Study Guide

The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

The Quiet American Introduction

Picture it: You're stuck with a wife you really don't like, you hate your job, and you just got sent to a war zone. Talk about a bad day. Oh, and welcome to Thomas Fowler's life.

You see, Mr. Fowler is not a happy camper. He's a middle-aged correspondent from England who's come to Vietnam to report on the Indochina War...and let's just say he's not exactly enthused about his job.

On top of that, Fowler cheated on his wife back home in England, but she won't divorce him. She's very religious. He? Not so much. He failed at marriage, didn't do too well at adultery either, and at this point in his career doesn't care if he fails as a reporter. A cynical chap? You bet! Cheeky? Yeah, sometimes.

Now he's taken up with a young mistress named Phuong and just wants to spend his remaining years living easy and untroubled by anybody's problems. Such a life might seem lonely to you, but it's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to him.

When it all comes down to it, Fowler would prefer to mind his own business and be responsible for no one. He reminds us a little of Luke Skywalker's uncle, Owen, in Star Wars. Owen was all about the Skywalkers not getting involved, especially in idealistic crusades. That's Fowler, dead on. He reports on the war, when he must, but he won't take sides. Getting involved is against his creed.

You're thinking to yourself, "Yeah, That'll last."

Enter Alden Pyle, the quiet American. He's soft-spoken and a likeable enough fellow, but he makes quite a mess of Fowler's world. And how? Pyle falls in love with Phuong and woos her away from Fowler. That's strike one. Strike two: Pyle is not so secretly an intelligence agent aiding a terrorist in hopes of bringing peace to the land. Plus—yes, there's a plus—Pyle's much too naïve and innocent to realize the error of his plan, even when it results in bloodshed and the murder of civilians. That's strike three as far as Fowler is concerned. What happens next won't surprise you.

Published in 1955, Graham Greene's The Quiet American was controversial in its time and remains so to this day. It's obviously an anti-war novel, but it's also arguably anti-American. The New York Times called the novel's presentation of America an annoyingly crude and trite caricature.

Pyle seems to embody U.S. foreign policy as Fowler sees it: naively idealistic about its goals, dangerously ignorant about the places it seeks to help, and innocently sure of its rightness, control, and moral superiority. Or maybe Fowler's just really miffed at Pyle for stealing his girlfriend. Either way, you don't have to share Fowler's grumpy distaste of all things American to appreciate the human drama of love and war at the center of the story.

And controversy aside, the novel remains well regarded in the States and elsewhere. Michael Caine received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Thomas Fowler in the 2002 film. Brendan Frasier of the Mummy movies played Pyle.

Fear not: there are no mummies in The Quiet American, quietly buried or otherwise.

What is The Quiet American About and Why Should I Care?

If the critical representation of American policy in The Quiet American sounds familiar to you, there's a reason. Opponents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have made the same basic claim. To them, as apparently to Thomas Fowler, the United States means well but ends up doing more harm than good when it intervenes in the affairs of other countries.

As the United States continues to be involved in foreign conflicts, Fowler's image of America (in the person of Pyle) as a self-righteous meddler won't be going away.

…And neither will criticism of The Quiet American. After all, Fowler's wholly negative point of view isn't universally shared. The latest Captain America movies had their subversive criticisms of military power, but they hardly turned Cap into a clueless villain like Alden Pyle. Quite the opposite, in fact—they don't call it a superhero movie for nothing.

Aside from its legacy in anti-war literature, The Quiet American is an intense espionage thriller and a poignant reflection on human weakness. You don't have to agree with the narrator's politics or cynicism to get wrapped up in the novel's drama of love and war, honesty and deception, loyalty and betrayal.

Well, don't just sit there! Thomas Fowler disliked taking sides, but we at Shmoop don't share his sentiment. Take a look and tell us where you stand. Is Fowler right or wrong about Pyle? Is Pyle representative of American policy, a caricature of it, or something else entirely? The answer…is up to you, dear reader.

The Quiet American Resources

Websites

NPR Being Pushy
Author Pico Iyer recommends The Quiet American.Actually, he says you "must read it." In fairness, he means that imperative with tongue in cheek.

The Critical American Newspaper
Here's the New York Times review of the novel from 1956. It was critical of Greene's friendliness towards Communism. That would have been a big issue in the 50s.

Movie or TV Productions

The Heroic American
The first film adaptation of The Quiet American makes Pyle into a wise protagonist, but it's still more faithful to the source material than Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies.

Michael Caine Gets Mad
The 2002 film version, which was more faithful to the novel, was shelved for a time after 9/11. Undeniably, the public was not in the mood for a film about an American operative aiding and abetting a terrorist attack.

Articles and Interviews

Paving the Road to Hell
Andrew J Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, writes an appreciation of The Quiet American as an antiwar novel in light of his assessment of recent U.S. military operations.

By Hook, By Crook
In The Guardian, Zadie Smith argues that Graham Greene's novels make him one of the greatest journalists.

Video

The Loud DVD
A trailer for the DVD of the 2002 film, not short on guns and explosions. Bang! Boom!

The Famous on the Reclusive Greene
A TV news obituary of Graham Greene featuring interviews with some notable literary figures. The quality improves as the video goes on.

Audio

National Public Greene
A radio presentation about the works of Graham Greene.

Images

British Broadcasting Greene
Who was Graham Greene? The BBC explores that question.

Greene in youth
The Alden Pyle version.