The Quiet American deals with the instable situation in Indo-China in the 1950s - a time when French involvement in the country was coming to an end following disastrous setbacks, and before the Americans had become directly involved in the war. The novel focuses on the relationship between the young, idealistic Alden Pyle and the worldly British war correspondent, and narrator of the novel, Thomas Fowler. Zadie Smith says in her introduction to the novel, in The Quiet American' personal motivations are linked to their political mirror twins' (vii) i.e. the microcosmic relationship between Pyle and Fowler, which is central to the novel, is twinned with a macrocosmic geopolitical clash of ideologies.
Although they regularly clash over their beliefs, it is the struggle for Phuong that primarily casts Fowler and Pyle as adversaries. Pyle's arrival in Vietnam, and his subsequent captivation by Phuong at the Chalet, results in the formation of a love triangle as Pyle attempts to take Phuong from Fowler. The complexities of this love triangle serve as a microcosmic representation of the political situation in Vietnam at the time. The beautiful Vietnamese girl Phuong acts as an emblem for her country and there is an importance to her name, which means phoenix. As a phoenix, Phuong can be seen to be Vietnam trying to rise from the ashes of the old European imperialism in an attempt to establish an independent Vietnamese nationalism. Pyle is a symbol for the U.S. and its increasingly interventionalist foreign policy. He is portrayed as naïve, innocent, idealistic, and ultimately dangerous. Fowler, to a certain degree, parallels the old European colonial presence in Vietnam. Like the French forces in Vietnam, he is world-weary and cynical. He is one of the old colonial people[s]...' who has learnt a bit from reality' and has learned not to play with matches' (149). Experience has endowed a sense of reality in Fowler that is not present in the naivety of Pyle, and an understanding of the complexities of the situation in Vietnam that Pyle, and consequentially the U.S., completely fail to grasp.
In addition to their friendship, there is another level at which Fowler and Pyle are intimately linked both men share a condescending attitude towards Phuong and their treatment of her could be describes as paternalism. Their interest in Phuong's views and emotions rarely move beyond the superficial and as readers we learn very little about Phuong even as she glides in and out of Fowler's life and back again revealing no hint of her emotions' (On the Frontiers, 170). Decisions are made regarding Phuong that avoid consulting her completely. An example of this occurs at the Chalet (37) when, after a troupe of female impersonators take the stage and are whistled at suggestively by some Air Force officers, Pyle decides that such a scene is not suitable for Phuong he makes this decision on behalf of Phuong for her own good, even though it may be contrary to her desire. This is a clear example of paternalism. This paternalism is also evident through Pyle's desire to protect Phuong as if she were just a child' (124)
"Why, she might have been one of them,
I wanted to protect her." (49)
"I want to protect her" (123)
Fowler reply that he doesn't think she needs protection'(49) belies the fact that, he too is, at times, guilty of condescending paternalism:
"It's a cliché to call them children - but there's one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security,...