What is the significance of the novel’s title?
The novel’s title comes from a grim joke: “the only quiet American is a dead American.” This joke references the novel’s plot, which circles around the death of an American in Saigon. More specifically, this joke connects to a remark that both Fowler and Vigot make in the opening chapter regarding how “quiet” Pyle was. Indeed, Pyle is the “quiet American” of the title. However, the title’s deeper significance relates to the fact that it sets up the joke but does not provide us with the punch line. If the story contained in the novel is meant to answer the comedic setup, then it does so in a way that proves rather unfunny. Whereas the title prepares the reader for a straightforward (hence funny) punchline, the novel delivers a complex (hence ironic) story of interpersonal strife and internal turmoil. In other words, the joke falls flat because the novel has an ironic relationship with its title.
There is, however, an additional level of irony at play in the title, and it relates to the characterization of Pyle as “quiet.” Pyle tends to speak softly and act polite in social situations. Unlike the correspondent Bill Granger, who tends to get drunk in public and act pushy, Pyle is no caricature of a loud American. He even conducts his political dealings in a covert manner, keeping his involvement with General Thé hush-hush. And yet, despite his quiet personality and covert operations, Pyle’s actions have “loud” consequences. These consequences are loud both literally (as when the bomb explodes) and figuratively (in terms of the number of people affected). Indeed, Fowler assists in the killing of Pyle in order to quiet the “noise” created by Pyle’s involvement.
What role does Phuong play in the story?
On the surface, Phuong appears to be one of the three principal characters in the novel, along with Fowler and Pyle. Indeed, much of the novel concerns the love triangle between these three characters. Upon closer inspection, however, Phuong plays a secondary role in the story. First, she does not have a fully fleshed out character. Compared to the richness of Fowler’s psychology as well as Fowler’s close observations of Pyle, the portrait of Phuong seems flat. Indeed, she seems equally if not more interested in shallow gossip rags and two-dimensional Hollywood movies that in her relationships with Fowler and Pyle. Second, Phuong is only important to the story as an instigator of events. That is, as both Fowler’s and Pyle’s object of desire, Phuong serves as a kind of narrative pivot that mainly functions to bring these two men into conflict. In other words, Phuong is less of a character and more of a plot device.
On a more symbolic level, Phuong represents Vietnam. More specifically, she serves as a stand-in for a silent and passive East over which competing foreign powers are fighting. The Quiet American takes place at a tense historical moment, when several foreign countries had a stake in the future of Vietnam and the larger region of Indochina (now known as Southeast Asia). The French wanted to hold onto its colony. The Viet Minh wanted independence. The Americans wanted to halt the spread of communism and install a democracy. Among all these foreign interests, common Vietnamese people has no control, and so became passive, like pawns in a larger game. Likewise, Phuong is a passive character, subject to the influence of her meddlesome sister, Miss Hei, and to the contest between Fowler and Pyle, the details of which she understands little.
The language of sex and sexuality comes up at different points in the novel—for example, to discuss Pyle’s “virginity” or Fowler’s disinterest in sex. ?
In Pyle’s case, the language of virginity is really about immaturity, which is an aspect of what Fowler calls his “innocence.” The notions of virginity and innocence collide for the first time when Fowler rushes into the House of Five Hundred Girls to protect Pyle, whose quiet personality makes him seem virginal. At this point in their relationship, Fowler does not know enough about Pyle to say for sure whether or not he is a virgin in the strict sense. Hence, the notion of takes on a figurative meaning that relates to Pyle’s general innocence. In the watchtower episode, the language about Pyle’s virginity deepens in meaning. As becomes clear during their conversation, Pyle does not understand that a mature relationship involves much more than sex. Indeed, as Fowler points out, sex alone does not indicate the strength of a romantic relationship. More fundamental to the health of a relationship is companionship. Because Fowler considers sex secondary, he tells Pyle that one can have sex and yet remain a virgin. That Pyle does not understand this makes him innocent in love just as he is innocent in everything elsesocial graces
For Fowler, things look different. As he tells Pyle, his days of pursuing sex are over. At his age, he finds the simple comfort of companionship more important than sex. It is notable that Fowler plays down his sexuality. He does not reveal much in the novel about his sex life with Phuong. Furthermore, the only sexual encounter he has in the novel ends in disappointment. At Captain Trouin’s suggestion after the B-26 raid in Haiphong, Fowler engages a , but her perfume reminds him of Phuong and he loses the ability to perform. Fowler’s sexual failure in this scene points less to his age or to his preference for companionship and more to his sense of being ineffectual. That is, his sexual failure symbolizes his inability to convince Helen to divorce him, to hold on to Phuong, and hence to cut his ties with Pyle.