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Thomas Fowler is the novel’s narrator and chief protagonist, a British journalist in his fifties who lives in Saigon with his Vietnamese lover, Phuong. Fowler is a well-read and contemplative man who is also philosophically attached to the identity associated with his career. He thinks of himself not as a “correspondent” but as a “reporter,” meaning one who conveys facts simply and objectively. This philosophy guides both his work and his personal life. Therefore, despite being a highly observant man, he also resists having opinions about what he observes, preferring instead to remain inactive and disinterested. Fowler’s greatest challenge throughout the novel is thus to stay disengaged. His acquaintance with the American Alden Pyle amplifies the challenge of this task. Fowler strongly disagrees with Pyle’s desire to be socially and politically engaged, and the strength of this disagreement reveals that, despite himself, Fowler does have opinions on both social and political matters. Indeed, Fowler’s character development is largely driven by his coming to terms with the impossibility of remaining neutral.
Fowler is a deeply melancholy man. He is ruled by a morbid attraction to death. Being an atheist who does not believe in an afterlife or in spiritual redemption (or damnation), Fowler finds comfort in the absoluteness of death. Death brings an end to loss and the pain associated with it. Yet Fowler also fears facing death alone. His personal life is therefore motivated by his dread of loneliness. In his middle age, he is no longer concerned with sexual encounters or romantic love, but rather with companionship. For this reason, his attachment to Phuong has little to do with her innate qualities or her personality; he wants her because she offers a warm and comforting presence. Fowler’s anxiety about losing Phuong stems not only from Pyle’s amorous advances, but also from his own history of failed loves, including his failed marriage with Helen, whom he left behind in London.