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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The dice game Quatre cent vingt-et-un, which means “421” in French, symbolizes the precariousness of life. Characters play this game frequently throughout the novel. For example, Pyle plays 421 with European troops in conflict-ridden Phat Diem. In this context, the game serves to pass the time during long stretches of boredom. However, the game also helps develop a sense of camaraderie, which is essential in situations where death may be around the corner. On a more philosophical level, 421 represents the gamble of life. As with any dice game, 421 is a game of chance, and this fact becomes especially significant during a round that Fowler plays with Vigot. As they play, the two men discuss a thought experiment known as Pascal’s Wager, which states that every person makes a wager with his or her life as to whether or not God exists. Since human reason cannot prove God’s existence or nonexistence, both belief and disbelief are a gamble. And since humans must choose one way or another, they are inevitably involved in a game of chance: life itself.
York Harding is the fictional writer whose political theories provide the foundation for Pyle’s idealism. It is from Harding that Pyle takes the idea of a Third Force. Pyle first read Harding’s books as a student at Harvard, and he brought many of them with him to Saigon. After Pyle’s death, Fowler finds multiple shelves in Pyle’s apartment dedicated to Harding. His books have sweeping titles such as The Challenge to Democracy and The Advance of Red China. Fowler takes the volume The Role of the West as a keepsake. Harding’s books, which Pyle cites frequently, cause a rift between Fowler and Pyle with respect to how to acquire knowledge. Whereas Fowler’s knowledge of Vietnam comes from years of firsthand experience, Pyle’s knowledge comes from books. Therefore, Harding’s books symbolize an American idealism that is abstract rather than concrete and .
The rue Catinat symbolizes Fowler’s status as an exile. This street is where Fowler has an apartment, which he considers his home away from home. Every day he takes a walk along the rue Catinat. The sights and smells of the street are part of his daily experience, as are the group of Vietnamese women who sit in from of his building, watching passers-by and gossiping. The sense of familiarity and freedom that Fowler has developed in Saigon exists in stark contrast to the dreary life he imagines for himself in London. In this sense, Fowler’s exile is a positive thing. However, the rue Catinat also represents darker aspects of Fowler’s life. Fowler associates his apartment with Phuong, who lives there with him. When the conflict between Fowler and Pyle heats up and Phuong moves out, the apartment becomes a symbol of Fowler’s loneliness, a place to which he does not want to return. He therefore seeks out a new apartment. It is notable, however, that the apartment Fowler looks at also has its address on the rue Catinat. He wishes to remain where he feels most at home.