Study Guide

The Quiet American Innocence

By Graham Greene

Innocence

'God save us always,' I said, 'from the innocent and the good.' (1.1.102)

Whenever Fowler speaks about innocence, he's taking about a vice, not a virtue. To Fowler, the innocent mean well, but they inevitably make a mess of things because they don't get how the world works.

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. (1.3.1.62)

Fowler quickly comes to see Pyle as a danger precisely because the quiet American is meddling in affairs way over his head. He first tries to educate Pyle, but when Pyle fails to see the real world consequences of his actions, Fowler sees no other option than to take sides against him.

I never a knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused. (1.4.2.85)

Pyle is exceptionally innocent. In the novel, the character is a symbol of dangerous innocence. Fowler, it should be said, is a figure of questionable motives.

I assumed that he had gone down for a stroll – after punting all the way down the river from Nam Dinh a few snipers would not have worried him; he was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others. […] Yet he was sincere in his way: it was coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others, until that final night under the bridge to Dakow. (1.5.1.1)

Fowler can't bring himself to despise Pyle because Pyle isn't the least bit malicious or indifferent to the harm he causes. If he were indifferent to murdered children, he wouldn't feel the need to justify their deaths in the name of some future democratic paradise.

'The first dog I ever had was called Prince. I called him after the Black Prince. You know, the fellow who …'
'Massacred all the women and children in Limoges.'
'I don't remember that.'
'The history books gloss it over.'

Pyle has a habit of not seeing warts. He'll honor his heroes without really verifying that they are heroes.

'We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren't colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king and we handed him back his province and left our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we'd stay. But we were liberals and we didn't want a bad conscience.' (2.2.2.52)

In Fowler's assessment, intervention in another country's affairs is usually based on a lie: that the intervening power will stay long enough to prevent retaliation against the peoples it came to help.

I know myself, and I know the depth of my selfishness. I cannot be at ease (and to be at ease is my chief wish) if someone else is in pain, visibly or audibly or tactually. Sometimes this is mistaken by the innocent for unselfishness, when all I am doing is sacrificing a small good – in this case postponement in attending to my hurt – for the sake of a far greater good, a peace of mind when I need think only of myself. (2.2.4.59)

Is this honesty or is Fowler too cynical about himself?

Unfortunately the innocent are always involved in any conflict. Always, everywhere, there is some voice crying from a tower. (2.3.1.45)

Here "innocent" refers to those who do not share blame for the cause or continuation of the conflict. Does Greene imply any relationship between these two senses of innocence?

'I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.' (2.3.3.44)

Does one understand or appreciate wrongness better by doing wrong? Does the sinner know the nature of sin better than the saint?

What's the good? he'll always be innocent, you can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.

[…]

He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance. (3.2.2.47,49)

Fowler can't control Pyle, so he sees only one other option. Is this fatalism? Yeah, totally.