The Quiet American is considered one of Graham Greene’s major achievements. The story is told with great economy, superb characterization, and sophisticated irony. The plot resembles that of a mystery story. A crime has been committed. Who is the murderer? As in most mystery stories, as much needs to be learned about the victim as about the villain. What is learned, though, takes on political, moral, and religious significance. The story ends in mystery as well. Who exactly killed Pyle is not revealed, but the burden of the crime, like the burden of telling the story, is that of Fowler.
Fowler is a fascinating character and narrator because he simultaneously reveals and conceals so much about himself and his involvement in the story. On the one hand, he is openly contemptuous of Pyle. Like other Americans, Pyle is so obsessed with his mission to save the world that he does not register the reality around him. It is ludicrous for him to think that Phuong is an innocent he must rescue. She has stayed with Fowler because he offers her security. She leaves Fowler for Pyle because he offers her even more wealth and protection. Pyle is shocked because Fowler says he is merely using Phuong for his own pleasure and because of his need to have a woman beside him to stave off loneliness. It never occurs to Pyle that Phuong has acted just as selfishly or that Pyle himself is using people.
On the other hand, Fowler is not entirely honest with himself. He claims to be disengaged, not only from politics but also from the sentiments of love Pyle professes. Yet Fowler’s vehement rejection of Pyle’s worldview and his passionate defense of the Vietnamese (who, he believes, should be allowed to worked out their own destiny, free of the French, the Americans, and any other intruding power) surely reveal anything but cynicism. In this respect, Pyle is right to see good in a person who claims to be without scruples.
Indeed, Pyle loses his life because of Fowler’s moral outrage. Fowler is so revolted by the bombing atrocity at the café that he determines to put a stop to Pyle’s activities. Fowler’s passion is hardly consistent with his affectation of aloofness. Actually, he cares deeply about Phuong and about the Vietnamese. He believes in self-determination, which ironically is the ideology that Americans claim to support. Americans think they are supporting freedom by allying themselves with the anticommunists.
Thus, there are multiple ironies in The Quiet American. Fowler says he is a cynic, but he...
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