Analysis

Chapter 2 establishes the general pattern of Fowler’s narrative, which frequently moves backward and forward in time. This oscillation between the novel’s past and present events creates a kind of counterpoint, one that slowly reveals to the reader why Fowler harbors such bitter feelings toward Pyle. This method of storytelling can create confusion for the reader, as when characters reference events that the reader does not yet understand. Take, for example, when Fowler refers to “the big bang,” or when the economic attaché refers to Pyle’s “special duties.” However, these covert references also entice the reader onward, creating a sense of tension through the technique of foreshadowing. This tension characterizes the whole of The Quiet American, the story a sense of mystery.

Aside from his impression of Pyle as innocent, Fowler also notes that the American is very serious Fowler means this in two senses. First, Pyle’s reading habits are serious. Pyle has a deep respect for serious writers, by which he means politically engaged writers like York Harding. This point about serious reading foreshadows the scene in the second section of 2, when Fowler examines Pyle’s library and notes a lack of recreational reading materials. The fact that Pyle owned a manual on The Physiology of Marriage suggests that he approached topics like love from a serious, even scholarly perspective. Second, Pyle has a serious temperament that proves markedly American. When Pyle explains his preference for serious writers, Fowler jokingly draws attention to the difference between abstract knowledge and actual experience. Pyle notices Fowler’s irony, but instead of laughing at himself, he only becomes more serious and excessively polite. The American economic attaché proves similarly resistant to irony. When he says that Pyle died “a soldier’s death,” Fowler points out the inaptness of the comparison with another ironic joke. The attaché misses the joke. Fowler bursts into a tirade that implicitly chastises both Pyle and the attaché for their characteristically American seriousness.

In addition to illuminating important aspects of Pyle’s personality, 2 also introduces Fowler’s desire to remain disinterested, a neutral observer. Whereas Pyle is eager to be fully in the world, Fowler wishes to remain disengaged. Fowler sees disengagement as an essential aspect of his profession as a reporter. That is, he sees himself as one who communicates facts rather than opinions, objective truths rather than subjective judgments. Even more importantly, as a reporter he does not take action or attempt to effect change. This represents another significant difference from Pyle, who has come to Vietnam for the express purpose of interfering with Vietnamese politics. The tension between Pyle’s eagerness to engage and Fowler’s reluctance to do so fuels the story, particularly as Fowler gradually learns the impossibility of remaining neutral in such a charged time and place.