English 321 – American Masterpieces

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

The Quiet American – Discussion Questions

(from Marta Salij, Free Press and the Penn Reading Project)


1.      It isn't fancy literary criticism to notice that Fowler stands in for the Old World, Pyle stands in for the New World, and Phuong stands in for the land they're battling over. It's easy to see Pyle's faults -- Greene pretty much puts them in bold type. But what are the weaknesses in Fowler's views of Vietnam and Phuong? And what are the weaknesses in Phuong's views of Fowler vs. Pyle? Is Greene accurate in the parallels he draws between the characters and the nations they represent?

2.      "Democracy was another subject of his -- he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world," Fowler says of Pyle. Fowler thinks Pyle -- and the United States -- are wrong to believe that all nations would benefit from democracy. Is that what the United States believed in Vietnam? What about today? Who's right, Fowler or Pyle -- or both?

3.      "Perhaps that's why men have invented God -- a being capable of understanding," says Fowler. What does Fowler think understanding requires? What about Pyle? How much does a nation have to understand another to be able to help?

4.      Pyle saves Fowler's life when they are ambushed, which angers Fowler to no end because he doesn't want to be beholden to Pyle. The scene is intended to remind readers of World War II, among other things. How much of Fowler's anger at Pyle is a symptom of Europe's anger at being beholden to the United States? Is the picture accurate? And is Europe really beholden?

5.      "I've been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven't a liberal party any more --liberalism's infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists: we all have a good conscience. I'd rather be an exploiter who fights for what he exploits, and dies with it," Fowler says. What does Fowler mean by "liberalism"? Is he right that "exploiters" are more honest than "liberals"? Would you describe the United States as an "exploiter" or a "liberal"?

6.      Is it possible that Fowler remains neutral in the Vietnam/French relationship? Is it
ever possible not to take a side?

7.      How does Pyle justify his own deception, yet scorn Fowler for misleading Phuong? Is it possible to distinguish between the two lies?

8.      Why does Greene go to such lengths to portray Pyle as innocent yet deceived?

9.      Fowler says of Pyle and the priest, "You can't blame the innocent, they are
always guiltless" but later asks, "How many dead colonels justify a
child's or a trishaw driver's death?" (163). How does Fowler distinguish between the army's spreading of democracy and the priest's propagation of religion?

10.  What did you learn from the film, The Quiet American that you didn’t note in the written text?  How did the film enhance or detract from your understanding of Graham’s work?

11.  We see again in this novel another love triangle: Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong.  How does this love triangle compare to what we discussed in Shane?

12.  The United States in now involved in a long-term military and economic commitment to Iraq.  How do you read The Quiet American through the lens of our involvement in the Middle East?