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In Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, Greene portrays American character and foreign policy during the 1950’s. He does so by maintaining three important themes; the insufficiency of theoretical thinking, the fear of innocence, and the difficulty of remaining neutral. Throughout the novel, Greene emphasizes “that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism” (Iyer). Through the lives of the three main characters, Thomas Fowler, Alden Pyle, and Phuong, Tree exemplifies the struggles that those endured relating to foreign policy during the 1950’s.
Graham Greene, a famous English novelist was born in 1904. After a difficult childhood, Greene studied at Ballion College in Oxford (Gorham-Davis). While in college, Greene converted to Roman Catholicism. Shortly after that he published his first work, a book of verse. In 1955, Greene published his novel, The Quiet American. He set the novel in Vietnam, which, at the time was experiencing a rising local insurgency against the French Colonial rule (Iyer). However, unlike many of his other writings, the “effect of circumstances is specifically ideological and political” in this novel (Gorham-Davis). Along with various political agendas, the idea of establishing a third force against communists and French colonials plays an important role in Greene’s portrayal of the foreign policy struggles.
Throughout the novel, there is a recurring theme about the insufficiency of theoretical thinking relating to the politics during the 1950’s. Every thought relates to politics in one way or another. This includes personal motivations since they appear linked to political opinions. For instance, better understanding Fowler means better understanding his political thoughts. In a broader scheme, Fowler disapproves of American liberals who attempt to bring their textbook notions of freedom and democracy into Asia. On a more personal note, Fowlers commentary on the letter from his ex-wife makes sense using both people and countries interchangeably (Smith). While Pyle prefers to learn from books, Fowler chooses to learn by gaining all of the concrete facts. This serves as an example that differentiates Pyle from Fowler. Their different ways lead to their different opinions on how to solve Vietnam’s problem. Pyle believes that a democracy would help but Fowler insists otherwise. Throughout the novel Fowler attempts to explain that too much thinking outside the box ultimately leads to thinking of difficult realities as simple facts. Ultimately, this causes issues when people begin to assume that such simple solutions can solve such difficult problems, such as Pyle’s idea to establish a third force.
Additionally, Greene also emphasizes the fear of innocence throughout the novel. According to Fowler, “innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them” (PAGE Greene). Likewise, in the Communists’ plan for political seizure of power, the first step requires eliminating social democrats and liberals (Gorham-Davis). With the assistance of Vietnam Communist agents, Fowler works to eliminate Pyle, the American. Fowler deems Pyle dangerous simply because he is innocent. Despite being extremely naïve, Pyle genuinely wants to help solve the issues in Vietnam. For instance, Pyle helps to plan a bombing in a public square, not even thinking about the innocent people that would be impacted because he is so caught up in the political agenda.
Another main theme found in this novel is the struggle to remain neutral.
As derived from the title of the novel, America appears as the main concern. Throughout the novel, America gains the reputation of an “innocent nation with no understanding of other peoples” (Gorham-Davis). Furthermore, Greene points out that American representatives interventions in affairs regarding other countries simply cause suffering rather than helping. This idea occurs when Fowler discovers that Alden Pyle, an American, was responsible for a bombing in a popular public square of Saigon. Additionally, Pyle causes Fowler more pain when he steals Phuong, Fowlers lover, to marry himself. This ultimately leads to the idea that “America should leave Asians to work out their own destinies, even when this means the victory of communism” (Gorham-Davis).
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