The Quiet American can be read as a political and moral meditation on the beginning stages of the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia, and the novel therefore becomes a commentary on the pointlessness of the United States’ later investment of men and materiel in a political action that could only end, as it did for the French, in defeat.
The large-scale political thesis (American interference in the internal affairs of another country can only result in suffering, death, and defeat, and is not morally justifiable because of abstract idealism) is not the only meaning of consequence in the novel, and given the course of later events, its importance may be magnified out of proportion. The object lesson, however, is clearly explained by a French aviator with “orders to shoot anything in sight.” Captain Trouin confides to Fowler that he detests napalm bombing: “We all get involved in a moment of emotion, and then we cannot get out,” he explains. Trouin understands that the French cannot win the war in Indochina: “But we are professionals; we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop,” he says with bitter resignation. “Probably they will get together and agree to the same peace that we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years.”
Thus Graham Greene summarizes the lesson of Vietnam fully ten years before the American government expanded its military commitment to fill the vacuum left by the defeated French. The Quiet American is an astonishing novel of political prophecy. It is also a mystery story, however, and that, perhaps, better defines its interest to the average reader, as Greene’s unreliable narrator gradually provides the details leading up to Pyle’s death. The dramatic focus concerns the conflict between Fowler and Pyle over love and the politics of war, the contest between Fowler and Vigot, who knows that Fowler was responsible for Pyle’s death but cannot prove it, and, finally, Fowler’s internal conflict, his credo of noninvolvement transformed by circumstances and emotion to a position of murderous intervention. “Sooner or later,” the Communist Heng tells Fowler, “one has to take sides—if one is to remain human.”
Perhaps Fowler finally “takes sides” because he understands how dangerous Pyle’s blind idealism can be, but his motives are not entirely clear because of his dependence on Phuong. Fowler does not idolize her, as does the more romantic Pyle, who sincerely cares for Phuong but is absolutely unfeeling about the rest of the native population.
Pyle is a sort of cartoon idealist, and in this respect the novel may be flawed. Pyle believes in the political theory of York Harding (a name that links a less-than-stunning American president with a patriotic war hero) and the need for a “Third Force” (American intervention) in Vietnam. Yet Pyle’s naivete is not entirely consistent with his intelligence, his training, and his Harvard degree. He is hopelessly innocent. In one of his strongest metaphors, Greene likens innocence to “a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm,” but obviously bearing contamination and corruption with him.
Greene's novel is more than a political statement about whether or not America — or any other country — should become involved in the affairs of another country. Greene, as he so often does, makes the question human and personal. Fowler, from the very opening of the novel, insists that he is not engaged: "'I'm not involved. Not involved,' I repeated. It had become an article of my creed." He is the perfect contrast to the...
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American Pyle who is so eager to become engaged, in politics, war, or love. Yet, the novel pushes Fowler without rest: as people tell him, "Sooner or later, one has to take sides. If one is to remain human." He finally does become involved, even to the point of complicity in murder: "I had become as engage as Pyle, and it seemed that no decision would ever be simple again." Yet, the ending of the book is ambiguous, for Greene's second theme concerns the ambiguity of human motivation. Fowler finally becomes engaged, but the questions remain of whether he is right to do so, and whether he does so out of political concern and compassion for people or simple lust and sexual jealousy. The novel does not completely answer these questions, but it seems to suggest that in this fallen world, it is impossible not to become involved, but that to become involved, to act, always exposes one's human frailties.