Study Guide

The Quiet American Mortality

By Graham Greene

Mortality

I walked back with Phuong towards my flat. I was no longer on my dignity. Death takes away vanity—even the vanity of the cuckold who mustn't show his pain. (1.1.119)

"At least no one died!" is a phrase people sometimes say to put some offense or another into perspective. Most harms pale in comparison to death. Consider also that death often seems to call for reverence and respect. Vanity goes by the wayside, as do scorned lovers.

In Pyle's bathroom Vigot was washing his hands with Pyle's soap and drying them on Pyle's towel. His tropical suit had a stain of oil on the sleeve—Pyle's soil, I suppose. (1.2.2.6)

Is this guilt talking? Pyle is dead. He doesn't own the soap or the towel or the oil anymore. Vigot, the police officer, had no compunction about using them, but Fowler speaks as though Vigot should have asked for the dead man's permission.

From childhood I had never believed in permanence, and yet I had longed for it. Always I was afraid of losing happiness. This month, next year, Phuong would leave me. If not next year, then in three years. Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again for ever. I envied those who could believe in a God and I distrusted them. I felt they were keeping their courage up with a fable of the changeless and the permanent. Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity. (1.3.2.78)

Fowler's an atheist, but like many religious believers, he values permanence more than transience. Love, life, and health all pass away: they're temporary, and so they're of less importance. Death is permanent. Death is forever. Death is certain. Therefore death is better than life. For Fowler, it is the great escape from pain and fear.

Even though my reason wanted the state of death, I was afraid like a virgin of the act. I would have liked death to come with due warning, so that I could prepare myself. For what? I didn't know, nor how, except by taking a look around at the little I would be leaving. (1.4.1.40)

Fowler longs for death, but that doesn't mean he doesn't fear it. His head and his heart are not on the same page.

Two shots were fired to our front, and I thought, 'This is it. Now it comes.' It was all the warning I wanted. I waited, with a sense of exhilaration, the permanent thing. (1.4.1.44)

Notice death is again described as the permanent thing. This is language a religious person might use to describe God and heaven.

"I thought I saw her changing – I don't know if she really was, but I couldn't bear the uncertainty any longer. I ran towards the finish just like a coward runs towards the enemy and wins a medal. I wanted to get death over." (2.2.3.168)

Death here refers to the end of a relationship Fowler had with a woman. He fears losing her, sees signs of impending loss, and so breaks it off to get "death" over with.

"That's why I came east. Death stays with you." (2.2.3.195)

There are lots of opportunities to get killed in a warzone. That's why Fowler's come. Or so he says. Do you believe him?

"Who the hell asked you to save my life? I came east to be killed." (2.2.4.28)

We might ask whether Fowler really longs for death, as he says he does, or whether his anger at being saved has more to do with the physical pain he's in, having injured his leg.

The old women gossiped as they always had done, squatting on the floor outside the urinoir, carrying Fate in the lines of their faces as others on the palm. (2.3.1.1)

These old ladies must have some pretty impressive wrinkles. To the superstitious, the lines of the palm indicate how long someone will live.

The doctors were too busy to attend to the dead, and so the dead were left to their owners, for one can own the dead as one owns a chair. (3.2.2.36)

What does Fowler mean by "owning" the dead? Is he secretly the Zombie Overlord? Hades? The Lord of Darkness? Nah, he's probably just reflecting on the sheer amount of death that surrounds him. Families hold on to the corpses of loved ones as though they were dolls.