Study Guide

The Quiet American Guilt

By Graham Greene

Guilt

As I laid it down, I said, 'Nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about at all.' (1.1.31)

Note the repetition. In a way, Fowler is speaking to Phuong and to himself, and trying to convince himself and her. He knows Pyle is dead, but he doesn't want to know it.

'Not guilty,' I said. I told myself that it was true. Didn't Pyle always go his own way? (1.1.89)

Fowler diverts the blame. Sure, he led Pyle to his death, but Pyle chose to walk right into it, right? It would have happened eventually. No doubt. So no need to feel guilty.

The cannon gave a single burst of tracer, and the sampan blew apart in a shower of sparks: we didn't even wait to see our victims struggling to survive, but climbed and made for home. I thought again as I had thought when I saw the dead child at Phat Diem, 'I hate war.' (3.1.4.12)

We sense that Fowler, in a way, wishes he could have seen those struggling to survive. No, he's not a sadist. He feels as though it's not fair that he should be able to witness the costs of war only from a distance.

'We are fighting all of your wars, but you leave us the guilt.' (3.1.5.4)

Captain Trouin, a soldier, feels guilt he believes the politicians who declare the wars never feel. In his mind, the politicians decide when to wage war, but they don't have to pay the moral price.

'The first time I dropped napalm I thought, this is the village where I was born. … The baker – I was very fond of the baker when I was a child – is running away down there in the flames I've thrown.' (3.1.5.18)

Trouin is definitely not the one who said, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

'Those are moods. They come only with the napalm. The rest of the time I think that I am defending Europe. And you know, those others – they do some monstrous things also.' (3.1.5.20)

To alleviate his guilt, which he says comes in moods, Trouin gives reasons why he believes the war is necessary, if also horrible. How does Trouin's support of the war differ from Pyle's?

Pyle said, 'It's awful.' He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, 'What's that?'
'Blood,' I said. 'Haven't you ever seen it before?'
He said, 'I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.'
[…]
I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around.
[…]
'I was out of town,' he said, looking down at his shoes. They should have called it off.'( 3.2.2.37-9, 40, 45)

Fowler hopes this moment of shock will allow Pyle to feel regret, lose his innocence, and realize the error of his enterprise. No luck. Even when faced with concrete ruin, Pyle can't come down to earth. His ideas are a prison with no windows.

What's the good? he'll always be innocent, you can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. (3.2.2.47)

Pyle seems impervious to lasting guilt. He's not a classic monster. He's just believes too innocently in his own ideas to really see the damage they do. Fowler elsewhere compares him to a blind leper.

I was in no mood to fight with him, but in that moment I would not have minded if he had beaten me unconscious. We have so few ways in which to assuage the sense of guilt. (4.2.3.22)

Guilt makes us feel that we deserve punishment, even if it's painful.

Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry. (4.3.3.48)

Greene ends the novel with this line. Fowler longs for a different kind of involvement—not taking sides in a war, but the opportunity to apologize to Pyle. Is Greene hinting at the rationale behind confessing one's sins to a priest? You'll remember that Fowler disapproved of such things.