A middle-aged British journalist. Fowler is both the narrator and the principal character of the novel a Vietnamese mistress named Phuong. As a reporter, he feels particularly concerned with maintaining a level of disinterest that is appropriate for his profession. He is a psychologically complicated character whose choices are frequently motivated by a fear of loneliness and death. Fowler prefers the concrete facts of reality to the more abstract thinking of political theorists. He disapproves strongly of American politics and society.
A young American intelligence operative working undercover in the Economic Aid Mission in Saigon. Pyle is the “quiet American” of the novel’s title, a soft-spoken idealist who is motivated to facilitate political change in Vietnam. He comes from a privileged East Coast family and was educated at Harvard University, where he studied the political theory of York Harding. The naïveté of Pyle’s social and political beliefs causes tensions with Fowler. Pyle’s coveting of Phuong intensifies these tensions, as does his covert involvement with the militant nationalist General Thé.
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Fowler’s beautiful young Vietnamese lover. Phuong stays with Fowler because he offers her security and protection. When she turns her affection to Pyle, it is because she believes that he can provide longer-term security through marriage. Phuong is a somewhat vain woman who enjoys shopping for scarves and poring over books about English royalty. She is easily influenced by her sister, Miss Hei. Phuong’s name means “Phoenix,” a mythical bird that is cyclically reborn by bursting into flames and then rising from the ashes.
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An inspector at the French Sûreté office in Saigon. Vigot is the primary investigator of Pyle’s death, and Fowler is his primary suspect. Like Fowler, Vigot is a contemplative and world-weary man. Unlike Fowler, however, he is a Roman Catholic. He also has a penchant for the work of the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal
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Phuong’s sister. Miss Hei is determined to marry into a well-off European family, and she has the same hopes for Phuong. She is intelligent and outspoken, and she has a strong ability to influence her sister’s decisions.
Fowler’s wife. Helen is a steadfast Christian, and her commitment to her faith keeps her from granting Fowler a divorce. She lives in London.
The Chinese owner of a junk warehouse on the Quai Mytho in Cholon. One of Dominguez’s political contacts, Mr. Chou is advanced in age, in poor health, and has a shoddy memory.
The manager of Mr. Chou’s warehouse. Mr. Heng plays a high-level role among the communists in Vietnam, though the exact nature of his involvement is not clear. He serves as Fowler’s informant out of a desire to shield the communists from blame for the acts of terrorism organized by General Thé.
An American correspondent in Saigon. Granger is a highly capable correspondent who relies on his bold and sometimes pushy personality to find worthy news. He often drinks in public.
B-26 bomber pilot on the French Gascogne Squadron in Haiphong. Though committed to the fight against the Viet Minh, Trouin is nevertheless haunted by the use of napalm bombs against civilians.
A militant Vietnamese leader. General Thé never appears in the novel directly, but his presence looms large as the leader of a nationalist coalition that Pyle hopes will bring democracy to Vietnam.
An affiliate of General Thé and the owner of a garage in Saigon. Like General Thé, Mr. Muoi never appears in the novel directly, but as the manufacturer of plastic bombs, he does play an important role in the story.
The American economic attaché. Joe is Pyle’s superior at the Economic Aid Mission in Saigon. He is a friendly and confident man with a warm demeanor, though for these reasons he is also forgettable to Fowler.
Corsican Sûreté officer at the Pax Bar in Hanoi. Like Fowler, Pietri feels more at home in Saigon than he did in Europe.
Fowler’s Indian-born assistant. He is a respectful and capable assistant who serves Fowler without question.