Alden Pyle is the deceivingly “quiet American” of the novel’s title. He is an idealistic naïve young man who arrives in Vietnam as a medical aid worker on behalf of the Economic Aid Mission. Under the garb of medical help the American is shown to be trying to build up a force in Vietnam which he terms as The Third Force, based on his reading of York Harding, an American Political Journalist. To Pyle, the idea of Harding that neither communism nor colonialism is a way out for Vietnam and the third world nations, but a national democratic force under the guidance and aid of the Western nations such as United States of America can be the only solution for the politically volatile third world nations like Vietnam, is a workable idea.
Alden Pyle has graduated from Harvard University. He is idealistic in his views about life and reality as he has not seen the real world in its raw form. He is far removed from the pragmatic and practical things of life – he views things from the perspective of the books that he has encountered during his university days. Once Fowler points out to Pyle that it is easier for York Harding to talk about third force as he does not have to live in Vietnam and see the real world from its true perspective. Even when he came to Vietnam he came for a week during his journey from Bangkok to Tokyo. Fowler says that people like York Harding first make a theory and then make everything fall into place by twisting the reality according to the need of the theory – these theories have no basis in reality. Fowler even gives an example – “isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer – all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife.”
Even though Fowler tried to make Pyle understand that idealism is naivety in the modern world, that the bookish knowledge does not hold much truth when faced with the grim reality of modern existence, Pyle does not listen to him because for him Harding is the last word for him where third world politics is concerned. Pyle is not only immature, but he is also very rigid in his beliefs. He thinks that university education has provided him with just the knowledge to analyze and fight the real world.
Thus, the debate between Fowler and Pyle is about idealism versus grim reality. If Pyle has not experienced war, Fowler is a veteran of war reporting. If Pyle is innocent about things going around him in Vietnam, then Fowler knows things well and knows how to carry on in a war zone. But this ideological fight is of no concern to Fowler as he is indifferent to the context in which he lives. The naivety of Pyle makes him think that Pyle should be provided certain knowledge about the real world so that he does not harm himself and others by putting his naïve theories into practice.
But this ideological battle takes a different turn as another tussle comes up between Fowler and Pyle – a tussle which is personal. The fight between Pyle and Fowler is over the beautiful young Vietnamese girl Phuong. Phuong had been living with Fowler as his sexual partner for about two years, and Phuong thinks that one day Fowler will take her to Europe and she will be able to live like a duchess.
Pyle meets Phuong incidentally in the Hotel Continental in Saigon when Fowler introduces him to Phuong. Their first meeting makes Pyle fall in love with the most beautiful girl of Saigon, Phuong. Phuong choose to live with Pyle as she figures out that with Pyle she has a brighter chance of going to the west. When Fowler goes to the city of Phat Diem to cover news of the battle there, Pyle visits Fowler in the war affected area with great difficulty to give the news to Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong. This incident shows the honesty and innocence of Pyle who believes that it is important to inform Fowler about his interest in Phuong.
The humane aspect of Pyle becomes clearer when Pyle saves Fowler putting his own life at risk when he could have left Fowler to die as he is hurt and unable to move. Pyle is shown to be altruist, who cares for his fellow creatures. Fowler is taken aback to some extent by the benevolent act of Pyle, but that does not deter Fowler from planning the assassination of Pyle. As against the “quiet” American we see a diabolical “unquiet” European who takes the revenge, to get Phuong back to his bed. Compared to Fowler, Pyle seems very juvenile, as he still believes in the goodness of man and service towards mankind. Even his act of setting up the third force is an adolescent act which he does without understanding the harmful nature and grim effect of it. Thus throughout the novel the character of Pyle remains flat. He comes to Vietnam with the notion of aiding the people there and dies without realizing the mistake he has made in the process of doing so. His puerile nature evokes readers’ sympathy for him, yet a sense of pessimism is evoked as innocence becomes a drawback in the modernist existence.