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“The Quiet American”, by Graham Greene Essay

Throughout the novel “The Quiet American”, authored by Graham Greene, a conflict of identity is seen to occur within the narrator and protagonist, Fowler. Due to the complexity of his character, Fowler as a narrator provides a valued yet sometimes flawed insight into the turmoil of his mind. This turmoil is none better displayed through his indecisive nature about whether or not he is similar to Pyle, the naive, inexperienced, and serious American operative working under the guise of an economic aid missionary. As we are drawn into Fowler’s complex web of determining who he really is, he makes the statement that “Was I so different from Pyle…? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?” For as much as Fowler doubts himself here, both him and Pyle and very much two separate entities.

The similarities they may share are far outweighed by their differences, not to say that this encroaches upon their genuine friendship; but it is seen through many instances such as valuing life, experience, love, ideologies, and even the way they hold the relationship between themselves. This is mainly due to the separate worlds they have encountered; with Pyle it is one comprised of books from which he sources experience from theory. However with Fowler, his knowledge comes not from books but reality, his experience being exactly that.

Fowler’s realistic views provide a sharp contrast to Pyle’s idealistic theories, especially when their political ideologies and their attitudes towards the Vietnam situation come into play. Immediately from the outset, Pyle is eager for action, paying attention to the slightest bang in hope of a grenade. He seeks action, adventure, and has an unwavering desire to change the whole political scope of Vietnam for the better of the people. However, Fowler is seen to ignore the grenades and petty occurrences that take place amongst the crowded streets of Saigon and such. His realistic nature, drawn from the experience he has gained from his time amongst the Vietnamese people, has enabled him to see past these “back page” single sentence statements.

For Fowler, this conflict is nothing new, he has a made a career out of living within it and thus it is part of his nature. He is able to understand what is happening to the people themselves, his empathy towards them is a reflection on the extent to which he has become part of their culture through living in their country and taking up their customs, such as the native fauna found in his apartment. Pyle on the other hand, cannot see the people of Vietnam for who they are. To him, as to the French and other Western allies, they are just statistics in “the cause for democracy”.

Pyle’s inexperience and naivety causes him to play the fool against Fowler; for his absolute, un-wavering acceptance of York Harding’s theory on the governance of a whole country provides a smokescreen that blinds him to the “real Vietnam” as Fowler calls it. The “real Vietnam” being the people, the native Vietnamese who care nothing for the “God and Democracy” Pyle so obediently supports. Only being able to focus on the big picture, Pyle ultimately lacks the ability to see the situation before his eyes, whilst Fowler cannot see the big picture and the “fight for liberty” that Pyle abides by. Each of them support a cause that they feel is best for the people, however, these causes are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

As death is presented before both Pyle and Fowler, they each take it in a very different way. Fowler sees death as an escape from all the troubles in life, a release from the ills that constantly befall him. While Pyle feels the need to preserve life, at least those of his friends, to the point in which he will risk his own if it means the prevalence of another’s. Whether this is an act of sheer stupidity and innocence, or a logical decision that one makes on the basis of self-sacrifice and the realization of consequence; there is no denying that Pyle overlooks death in the face of in-experience with the pain of life. Unlike Pyle, Fowler is a strong existentialist who believes in death as the ultimatum of escape.

As he is dragged out of the sight of Vietminh during the tower scene, yelling at Pyle “Leave me alone…I want to stay”, Fowler is seemingly waiting for death to arrive, anticipating it’s arrival so it could release him the pain prevalent through his life. Pyle, not knowing any better and with the mechanics of euthanasia unknown to him; prevents Fowler’s demise. Pyle is too inexperienced to realize that some people just want to let go of life He cannot see the pain Fowler is going through, and he especially cannot pinpoint the fact that he is the cause for pain Fowler feels at the present over Phuong.

Therefore, Pyle’s inexperience blinds him to the fact that there is a choice between life and death; because Pyle can only see life. Whilst Fowler, looks ahead to the future after he is saved, making the comment that “I wonder what we’d made: for me, old age, an editor’s chair, loneliness”. Fowler’s possession of a foresight that enables him to see things realistically allows him to consider death as the only attractive option in his world; an escape from a future he couldn’t bear. A future that, unlike Pyle’s, is not filled with bright hopes and airy dreams; which separates the two in terms of their desires for life and death.

Fowler and Pyle both hold opposing viewpoints on how they love. They may share the same love in Phuong, but how they go about loving her and their views on what love is are extraordinarily far apart on the spectrum. Fowler’s hardened experience with life causes him to search for companionship and stability, which for him is love. While Pyle’s self confessed inexperience with anything concerning women and love causes him to be intruding, overly protective and materially obsessed during his version of ‘love’. The pain in Fowler’s life, seen in his failed marriage; has cautioned him that without stability love is nothing and can never be achieved. This is where Fowler’s appreciation for Phuong’s company comes into play, as Fowler exclaims “We sat there, content to be together”. Fowler’s desire for companionship contrasts against Pyle’s obsession to protect her and offer security.

An example of this is seen during Pyle’s first meeting with her, when presented with cabaret dancers, Pyle disapproves strongly “This isn’t a bit suitable for her”. Pyle’s protective nature again surfacing, and coming hand in hand with his belief that security is the key to gaining Phuong’s love and her hand in marriage. For Pyle can offer her glamorous cities and shopping, a secure future with children and marriage. His version of love is summed up in Fowler’s words “is that how you make love in America-figures of income and blood group?”. As tempting as Pyle’s offer may be, through no fault of his own, he lacks the painful experiences in life which dictate what love should be and how it is given. Fowler’s stability and devout companionship are the results of the trials he has faced, and these are his solutions to love. It can be said that alone through this matter, Pyle and Fowler are separate entities entirely.

People align themselves to various personal ideals throughout their lives, depending on their age, experience, attitude, and downright personality; these causes are the catalyst for everything else that occurs in their life. This is the area in which Pyle and Fowler differ the most, involvement and disengagement. All throughout the novel, Fowler reinstates himself as a “reporter” someone who just reports on what he sees in front of him and claims himself as “not-involved, not engage”. This is in juxtaposition to Pyle’s desire for involvement, his willingness and determinedness to make a difference and thus affect the lives of a whole people. Even Fowler examines this with comment on “Pyle believed in being involved”. By saying this, Fowler acknowledges that he and Pyle were separate from each other, they were not alike.

Fowler’s experience with the pain of life, his broken marriage, his old age, the loss of youth; having caused him to shun away from ever becoming involved with life again. Pyle’s naivety, his headstrong nature, the fact that he is younger and knows it, arguing that “I’m younger” as a reason for gaining Phuong during their argument over her in Fowler’s apartment. These factors of Pyle, coupled with the fact that “He (Pyle) never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture hall”; cements Pyle as a victim of theory and textbook-based knowledge who was too eager to change the world due to his inexperience with life and it’s detrimental effects. Thus, shaping him into a young man who constantly strove for involvement in life alongside Fowler who could never distance himself enough from it.

While it is seen that Fowler and Pyle share a genuine friendship throughout the events of the novel, there is no doubting that they are separate in many ways. Each of them took an individual path leading in the opposite direction from the others, yet these differences kept them together. Their different experiences with life each determined how they would be drawn apart in areas such as love, politics, etc. At the conclusion of everything, Fowler’s experience with the pain of life ultimately led him to shun away from Pyle’s decisions, which were based upon inexperience and therefore a failure to see the mess of life.


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