A Quick Word on The Quiet American

Techniques tracked:
-narrative arc: it all builds to a (difficult) choice
-the misdirection of tension: presenting the outcome of the climactic choice up front


And the word is: choice.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) begins with the narrator finding out that Pyle, the eponymous character and a (much younger) acquaintance of his, is dead. He’s greeted right after receiving this news by the woman who left him for Pyle, whom he has to tell about Pyle’s death. We then go into flashback, getting the story of how the narrator, a British war correspondent who makes it his goal to take no sides in the imperialist conflict he’s covering, gets to know Pyle, an American from Boston (Harvard grad) who works for the U.S. Embassy in Indochina (this is around 1952, when the French are trying to control the region). The narrator, Fowler, who is living (and ostensibly in love) with Phuong, a local Vietnamese woman, finds Pyle’s ideas about the native population and spreading democracy naive and ill-informed. Shortly after meeting Fowler’s lover Phuong at a dance, Pyle professes his love for her to Fowler, and his intent to try to marry her. (Fowler is unable to offer Phuong the security of marriage, because he’s married to a strict Catholic woman who won’t divorce him, though they’ve been estranged for years.) But when Pyle actually declares his intentions to Phuong herself–with Fowler as translator, since Pyle can’t speak French or Vietnamese–Phuong turns him down, remaining with Fowler.

After this, Pyle and Fowler wind up on an expedition to the outskirts of town together (during which Pyle demonstrates more of his trademark naivety). They run out of gas on the road back in after locals siphon the tank, and, with night falling, have to take refuge in a tower with a couple of scared guards who don’t speak their language. Fowler and Pyle have a deep philosophical and political conversation to pass the time, during which Pyle declares Phuong the most important thing in the world, more so even than the fate of countries. Their conversation is interrupted when the tower is attacked, and Fowler breaks his leg trying to escape. Pyle drags him across a rice field, out of harm’s way, Fowler, in excruciating pain, protesting all the while that he didn’t ask to be saved.

Fowler has requested a divorce again from his wife, but she turns him down. Fowler lies about this and tells Phuong there’s still a chance they can marry, a lie that Phuong and Pyle find out about and that eventually pushes Phuong into Pyle’s arms.

Fowler then finds out Pyle’s been involved in some local bombings, and that, based on the ideas in a textbook (by York Harding), he’s formed a force that will try to take action to spread democracy.

Intermittently we flash back to the present, in which the police interrogate Fowler about what he was doing the night of Pyle’s death. The scene of where Fowler is the moment Pyle dies is the climactic point we’re building to over the course of the the extended flashback, which is itself really the meat of the book, its main narrative arc. After a bomb of Pyle’s kills several dozen people, some locals offer Fowler the chance to put Pyle in harm’s way and help get rid of him. That is, he’s offered the chance to kill the man who’s killed several dozen and has the potential to kill many more, the man who’s also taken the woman he loves, and the man who’s saved his life. It’s a difficult decision, to say the least, and Fowler bitterly acknowledges that now he’s been forced to take sides in the conflict. He’s been forced to choose to let Pyle live or die, to be on his side or against him.

As we already know, Pyle is killed. The tension is not in whether the narrator’s decision in the climactic moment to go through with killing him leads to his actual death or not. Rather, the truly climactic scene is when we’re with the narrator in a restaurant the moment he knows Pyle must be being killed, though he still holds out the slimmest hope that he’s not in fact being killed, that he won’t have to be responsible for what he’s chosen to be responsible for.

In the present moment, the tension after finding out that a character, Pyle, is dead, seems to arise from a whodunit type scenario; it seems we will get to be with the narrator as he uncovers the story behind Pyle’s death. What we don’t realize is that the narrator already knows the story. It would be a dramatic twist if the narrator had killed Pyle himself, and in the present he presents the police with an alibi that seems airtight, at first, at least. But the twist is really that this first-person narrator is indirectly (and thus somehow ironically directly) responsible for Pyle’s death, and he knows it all along. We don’t feel tricked with this reveal, as we might with a first-person narrator, because it makes organic sense that the narrator is suppressing it. He doesn’t want to admit responsibility, and the narrative is also one of his coming to terms with his own role and guilt. He eventually seems to…

In that climactic scene, then, while Pyle is offstage being murdered, Fowler is in a restaurant eating alone, while a professional acquaintance who dislikes him glares at him from across the room. This acquaintance, Grainger, eventually demands they talk outside, and Fowler, morally exhausted at this point, easily acquiesces. He thinks Grainger wants to fight him, but it turns out it’s Grainger’s son’s birthday, and he’s been overwhelmed with the need to tell someone about this son’s potentially life-threatening polio and that there’s no possibility he can get leave to go home. He can’t tell anyone he was in the restaurant with, because they were all French and couldn’t understand him. Fowler genuinely sympathizes here with a man he once disliked, offering an unexpected moment of catharsis.

In the present the police don’t bother Fowler anymore, and his wife unexpectedly grants permission for a divorce, so he can marry Phuong, and he gets a sort of happy ending.


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