Getting on in years, cynical beyond repair, and uninvolved in people's lives as much as he can be, Thomas Fowler just wants to file the occasional news report, smoke opium, and chill with his young Vietnamese lover. He's living the easy life in Saigon, a reporter from England covering the Indochina War. He spends a lot of time at the hotel bar and rarely goes to press conferences or the scenes of battle. A classic Fowler line?:
I'm a reporter. I'm not engagé. (18.104.22.168)
Think a detached, live-and-let-live Michael Caine and you're in the ballpark. The actor played Fowler in the 2002 adaptation, and, really, we recommend you just picture Caine when reading the book. He was Alfred in the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, and Austin Powers' dad, if you need help placing him.
Fowler's life has been full of failures and frustrations. His marriage didn't work out. His affairs didn't last. He can't even get a proper divorce because his wife's "High Church" and so believes that divorce is a sin. He doesn't bother trying to do anything particularly well. Sometimes Fowler will get in the mood to publish facts that might embarrass the powers-that-be, but he never fights for the story:
Was any news good enough to risk expulsion?...I doubted it. (22.214.171.124)
His employer changes his report without Fowler giving 21 grams of protest.
The poor guy hasn't exactly grown accustomed to the transitory nature of life. He still lives in fear that what he has and what he wants will pass away. As a result, he lives like the hesitant swimmer who jumps in the cold poor rather than wade in, wanting to get the discomfort over and done with. For Fowler, the pool is death, which he calls the permanent thing:
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. (126.96.36.199)
While Fowler doesn't put himself in harm's way, he doesn't keep himself far away from it either. He's sort of hoping he'll die in Vietnam. He's scared of death too, "afraid like a virgin of the act," but he asks only that he'll have a moment to prepare for it when the time comes (188.8.131.52). Fowler's not a religious man, so, for him, death will be the end of all his worry and everything else.
'I'm not involved, not involved,' I repeated. It has been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action. (184.108.40.206)
For Fowler, not being involved is more than a creed. It's how he understands himself. It's who he is, who he wants to be. He thinks of himself as a fly on the wall—unnoticed, influencing nothing. "I don't take sides," he says (220.127.116.11).
You might be thinking, "Is this really possible?" Writing what you see is also a kind of action, after all. As any reporter knows, pure objectivity is impossible. Your perspective affects what you see and don't see. You also decide what to report and what to leave out. There's no way to wholly separate fact from opinion.
So maybe Fowler's not entirely honest with himself. He's already involved. The person with whom he's most involved is his lover Phuong, and as Fowler notes angrily to Pyle, he doesn't care about her interests. "You can have her interests," he tells him (18.104.22.168). Whether her life would be improved by marriage (something Fowler cannot offer) doesn't enter into his calculus. He wants her body and the opium she prepares for him. That's about the extent of it, at least until he might lose her.
As Alden Pyle becomes more of a threat, both to Fowler's personal life by proposing to Phuong and to the country by arming a terrorist, the religiously uninvolved Fowler begins to question his creed. Will he have to take sides 4 realz?
Whether because he wants Phuong all to himself, or because he wants to protect children from bombs, Fowler decides to take a stand. Pyle must be stopped, he tells himself. Fowler isn't innocent like Pyle. He knows that stopping Pyle will be the death of Pyle:
I tried to persuade myself that Mr Heng had other means at his disposal than the crude in obvious one. But in a war like this, I knew, there is no time to hesitate… (22.214.171.124).
Afterwards, Fowler gets Phuong back and gets away with his participation in the murder. He has to deal with the questions of a pesky French police officer, but he doesn't have too much trouble defending his innocence to the authorities. To himself? Well, that's another matter. Fowler tries to tell himself that he's not guilty and that Pyle was responsible for his own death, but the guilt just stays with him:
But how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry. (126.96.36.199)
This is what he walks away with at the end of the story.
Being a man of little to no action, Fowler can't bring himself to do anything about his guilt. His wish to confess his crime remains just a wish.