21 Kasım 2010 Pazar

Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”

The aim of this essay is to examine Graham Greene and one of his most famous works “The Quite American”. First of all, I am going to give information about Greene’s life and try to analyze the characteristics of his writing style. Secondly, I will summarize the novel “The Quite American” and make an interpretation of this novel in accordance with the era it was written.

Graham Greene is an English novelist, short-story writer, playwright and journalist, whose novels deal with moral issues in the context of political settings. Greene is one of the most widely read novelist of the 20th century and an excellent storyteller. In his novels, adventure and suspense were the constant elements and many of his books have been put into successful films. Greene was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times, but he never received the award. Graham Greene was born on October 2, 1904 as the fourth child of Charles Henry and Marion Raymond Greene. He was the son of a father who had a poor academic record, but later he became the headmaster of Berkhamsted School. Charles Greene had a brilliant intellect. Originally he had intended to become a barrister. He realized he had liking for teaching and he decided to stay at Berkhamsted. Often his history lessons were more like comments than lessons on the crack-up of liberalism. On the other side, his brother Graham ended his career as Permanent Secretary at the Admiralty. Greene was educated at Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford. He had a natural talent for writing; and during his three years at Balliol, he published more than sixty poems, stories, articles and reviews. Most of those were the one’s which appeared in the student magazine Oxford Outlook and in the weekly Westminster Gazette. In 1926, his conversion to Roman Catholicism led him to explain, “I had to find a religion... to measure my evil against”. However, during his career Greene complained about and hated being called as a “Catholic novelist”. He couldn’t escape this situation because of the critics that focused on his religious belief.

1926 is the year that Greene moved to London. He worked for the Times of London from 1926 to 1930 and later for The Spectator, where he was a film critic and a literary editor until 1940. In 1927, he married Vivien Darrell-Browning. But their marriage did not last long. After the collapse of his marriage, Greene had several relationships. In the 1950s, he had a short relationship with the Swedish actress Anita Björk, whose ex-husband was also a writer, Stig Dagerman, who had committed suicide a year earlier. During the 1920s and 1930s Greene had, according to his own estimation, some sort of relationship with no less than forty-seven prostitutes. Greene worked in a job, during the World War II, which he was later send in an intelligence capacity for the Foreign Office in London directly under Kim Philby, who was a future defector to the Soviet Union. Greene has been in West America for the mission he took, but he did not find much excitement in his isolated relocation that he wrote to London and said “This is not a government house, and there is no larder: there is also a plague of house-flies which come from the African bush lavatories round the house”. In the end, Greene returned to Britain in 1942. He met his old friend, Philby, after his return, in the late 1980s in Moscow. After the war, he traveled widely as a free-lance journalist, and lived in Nice, French Riviera, for long periods. With his anti-American comments, Greene gained access to such Communist leaders as Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, but the English writer Evelyn Waugh, who knew Greene well, assured in a letter to his friend that the author is a secret agent on their side. Since Greene had an experience in the British foreign office in the 1940s and lifelong ties with British Secret Intelligence Service agent, his novels were partly based on those experiences. As an agent and a writer Greene is a link in the long tradition from Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers John Le Carré, John Dickson Carr, Somerset Maugham, Alec Waugh and Ted Allbeury. Furthermore, most of the Greene's family members had similar lives and adventures. For instance, his uncle Sir William Graham Greene helped to establish the Naval Intelligence Department and his oldest brother Herbert served as a spy for the Imperial Japanese Navy in the 1930s. Also Graham’s younger sister Elisabeth joined MI6 and recruited his Graham into the regular ranks of the service. Graham Greene published two volumes of autobiography, “A Sort of Life” (1971), “Ways of Escape” (1980). Greene died in Vevey, Switzerland, on April 3, 1991. If we were to discuss Greene from the characteristic of his writing, it would not be wrong to say that, as a writer Greene was very creative and flexible. He wrote five dramas and screenplays for several films based on his novels. In the 1930s and early 1940s he wrote over five hundred reviews of books, films, and plays.

Greene's first published book was “Babbling April” (1925). It was a collection of poetry. Two novels in the style of Joseph Conrad followed it. Therefore it can be said that his style was Conradian[1]. Conrad’s work builds up a basic synthesis between a psychological narrative and a political adventure story. However, towards the end of his career he accepts the romantic love story style including a background of political plot. Greene’s religious convictions did not become obviously apparent in his fiction until the “Brighton Rock” (1938), which depicted a teenage gangster Pinkie with a kind of demonic spirituality. Religious themes were explicit in the novels “The Power and The Glory” (1940), “The Heart of the Matter” (1948), a story of a man trapped between the emotional demands of two women, which Greene characterized as “a success in the great vulgar sense of that term” and “The End of the Affair” (1951), which established Greene’s international status. In the story, depending on his own experiences, Greene described a lover, who is afraid of loving and being loved. These novels were compared with the works of such French Catholic writers as Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac. “At a stroke I found myself regarded as a Catholic author in Britain, Europe and America - the last title to which I had ever aspired” Greene later complained. In 1953, Greene told Martin Shuttleworth and Simon Raven that the group of these novels were ‘now finished’, and that his next (which would be The Quiet American) would “not deal primarily with Catholic themes at all” (Shuttleworth, p. 159). Therefore, it would not be wrong to suggest that Greene with this novel entered into a mature political era. “The Quiet American is a more secular narrative dealing with a crisis of conscience in the political world, Greene by no means abandons Catholicism” (Pendleton, p. 110). In his review of “The Heart of the Matter”, George Orwell attacked Greene’s concept of 'the sanctified sinner': “He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only”. In brief, Greene’s works are characterized by vivid detail, a variety of settings (Mexico, Africa, Haiti, Vietnam) and a detached objective portrayal of characters under various forms of social, political or psychological stress. In later novels, a dimension of moral doubt and conflict is added to the terror and suspense. Graham Greene also combined satire with metaphysics, which could be regarded as the study of the nature of existence.

After criticizing Graham Greene’s core ideologies on the style of his novels and other works, I would like to continue with the novel “The Quiet American”. It would not be wrong to say that the Asian setting stimulated Greene’s book “The Quiet American” (1955), which was about American involvement in Indochina/Vietnam. Greene’s structure, his simplicity and complexity together and the thematic importance of this novel, helps it to become a classic. The chronologies and commentaries upon the foreign involvement in Indochina/Vietnam are both valuable and they give a very brief summary about the situation, to make it clear to understand. The story focuses on the murder of Alden Pyle (the American in the title). The storyteller, Thomas Fowler, a tough-minded, opium-smoking journalist, arranges to have Pyle killed by the local rebels. Pyle has stolen Fowler’s girl friend, Phuong, and he is connected to a terrorist act, which was a bomb explosion in a local café. The Quiet American was considered sympathetic to communism and Soviet Union and a play version of the novel was produced in Moscow. The story is built upon three main characters; Alden Pyle, who is an employee in American Embassy, Thomas Fowler, who is the English journalist and Phuong, the Vietnamese mistress of Fowler. Pyle is a quiet American from Boston; he is an idealistic person graduated from Harvard and has a sense of national morality. He has come to Saigon with a duty at the American economic aid during the Vietnamese struggle for liberation against the French colonialists in the 1950s. Fowler’s mistress, Phuong leaves him and goes with Pyle, who can promise her youth and marriage. Fowler starts to irritate with this new rival, who not only becomes a good friend of his, but also saves his life without his will. Fowler discovers a short while after his mistress leaves him for Pyle, that Pyle’s real mission in Saigon is to form a ‘Third Force’, a national democracy, which he believes, being free from Communism and the ruin of colonialism, will succeed in hitting the Vietminh. For this mission Pyle hires General Thé, who according to Fowler is ‘a shoddy little bandit with 2000 men and a couple of tame tigers’ (Greene, p. 210) to direct this force, thinking that he would be the exact person who could do this. As a result, General Thé abuses Pyle’s innocence and his explosives and in return forms a basis for Pyle to be assassinate. After the Saigon bomb in the Place Garnier near the Continental Hotel, which kills innocent people, Fowler decides to corporate with Mr. Heng, a communist trying to get rid of all the war and the “General Thé” matter in Saigon in order to help them kill Alden Pyle. When Pyle dies, Phuong returns to Fowler as if nothing has ever happened. Fowler accepts this calmness with no objection, since in years he has learned to deal with the oriental sense of pragmatism that Phuong has; a thing that Pyle could not have learned because of his childish attitudes and naivety. After Pyle’s death and Phuong’s return, Helen, Fowler’s wife in Britain agrees to a divorce after a long resistance and so Phuong has her marital security at last. Everything seems to be as it was before Pyle came to Saigon for Fowler; however “… only the heart decays…” (p. 239) because of the guilt he feels deep inside.

Fowler is a character that is lost in his own talent and creation. He has the feeling of insecurity and in order to hide it, he is always acting arrogantly, especially towards Pyle, to whom he feels more insecure than anybody else. He runs away from Britain to Vietnam, in order to get rid of the love confusion he has with his wife, but finds himself in a place of massacre and misery and to avoid the disturbance this would cause he starts smoking opium on a regular basis, although he knows that it gives him serious physical and sexual damage. This indifference makes him a self-possessive, self-destructive person and he somehow manages to close his inner world to all the slaughter around him. “This is the life of the wanderer, the man who has fled his family rather than traveling as a responsible representative of it” (Hill, p. 203). While Fowler is such a lost man with all the wisdom he has, the reader is introduced to Pyle, an American with no experience but with a lot of backing. He is like the contrast of Fowler, a very disciplined, responsible and respectful man, lacking the life experience. Pyle is sent as a representative of a community, his father is world known professor, an underwater scientist and we learn about his mother by the Economic Attaché. He is a very good example of the perfect American life, which the British are always having fun of. In fact in Greene’s book we feel the impact of this despise towards the American people. “Pyle, the callow, quiet, idiotic American; the American girls, silly and myopic; and Bill Granger, the loud, equally stupid, obnoxious American have all been cut out of British cartoons” (Hill, p. 203). The stupidity of Pyle in the novel could be understood with the scene where Fowler pushes Pyle into a pool of blood after the Saigon bomb in the Place Garnier near the Continental Hotel and,

Pyle said, “It’s awful.” He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, “What’s that?”

“Blood,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?”

He said, “I must get a shine before I see the Minister.” (p. 205)

Pyle’s lack of interest in what he has caused makes the reader feel like he is in a kind of opium hell, in which he is surrounded by unlimited foolishness. This dialog makes the reader believe that Alden Pyle is unthinkingly cruel to the innocent people; from this aspect it would not be wrong to claim that in this book Greene is trying to scorn the American policy abroad. Pyle is interested in literature whereas he makes the mistake of believing to the theories of York Harding, who thinks that a third natural power (USA) should be brought in order to solve the problems in Indochina. Pyle also believes in democracy, wants to fight with communism and claims that he knows the needs of Vietnam. He argues that USA will bring a totally new ideology to colonialism and he suggests the old European powers are to be blamed for what they have done to their former colonies. In addition, he adopts other people’s beliefs and political views very easily just as in the example of York Harding. Alden Pyle in the Quiet American is merely someone carried away by “impersonal imperialism”. Alden Pyle’s spiritual emptiness is described in the beginning of the book. Pyle has no sensitivity to other people, to Fowler or to the Vietnamese, or even to Phuong whom he loves. Pyle is bound to Western ideology with hard ties. In other words, he is committed to the ideology of West and never dares to question it, even when he is in danger in a small hut with Fowler he spends the evening discussing the aspects of the ideology with Fowler.

On the other hand Fowler likes Indochina, which is his real home, and also its people. Thus, he thinks that Vietnam should be independent from the colonial powers, however he doesn’t want to get involved in politics, especially in the war that he is reporting about. Nevertheless he has developed his own political idea. Fowler is a straightforward realist, who believes only in what he sees, so he doesn’t believe in God and theories like “ocracies and isms”. Unlike Pyle, he suggests that Vietnamese are interested neither in communism nor in democracy, but they only want enough to eat, to be left alone and to become independent. Therefore, he argues that Vietnam should be left for itself and Western forces have to keep out. Towards the end of the book we see that Fowler becomes aware of the misery around him and he somehow starts to worry about it. As the storyteller he starts to give wide descriptions of the dead bodies, the extreme poverty and the hunger that he sees around. This may be due to his increasing consciousness to what Pyle is dealing with. He tries to stop him in a way and while trying to do so he realizes that he has been close to the world outside for a long time.

The female character is another key point. Phuong seems as a Vietnamese girl, unaware of everything going around. She is a naïve girl and she does not know anything about the war, reasons of it or who the Europeans and Americans are and what they are trying to do in Vietnam. However she also has a strange power on both Fowler and Pyle, unconsciously she causes them to fight against each other. She also has a selfish side, leaving Fowler for Pyle, a man that could offer her a better future with money, marriage and kids. Although she seems to be the weak side in both relations she has, she somehow manages to keep the control on her hands. “There is also an ironic sense of sexuality and motherhood fused in the women of Greene’s works. The men are old enough to be fathers to their women but they frequently present themselves as frightened children who need these females to comfort and nurture them” (Kelly, p. 61). To analyze the book in a correct way we should also understand the historical background of Vietnam. The French called South Vietnam Cochin China. The north becomes known in the west as Tong king, while Annam is the name used for the center of Vietnam and for the whole country. The years between 1858 and 1883 are known as the years of the conquest of Vietnam by France and this decision of invasion, was made by Napoleon III in 1857. It aimed to extend the French colonialism in order to satisfy the need of overseas markets. The Vietnamese mandarins sign a treaty that makes Tong King and Annam protectorates of France. It intended to transform Vietnam into a source of raw materials (especially coal and rubber), which were needed for French industries. The French also built factories in Vietnam, but the aim of these investments was not to develop the country; they were only building for the immediate high profits. The main outcome of such a thing is that only the French and a small group of rich Vietnamese people benefited from the economic progress in the colony. In other words, a wealthy middle class to buy French products did not develop. Capitalism appeared to Vietnamese as a product of foreign rule. These facts together with the lack of democratic culture influenced the nature and the orientation of the national resistance movements. When the years come to 1946-1954 the First Indochina War occurred and France gave Vietnam the status of free state within the French Union. However at the end, the cooperation finished and France wanted to reestablish the colonial rule whereas Hanoi wanted total independence. On November 23 the war began with bombardment of Haiphong. Vietminh started a successful guerilla war. The war was so bloody that in one-day more than 6000 civilians died. Graham Greene had been in Vietnam for 5 years and between 1952 and 1955 he wrote this book. In this book the analysis on war are very live and it makes the reader feel as if he was there. Greene manages to give the misery and pain that the people in Vietnam are facing during the war in a very effective way. In this book, Greene succeeds in combining the pressure of the European countries on Vietnamese and the struggle these people have to give because of the war in a very efficient way. “Political evil is important in a novel because, it gives historical setting and the characters of a novel an additional important dimension” (Gordon, 37). The dimension is that, according to Greene, all political communities that he came into contact with, pursue and deserve the highest good without lowering the standards. Political evil does not only destroy the basis of justice, but also it blocks the emergence of excellence of the new beginning. If the world consists of evil, it certainly includes political evil. As participants we are responsible for evil’s continuation, if we make no attempt to stop it. In other words, if we do nothing to end the progress of the evil that exists, we are fleeing our responsibility and our freedom, which are the birthrights of our humanity. As Heng (the killer of Pyle) says to Fowler, “sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human” (p. 174).

While reading The Quiet American one may often feel in his heart the main irregularity in many democracies. Members of armed forces, and of the police, those who are employed to guard and protect human freedom, are very often betrayers of their basic trust. They conceal this betrayal under coverage of protecting the regime against so-called enemies. However these people are only concerned with their own careers. Greene shows that performers of political evil have lost all sensitivity to the sufferings, to the feelings, or to the feelings of other human beings. It would not be wrong to point out that The Quiet American was written before the United States involvement in the war in Vietnam, where US made a matchless destruction. This indiscriminate destruction murdered and attacked millions of innocent Vietnamese, Cambodians and others. Greene seems to have had clear insight into such historical events. Through the wicked deeds of the “innocent” Alden Pyle, Greene reveals the intensions of the policy-makers to dominate all of the Indochina by force. “Greene had a strong condemnation of the political evil of the leaders in Paraguay and Haiti” (Gordon, 34).

When the issue comes to real-life politics of today, which is similar to the relationship of characters in the novel, the British Journalist Fowler and the American Pyle, it would not be wrong to say that Fowler and Pyle are friends; because they are away from home and at the beginning they believe that they are searching the same thing (peace and process for Vietnam), therefore they need each other. However the love of Phuong in a way makes them enemies. Just as similar to the relationship between USA and United Kingdom, for the interests of their own country they have worked together. In other words, they mutually benefit from each other just like the two countries do. However, because of the historical experiences they have, in the core of their relationship lies a bit of hatred. As a basic economic fact, the goods in this world are limited and the needs of people (in broad sense countries) are unlimited. US and Britain are demanding to maximize their interests in specific phenomena; whereas just similar to the goods supplied, possible interests are also limited. In order to have one more unit of something; you have to take it from another one. In other words, if Britain or US want to have more interests they have to steal it from the other. In some senses these good fellows can be enemies. Just as Fowler said, sometimes we have a kind of love for our enemies and a hate for our friends. The alliance and hostility between Pyle (younger rising force similar to USA) and Fowler (older experienced force similar to UK) is very similar to that of their countries, USA and Britain. From the beginning until now, they always had a different kind of political relationship. At the beginning what is now called as USA was a colony of United Kingdom, and they had an enemy like relation while USA tried to gain its independency. Up until 20th century Britain was the world power controlling all the countries and having one of the biggest empires in the world history, with all of the colonies it had around Africa and Asia. After the WWI and WWII, Britain started to lose its affect on the world politics, while USA was becoming powerful both economically and politically. Even though they seemed to be enemies for all the history, in today’s politics just like in 1950s they look like two strong allies.

Greene in his book, implicitly points out the danger of allowing people to guide themselves only by ideology and schools of academic thought to be responsible for intelligence fieldwork. In this book he tries to point out a political fact, which is the endless interpretation of world powers to the political conflicts around the world. Even before the war in Vietnam has occurred, he had the foresight of what will happen in Vietnam, with the involvement of USA. Even from a politics based literature book it is possible to understand that the world powers are never interested in helping the small countries to get prosperity, peace and welfare in their country; but rather they are seeking their own interest like raw materials or oil, which could be named as the raw material of the 20th century.


1. Diemert, Brian. “Graham Greene’s Thrillers and the 1930s”, London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996

2. Gordon, Haim. “Fighting Evil: Unsung Heroes in the Novels of Graham Greene”, London: Greenwood Press, 1997

3. Greene, Graham. “The Quiet American”, Middlesex, Britain: Penguin, 1962

4. Hill, Wm. Thomas. “Graham Greene’s Wanderers: The Search for Dwelling and its Relationship to Journeying and Wandering in the Novels of Graham Greene”, London: International Scholars Publications, 1999

5. Hogarth, Paul. “Graham Greene Country”, London: Pavilion Books, 1986

6. Kelly, Richard. “Graham Greene: A Study of the Short Fiction”, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992

7. Kulshrestha, J.P. “Graham Greene: The Novelist”, New Delhi: Macmillan India, 1977

8. McEwan, Neil. “Graham Greene”, London: Macmillan Publishers, 1988

9. Pendleton, Robert. “Graham Greene’s Conradian Masterplot: The Arabesques of Influence”, London: Macmillan Press, 1996

10. Shuttleworth, Martin and Raven, Simon. “The Art of Fiction: Graham Greene”, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972

[1] “It is this sub-genre which Greene imitates in his earlier novels, falling under what he saw in the first instance as Conrad’s ‘disastrous’ influence.” (Pendleton, p. 9)

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