The Quiet American

The Quiet American Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapter 1

Part One, Chapter 1


The Quiet American takes place in Saigon in the mid-1950s. The narrator, a middle-aged British journalist named Thomas Fowler, is sitting in his room waiting for his friend, Alden Pyle. Pyle is very late and it is unusual for him to not send word in the case of delay, so Fowler goes outside to wait. He cannot see any sign of the American on the quiet streets, but he does spot a familiar woman the neighboring doorway. He recognizes her instantly - this is Phuong, Fowler's former mistress and Pyle's current lover. Phuong is also waiting for Pyle, and Fowler invites her inside so they can wait together.

Phuong worries that Pyle might be in trouble. Fowler gently agrees by commenting, "It's unlike him. He's such a punctual man" (4). As Phuong settles into Fowler's apartment, preparing a pot of tea and an opium pipe, Fowler reflects that this scene could have taken place six months ago - when he and Phuong were still together. We learn that Alden Pyle is an American official, driven by what he perceives as the American responsibility to change the world. Fowler and Pyle often clash over Pyle's belief that American foreign policy is rooted in good intentions.

Phuong, meanwhile, is ignorant about political issues, which forces Fowler to question the basis of her relationship with Pyle. He asks Phuong if Pyle is in love with her, but Phuong laughs off his query. As Fowler inhales the opium, he tells Phuong about an old superstition: a lover who smokes will always return. He says, "You shouldn't live with a man who doesn't smoke, Phuong," to which Phuong simply replies, "But he's going to marry me"(7). Fowler wonders whether Phuong might sleep with him if Pyle never comes home. He asks her to stay, but Phuong refuses, instead asking Fowler questions about Pyle's whereabouts earlier that day. Fowler claims not to have any answers. In the midst of Fowler's third pipe, a Vietnamese policeman comes to the door. The officer orders Fowler to accompany him to the French Surete, the police department of investigation. Fowler consents because he knows that the police have the power to bar him from attending press conferences or even withdraw his journalism permit if he does not cooperate. Fowler and Phuong arrive at the Surete at 2 a.m. and meet Vigot, the French officer who has summoned them. Vigot asks Phuong about Pyle, but she asks him to direct his questions to Fowler because she does not have a good grasp of French. 

Vigot asks Fowler how much he and Pyle pay Phuong to live with them, and Fowler insists that Phuong is not for sale. Fowler denies the allegation that Pyle could be an informant and gives cursory answers to Vigot's questions. He tells Vigot that Pyle is a "good chap" who works for the Economic Aid Mission, characterizing him as a "a quiet American" (11). Fowler tells the French officer how he and Pyle met at the Continental bar, describing Pyle as young, innocent, and excited about the opportunities for him to make a difference in Vietnam. Suddenly, Fowler asks Vigot if Pyle is "in the mortuary" (13) to which Vigot responds, "How did you know he was dead?" (13).

Vigot suspects that Fowler is involved in Pyle's death, but Fowler claims that he is not guilty and recounts his actions between 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. the day before, providing a detailed alibi for his whereabouts during the official time of death. Vigot questions Fowler, wondering if jealousy of Pyle and Phuong's relationship motivated the older man to eliminate his young rival. Once again, Fowler insists on his innocence. Vigot then takes him to the morgue to identify Pyle's body, and Fowler does. Phuong does not accompany them; she does not yet understand that Pyle is dead. Fowler explains the situation to Phuong when they return to Fowler's flat, but upon learning the truth, "there [is] no scene, no tears, just thought - the long private thought of somebody who [was] to alter a whole course of life" (18). Phuong stays with Fowler, and Fowler wakes in the middle of the night to find his hand between her legs. He wonders, "Am I the only one who really cared for Pyle?" (19). 


Within the first few pages of the novel, Fowler describes Pyle as a "quiet American" to the French police officer, Vigot. Interestingly enough, this moniker seems to contradict the characterization of Pyle that Fowler (and therefore, Greene) have been built up in the first half of the chapter. Earlier, Fowler describes Pyle as an aggressive advocate for the American cause in Vietnam. Per Fowler's recollections, Pyle was excited about the possibility of changing the world for the better and took any opportunity to voice his stance. Thus, the false invocation of Pyle as a "quiet American" foreshadows Fowler's critical opinions on America's lengthy and costly Vietnamese campaign later on in the novel. Scholar Robert Stone goes so far as to call the title of the novel "a joke" of which the "unspoken punchline [is]: the only quiet American is a dead American" (Greene, vii). The novel's epigraph contains two quotes that further underline Greene's own opinion on the American intervention in Vietnam, which Pyle embodies: "This is the patent age of new inventions/For killing bodies, and for saving souls/All propagated with the best intentions," (Byron) and a longer quote by A.H. Clough that refers to the "malpractice of heart and illegitimate process" we commit due to "our terrible notions of duty." 

Some readers find the narrative structure of this first chapter difficult to follow, especially as an introduction to the world of Greene's novel. In general, Greene refuses to pander to his reader; the sensation of reading the first chapter of The Quiet American is akin to walking into the theater during a play that has already begun and trying to figure out what is going on without any explanation. For example, Greene does not reveal his protagonist's name until the Vietnamese officer comes to Fowler's door on page 7. There is no mention that the story takes place in Saigon until page 8. Instead of pointing out that Phuong left Fowler for Pyle, Greene plunges the reader into Fowler's mind as he remembers how Phuong "had so often waited for [him] to come home at just this place and hour" (3). Fowler only reveals that he is a journalist through his comment that the police could "have [him] barred from Press Conferences" if he does not comply with their murder investigation. As a result, the reader must be constantly alert, drawing clues about the novel's context from Greene's descriptions of the environment and the ways in which his characters react to it. 

Point of view and narration are critical to the development of The Quiet American's plot. Greene only allows the reader access to Fowler's thoughts and actions, and thus our experience of the novel's events are filtered through Fowler's perspective. However, Fowler proves that he is as an unreliable narrator during his interview with Vigot. The journalist's tone is defiant to the point of being sarcastic. Additionally, from what the reader already knows about Pyle, we can see that Fowler's description of him as a "quiet American" is untrue. Greene therefore plants suspicion in the reader's mind. When Fowler insists that he is innocent of Pyle's murder, the reader is already wondering if Fowler can even be trusted. His inner monologue has made his dislike of Pyle unclear, and Phuong's desertion is a clear motive if Fowler does, indeed, have something to do with Pyle's death. Throughout the novel, Greene will dig further into Pyle and Fowler's history in order to help the reader understand Fowler's reaction in this opening scene - but for now, all we know is that Fowler's behavior indicates that he is hiding something. 

As in his other novels that take place in non-English speaking countries, Greene chooses to include another language (in this case, French) without any translation. It does align French-speaking readers with the protagonist, because Fowler does speak the language, but those who do not speak French cannot understand Baudelaire's poem on page 8. In some places, English speakers will be able to decipher the French with a basic understanding of Romance languages and English roots, such as when Fowler says, "Il est mort, Phuong. Pyle est mort. Assassine" (18), which means "He is dead, Phuong. Pyle is dead. Murdered." This stylistic choice forces the reader to engage with the text and look up the meaning of the words, and it also immerses the reader in this trilingual Vietnamese world where one would hear a constant mix of Vietnamese, French, and English.

Greene never offers his reader insight into Phuong's mind. At first, it appears that her lack of intensity comes from her inability to comprehend the nuances of Fowler's speech, like when he asks her if Pyle is in love with her. However, when Phuong clearly does understand what is happening, she remains incredibly stoic. Upon hearing that Pyle is dead, she simply sits down, leans back, and thinks. Fowler can only describe her mindset as the "long private thought of somebody who has to alter a whole course of life" (18), showing that Phuong's inner monologue is just as enigmatic to him as it is to the reader. In his introduction to the novel, Stone writes that Phuong is "childish" and "has a pretty little head which she fills with proto-celebrity gossip and interesting facts about the British royals." He further goes on to call her a "device... she might be described as the love interest" (xi). This may or may not have been Greene's intent - but either way, Phuong's true feelings remain cloaked in mystery throughout the novel, hidden behind a language barrier, a forceful and opportunistic sister, and the heated political landscape swirling around her.