The Quiet American Summary
by Graham Greene

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The Quiet American Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The story begins with the news of Alden Pyle’s murder. Pyle, the “quiet American” of the title, is a thirty-two-year-old Harvard-educated idealist and the son of the famous professor Harold C. Pyle, a “world authority on underwater erosion.” The younger Pyle works for the American Economic Aid Mission in Saigon, but he is also involved in espionage and terrorism and seems to be a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative. On the surface, however, Pyle is “quiet,” modest, and apparently decent in comparison to the crude American journalists and bureaucrats known to Thomas Fowler, the British reporter on assignment in Indochina who is the narrator of the novel.

Pyle is found drowned under a bridge in Saigon with a wound in his chest. His death is first presented as a mystery by the narrator, who knows more about the murder than he at first reveals. Pyle is at first defined by his naivete, his romantic idealism, and his political fanaticism. He is a disciple of a political theorist named York Harding, whose books, such as The Advance of Red China and The Role of the West, have convinced Pyle that a “Third Force” is needed in Southeast Asia, presumably meaning American military interference and aid. The American Economic Attache confides to Fowler that Pyle “had special duties” and died a “soldier’s death in the cause of Democracy.” The motive for Pyle’s murder seems to be clearly political, but Fowler is treated as a suspect by Vigot, the French police investigator, who knows that Pyle had taken Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, away from him and planned to marry her.

Fowler goes on to explain his dealings with Pyle, and the story of a love-hate relationship emerges. Pyle admires and respects Fowler and seeks his advice, but this hopeless romantic cannot help falling in love with Phuong. As an experienced journalist, Fowler has connections that enable him to accompany the French into the war zone in the north. Pyle follows him into the war zone to tell him he has fallen in love with Phuong and intends to ask her to marry him. What does not occur to Fowler is that Pyle may also have him under surveillance in the battle zone.

A showdown between Pyle and Fowler comes a few weeks later. Pyle proposes to Phuong, but she declines. After Pyle leaves, Fowler tells Phuong that he has been ordered back to London. He writes his wife, Helen, from whom he has been separated for five years, requesting a divorce that he knows she will not grant him. Regardless, Phuong is willing to return with Fowler to London.

Later, Fowler and Pyle are stranded in the countryside one night after curfew, narrowly escaping a Viet Minh attack on a sentry tower where they had sought shelter. Fowler’s leg is broken as they make their escape. Pyle saves Fowler’s life.

Fowler’s editor writes from London, giving him permission to stay on for another year in Vietnam, but his wife writes back refusing to grant him the divorce. Fowler lies about this to Phuong, but her sister, who reads English, sees the letter and tells both Phuong and Pyle. Phuong leaves Fowler as a consequence of this deception and goes to live with Pyle.

Pyle’s “secret mission,” meanwhile, is clarified. He has been providing plastic explosives to General The, an outlaw loyal to neither the French nor the Communists, and therefore aiding a policy of terrorist bombings in Saigon for which the Communists will be held responsible. First, the campaign involves bicycle bombs that cause few injuries, but later, a full-scale campaign of more powerful bombs kills and mutilates innocent civilians.

Fowler learns of Pyle’s terrorist involvement after his Indian assistant, Dominguez, sets up a meeting between Fowler and two Chinese, Mr. Chou and Mr. Heng. The latter has clear connections with the Viet Minh and does not want the Communists blamed for the bombings of civilians.

Horrified after witnessing the victims of one of these bombings, Fowler decides that Pyle is...

(The entire section is 1,523 words.)