for a while and even after Pyle is dead, Fowler feels a level of guilt for his decision. 


Colonialism and its role in the war is a frequent point of contention between Pyle and Fowler. Pyle constantly berates the "old" colonial powers, Britain and France, but he fails to see America's actions as colonialist, even though he, too, thinks that he is superior to the people of Vietnam. Even though Pyle does not have the immense government resources that former colonial powers employed when they arrived in Vietnam, he does have a vision for the country that does not take into account the opinions of the Vietnamese people, whom he considers to be "childlike." Meanwhile, Fowler tries to point out that broad, overarching categories are useless when it comes to discussions of colonialism. There are important and noteworthy nuances to international intervention, but Pyle only sees the world through York Harding's ideas and theories. Additionally, Pyle (like York Harding himself) has come to these conclusions without spending any time on the ground  in Vietnam, but he refuses to allow his experiences to change his firm beliefs. Pyle and Fowler's discussions also illuminate important questions about Vietnam's colonial past. The soldiers in the watchtower provide an excellent example of Fowler's point - they are vulnerable to attack, but they are unsure about what they are fighting for in this war - they are simply trying to survive. Powerful factions have recruited them into a conflict whose greater benefits they may never see. 


Alden Pyle best represents the theme of paternalism in The Quiet America. Despite his immaturity, Pyle believes he will be a better husband to Phuong than Fowler because he coddles her and tries to shield her from terrible things. While his protectiveness may seem sweet and well intentioned at first, his paternalistic attitude is actually demeaning to Phuong because he refuses to acknowledge her agency and power to protect herself. Pyle thinks of her as a child even though she is a grown adult and has probably encountered more hardships than Pyle has in his own life. She is also more sexually experienced than he is. 

Pyle is paternalistic towards the entire Vietnamese population. He believes that he is the only one with the answers to their problems, and that peace in the region depends entirely on his ability to find and support a Third Force. He is incapable of adjusting his views even as he encounters new information on the ground - he instead prefers to believe that he knows what is best for the people of Vietnam because he has studied York Harding's writing. He discredits their needs and refers to them as "simple" or "childlike." Because paternalism is so central to Pyle's character, this theme frequently intersects with other themes in the novel, such as colonialism and the acquisition of knowledge.