In the Quiet American, Greene explores the interiority of a war-stricken Vietnam that is caught in a multifaceted battle that includes the struggle for national sovereignty. The book centers on Thomas Fowler, who is an Englishman and reporter whose remarks are colored by cynicism which represent England’s old colonial knowledge. Fowler’s character is juxtaposed to Alden Pyle’s character, who Fowler takes on as a mentee of sorts and whom Fowler has the need to shield from the atrocities of Vietnam.
The opening chapter of the book begins with Pyles death, and his body is retrieved from a river. Fowler is questioned by the authorities and when talking to one of the policemen Fowler describes Pyle as a quite American. Fowler goes on to say, “Yes. They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly, and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, Go ahead. Win the East for Democracy. He never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body, he couldn’t even see the wounds. A Red menace, a soldier of democracy (Greene 28).” This sums up the character Pyle and the reference that Fowler makes over and over again, stressing the importance of remaining uninvolved, which is a colonial position of neutrality. One that Fowler himself violates when getting intimately involved with a young, Vietnamese woman who speaks poor English and French, but who is keenly aware of her situation while seeking an opportunity to better herself.
Phuong is character central to the novel, and she symbolically represents Vietnam as a nation caught inbetween the old colonial rulers of France/Europe, and the new order of American backed democracy. Phuong is strikingly sober throughout the novel and aware of her surroundings and exercises her agency as a woman who has many means to rise above the political turmoil gripping her country Phuong is depicted by Fowler as a delicate flower, who needs his constant protection from the boisterous soldiers who associate all Vietnamese women with prostitution. Despite Fowler’s best efforts to remain uninvolved, and experience Vietnam from behind his type writer, he is anchored in the territory and possesses a new knowledge of Vietnam that is at odds with the old colonial knowledge that relies on those cultural and political facts established by the project of orientalism. Fowler imposes a sense of helplessness on Vietnam, and in this way, Vietnam is effeminized, and one cannot help but to get involved because of the irresistibility of the act. Pyle is also effeminized in this manner and is a recipient of Fowlers sympathy when Fowler remarks, “That was my first instinct-to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm (Greene 34). This innocence is characterized by Pyle (and Phuong), who at first appears in need of the old colonial agent/authority to guide him and school him on the ways of the land. As well as Phuong’s preconceived innocence, and she is to be saved from the whorehouse or the House of Hundred girls. But the old colonial order is ill equipped to deal with the reality and complexity of Vietnam as represented by Phuong who has both the old order (France/England) and the new order (America) to choose from.
Phoung is willing to get what she needs for her own ends, regardless of which colonial power.