Part One, Chapter 4:
This chapter begins soon after Pyle, Fowler, and Phuong’s first night at the Chalet. Fowler has taken the trip to the north and is inspecting the ruins of Phat Diem from a cathedral’s bell tower. It is not the lively town that Fowler remembers – the war has ravaged it. The French army is stationed in the town, trying to hold off guerilla attacks by the Vietminh. The attacks began four days ago, when a few Vietminh fighters snuck into a procession devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. That night, the Vietminh advance agents struck Phat Diem, and supplemental French forces were flown in to help.
The French soldiers have been able to push the Vietminh forces back about a half mile, but the situation is tenuous at best. Reporters are not currently allowed to visit Phat Diem because the French only allow the newspapers to report victories, but Fowler has been able to get past authorities by not revealing his true purpose. Fowler speaks about the unfortunate situation with a European priest, who explains that the entire population of Phat Diem, regardless of religion, has huddled in the cathedral for safety.
Fowler joins a group of about 30 French soldiers who are travelling to a village outside of the main town, where they suspect up to 300 Vietminh have gathered. The soldiers intend to weed out these enemy soldiers and neutralize them. The group crosses each canal or field with caution and heeds advice emanating from their radios. When they arrive at one particular canal, everyone instinctively looks away. Fowler does not understand their reactions for a moment, and then he sees what they are trying to avoid – the canal is full of dead Vietnamese civilians who were likely caught in the crossfire between Vietminh and French forces. The anonymous bodies remind Fowler about the futility of life.
Eventually, they arrive at a group of farm buildings and the soldiers systematically search the area for Vietminh, but there are none. They sit and wait until they hear two shots. One of the sentries announces that that two civilians have been mistakenly killed. The group exits the farm building to inspect the situation, and the lieutenant shows Fowler the bodies of a mother and her small child. Fowler is disgusted by this senseless loss of life, and thinks, “I hate war” (63). Meanwhile, the lieutenant dismisses the deaths as merely “bad luck.”
Fowler accompanies the French soldiers back to the farm building, where they receive word that the French are planning on bombing the village at night. They begin their journey back to Phat Dinh, once again passing the canal filled with bodies. They reach the cold, dark officers’ quarters, where Fowler is staying. Fowler shares his whiskey with the others before bed, and soon they all settle in for the night. The bombing will begin at 4 a.m., so it is important for everyone to sleep. The officers give Fowler a gun in case he needs to protect himself during the night. Fowler dreams of Pyle dancing at the Chalet alone until someone rouses him awake.
It is Pyle himself, who is already unpacking. Fowler sleepily asks him how and why he has come to Phat Diem. Pyle says that his trip is motivated by two reasons: he wants to see the war for himself because he finds Granger's style of reporting to be shameful and secondly, he wants to tell Fowler that he is in love with Phuong. Fowler is surprised and amused to hear that Pyle has come to ask for his permission before telling Phuong about his feelings.
Pyle tries to explain the foundation of his love for Phuong, which mostly comes from a desire to protect her. He tells Fowler of his plans to ask her to marry him, and this statement finally irritates Fowler. Pyle states that Phuong will have to choose between the two of them, and Fowler reminds himself of the “chill of loneliness” that marks life without Phuong by his side (70). Pyle feels relieved now that he has told Fowler of his feelings even though Fowler is just frustrated by his confession. Pyle continues to praise Fowler's respectful handling of the news until Fowler loudly announces that he only wants Phuong for her body. Their argument is interrupted by the sound of mortars – there will be no sleep now. Fowler and Pyle put the fight aside and each have a glass of whiskey as they listen to the war. This flashback concludes at the end of the chapter, and the narrative returns to Fowler lying beside Phuong and remembering this instance.
This chapter serves to humanize Fowler while concurrently revealing the harsh realities of war on the ground in northern Vietnam. With his professed neutrality, Fowler provides a sharp contrast to the other Europeans he meets in Phat Diem: most notably the priest and the soldiers. He observes firsthand the easiness with which these hardened individuals dismiss civilian suffering. When a French soldier mistakenly kills two civilians outside of the farmhouse complex (where they are trying to track down and kill Vietminh rebels), the French lieutenant simply mutters, “Malchance,” and killer himself says nothing at all. Fowler, on the other hand, is disgusted by what he has seen. He plucks the holy medal off the body of a six year old boy and discards it as "juju," after which he thinks, “I hate war.” Despite Fowler’s insistence that he is merely in Vietnam to report and not to get emotionally involved, there are certain instances that reveal he has already formed opinions, whether or not he wants to admit it.
Fowler even goes so far as to reflect on the worth of his own life, particularly after seeing the canal filled with bodies. He muses that human beings don't "want to be reminded of how little [they count], how quickly, simply, and anonymously death [comes]. Even though [his] reason [wants] the state of death, [he is] was afraid like a virgin of the act. [He] would... [like] death to come with due warning, so that [he can] prepare [himself]. For what? [He doesn't] know, nor how, except by taking a look around at the little [he] would be leaving” (60). Here, Fowler's acceptance of his mortality foreshadows Pyle's announcement at the end of this chapter that he intends to challenge Fowler for Phuong's affections; Fowler does not seem to truly value his relationship with Phuong until he faces losing it.
In this chapter, Greene also starts to draw out similarities between Pyle and Fowler beyond what either of them might realize at this point in the story. First of all, Fowler uses "virgin" to describe his unfamiliarity with the images of death he witnesses in Phat Diem. In comparison to the French soldiers who have no choice but to take death in stride, Fowler is emotionally unprepared and therefore, romanticizes the concept. He even compares his disgust upon seeing the canal full of bodies with the way that Pyle (who is likely a virgin) reacts to the sexually charged performance at the Chalet. The word "virgin" therefore forms a link between Fowler and Pyle; both men have based certain beliefs on that which they have never experienced firsthand. However, Fowler's opinions will evolve over the course of the novel he must face the inherently murky morality surrounding war.
Another commonality between the two men emerges when Pyle arrives in Phat Dinh and sheepishly admits that he is embarrassed by the behavior of Granger, his fellow American. Earlier in the novel, Fowler recalls that he "felt [his] first affection for Pyle" when the younger man "turned away from Granger, twisting his beer mug, with an expression of determined remoteness" (28). Fowler does not like Granger either; even though they are both journalists, they clearly operate in very different ways. Fowler travels to the front lines to see what is actually going on in the war, despite the fact that the real story may never stand a chance of being published. Meanwhile, Granger is more concerned with satiating his carnal desires. He travels only to press conferences and is content reporting the diluted (and often false) narrative of victory that the French are trying to sell.
While deepening the similarities between Pyle and Fowler, Greene also reveals the root of the love triangle between the two men and Phuong. Pyle claims that he has traveled all the way to Phat Dinh in part to reveal his love for Phuong to Fowler. He actually thinks that he is behaving admirably by telling Fowler about his feelings, believing that his noble intentions will somehow forgive his interference in Fowler and Phuong's existing relationship. Meanwhile, Fowler is aware that his moral position to speak about the crime of cuckolding is questionable, seeing that he has a wife waiting for him in England - but that does not stop him from telling Pyle to "just go away...without causing trouble" (52). In this way, the love triangle between Phuong, Pyle, and Fowler is a microcosmic representation of the questionable morality surrounding te Vietnam War. Pyle, the American, and Fowler, the European, each believe he is right without taking into account the feelings of the Vietnamese woman they both claim to want to protect.
Despite being a Catholic, Grahame Greene always resented being labeled a Catholic novelist. However, the struggle between sin and morality is a common theme in many of his novels, and is embodied by Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American. In this particular chapter, Greene (through Fowler's perspective) turns a critical eye on the Catholic Church, which became increasingly common in the novels he wrote after returning from war. In Phat Dinh, Fowler points out the Catholic priest's hypocritical actions in the cathedral, such as locking the doors to the monastery even though it would provide a more comfortable resting place for starving civilians of Phat Diem. In the midst of the generosity that the Catholic priest displays, he ensures that the European Catholics' comfort is not compromised. Fowler bristles in response and also voices his criticism of specific Catholic practices. He calls the act of confession "unmanly," and points out that not all of the Catholic Churches have remained neutral. On the subject of God, Fowler eventually concedes, "it's not the most powerful rulers who have the happiest populations" (41).