Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American (1955) is set during the Vietnam War in the early to mid-1950s, not long before the defeat of the French colonial forces by the predominantly communist Viet Minh.  The novel is primarily an expression of the author’s anti-Americanism or, more precisely, it is a critique of US foreign policy in South-East Asia during the Cold War.  In particular, Greene criticises the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had recently replaced the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Greene criticises the CIA for engaging in covert operations to contain the spread of communism that Greene believed led to political instability, war, and all the suffering that this inflicts on ordinary people.  Specifically, Greene is critical of the realpolitik and utilitarian ethics of the CIA operatives who treat the lives of ordinary people as expendable in the pursuit of their objectives.  According to Greene, Americans seek to do ‘good’ but produce harm. 

Greene is also highly critical of the imperialism practised by the European powers that led to the subordination of Asian, African, and South American peoples, although he sees this tutelage as preferable to the neo-colonialism of the United States, which sought the economic and cultural domination of emerging Third World nations as well as the suppression of communist political organisations within those nations.    

As well as expressing a pronounced pacifist sensibility, Greene’s novel is also pro-Marxist and sympathetic to the communists, especially when the novel presents the argument that the CIA’s proxies were actually responsible for terrorist atrocities that were blamed on communist fifth columnists. 

Greene’s novel centres around a middle-aged British foreign correspondent stationed in Vietnam, Thomas Fowler, which provides the author the opportunity to philosophise about the role of the media during wartime and the responsibility of journalists to objectively pursue the truth, even when these truths go against the interests of their own Western governments. 

While exploring notions regarding journalistic ethics, Greene also explores the notion of political commitment.  While he praises objectivity, he argues that sooner or later people of conscience have to take a stand for social justice, as Fowler eventually did to help stop the covert activities of the principal CIA agent in Saigon, Alden Pyle.  This political commitment, with its overtones of anti-Americanism and opposition to the involvement of the United Sates in the Vietnam War, anticipates the political commitment of many radical left-wing university students and others in the United States during the 1960s.  

In addition, Greene’s novel presents a rejection of middle-class suburban values and lifestyles in favour of an existentialism that included travel to exotic locations, sex, and the use of illicit drugs.  This attitude to life anticipates the hippy counter-culture of the 1960s with its embrace of the sexual revolution, illicit drug use, and treks to Asia in search of non-Western forms of spiritual enlightenment and an existentialist sense of adventure. 

Furthermore, while exploring this lifestyle theme, Greene also examines the nature of love and human relationships, especially in terms of their problems and paradoxes.  The foreign correspondent Fowler and the CIA agent Pyle both pursue the same beautiful Vietnamese woman, Phuong.  Interestingly, the novel’s psychological and political themes can be seen to overlap in the way that the characters of Fowler, Pyle and Phuong can be appreciated, at one level, for what they reveal about human nature and relationships, while, at another allegorical level, they can be understood as representing political entities, namely Europe, the United States and Vietnam, which are engaged in diplomatic geopolitical competition and rivalry on the world stage.  The youthful, brash, over-confident United States, with its wealth and power, was attempting to win over beautiful Vietnam from her attachment to the ageing but still impressive European powers.  When Fowler participates in helping the Viet Minh to assassinate Pyle he can be seen, at one level, as eliminating his rival in a love triangle, while, at another level, he can be seen as helping to rid Vietnam of the destructive meddling of the United States.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Quiet American meaning, The Quiet American themes, The Quiet American analysis, The Quiet American notes