The Quiet American In The Quiet American Grahm Green writes of a complex love triangle taking place in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He chooses Thomas Fowler as the protagonist to tell the story from a biased point of view. From the beginning, Fowler proclaims that he is objective. As the story progresses he is eventually gives into the desire to take action and get involved. It is not until after this climax that Fowler finally realizes and admits to himself that he cannot simply remain aloof his entire life.
Green’s use of Fowler as an unstable narrator effectively depicts the complexity of human motive and how difficult it is to be honest, even to oneself. Fowler is a British journalist who has been working in Vietnam for several years. Living in an extremely controversial era in the middle of all the action, Fowler insists on remaining “not involved” (20). Fowler is a “reporter,” as opposed to a “correspondent,” for he reports what he sees and “[takes] no action” (20). He often likes to sit across the street form the milk-bar and just observe.
Watching people of all shapes and colors go about their normal lives, Fowler does nothing himself, but simply watches. He even uses opium to achieve a state of complete impassiveness about the world and everything around him. Just a single pipe could make Fowler grow indifferent to the “presence or absence” of his lover (6); several more and he cannot decide whether his own death would be good or bad. Opium allows him to convince even himself that he really is indifferent to all that which goes on around him.
He prides himself on remaining detached and not taking sides, saying it is “an article of [his] creed” (20). Based on his determination to be merely an observer, Fowler should make a fine narrator. Impartial and neutral, he would tell the story as is without even an opinions to cloud his mind, for “even an opinion is a kind of action” (20). Despite Fowler’s efforts, it soon becomes impossible for him to remain stagnant. When the opportunity is offered to him, he resolves to participate in a plot to murder Alden Pyle. He justifies his decision with the fact that Pyle has caused much trouble and disaster.
He is so naive that he does not realize the extent of what he has done, and even with the death of so many people on his hands, “he’ll always be innocent, [and] you can’t blame the innocent”(155). Fowler convinces himself that Pyle as a threat to society and “all you can do is… eliminate him. Innocence is a kind of insanity”(155). However, his reasoning is questionable, for there are personal motives involved as well. Fowler does not want Phuong to leave him and marry Pyle. His wife had already made it clear that she will not give him a divorce.
Though he cannot marry her himself, he is selfish and wishes everything to stay the way it is. When Phuong and her sister find out that Fowler’s wife remains insistent on her refusal of his request for a divorce, things start to turn against him. Phuong moves out and plans to marry Pyle. Fowler, devastated, has increased reason to want Pyle dead. In fact, the two men talk of how Phuong is “the most important thing there is” right before Fowler makes up his mind to open the book at the window and call the whole plan to action (169).
It is clear that Fowler does not make his decision based solely on political grounds. Slowly, as the story goes on, Fowler starts to realize that it is impossible to stay indifferent of everything around him. “Sooner or later, one has to take sides if one is to remain human” (166). After he decides to engage in the ploy to kill Pyle, he recognizes that “[he] had become as engaged as Pyle” (175). Fowler has assumed his role in the game. He can no longer hide behind his insistence that he is neutral and “no decision would ever be simple again. Stubborn as he was before about not taking sides, Fowler realizes that he “had judged like a journalist… and betrayed [his] own principles” (175); he is honest to himself when he finally crosses the line into partiality. After Pyle’s death Fowler tells Phuong that he is sorry. She does not catch the significance of his apology, but he says that though “everything had gone right for [him] since [Alden] had died… [he] wished there existed someone to whom [he] could say that [he] was sorry”(180). Fowler sees clearly the magnitude of what he has done.
He takes responsibility for his actions and feels remorse. The instability of Fowler’s narration depicts the extraordinary intricacy of individual drive. It is never clear the reasons that Fowler makes many of his decisions, often not even to himself. Does he kill Pyle out of political concern, or compassion for the Vietnamese people? Does he do it out of love for Phuong, or is it simply lust? These questions, to some degree a mystery even to Fowler himself, are emphasized by his unreliable narration.
Unclear intentions are not limited to just the narrator. When Pyle saves Fowler’s life, his motives are ambiguous as well. One may assume that based on Pyle’s simple personality, his purposes are most likely be pure and genuine. He probably saved Fowler because it was in his power and it was the right thing to do. But Fowler suspects Pyle to be more calculating, that he planned to emerge a hero from the ordeal and win Phuong over in that way. Human motives are quite often multi-layered and difficult to understand.
Graham makes the peculiar choice of telling a story from the prejudiced point of view of someone whose personal life is tangled in the mess of the story. Fowler starts out determined to stay impartial as a reporter and a person in general. However, as events occur and his happiness is put on the line, he gets drawn in and takes action. Though he makes his decision to get involved, Fowler is unsure and doubtful the whole time and feels a great deal of remorse when it is all over. It is then that he must admit to himself, and the readers see, that he is not impartial after all, and it is, in fact, human nature to take a side.