When Fowler returns to his hotel after the press conference, he finds a telegram from his agency promoting him to the position of foreign editor, a job that will require him to return to England. He knows that this spells the end of his affair with Phuong and that it also secures Pyle’s victory. Fowler reflects on his preference for Saigon over his native country. He wants to cry but cannot. Fowler leaves his hotel and walks down to the Pax Bar, where he runs into Pietri, a foreign officer who, like Fowler, also prefers his adopted home in Hanoi over his native Corsica. The two men play a round of the dice game Quatre cent vingt-et-un, which means “421” in French.
Chapter 4 offers the first glimpse of the effects of war. Although most of the novel’s action is removed from the fighting, presenting the effects of war is crucial, because it showcases the larger stakes involved in the tension between Pyle’s desire for engagement and Fowler’s preference to remain uninvolved. The reader gets a sense of the social effects of war in the beginning of the chapter, when Fowler observes the refugees flocking to the cathedral for protection. When the bishop informs Fowler of his concern that he may not be able to provide for them all, he implies that many innocent civilians may starve or die from exposure or from their wounds. Later in the chapter, Fowler experiences the horrors of war firsthand. Not only does he witness a scene where the body count is overwhelmingly gruesome (in the scene when the European troops cross the river crowded with bodies), but he also sees a sight that is more personally devastating (when the troops find the dead mother and her child). Witnessing these scenes inspires a strong emotional statement from Fowleregardless of his desire to remain neutral.
The events in 4 also emphasize that war is psychologically confusing. First, the sound of mortars whizzing through the air and exploding in the distance haunts Fowler most of the time he stays in Phat Diem. The constant shelling produces a low-grade tension that rarely dissipates, and the sound becomes a new normal. Second, as Fowler learns, in wartime one can pass through emotional extremes from one moment to the next, and sometimes at the very same time. During the reconnaissance mission with the European troops, for instance, Fowler contemplates how boring war can be. And yet, despite the long stretches of boredom, moments of shock and horror erupt suddenly, eliciting strong emotional responses, such as Fowler’s hatred of war. The juxtaposition of tedium and extreme emotionality also appears in Fowler’s thinking. Amid the tension on the farm, Fowler wonders if Phuong had sent his clothing to the cleaners, and seconds later he flares up at the thought of death. In wartime, a thin veil separates life from death.
Considering the life-or-death stakes of war, Fowler finds Pyle’s declarations about his intention to seduce Phuong absurd. Fowler reflects that he himself has no intentions for Phuong because he believes he knows that the future inevitably brings pain and loss. By contrast, Pyle’s intentions for Phuong are naïve and self-centered, and he seems too confident that he can shape the future to his own desires. Fowler finds Pyle’s confidence especially ironic given the fact that he made the dangerous trip up the river to Phat Diem alone, as if he were impervious to harm. With the experiences of the day on his mind, Fowler recognizes how foolhardy Pyle has been, and he judges Pyle’s reckless journey as proof of the American’s overconfidence. However, the problem of futurity returns at the end of the chapter, when Fowler realizes that his own future in Saigon will be cut short due to his new position as foreign editor. Pyle may therefore triumph simply because he has a future in Vietnam.
When Fowler declares that trumps,” he implicitly likens love to a game. Much like a card game or the dice game of 421 that Fowler plays frequently in the novel, the game of love involves both chance and strategy. Pyle appears to treat love like a strategy game, which makes sense given his preference for engagement. He believes he can manipulate any situation to work in his favor. Fowler, however, sees love as a game of chance, dictated by the luck of the draw more than a plan of action. It is notable that Fowler’s implicit comparison of love to a game of chance contradicts his philosophy of the certainty of impermanence as well as his claim to know the future. It is also important to note that Fowler’s claim to know the future is hypocritical given how he satirizes Pyle’s overconfidence about how the future will play out. These complications suggest that Fowler is at times susceptible to his own critiques.