Study Guide

Alden Pyle in The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

Alden Pyle

Everything we know of Pyle we get from none other than Thomas Fowler himself. Despite calling himself a reporter who simply writes what he sees, Fowler draws conclusions about Pyle's interior disposition and character. He judges him as naïve and innocent and much too serious.

We wouldn't call Fowler an unreliable narrator, exactly. We don't think he's baldly lying. And he does seem to be more honest with us than with other characters. However, given Fowler's blatant disgust with Pyle, we suggest remembering that his depiction of Pyle might be incomplete and biased.

The Mystery on the Surface

So who is Alden Pyle in this story? He's a very serious and deeply sincere young man who's enthusiastic about his ideals and beliefs and unquestioningly devoted to righteousness. He's like an excited student who can't wait to share with you what he's learned. To Fowler, Pyle is innocence run amok—good intentions that bring irreparable harm:

He didn't even hear what I said; he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined – I learnt that very soon – to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with a whole universe to improve. (1.1.81)

Fowler compares him to "a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm" (1.3.1.62). This is double trouble given that Pyle is likely CIA-affiliated.

A Proper Gentleman

Pyle is also very proper. He doesn't go behind Fowler's back to steal Phuong: he's completely up front about his intentions. After notifying Fowler of his intent to marry Phuong, he tells Fowler exactly how pleased he is that Fowler takes the news well:

I've been feeling awfully bad about it. (1.4.2.51)

And when Fowler upsets him with a lie or an insult, he lets him know he's disappointed. "It was a pack of lies," Pyle says to Fowler about a letter (2.3.3.15). "I wish you hadn't written it" (2.3.3.13).

Head in the Clouds

If Pyle were a student in the classroom with no influence on anyone, or even a professor like his father, he'd be pretty harmless. With the power to arm a "Third Force" against the colonists and communists, he's one dangerous dude. To make matters worse, he can't see the world for what it is. He's not an insightful and prudent policy wonk. He's an ideologue. His innocence, thinks Fowler, "is a kind of insanity" (3.2.2.47).

Pyle perceives the individuals and armies and nations only in so far as they conform to his beliefs. Victims of his terrorism aren't human beings lost forever; they're heroes for Democracy. Fowler isn't a rival or a threat; he's a good friend put in an unfortunate spot. The blood on Pyle's shoe after a bombing isn't really blood; it's something Pyle just can't put his finger on. "What's that?" he asks (3.2.2.37).

Because he's not looking at the real concrete situation, Pyle blunders again and again, personally and politically, with devastating results. He's like a character in The Walking Dead or in some other horror story that makes unbelievably horrible decisions that get people killed. Upon seeing the devastation of the bombing, he's incredulous:

Thé wouldn't have done this. I'm sure he wouldn't. Somebody deceived him. (3.2.2.48)

According to Fowler, Pyle was "impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance" (3.2.2.49).

Pyle is the innocent villain who's really innocent and really a villain. But did he really have to die?