Places: The Quiet American

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1955

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Early 1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Vietnam

*Vietnam. Quiet American, TheCountry in Southeast Asia that was colonized by France during the late nineteenth century. The novel is set in Vietnam in the early 1950’s at a time when the Vietnamese people believe they have earned their independence, but the French still refuse to withdraw. From their ostensibly secure base in Saigon, the French rule an uneasy country, one whose countryside and northern districts are controlled by nationalist forces known as the Viet Minh. Into a complex atmosphere of political intrigue and violence, Graham Greene interweaves a psychological study of a murdered American espionage agent and a British journalist.

The novel is a partly autobiographical account of Greene’s own time in Vietnam, where he was a journalist in 1951 to 1952. His narrator, Thomas Fowler, is also a war correspondent stationed in Saigon through whose eyes readers learn of the murky political situation developing with the increasing American presence in Southeast Asia.

*Saigon

*Saigon (SI-gahn; now Ho Chi Minh City). Capital of colonial Cochin China. A French stronghold, Saigon is the site for much of the action in The Quiet American. The fact that terrorist attacks and bombings occur in the midst of this urbane and sophisticated center of French colonial culture provides strong evidence for the disintegration of French control. The novel depicts Saigon as the center of a culture degraded by colonialism, one in which drug trafficking, opium smoking, and prostitution run rampant.

*Continental Hotel

*Continental Hotel. Large hotel in central Saigon frequented by foreign correspondents that is the site of much of the novel’s dialogue. At this hotel Fowler meets Alden Pyle, the “quiet American” of the title, and Pyle meets Phuong, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman who is living with Fowler. Greene’s descriptions of the Continental are realistic and based in fact. The Continental is a real hotel that served as the base for European and American correspondents until the fall of Saigon in the 1970’s.

*Tanyin

*Tanyin (tan-YIHN). City about fifty miles northwest of Saigon where Fowler goes to attend a celebration of the Caodists, who are attempting to synthesize Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The novel uses Fowler’s trip to illustrate what is going on in the countryside outside Saigon. At Tanyin, Fowler runs into Pyle, whose car has broken down, and the two men return to Saigon together. Along the way, Fowler’s own car runs out of gas, leaving the men dangerously isolated within disputed territory. Although the French maintain watchtowers every kilometer along the road, the towers often change hands during the night. The episode underscores how the relative peace of Saigon camouflages the instability of the rest of the country.

*Tonkin

*Tonkin (TAHN-kihn). Northernmost district of Vietnam. In both the novel and reality, Tonkin is the location of many battles between the Viet Minh and the French, including the decisive great battle at Dien Bien Phu. Hanoi, the capital, and the important port of Haiphong are located in Tonkin as well.

*Phat Diem

*Phat Diem (fat-dee-ehm). Town about eighty miles south of Hanoi that is the site of an important Catholic cathedral. Phat Diem is also the site of a battle that leads to the most gruesome scene in the novel: a canal filled with human bodies.

BibliographyDeVitis, A. A. Graham Greene. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Treats the novel as a transitional work, telling of Greene’s experience in Indochina, his use of an unreliable narrator, and the novel’s existentialism. Discusses the novel’s links to Greene’s religious fiction.Gaston, Georg M. A. The Pursuit of Salvation: A Critical Guide to the Novels of Graham Greene. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1984. Calls The Quiet American the most flawless novel Greene ever wrote but also one of his most controversial and misunderstood. Argues that critics have simplified the book’s politics and that the book’s real issue is personal salvation.McEwan, Neil. Graham Greene. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Concentrates on Fowler’s development as narrator and on Greene’s Catholicism. Compares the novel to Henry James’s of meetings between Europeans and Americans and suggests that Greene’s anti-American bias weakens his satire.O’Prey, Paul. A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. Discusses the novel in terms of Greene’s traveling. Compares The Quiet American to Greene’s other political novels.Sharrock, Roger. Saints, Sinners, and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. Compares the novel to Greene’s preceding fiction, compares the novelist’s treatments of real places with that of other great novelists, analyzes Greene’s political opinions, relates them to Fowler’s, and concludes that The Quiet American is Greene’s most carefully constructed novel.
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