The primary literary term that applies to Graham Greene’s presentation of the serious consequences of unfathomable loyalty to nationalism is irony. In The Quiet American, Greene also uses narrative perspective, characterization, and symbolism to convey the effects of nationalism on the novel’s main characters and, more broadly, on colonial Indochina.
Three different nationalisms are explored in the novel: the established British and American nationalism of Thomas Fowler and Aidan Pyle, respectively, and the nascent Vietnamese nationalism of the rebels trying to expel the French colonial rulers.
As the novel’s first-person narrator, Fowler comments on the political loyalties of the other characters but largely ignores his own attachment to his country’s interests. In sharp contrast, Pyle believes himself deeply committed to supporting American democratic principles. The novel’s central irony revolves around the unintended consequences of Pyle’s brand of nationalism, which includes a smug confidence in the superiority of the United States. Pyle’s ideas, however deeply felt, are unoriginal and borrowed from a flawed analysis he read in a book. Pyle’s nationalism has personal dimension which, ironically, prove his undoing. Pyle believes himself superior to Fowler and a better match for Phuong, Fowler’s mistress. Ultimately, Pyle ends up not just without the woman, but dead, while Fowler lives to tell the story. Another ironic aspect to Fowler’s character is his decision to get involved in politics, which he professes to disdain, in order to keep Pyle from escalating what Fowler views as senseless violence.
Through the character of General Thé, Greene highlights the ambiguities of anti-colonial nationalist movements. The consequences of the struggle to shake off French rule include the senseless deaths of many innocent people, not just armed combatants. A quintessentially French establishment, the café, symbolizes both the downfall of France and these empty sacrifices, as its destruction stands for the ruthless campaign to which Thé has committed.