The Quiet American

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Which does more harm in the world, cynical self-interest or blind idealism? The Quiet American by Graham Greene explores this question. It is set in Vietnam, mostly in Saigon, before the French left. Its main characters are an English reporter named Thomas Fowler, an American spy called Alden Pyle, and a Vietnamese woman of Chinese descent, Phuong.

Cynical Fowler is a drug addict, an opium smoker. Phuong probably got him addicted. He seems to have been a life-long philanderer, who finally destroyed his marriage when he fell in love. He is hiding in Vietnam, from the broken marriage and from a sense that he has used up all his options. Yet he is not presented as an evil man, even though he is dishonest with his lover Phuong and has his rival killed.

Naive Alden Pyle wants to protect Phuong. He is enamored of political theories he knows only from books, and does terrible harm in his innocence. Fowler sums him up: "I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings." At Harvard Pyle was nicknamed Bat, for his blindness.

Phuong is not well developed as a character. Is Greene only emphasizing that neither of these men knows her? She is described as child-like and obedient. She likes looking at illustrated stories about royalty. She delights in her collection of silk scarves.

She is not truthful, but she is loyal to whoever is kind to her. She does what her sister tells her, and goes to the man her sister chooses. She is eighteen when Fowler finds her, a slight child who arouses Pyle's protective instincts, and Fowler's need. He denigrates her when he describes her: "She'll never suffer like we do, from thoughts..." Yet in another place he tells Pyle: "She looks so small and breakable and unlike our women, but don't think of her as - - as an ornament."

Published in 1955, the story displays the social and moral evils of colonialism. There is a sense of outrage about it. Greene describes his work in the book...
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