The theme of encountering conflict can refer to a wide range of aspects, situations and contexts. Moreover, conflict can be encountered both externally and internally. In other words, there is both a physical and exterior context to encountering conflict as well as an interior, psychological and emotional dimension to the experience of conflict. Both these two dimensions of conflict are reflected in the novel The Quiet American by Graham Greene. One of the central aims of this paper will be to show how the topic of encountering conflict in its various contexts is demonstrated in this novel.
On the one hand this novel has been analyzed as a political novel, which exposes the negative effects of idealistic interference, as is reflected in the apparent naivety and innocence of Pyle. On the other hand it is also a novel about different personal worldviews, cultures and philosophies of life.
Conflict can also be seen as a means of defining or discovering who and what we are as individuals. It is often the case that the conflicts that we encounter in life and the way that we resolve or deal with these conflicts reveals our true nature and the inner desires and motivations within the human being. Conflict can also be seen as a fight between good against evil, or the between love and hate. These different contexts are never simplistic and are often complicated and complex, as Graham Greene shows in this novel. Greene also reveals the value of conflict as a test of the individual’s integrity and value.
2. Background Context
The book The Quiet American is set during the initial years of the Vietnam conflict; before America become intensely involved in the war. This was the period when the French were fighting the communist forces in the country and there was a contestation between the colonial and Western influenced south of the country and the communist north. The Vietnam situation is seen through the eyes of Thomas Fowler, an English Journalist. He has lived in the country for some time and has to all intents and purposes left his wife and fallen in love with a Vietnamese Woman, Phuong. He is a somewhat cynical and dissolute character who is in effect escaping his obviously failed marriage as well as his home culture. He now feels at home in the very different cultural context of Vietnam.
Phuong is illiterate and is completely different to Fowler’s wife and the norms of his previous life. This also suggests that there is an inner conflict within this character and in others that refers to the search for meaning in life and to the conflict that emerges when this search for meaning is restricted by barriers of nationality and culture.
Therefore, what becomes clear early on in the novel is that one of the central areas in which conflict is encountered is cultural conflict. This can be seen in Flowers’ character and his preference for the Eastern culture of Vietnam as opposed to the more rigid English culture. However, and more importantly within this context, Fowler encounters a conflict within himself which causes him to change his rather cynical, passive and inactive role in life.
At first Fowler is describes himself as follows: “My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action-even an opinion is a kind of action” (Greene, 1977, pg. 28). His escapist life style is however deeply disturbed when he encounters the ‘quiet American’, Alden Pyle. Pyle is an idealistic American agent who is concerned with the emergence and growth of democratic political principles and is opposed to the development of communism in the region and in the world generally. He is described as being almost innocent and naive in his idealism. This in turn raises another aspect of conflict; namely, the conflict between idealistic motives and the actual realistic consequences of this idealism.
Pyle becomes central to the development of a third force in Vietnam to counter the communist threat and to “solve” the Vietnam problem. His intentions are idealistic and “good” in that he thinks that by ridding the Vietnamese people of communism he will be improving their lives. Therefore, this character also introduces the context of idealistic and political conflict that is an important aspect of the central theme of the book. To quote from the book; Pyle was “…absorbed already in the Dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined … To do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve (Greene, 1977, pg. 18).
However, this type of idealism often conflicts with realism and everyday life; which becomes alarmingly evident when Pyle is instrumental in setting off a bomb which kills a number of women and children, all in the name of democracy. This type of invasive and destructive idealism is referred to as follows: “God save us always,’ I said ‘from the innocent and the good” (Greene, 1977, pg. 15).
These ideas influence the context of conflict; and in this sense, the conflict between ideals and political views and the actual reality of those people who have to suffer and die for these ideals. This background also underscores the basic conflict between the two main characters, Pyle and Fowler, in terms of their attitudes towards life. Fowler is a man of the world, who has experienced suffering and emotional disappoint and is more concerned with the possibility of everyday happiness, which he finds in his love for Phuong and Vietnam, rather than in political idealism. Pyle on the other hand is the young idealist who places ideals and political objectives above everyday reality. In many ways he is the complete opposite of the world-weary character of Fowler. It is this area or context of conflict that will be one of the main issues of discussion in the following section of this paper.
2. Understanding the context
The internal conflict within and between the main characters is exemplified in the following comment from the book; “Sooner or later…one has to take sides. If one is to remain human” (Greene, 1977, pg. 230). Pyle is clearly taking a stance to promote democracy and to fight the perceived “evil “of communalism. On the other hand, while Fowler tried to avoid taking a stand or taking decisions that can upset his complacency and affect others, he is forced to make decision when encountering conflict. One of these decisions includes being complicit in the death of Pyle.
In order to understand why Fowler becomes involved and is forced to awaken from his stance of inaction one has to understand the internal conflict between these two central characters. At the same time, to fully understand the theme encountering conflict in this novel, we have to understand the background to the book; namely, the context of the Vietnam War. In the first instance this war was a war between ideologies; between communism and capitalistic democracy. This conflict seeps into their lives and affects the internal relationship between the two main characters.
On a personal level, both Pyle and Fowler are in love with the exotic and enticing Phuong. As has been noted, Fowler is older and more cynical in his attitude to the world than the idealistic Pyle. He has left his wife and fallen in love with a woman from a different culture and all that he wants to do is to stay and live with her in Vietnam. Phuong on the other hand needs the security of marriage, but Fowler’s wife will not give him a divorce; which again sets up another areas of conflict, especially when the single Pyle offers to take her back to the United States.
One of the points that the book makes is that life is always dynamic and never static and that in fact internal and external conflict are an integral part of life. Therefore, when Pyle meets and falls in love with Phuong a number of areas of conflict intersect that include both personal and political elements. Something of this complexity can be seen in the following extract from the book.
“They don’t believe in anything either. You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.”
“They don’t want communism.”
“They want enough rice,” I said. “They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.”
“If Indochina goes — “
“I know that record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll…