The Quiet American Essay
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The danger of “innocence”
According to Fowler, Pyle is dangerous because he is “innocent”—that is, he sincerely wants to help bring an end to the conflict in Vietnam, but he does not understand his own naïveté. Fowler Pyle does not understand that his ignorance has consequences, and so he gets involved without worrying about what harm may come of it. The danger of Pyle’s innocence emerges most clearly at the end of the novel, when he collaborates with General Thé to a bomb in a public space, injuring many. In helping to orchestrate the bombing, Pyle only concerns himself with the political symbolism of the event. He does not consider the innocent women and children that the terrorist act would harm. In his innocence, then, Pyle is actually guilty.
The impossibility of remaining neutral
Despite his desire to remain neutral and not engage in the conflict in Vietnam, Fowler learns over the course of the novel that this . Fowler sees neutrality as the journalist’s stock in trade. As his preferred job title indicates, a reporter should simply report facts, not offer opinions. Pyle represents the greatest challenge to Fowler’s neutrality. Pyle’s political opinions frequently strike Fowler as ill-informed, and he feels compelled to respond passionately with his own opinions. Fowler also betrays his belief in neutrality through his affection for Phuong. At the beginning of the novel, he thinks of neutrality only in political terms. However, the kind of emotional investment he has in Phuong automatically makes him engaged. Fowler comes to understand this only at the end of the novel, when he breaks from neutrality in a major way by assisting in Pyle’s assassination.
The insufficiency of abstract thinking
Fowler frequently criticizes Pyle’s abstract thinking for its tendency to oversimplify the complexity of the real world. Whereas Pyle gets his information from books of political theory, as a journalist, Fowler commits himself to collecting concrete facts. He thus forms his understanding of Vietnam, its people, and its political conflict from the ground up rather than from the top down. As Fowler insists again and again, too much abstraction reduces complex realities to seemingly simple truths. This reduction proves dangerous because it leads one to believe that a complex problem can be solved with a straightforward solution. Fowler sees this belief as the central problem of Pyle’s Third Force theory. Whereas Pyle thinks that democracy will solve Vietnam’s problems, Fowler often reminds him that democracies often do not live up to their own ideals. Abstraction enables hasty decision-making and a rushing into action that can have bad consequences. Honoring concrete facts, though more complicated and requiring time for thinking and analysis, is necessary to understand how things really work.
More main ideas from The Quiet American
Thomas Fowler is, as Graham Greene was, a reporter in Southeast Asia, and Roger Sharrock observes that “there is more direct reporting in The Quiet American than in any of his other novels.” Greene himself attended press conferences in Hanoi, experienced at first hand a “vertical” bombing mission against the Viet Minh in the north, and saw the canal filled with dead bodies at Phat Diem that Fowler remembers.
The Quiet American is regarded as Greene’s “most carefully constructed novel.” It offers a story of espionage set against a documentary background of terrorism, political chaos, and moral ambiguity, representing a kind of formula writing last seen in Greene’s thriller “entertainment,” The Ministry of Fear (). (Greene is given to classifying his works as “novels” and “entertainments,” though the latter are marked by much the same philosophical and religious concerns as the former.)
Greene’s political intent is clearly to ridicule the notion of a “Third Force” in Asian politics, countering the threat of Communism and replacing the rationale of colonialism as a justification for Western involvement. Because of Greene’s apparent anti-American bias, the novel was not popular in the United States; Diana Trilling interpreted Fowler’s neutralism and Greene’s stance as being pro-Communist, although this criticism was later countered by Anthony Burgess’ warning against
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