Study Guide

The Quiet American Fear

By Graham Greene

Fear

I have read so often of people's thoughts in the moment of fear: of God, or family, or a woman. I admire their control. I thought of nothing, not even the trap-door above me: I ceased, for those seconds, to exist: I was fear taken neat. (2.2.2.43)

As Thomas Fowler says elsewhere, he's not involved, and so he has little to lose with the loss of his life. He fears death, but not because he'll be separated from what he loves. After all, he came east to be killed (uh-huh, suuure).

Only a man could climb a ladder, and yet I couldn't think of it as a man like myself—it was as though an animal were moving in to kill, very quietly and certainly with the remorselessness of another kind of creation. The ladder shook and shook and I imagined I saw its eyes glaring upwards. (2.2.3.232)

The shaking turns out to be nothing but his own grip upon the ladder, but in that moment, his fear pumps fuel into his imagination, and his nightmare comes alive. Have you ever, in fear, seen something that wasn't actually there?

I had always hated and feared the thought of drowning. Why can't one choose one's death? (2.2.4.30)

This is an interesting question for Fowler to ask. By his own admission, he came east to be killed, so he is in a way trying to choose the manner of his demise—or at least the general location.

Oh yes, he was being careful as he had been careful boating down the river into Phat Diem, with the caution of a hero in a boy's adventure story, proud of his caution like a Scout's badge and quite unaware of the absurdity and improbability of his adventure. (2.2.4.55)

Fowler sees Pyle's fearlessness as an aspect of his innocence—both of which Fowler believes to be character flaws. And because Pyle cannot fear for himself, he cannot fear for others.

I lay still and heard nothing but my own pain beating like a monstrous heart and held my breath and prayed to the God I didn't believe in, 'Let me die or faint. Let me die or faint' … (2.2.4.58)

To be sure, this is not a moment of faith for Fowler. He hasn't suddenly found God in his fear and pain. Later, when the pain is gone, so is his prayer. God remains just an idea; there when it's convenient, sort of like a drive through car wash.

Ordinary life goes on – that has saved many a man's reason. Just as in an air-raid it proved impossible to be frightened all the time, so under the bombardment of routine jobs, of chance encounters, of impersonal anxieties, one lost for hours together the personal fear. (2.3.2.1)

Maybe this is why fears arises and persist at night more than the day. It's not the darkness that breeds fear, but the absence of distractions. You know what they say: An idle mind is the devil's workshop.

I knew I was inventing a character just as much as Pyle was. One never knows another human being; for all I could tell she was as scared as the rest of us: she didn't have the gift of expression, that was all. (2.3.3.54)

For all his claims to the contrary, Fowler doesn't really know Phuong. He can't even tell if she's frightened by the war or the uncertainty of her future. She keeps her worries and fears to herself, and Fowler doesn't argue. These two must make for quite the awkward couple, if you were to ask us.

I had been punished. It was as though Pyle, when he left my flat, had sentenced me to so many weeks of uncertainty. Every time that I returned home it was with the expectation of disaster. (3.1.2.1)

Why does Fowler call this new state of uncertainty a punishment? Does he deserve to be punished for anything? Could it be because uncertainty breeds fear? Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? Wait—wrong story. Scratch that. Carry on.

Now that Vigot was gone to close his uncompleted file, I wished I had the courage to call him back and say, 'You are right. I did see Pyle the night he died.' (4.1.68)

Fowler has the courage to venture into warzones, but not to admit his role in Pyle's death. Why do you think that is?

'You can publish the truth. Or perhaps you cannot?' (4.2.1.21)

Fear impedes the actions of individuals, but also organizations (like newspapers) and countries. Fowler might be willing to publish the truth, but his bosses sure aren't.