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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The motif of religion (or faith) is woven throughout the novel. Nearly every character has a different perspective on religion, and this creates tension. Fowler is an atheist, and as such he comes into conflict with both his wife and Pyle, both of whom are Christians and cannot understand his profound cynicism about life. Fowler’s atheism also creates tension with the French inspector Vigot, who is a Catholic. Finally, Vietnam is home to Caodaism, a religion that blends Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism. During a day trip to Tanyin, Fowler visits a Caodaist cathedral and thinks about the benefits and perils of belief in the inexplicable. The differences in faith shed light on the challenge of living morally in a context where both physical and psychological violence proliferate. Taken as a unit, then, the motif of religion expresses Greene’s concern with the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the twentieth century.
Fowler frequently judges Pyle for acting like he is playing a character in a Hollywood film. According to Fowler, this mentality is characteristically American because it prioritizes a pretty fiction over a gritty reality. For instance, when Fowler and Pyle find themselves in a crisis, Pyle leaps into action and saves the injured Fowler from certain death. Fowler, however, does not want to be saved, and he considers Pyle’s intervention selfish. Pyle acts the war hero, dismissing Fowler’s wishes in order to impress Phuong. Fowler links this event to Pyle’s action earlier in the novel, when he takes a dangerous solo journey upriver to tell Fowler that he is in love with Phuong. Fowler interprets Pyle’s lack of concern for his own safety as a sign that the American believes himself impervious to danger, like a movie hero. As Fowler reflects at the novel’s end, after seeing a shallow adventure movie, no life is as “charmed” as it seems in the movies. That Pyle dies an awful death would seem to prove Fowler’s point.
The motif of virginity appears in the novel as a way of conceptualizing immaturity. For this reason, the recurrence of the motif points to a more figurative meaning. This meaning has to do with life experience as well as sexuality. On the first night that Fowler, Phuong, and Pyle dine together, Pyle ends up trapped in the House of Five Hundred Girls. Pyle panics because he does not want to engage a prostitute, but he also does not want to be rude. Witnessing this, Fowler feels a desire to protect Pyle, whose innocence makes Fowler think he is a virgin. However, when the concept of virginity returns during the watchtower episode, it takes on a different meaning. Pyle tells Fowler that he has slept with women, and Fowler exclaims that one can have sex and yet remain a virgin. In this case, virginity has to do with failing to understand the subtler, nonsexual aspects of love relationships.