Book Review: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The Quiet American – Graham Greene (The Viking Press, 1967)

This is not Graham Greene’s best work but even subpar writing from Graham Greene will have something worthwhile to it.

The narrator of this novel is Fowler, a British journalist, stationed in Vietnam. The Quiet American was first published in 1955 so this isn’t the Vietnam that many of us in the West might think of. This is Vietnam at the end of French colonialism, French rule breaking down and the beginnings of American involvement that would eventually lead to what we know as the Vietnam War. As a Brit, Fowler is somewhat more distanced from the politics involved and as a journalist he does his best to stay neutral.

Fowler has been in Vietnam for some years and has no plans or desire to return to England. He’s a middle-aged man, with a history behind him. He lives with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, who he cares about but is unable to marry because his Catholic wife in England refuses to divorce him. Fowler spends much of his personal time in an opium-induced stupor and cares very little for the events unfolding in Vietnam around him. The overall impression given of Fowler is of a man numbed by his own past. Once he was filled with emotions, had passionate affairs, cared about things. It has become an act of self-preservation to shut off this part of himself and to live a life where very little is required of him. Phuong knows he cannot marry her or take her away from Vietnam but he provides her some safety and security in an unstable nation.

Things begin to change for Fowler when he meets Alden Pyle, a young American official. Pyle is everything Fowler is not – brash and full of confidence. He read some books about Asia and is convinced that he knows exactly what Vietnam needs. He has no self-doubt and views the world in a completely black-and-white manner. Very quickly, Pyle sets his sights on Phuong and wants her for his own. Although Pyle likes and admires Fowler, he believes that Phuong will be better off with him because he can marry her and Fowler cannot.

In nearly the opening of the book we learn that Pyle has been killed and Phuong has returned from living with Pyle to be with Fowler again. Everything we learn about Fowler and Pyle’s relationship is told from this perspective and with the knowledge of Pyle’s death. We learn more about what exactly Pyle’s role for the American government is and we watch Fowler grapple with the limits of his own neutrality.

As with Greene’s best novels, The Quiet American is at its best in its examination of human nature. What can a person convince themselves of? Can one ever be truly neutral? How much can one person take before self-preservation demands a shutdown? On the other hand, Fowler as a character never quite becomes someone I truly cared about. He’s so shut down that even as a first person narrator it never feels like we get inside of him. Pyle reads more as a caricature which, considering we only see him through Fowler’s eyes, may be intentional. Still, it makes it hard to care about him either.

The major flow though of the novel is in its depictions of women and the Vietnamese people. Aside from Phuong, there are almost no Vietnamese characters. All the people of power, all the people Fowler and Pyle deem worthy of authority are French or British or American. More than once Fowler refers to the Vietnamese people as child-like. Even Phuong, one of the main characters and the woman at the centre of it all, is given no agency. We hardly hear her speak and neither man seems to know anything about her or care for her as a person. She is passed back and forth between them like an object and at no point does there seem to be any consideration of her preferences or desires. I could believe that Phuong is a woman who loves neither man and is instead choosing the best position of power and safety for herself. To me, that would be an interesting story. Surely, she would have her own opinions on the colonization of her country and these foreigners who have come in, believing they know best. None of that is on display here. I’d like to believe that’s a narrative choice to show Fowler’s ignorance but there’s no hint in the entire book that Greene himself sees Phuong as anything more than an object. Again, this made it hard for me to care for or sympathize with either Fowler or Pyle.

As I said, there are glimpses of Greene’s brilliance but at its best The Quiet American reminded me of The Heart of the Matter and definitely suffered by comparison.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Quiet American by Graham Greene”

  1. As I was reading, all my questions for you were going to be about Phuong’s agency. You noted that the men felt it would be better for her if X or Y happened, but what does she think? The older I get the less I can tolerate reading books with characters treated poorly, like Phuong. It’s not even that I just feel unwilling to read such books, or simply don’t want to, it’s that I get so angry that I start skimming without meaning to, or I see error in ever sentence because I’m hyper-focused on the woman treated like an object.

    1. Absolutely! I could buy that this was how Fowler viewed her but by the end of the book it seemed clear that Greene also viewed her as a character without agency. There was no hint in the background of Fowler’s narration that she might have her own thoughts on the matter or be making decisions for herself. She literally could have been replaced with a cooking pot and the plot wouldn’t have changed at all.

  2. Ah, it’s disappointing that Phuong is given so little consideration as a character. It sounds like this might have been a very different book if it were written by a woman- it seems like there’s a lot of untapped commentary here in the way that the two male main characters think they know best for a country and people other than their own, which should’ve been examined a bit more deeply. Great review.

    1. A rewrite of this book from Phuong’s perspective would be amazing! I’d love to read something more about this time in Vietnamese history from a Vietnamese perspective. Unfortunately, I think that this book is very reflective of the time and it’s audience. And as much as I have loved some of Graham Greene’s work, I can’t think of any female characters he’s written that are actually well-rounded human beings.

    2. Ah, that is unfortunate, though definitely an expected hazard when reading older works by (white) men!

  3. I was also going to suggest that a rewrite from Phung’s perspective would be interesting. It’s disappointing that the story glossed over the Vietnamese people during such an interesting time, too.

    1. Yes, it’s not a time period I’ve seen much written about and I would have really liked to learn more about the Vietnamese perspective. This is very much a colonial perspective, which wasn’t surprising but kept making me think about what I would rather be reading!

  4. I’m sure I’ll get to this eventually, because I’m sure I’ll end up reading all of Greene’s work, but it isn’t racing up the TBR! Shame that this glosses over such a potentially interesting plotline and exploration of Phuong’s experiences, but perhaps unsurprising given the time period.

    1. Yes, I wasn’t expecting a nuanced perspective from Phuong because that would be pretty surprising for the time. But it would have been nice to treat her like a real person who has agency. I hope you’re able to enjoy some of the good parts when you do read this one!

  5. But would she have had agency, as a colonial woman at that time? I haven’t read this one but thinking back I don’t know that any of the “native” women in Greene’s books were much more than possessions, and I fear that might have been all too real. I don’t imagine that Fowler or Pyle would have cared at all what she thought or wanted, and what they would have wanted, I expect, is total uncomplaining compliance. His English women fare a little better, but their agency often only shows through in their unhappiness with the situations their men put them in. I can only think of two “strong” women with minds of their own off the top of my head – the aunt in Travels with My Aunt, and Ida in Brighton Rock. I’m sure I have an audiobook of this one – must bump it up the priority list!

    1. No, she likely wouldn’t have so it is accurate in that sense. Being able to live with a foreign man, even if unmarried, would probably have been the most amount of power she could claim in that situation. It was the way they passed her back and forth between themselves without even consulting her that really bothered me. A good portion of the novel is spent with the two men discussing which one of them should be with Phuong but there is never a single conversation about it that involves her. Fowler’s wife (an English woman) does hold some power since she is the one refusing divorce but she’s entirely off the page. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on this one if you listen to. I’m glad to hear there is at least a stronger woman in Travels with my Aunt because I have a copy of that and would like to read it.

  6. I really need to read a Graham Greene book-I never have! I suspect I’d have much the same reaction you did when reading this book-far more interested in the Vietnamese perspective, rather than a bunch of self-indulgent men 🙂 Luckily publishing seems to have figured this out and are focusing more on the stories we need to hear, rather than the ones that are so readily available.

    1. The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter are both books I enjoyed by Greene. He really excelled at the examination of humanity and religion and morality. Everything I’ve read from him definitely has heavy colonial overtones and he doesn’t really write women characters. They’re all more like accessories for the male characters. He’s a product of his time and place for sure. It is nice to see how far the stories we share have come.

  7. Greene wrote the screenplay to “The Third Man”, the British movie with Orson Welles.

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