The Quiet American

by Graham Greene

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What is the meaning of innocence in The Quiet American?

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Fowler's simile for innocence likens innocence to a leper, both afflicted with a dangerous disease and unable to speak. Fowler shows that good intentions are irrelevant when the result is harm.

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Fowler, through whom we learn the story of The Quiet American, is an older, cynical man. His description of innocence sums up how this trait is regarded thematically in the novel:

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.


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uses asimile to liken innocence to a leper: this is, at the very least, an unflattering comparison. A leper suffers from a contagious disease that causes skin bumps, disfigurement, and deformity. Lepers were traditionally isolated from others so as not to pass on the disease and forced to wear bells so that people could hear them coming and get out of the way.

In this case, however, innocence is not only represented as a dangerously diseased individual; it is "dumb." Dumb means both unintelligent and unable to speak. Fowler pictures this person, who can't communicate, wandering the earth with a frightening, contagious disease—yet meaning no harm.

Of course, a leper represents a high potential for harm, whether he "means well" or not. In comparing innocence to good intentions, Fowler shows that good intentions are irrelevant.

Alden Pyle, the quiet American, is the figure of innocence/leprosy/disease in the novel. His blinded, unthinking work to uphold "democracy," which leads him to become a CIA agent, is shown to be as dangerous as leprosy to the Vietnamese people. Fowler turns against Pyle as he realizes his terrorist attacks, meant to advance abstract ideals of freedom and democracy but in reality killing and disabling innocent people. In his dangerous innocence, Pyle does not seem to realize that his support of abstract principles actually robs his victims of those principles by taking away their lives.

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The Quiet American is a 1955 novel written by English novelist Graham Greene. The narrative, told through the first-person perspective of British journalist Thomas Fowler, explores the end of French imperialism and the start of American involvement in Vietnam. The love triangle between Fowler, Alden Pyle (the quiet American), and Phuong (the beautiful Vietnamese woman) becomes a microcosm for the geopolitical implications of imperialism in Vietnam.

The idea and theme of innocence is deftly explored throughout the novel. Pyle embodies the idea of innocence because he is both idealistic and inexperienced. He is naïve and unaware of many of the intricacies of the culture he is now exposed to.

While innocence is typically an inherently good trait, Greene obscures this idea to expose the danger of innocence. This commentary relates directly to American involvement in Vietnam, and Greene is commenting on the fact that the Americans came into Vietnam and their inexperience and idealistic nature would lead to tragedy.

It’s Pyle’s innocence which will lead to his demise and cause unnecessary bloodshed along the way. He is obsessed with political purity and symbolism as a highly educated man. This obsession causes him to collaborate with General Thé in which a car bomb detonates and kills innocent civilians. Greene contends that innocence causes tragedy because the innocent are unable to fully anticipate the implications of their actions.

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This question goes to the very heart of the compelling issues that are raised by this novel. Important to realise is the way that Greene uses characterisation to embody the qualities of innocence and experience, which he then associates explicitly with the naivety of America and the cynicism of the waning Imperial power of Britain. It is Pyle of course who is the American representing innocence and naivety in the way that he wants to become involved and is so eager to rush in and take sides. This is of course in complete opposition to Fowler, whose mantra in the novel seems to be "I'm not involved, I'm not involved."

The action in the novel, and the way in which Fowler is forced to take sides however and act against Pyle, leaves us with a rather ambiguous ending. Although Fowler gets the girl and manages to rid himself of his opponent for her affections, it is clear that the final chapter of the novel presents us with a character who is deeply unhappy and unsettled by his experience of meeting Pyle. Although we may be tempted to dismiss innocence in this novel as being a "weaker" force than experience, and point to the way that Pyle is so easily removed by the machinations of Fowler as evidence of this, it is clear that the novel does not allow us such easy conclusions. The ending forces us to ask whether there is something good and valuable in the innocence and energy of Pyle that is lost in the face of Fowler's experience and world-weary cynicism.

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In Graham Greene's The Quiet American the topics of innocence and naivete are in constant and direct conflict with the reality and crudeness of war.

In the novel, innocence is embodied by the character of Pyle. An extremely idealistic and naive American, he represents the innocence of the inexperienced who are exposed too early in life to a situation as concrete as a war in the battlefield. Young and abstract, Pyle is a dreamer who consistently aims to search for the positive in everything. To give his character a very ironic twist, Greene exaggerates his persona by making Pyle overly trusting, which in turn makes him look almost silly. This is what gives the novel a somewhat anti American curve, since it is the American soldier who is portrayed as naive and "innocent" enough to put himself in a weak position and ending up dead in battle.

His foil, which is the character of Fowler, is basically fed up with Pyle's ideal notions of war and consistently criticizes him. He foreshadows that Pyle's innocence will eventually endanger since it basically will render him more and more vulnerable. In the end, Fowler is correct. He blames innocence for the death of Pyle, and he speaks of innocence as if it were a curse, and not a virtue.

Therefore, in what Greene intends with his treatment of the topic of innocence is to explain how, in the battlefield, even the good turns bad. War could test the kindest of men, and it will be War who will win. In the battlefield it is about survival and not idealization. It is about being in control and fighting to live, and not about questioning life or death. Hence, in this story, innocence is simply a very dangerous thing to hold on to.

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