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In the time of oppression, nobody can keep uninvolved: The Theme of “The Quiet American”

The Quiet American (1955), one of Graham Greene’s novels, is set in Saigon, Vietnam, amid the conflict between the South Vietnamese, who are supported by the French and the Viet Minh. Narrated by the protagonist, Thomas Fowler, a tough-minded British war reporter who refuses to engage in the conflict and prefers to be an observer who simply reports the facts, the novel depicts the early stages of American involvement in the conflict. During his travel around Saigon, Fowler meets Alden Pyle, an American intelligence operative working undercover in the Economic Aid Mission. Unlike Fowler, Pyle is a young sincere idealist who wishes to foster political and social change in Vietnam. Overall, the novel chronicles Fowler and Pyle’s conflict over politics as well as over Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress.

The novel opens with the death of Pyle, but the assassination circumstances are unknown until the end of the novel. Then the novel proceeds with a series of flashbacks revealing the complicated history between Pyle and Fowler. Arriving in Saigon, Pyle falls in love with Phuong who soon leaves Fowler and lives with him. To Fowler, Pyle explains that he intends to marry Phuong because Fowler’s Catholic wife who lives in London will resist divorce him. Their love triangle is intricate, but the novel climax happens when Fowler finds out that Pyle’s actual mission in Saigon is to form a ‘Third Force’ which is free from both the colonialism ruin and Communism and will win Vietnam for democracy. Though Fowler has warned him that the group led by General The that he hires to form the ‘Third Force’, is merely bandits, Pyle believes General The’s group is the best to do the mission. A few days later, a car bomb explodes in Saigon public square and kills many innocent people. Discovering that Pyle is involved in the bombing, Fowler decides to assist Mr. Heng, a communist, to get rid of Pyle. After Pyle’s death, Phuong returns to Fowler. Some days later, Helen, Fowler’s wife in Britain sends him a telegram telling she agrees to a divorce. Thus, Phuong finally has her marital security.

Starting from the beginning, Fowler keeps on emphasizing his principle to be uninvolved in other people's affairs that are not related to his personal matters. As a reporter who has traveled to many countries, he believes it's better not to engage in other people's affairs, especially politics. That's why, different from other journalists who call themselves correspondents, he prefers to call himself a reporter. Correspondents contribute news and commentary, a reporter just covers facts. Fowler even prevents opinion because, for him, opinion is a kind of action, a kind intervention. When he is interrogated by Vigot, the French policeman who investigates Pyle's death, Fowler accentuates, "I'm not involved, not involved. … It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was. Let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved” (p. 27).

His uninvolved principle makes Fowler individualistic and is not interested in other people. He never considers what his wife, Anne, feels being left for years in London. He even does not care about Phoung's interests although he has lived with her for two years. What’s important is he can have sexual intercourse with her. (p. 71). His individualistic way of life is also seen in his excessive enjoyment in taking opium.

His rich empirical experiences obtained through his travels to many countries also make Fowler realistic. Different from Pyle who is so fanatical about democracy implementation to create a better life in Vietnam, Fowler believes that the Vietnamese do not need western ideology for a better life. To Pyle, he highlights, "They want enough rice. … They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want. … Do you think that the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night" (p. 119). To support his view that forcing democracy implementation will only cause troubles to Vietnamese life, he describes what he saw in India, “I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. … Liberalism’s infected all the other parties” (p. 121).

Fowler changes his uninvolved principle after realizing that Pyle has supplied American arms to General The’s guerrillas, a group he designs to act as the Third Force in Vietnam. Although Fowler has previously warned Pyle that the General The’s men are only a group of bandits, Pyle keeps on carrying out his plan. One day, they explode a car bomb in Saigon public square, causing many civilian casualties. Although it makes Pyle in grief, to Fowler he states the death of Vietnamese civilians is necessary to advance the cause of democracy. Realizing that Pyle will never change his course, Fowler thinks he cannot keep uninvolved any more. His empathy for the Vietnamese makes him realize that to get rid of all the war and the problems caused by General The, Pyle should be stopped. He agrees with Mr. Heng’s suggestion to invite Pyle to have dinner at a restaurant so that Mr. Heng and his friends can “talk to him on the way”.

After waiting for hours and Pyle does not turn up, Fowler realizes that Mr. Heng and friends have managed to assassinate Pyle. This makes Fowler aware that he has taken side to the Vietnamese to avoid further oppression. He says to himself, “I had betrayed my principles: I had become as engaged as Pyle” (p. 240).

Interestingly, after involving himself by taking sides with the oppressed Vietnamese, Fowler lives more ethically or morally. He soon receives Helen's telegram from London informing that their divorce processes has been started: "Hove thought over your letter again stop an acting irrationally ... as you hoped top have told my lawyer start divorce proceedings grounds desertion stop God bless you affectionately Helen" (p. 246). When they have divorced, Fowler will eventually be able to legally get married with Phoung.

Through Fowler's decision to get involved to stop Pyle's disastrous mission and his ethical and moral life improvement after the involvement, Green means to communicate that to live humanly, one should have a passion and involve himself in the struggle to help the poor, the weak, or the oppressed.

Work Cited:
Greene, G. (1955). The Quiet American. London: William Heinemann LTD.

Author: Parlindungan Pardede (


  1. “I know you think this is all easy for me. I know you think I don’t care. I wish I could let you see how much this is breaking me. I just signed papers for the divorce to be filed and I found myself hesitating.


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