An Imperialistic Love Triangle in "The Quiet American"

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The Orient is traditionally viewed as separate, backward, erotic, exotic, and passive. It mirrors a past of unscrupulous tyrannical power involving carnal pleasures and deviating from the restrictive morals of the “occidental.” The Orient displays feminine vulnerability with its progress and value judged as inferior to the West. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American presents the treatment of Phuong as a metaphor for how foreign occupying forces treat her native country of Vietnam, and her depiction as having no control in matters of her love life is a motif of the Orient being a feminized other.

Hegemonic masculinity is a sociological term referring to the socialization of men producing normative perceptions of masculinity to be correlated in being unemotional and dominating others, especially women. Hegemonic masculinity brings an interesting pairing to the ideals of post-colonial imperialism in Vietnam. The French, British, and American all have aimed to elevate the people out of ignorance and savagery, and lead them to a more sophisticated social and political livelihood. They engaged in a gendered polarity with themselves and the effeminate other, Vietnam. In The Quiet American, the French, British and Americans viewed Vietnam as a feminized entity. It is non-threatening and an outlet for the carnal pleasures and delights of all things exotic: women, opium and trade. As such with the context of this paper, Pyle and Fowler's battle over Phuong is a clash of male dominance.

Phuong is the most interesting character in Greene’s novel. She is depicted as a voiceless beauty without any power or opinions of her own. As her sister Hei affirms in Chapter 3 of part 1, “[s]he is the most beautiful girl in Saigon. […] She is delicate, […] She needs care. She deserves care. She is very, very loyal” (Greene, 46). At this part of the novel, Hei meets Pyle and instantly wants to set her sister up in a marriage with him. Hei sees him as a better match than Fowler because he is younger, single and wants children. The underlining stereotype that is reinforced through the Phuong character is a feminine and weak Oriental awaiting the dominance of the West. She is a defenseless woman that exists for, and in terms of, her Caucasian male lovers. Her role in the love triangle is reminiscent of her homeland’s colonial restraints. She is only presented in terms of what the two men want from her. Pyle wants her to become a typical American housewife with children. Fowler wants her to remain just as she is: his servant and lover.

This love triangle and the emotions that the male characters feel towards Phuong correlate to deep personal sentiments of the way they feel about the country of Vietnam itself. Vietnam becomes feminized, taboo, and sexualized just as Phuong does in Pyle and Fowler's eyes. The novel’s rendering of the central plot involving Fowler and Pyle struggle over Phuong represents the approach that Britain and America engaged in their fight to "save" Vietnam from communism. Pyle's' intentions toward Phuong, although similar in some cases to Fowler's, harbors fundamental differences. Both men view Phuong as a sort of object that needs to be saved or require some sort of assistance in order to endure life. When Pyle falls in love with Phuong upon their first encounter, he decides that he must do whatever he can or whatever he deems necessary in order to "save" Phuong from a deprived existence. This is the exact same way that Pyle views Vietnam and its present condition.

In Chapter 1 part 2, Pyle suggests that Vietnam is in need of a Third Force to combat the Communists. In response, Fowler states:

“He would have to learn for himself the real background that held you as a smell does: the gold of the rice fields under a flat late sun: the fisher’s fragile cranes hovering over the fields like mosquitoes: the cups of tea on an old abbot’s platform, with his bed and his commercial calendars, his buckets and broken cups and...
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