The Only Winning Move: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

I like novels that play with your sympathies. That is why I’ve always loved Lolita, a novel that brings you oh so close to sympathising with the monster. The Quiet American goes a step further. You do sympathise with the monster. This sympathy leads to the saddest happy ending I think I’ve ever come across.

It was very, very clever to have Pyle be dead to begin with. It quickly becomes clear that Pyle was very dangerous in life, not just to Fowler or Phuong but also to the civilian population. He has a head full of ideas about love and war and is very willing to apply them. I suppose it is quite a simple matter to believe that one has everything worked out and just wade in, but this is a perfect example of the kind of damage that can be done by getting too easily engaged.

Not that inaction has everything going for it. For a start, it’s not too hard to fool yourself in to thinking you’ve done nothing when you have, in fact, very much made your choices. The main conceit appears to be Fowler’s ignorance of his own motives, and indeed his actions. He knows full well that in this war, no one is fucking around. Various groups are playing for keeps. Fowler knows full well he is condemning Pyle to his death. As innocuous as his own meetings with one of the local insurgent groups are, he can’t seriously believe that they only want a quiet chat. Of course this conveniently removes Pyle’s efforts to gain the affections of Phuong, and engages the readers sympathies for both a sad old man fallen from what he thinks is grace, and a young man who appeared to not know better, but the whole denouement is something of a trick by Greene. The simple fact of the matter is, Fowler has always been engaged. His relationship with Phuong is predicated on his continued presence, and his continued presence is predicated on the continuation of the war.

I can only imagine how difficult it is being legally married to someone you no longer love. We are as sad for Fowler’s wife as we are for him, still married by conviction to a man who was not faithful to her. Our sympathies for Fowler are tempered by his actions, but he does have the privilege of perspective. I’d talk about Phuong, who as Zadie Smith mentions in the introduction, is far more than just a representative of Vietnam as a whole, but it is difficult to imagine how she feels considering that she is given barely any dialogue and most of our descriptions of her are of her performing domestic duties. This is definitely not a novel that passes the Bechdel test, and it is somewhat weak for it. Yes, it is somewhat singular in its focus, which is understandable, but other people may have more difficulty empathising with Fowler than I did. Not that I still didn’t realise he was a monster. The final telegraph from his wife, assenting to a divorce, is a final twist of the knife. He has become engaged, he has made his choices, and it tends to be more fun to want something than to get it. That our feelings are so much changed by the end, despite the novel essentially arriving back at where it began, is a testament to Greene’s mastery. I look forward to reading more.

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2 thoughts on “The Only Winning Move: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

    • All I knew of Greene beforehand was the film of The Third Man, which I loved. Had various trusted twitter followers recommend The Quiet American to me and it didn’t disappoint. I hope you enjoy it 🙂

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