The Quiet American, written by Graham Greene, is a murder mystery thriller with a triangular love story.
The narrator, Thomas Fowler, begins at almost the end of the story (Pyle’s death) and then goes on to reveal the details of events that led to his death. Set in the early 1950s in Saigon, Vietnam during the end of the first Indochina War, the novel is also a critique of American involvement in Vietnam. There are two time periods in the novel between which the narrative constantly shifts – the present that is after Pyle’s death and the past in which events in succession led to Pyle’s death. The reason behind choosing two time periods can be ascribed to the fact that there are two stories running parallel in the novel – the story of the assassination of Pyle and the story of detection, done by Inspector Vigot.
The story of detection is not given primary importance by the novelist as it is not a typical detective novel, but there are elements in the text which go on to prove that it is so. Though the criminal is not detected and punished at the end as it happens in a detective story, but the criminal himself provides enough clues for the readers to find out how and why Alden Pyle was murdered. Fowler in a round about way tries to justify his own action of betraying Alden to the group of assassins as he himself is going through an anguish which he needs to share – and he shares it with the readers, as he ends the narrative by saying – “Everything had gone right with me since he dies, but how I wished there existed someone to who I could say sorry.”
The readers get a glimpse of a world where evil is not completely evil, where the wretchedness of the human condition makes people shudder in fear, where life is at odds with betrayal and guilt, where innocents are turned to murderers and where friendship is mere feigning. The absurdities of existence engulf the main characters of the novel as there is no way out of it.
Thomas Fowler, a man in his fifties, is a British journalist covering the French war in Vietnam. He lives in an apartment in Saigon with his girlfriend Phuong, a twenty one year “wonderfully ignorant girl,” and the most beautiful in Saigon. Fowler seems to be objective and indifferent to the situation of war and merely does the job for his news agency without any sense of fulfillment. As a media person he is nonchalant, as he says – “The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw; I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action.”
His otherwise uncluttered life takes a wild turn when he meets a young American idealist
Alden Pyle, “age thirty two, employed in the Economic Aid Mission.” Fowler introduces him in the novel by saying that “He’s a good chap in his way. Serious not one of those noisy bastards at the Continental. A quiet American.” Pyle is an American but Fowler finds him unlike others as he is very soft spoken and youthful, which shows Fowler’s hatred for the Americans, though he presents himself to be indifferent.
Pyle reads York Harding, an American foreign policy theorist, and passionately believes in Harding’s theory that it is only a Third Force and not colonialism or communism that can provide answers to the problems of the Third World countries. Pyle’s faith in Harding’s theory about the Third World makes him believe that the third force can be The United States of America who can help Vietnam come out of the political turmoil. Consequently he sets about in creating a “Third Force” against the Viet Minh by using a Vietnamese splinter group headed by corrupt militia leader General Thé (based on the actual Trinh Minh Thé).
Fowler understands the immaturity of Alden Pyle who reads Harding and thinks that the knowledge he gains from the book can be used in practical life. Fowler says – “He’s (Harding) a superior sort of journalist – they call them diplomatic correspondents. He gets hold of an idea and then alters every situation to fit the idea. Harding had been here once for a week on his way from Bangkok to Tokyo. Pyle made the mistake of putting his idea into practice. Harding wrote about a third force. Pyle formed one – a shoddy little bandit with two thousand men and a couple of tame tigers. He got mixed up.” The immaturity of Pyle makes him believe in the ideas of Harding in totality and he tries to put them to action. He does so in good faith but the context of the post war situation and the harshness of reality made him pay the price of being naïve.
It is at the Hotel Continental, Saigon that Fowler and Pyle meet by chance, where Pyle is also introduced to Phuong, the live-in partner of Fowler. Phuong and Pyle dance in the hotel and Pyle falls in love with her. It is very difficult to say whether Phuong really liked Pyle because for her the men from the west are merely her ticket to get to the western world.
Phuong had dreamt of going to Europe to live like a duchess. Fowler for Phuong is just an instrument that she can use to go to Europe, though Phuong and her sister are apprehensive of the fact that Fowler is a married man, whose wife is separated from him and lives in London. Fowler promises Phuong that he will soon get a divorce and will marry Phuong, though he does not have any intention of doing it.
Again Fowler and Pyle meet at the same hotel on a day when the crude, rude and drunk Americans and Brits make a fuss in the hotel and move to the House of Five Hundred Women. Pyle, the naïve American, finds himself in an awkward situation among the prostitutes and Fowler rescues him. The same night Pyle appears to be very defensive and caring about Phuong.
Fowler, after meeting Pyle at the Continental hotel, goes to the city of Phat Diem to cover a battle there. Pyle travels through the perilous battleground to announce it to Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong from the first night he saw her and will love to marry her. They make a toast for nothing and the next day Pyle returns back to Saigon. Fowler later gets a letter from Pyle thanking him for being nice to him and for accepting his decision to marry Phuong. The letter disturbs Fowler but at the same time he does not mind much as he had complete confidence in Phuong that she will never leave him and marry Pyle.
Meanwhile, Fowler also gets a transfer letter from his editor asking him to go back to England, which he somehow manages to block for the moment. Next he plans to get a divorce from his wife and writes a letter to her seeking divorce.
Fowler and Pyle again meet on the battleground and are held captive in a tower where they spend the night amidst terror. They discuss several things through the night. While trying to escape from their captivity Fowler gets hurt badly. Pyle could have run away from there to save his own life, but he saves Fowler risking his own life in the process.
They come back to Saigon. Fowler lies to Phuong that his wife has agreed for the divorce. But soon enough Pyle exposes the lie and Phuong moves in with Pyle. Pyle, consequently, becomes a target for Fowler whose ego is hurt. For Fowler it has become an issue that should be resolved as soon as possible as that can only provides him certain peace of mind. Consequently, he keeps a close watch on Pyle`s activities. He investigates and finds out that Pyle is involved in importing military supplies into Vietnam from United States.
Fowler now goes to Pyle’s large office to confront him, but, incidentally, Pyle is not there. Pyle later comes over for drinks and announces that he is planning to get married to Phuong.
Some days later there is an explosion in which many innocent people are killed. Fowler investigates the matter privately and comes to the conclusion that probably Pyle is behind this bombing. Fowler finds political justification to eliminate Pyle as he is a great threat to the people of Vietnam. Consequently, he betrays Pyle to the local group of assassins and actively participates in the plan to murder Pyle. The police inspector Vigot could unearth the connection, but he could not find enough evidence against Fowler to arrest him. The novel begins and ends in an absurd note when we see Phuong again moving back to Fowler’s apartment and preparing Opium for Fowler, as if nothing had happened – “there was no scene, no tears, just thought – the long private thought of somebody who has to alter a whole course of life.”