Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” is set amidst the turbulent backdrop of French Indo-China in the early 1950’s. It is a political thriller and is extremely effective in highlighting the conflicting political views of the time and the extraordinary lengths people will go to in defending what they believe in. The author’s viewpoint is quite ironic given this novel was written between 1952 and 1954, almost a decade before America’s full scale involvement in Vietnam. It is a very honest and compelling historical account in which Greene comments on power, human nature, political ideologies, social class, race and gender amongst other things. Each of them will be addressed in turn.
Power is exerted by several groups and in different ways throughout the novel. The communist party are demonstrating their increasing power with their control over increasing territories and it being unsafe to travel in the country at night. The attack against the watch tower was a direct example of this. The French continued to exert their influence over Vietnam during this period though it was acknowledged that they were fighting a losing battle. It was mentioned several times in the novel that the local police played a significant role in society. The Americans who had unofficially been supporting the French began to increase their power through the support of the “third force”. It was the central character, Alden Pyle, in his blind devotion to the promotion of western democracy in the east that illustrated this power. Thus evident that power is a significant discourse in the novel.
Human nature is a prominent discourse throughout. Pyle is so determined and convinced of the need to promote democracy that he believes bloodshed is inevitable. When the bomb exploded in the plaza killing innocent civilians Pyle commented “They were only war casualties…It was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause. In a way you could say they did it for democracy.”
In contrast, Thomas Fowler, the cynical reporter maintained throughout that he was impartial, that his role was to observe and report objectively. However witnessing the plaza bombing he did take the side of the locals and handed Pyle over to them. Through these two characters, Greene has illustrated the extent to which humans will go for a cause.
There are several conflicting political ideologies in the novel as this was an extremely unsettled time in Vietnams history. The communists, lead by Ho Chi Minh and known locally as the Vietminh were rapidly gaining support. They had control over the North and were expanding their influence South. The French Government which supposedly represented the interests of the Vietnamese people opposed communism and supported democracy. Pyle symbolising the American ideology, spreading Western democracy at any cost. Frightened by the threat of communism taking over the world they ” unofficially” supported the “third force”. The “third force” itself led by General Thï¿½ was politically opposed to both the French Government and the communists. Hence it was clearly a troubled time in Vietnam.
Fowler made an interesting comment in the novel as to the beliefs of the local people and the American views. “You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested. They don’t want communism. 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…”
The novel also portrays the distinction in social classes, race and gender at that time. This is perhaps best illustrated by the role of Phuong, the love interest of both Fowler and Pyle. She is driven by her desire to marry a foreigner to guarantee her financial security. She is the subservient female and constantly seeks to please the males in her life. There is a great class and race distinction between the local way of life and that of the foreigners evidenced by numerous parties and dinners at fine restaurants and hotels such as the “Hotel Continental” as compared to the locals eating on the streets. Given that this was written in the 1950’s, Greene presented an effective and critical view of life in Vietnam at that time.
Using the discourses discussed above, Greene has positioned us as an audience to view the historical period as he portrayed it to be. He has constructed this position through the utilisation of various literary techniques including binary oppositions, clever use of language, dialogue and silences amongst others.
Arguably the most significant binary opposition employed by the author would be the two conflicting political beliefs of Pyle and Fowler. Pyle who is determined to promote Western Democracy “you have to fight for liberty”, and Fowler who is determined to let the Vietnamese people determine their own destiny. These views directly oppose each other and we as an audience, although horrified by Pyle’s death, cannot help but form the opinion that the American involvement was unnecessary.
Love as opposed to convenience is another example of the use of binary oppositions with respect to Pyle and Fowler’s love for Phuong. It is questionable whether Phuong loved either of them or whether she was simply seduced by the promise of marriage and stability. The men on the other hand continued to fight for her affections throughout. Fowler explained this point to Pyle in saying ” They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them… its very secure – she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.
Greene’s clever use of language techniques throughout the novel reiterates how unsettled Vietnam’s society was during this period. The fact that Phuong was forced to speak French in her native country and that she was learning English highlights the discourse of power discussed above.
A significant gap in the novel, is the way in which the author fails to present the readers with a historical background of the events which have created the turbulent political climate. Consequently, unless you possess a sound historical knowledge of the era, the audience is solely reliant on the way in which the author is positioning us.
The dominant viewpoint of the author was to highlight the conflicting political ideologies of the time, which was extremely relevant to that particular historical period. The Americans were consumed with a fear of communism spreading throughout the world and would go to any lengths to prevent that occurring. Later that decade the Americans officially became involved in what was one of the world’s most controversial battles.
Pyle’s contribution to the American anti-communism movements was typical of the thinking at that time. His actions were an example of how the world is constructed and the extraordinary lengths humans will go to, to defend their beliefs. “The Quiet American” is a very honest portrayal of the complexity of human nature. The author’s message is clearly evident in Fowler’s closing statement…”Everything had gone right with me since he died, but how I wished there existed someone whom I could say that I was sorry”.