The Quiet American

The Quiet American Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapter 5

Part One, Chapter 5:


Fowler is traveling back to Saigon from the north. Instead of the usual one-week journey, it takes him three weeks to return because the road between between Nam Dinh and Hanoi has been blocked and aerial transport is hard to track down. Pyle left the morning after telling Fowler about his feelings for Phuong. Fowler thinks to himself that Pyle is incapable of conceiving danger or pain, which is why he has rushed back to Saigon even though the journey could be treacherous. Fowler's narrative briefly breaks from the flashback to reveal an instance (in the present day) when Fowler recalls injuring Pyle's foot as a way to force the younger man to feel pain.

When Fowler returns to Saigon, he learns that Pyle has persuaded a naval officer to drop him off at Nam Dinh after a routine patrol. From there, he was able to get to Hanoi before the road was closed off. Pyle has left a note for Fowler at Hanoi's press camp, in which he once again thanks Fowler for reacting so calmly to the news of his intention to pursue Phuong. In the letter, Pyle also writes about how relieved he is, repeatedly mentioning that he once felt mean but no longer does. Fowler is frustrated by Pyle's selfishness and limited perspective. 

After reading Pyle's letter, Fowler goes to a press conference. Granger is among the other journalists listening to a French colonel relaying distorted information about the success of the French operation in Vietnam, bragging about the numerous Vietminh casualties. An American reporter asks for information about French losses, which the colonel dodges by saying that they haven't had time to calculate the French losses. This provokes Granger, who asks, "Is the colonel seriously telling us that he's had time to count the enemy dead and not his own?" (77) A heated back and forth ensues until the colonel finally reveals that the French casualties are in a proportion of 1 to 3.

Granger pushes on, eager to learn more about what the French plan to do next. When the colonel only responds, "The enemy are in flight," (79) Granger responds sarcastically, "Are you going to drop them Christmas cards?" (79).This prompts a discussion about the types of supplies that the French are currently controlling and the fact that the Americans have not sent any of the supplies they promised to send in September. Granger immediately begins writing, convinced he has his story. The colonel reprimands him and says, "That is not for printing; that is for background" (80). Moments later, the colonel addresses the crowd about the topic, telling the journalists that they can write, "six months ago we had three helicopters and now we have one.... You can say that if a man is wounded in this fighting, not seriously wounded, just wounded, he knows that he is probably a dead man. Twelve hours, twenty-four hours perhaps, on a stretcher to the ambulance, then bad tracks, a breakdown, perhaps an ambush, gangrene. It is better to be killed outright" (80 - 81). 

Afterwards, Fowler does not put much effort into his telegram. After all, he cannot write about anything he has seen in Phat Diem because it will not make it past the censors. He sits in his room and thinks about how he has been appointed the new foreign editor for his newspaper and will therefore have to return to England soon. Now, he thinks, he has nothing to offer Phuong - no future. He does not even have 12 months left in Vietnam. The chapter ends with a conversation between Fowler and a man named Pietri:

'I said, "I'm going back."

"Home?" Pietri asked, throwing a four-two-one.

"No. England"' (59). 


Fowler's internal thoughts about Pyle reveal that he is starting to question Pyle's integrity. He remarks that Pyle is only concerned with about his own well-being, regardless of how his actions affect others. The way Pyle handles telling Fowler about his own feelings for Phuong reveal his selfishness. Pyle only wants to speak to Fowler about his intent to marry Phuong so that he does not feel bad about cuckolding the older man. Even though Fowler is clearly unhappy with the news, Pyle is fine to interpret Fowler's innate politeness as acceptance of the situation and happily goes on his way. Pyle has a particular set of moral codes that he needs to fulfill in order to feel good about himself, and is frightfully unaware of whether or not doing so will cause pain to others. Fowler aptly points out Pyle's cluelessness when he comments, "Yet [Pyle is] sincere in his way; it [is] coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others, until that final night under the bridge to Dakow" (75). This is an instance of foreshadowing; Fowler insinuates that Pyle's death is somehow a punishment for his selfishness.  

Fowler carefully plants the seeds of the internal conflict he will have to contend with in the novel's denouement. His narration highlights the fact that while Pyle is trying to make his move on Phuong, Fowler is dealing with the news that he will be returning to England as the foreign news editor for his paper. He is deeply saddened to return home, which reveals his attachment to Vietnam and to Phuong. This foreshadows his attempts to divorce his wife later on in the novel; his endless efforts to postpone the inevitable. However, Greene also manages to create more questions even as he reveals new facts surrounding the relationship between Pyle, Phuong, and Fowler. Fowler, ever the unreliable narrator, mentions in this chapter that "I never foresaw that the first future I would have to break to Phuong would be the death of Pyle," (54), but then later seems resigned to leaving her behind. "I hadn't even the limited future of twelve more months to offer," he muses, "and a future was trumps" (58). Perhaps his inconsistencies are the result of Fowler telling the story in flashback, trying to search for reasons in a world where rational thought no longer has any currency. 

This chapter goes deeper into the inner workings of the French propaganda machine. The French colonel is desperately trying to maintain control of the news, but even the most grizzled reporters, like Granger, cannot accept his clearly biased statistics. The reporters demanding answers in the controlled environment of the press room is only a microcosmic representation of the western outrage that resulted from the military's attempts to control the press. However, it becomes clear that controlling the news is critical to maintaining French support for the war. If they portray the situation as it really is - allowing journalists like Fowler to write about what they are seeing firsthand - the French government will no longer be able to justify their presence in Vietnam to the citizens at home. If news of killing innocent civilians "by mistake" were to escape the battlefield, it would dramatically reduce popular support for the war effort. The colonel's breakdown at the end of the press conference shows that he is fully aware of the hypocrisy but he is desperately trying to fulfill his duties. In reality, the real stories coming back from Vietnam eventually did provoke massive American protests about American involvement in the war, especially after the draft.

This chapter contains some of the most striking historical allusions in the text, which is heavily based on the five years Greene spent in Saigon. In fact, the dedication of The Quiet American contains a letter from Graham Greene to "René and Phuong," in which he admits to borrowing the location of their flat and Phuong's name. He claims that he has "borrowed little else," and that "even the historical events have been in at least one case rearranged." Even though he is writing to these two people, is note reads like a disclaimer aimed at readers who may interpret the novel's events as fact. Ultimately, Greene's inclusion of this letter feels an attempt to pre-empt controversy.

It also creates a historical frame around the story - the Vietnam War was still raging on when The Quiet American was published in 1955, so press coverage of the conflict was still under certain scrutiny. Despite his efforts to emphasize The Quiet American's fictional plot, there was a great deal of discussion surrounding Greene's handling of sensitive topics. Some American journalists, like A.J. Leibling, were offended by Greene's portrayal of Americans. In his "hostile New Yorker review of The Quiet American, [Leibling] complained about a British writer accusing 'his best friends' of murder..." (ix). Meanwhile, the Soviet Journal Pravda celebrated Graham Greene for writing about "the communist role in 'humanity's' cause and represented America's anticommunist effort in Asia as not only naive but murderous" (x).