The Quiet American by Graham Greene

In applying the theme of conflict to an analysis on Graham Greene’s mid-1950s novel The Quiet American, we cannot avoid the constant, juxtaposed pairing of motifs that create the plot basis of the narrative: non-involvement versus action, neutrality versus commitment, ‘‘dégagé’’ versus ‘‘engagé’’.  The idea of conflict is both explicitly and implicitly explored in the text at a societal as well as a personal level.  Being set in Vietnam before the defeat and subsequent withdrawal of the French, provides a backdrop to a clash between personal and political ideologies.  Throughout the novel there is a running debate on the issue of foreign intervention in Indochina.  In terms of political symbolism, it is Fowler and Pyle’s rival attempts to possess Phuong that reflect the West’s attempts to possess and control Vietnam itself.

The Crux of this Novel and the Central Dilemma

The text raises key questions of its protagonist Thomas Fowler.  How long can a non-participating observer — a cynical, middle-aged British journalist paid to report only the facts of conflict — stand on the sidelines until he is compelled to pass a personal and moral judgment upon another, and to become involved?  Fowler clearly points out to Pyle “I don’t know what I’m talking politics for.  They don’t interest me and I’m a reporter.  I’m not engagé’’… “I don’t take sides.  I’ll be still reporting, whoever wins” (p.88).  We are forced to question whether there is any such thing as the moral high ground.  Sooner or later Fowler finds out what Captain Trouin tells him is the truth “One has to take sides.  If one is to remain human” (p.166).

A Moral Choice

Does Fowler have Pyle killed as a result of his jealousy over Phuong’s desertion of him for the American?  Or is he asserting his humanity and taking sides?  He sacrifices his friend to prevent further needless civilian deaths but Greene is ambiguous on how far Fowler’s motives are honest.  Greene in fact makes Fowler deal with a moral choice but he is left with a guilt that is reluctant to let him go.  Human life according to Greene is muddied, even chaotic with dark and contradictory elements in Fowler that leave the reader with more questions than answers at the end of the novel.

The Exposition of Conflict

The exposition of conflict is played out through the relationship between Fowler the journalist, who is also the first-person, confessional narrator of the novel, and Pyle, a young American governmental representative.  Pyle, described by Fowler as a “quiet American”, (p. 9) is inoculated with a textbook education — little more than an academic and ideological theory — on how the creation of a political and military ‘‘Third Force’’ might bring the values of American-style democracy to a Vietnam being destroyed by a war waged between French colonialism and the insurgency of nationalist communism during the early 1950s.

Personal Conflict

Complicating and intensifying matters is the more personal conflict arising in Saigon between the two characters when Pyle falls in love with Fowler’s mistress, Phuong; behind the scenes, with the collusion of a ‘‘third force’’ in Phuong’s grasping older sister, Pyle succeeds in winning her.  Embittered, and a man accustomed to deserting wives and girlfriends rather than them leaving him, Fowler breaks down in the toilet, symbolically, of the American Legation building: ‘‘… with my head against the cold wall I cried.  I hadn’t cried until now.  Even their lavatories were air-conditioned, and presently the temperate tempered air dried my tears as it dries the spit in your mouth and the seed in your body’’ (p.139).

Interconnected Conflicts and Love, Personal Relationships and War

This is black comedy rather than tragic drama.  It is also one example in the novel of where the wider, large-scale conflict of war and ideology, as viewed from Fowler’s stance, intersects and coalesces with the personal.  For Phuong may also be interpreted in a wider sense as representative of the culture, nature and beauty of a ‘‘feminised’’, perhaps idealised image of traditional Vietnam being fought over by an old, tired, cynical Europe and a thoroughly modern, optimistic, yet unworldly United States.

Through Fowler, Greene’s ferocious contempt for the popularity and insidious spread of American values, affluence, behaviour and antiseptic cleanliness is obvious.  He even associates the name ‘‘Pyle’’ with constipation and haemorrhoids in one sequence.

For example, although the novel is narrated by Fowler, Greene ensures an alternative — and accurate — point of view through two sequences in which the British journalist receives a letter and a telegram from his deserted and badly hurt wife, in which she refers to Phuong and to his serial emotional insecurity and weakness: ‘‘You pick up women like your coat picks up dust … I suppose like the rest of us you are getting old and don’t like living alone … You say that we’ve always tried to tell the truth to each other, but, Thomas, your truth is always so temporary’’ (p.108-110 ).

Engagé  – Commitment

Engagé is foretold in a scene in which Fowler accompanies Trouin, a French air force pilot, on an aerial bombing mission, in which a sampan and its crew are casually obliterated.  Who should feel responsible for this, and for the dropping of napalm on villages?  The pilot only, carrying out his nation’s orders?  Trouin insists that at some point everyone, including Fowler, will be forced to take sides, because you cannot stand aside and be dispassionate: ‘‘It’s not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and Love — they have always been compared’’ (p.144).

Fowler’s moment is the realisation that Pyle’s covert activities in organising a ‘‘democratic’’ Third Force have brought bloodshed to the streets of Saigon.  Yet it is more complex than this.  It is also a moment that deeply involves the personal — ‘‘War and Love’’ (p.144) — for Fowler’s immediate reaction is that Phuong has been caught up in the bombing, and that Pyle is directly responsible.  Phuong is safe, but Fowler is fully engagé for the first time: ‘‘I thought, ‘What’s the good?  He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless.  All you can do is control them or eliminate them.  Innocence is a kind of insanity’ ’’ (p.155).

Dégagé – Professional Neutrality

Ironically, Pyle’s ‘‘elimination’’ at the hands of the local communists can be traced back to Fowler’s non-partisan, dégagé newspaper coverage of the war, and the fact that the communists trust him. ‘‘Mr Fowler, you are British.  You are neutral.  You have been fair to all of us,’’ (p.120) says one of their sympathisers, Mr Heng.  This reputation of professional neutrality from conflict, and the consequent insider knowledge supplied to him by the communists, is precisely the factor that has awoken Fowler to Pyle’s quiet ‘‘insanity’’, and drawn him into engagement.

Is Fowler a Murderer by Proxy?

Regardless of cause, motive and justification, is Fowler, by proxy and at arm’s length, a murderer?  At the end of the narrative, with his estranged wife willing to divorce him, he tells Phuong, ‘‘Here’s your happy ending’’ (p.180).  But the words are charged with cynicism and self-recrimination.  For according to Graham Greene — the unhappy country in which the author’s moral and emotional compass swings and points — there is secrecy, guilt, sorrow, and an aftermath in which peace, a quiet resting place of the soul, will never be realised.

By the conclusion of The Quiet American, the interconnected conflicts of love, personal relationships and war have reached some sense of relief and resolution through the agency of Pyle’s death.  In one moment Fowler, whose constant refrain throughout the narrative has been, ‘‘Let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved,’’ (p.20) now becomes fully engaged and complicit.  Fowler’s usual response to the conflict that surrounds him has been to sit on the sidelines.  However, when the conflict comes closer, threatening to undo his carefully cultivated equilibrium, his cynicism does not protect him from the horrors of war.

No Definitive Sense of Personal Redemption for Fowler

At Phat Diem, Fowler is confronted with a canal “full of bodies” (p.43) and at this time his own values are unexpectedly challenged by Pyle’s actions.  He is reminded of the truth in what Captain Trouin said that “One day something will happen.  You will take a side” (p.143).  However, it is the bombing in Place Garnier that is the turning point for the hardened journalist.  Haunted by images of the carnage he has witnessed, he realises that inaction can also have lasting consequences.  Fowler’s moral conflict is stark.  Does he betray the man who saved his life?  Does he become complicit in the assassination of another human being?  Does he allow Pyle to continue to “… play with plastics” (p.125) unchecked and kill more innocent people?

Yet when he does engagé, Fowler ends up with a hollow victory.  While Fowler may have gained in humanity by becoming ‘involved’, inevitably he feels guilt for his role in Pyle’s murder.  Paradoxically, he has become like Pyle “… I had betrayed my own principles; I had become engagé as Pyle, and it seemed to me that no decision would ever be simple again” (p.175).  Nonetheless, Fowler expresses remorse for the part he played in Pyle’s death.  He remarks at the end of the novel “Everything has gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry” (p.180).  In the end I believe Fowler is fully engagé and complicit.

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Synopsis of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks

Background and Historical Context of  ‘The Great Plague’

The Great Plague of London (1665–1666) was a massive outbreak of bubonic plague that is estimated to have killed 100,000 people, or around 20 percent of London’s population.  Also simply known as ‘the plague’, the infection was caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis which was carried by the fleas of black rats.  The rich largely abandoned the poor by fleeing London.  Many of the nobility and gentry escaped London soon after the first outbreak of the plague and were followed by lawyers, merchants, clergy and surgeons.  Such events make the true story of the village of Eyam all the more heroic.  Just as in Year of Wonders, the local rector convinced the village to quarantine themselves.  Local histories suggest that the plague is thought to have originated in cloth received from London, just as it does in Brooks’ novel.  Some accounts of the Eyam ‘Plague Village’ put the number of dead as high as 259 of the 292 villagers.

Year of Wonders is narrated from the first person perspective of an 18-year-old woman, Anna Frith.

Widowed as the result of her husband’s tragic mining accident two years prior to the commencement of the story, Anna is left to support herself and her two young sons, Tom and Jamie, with her modest income from tending her own flock of sheep and working as the housemaid for the local rector Michael Mompellion and his wife Elinor.  While Anna has already endured great hardship and heartbreak in her young life, she and the other inhabitants of Eyam live largely peaceful lives until the outbreak of the plague in the autumn of 1665.

The Plague’s Origins In Eyam

The plague’s origins in Eyam lie in a seemingly innocuous piece of cloth sent from London to Anna’s boarder, the tailor George Viccars.  Shortly after receiving the cloth, Viccars begins to exhibit the gruesome tell-tale symptoms of the plague: fever, pus-filled and exploding lymph nodes, aching joints, bloody vomiting and decaying flesh.  Not long after Viccars’ death, the plague claims the lives of Anna’s two young sons Jamie and Tom and most of the neighbouring family, the Hadfields.  It is not long before the plague has engulfed Eyam and it eventually claims the lives of more than half of its population.

The Rector Michael Mompellion

The charismatic and evangelical rector Michael Mompellion convinces the villagers that they must quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the plague to surrounding areas.  While the villagers are initially galvanised by their faith and local spirit, it is not long before they turn on one another as a result of the devastation wrought by the disease and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the self-imposed quarantine.

Death in Eyam

Death visits nearly every household in Eyam and as the villagers seek answers and justification for their plight, many are consumed by fear, anger and desperation.  There appears to be no cure for the plague and many villagers abandon their faith and turn to superstition and witchcraft in an attempt to deliver themselves from the horror.  In some cases, the siege mentality brought on by the scourge sees the townspeople direct their fears towards marginalised and misunderstood characters who become easy targets for accusations of witchcraft.  This irrational apportioning of blame leads to senseless acts of violence and even murder.  Others seek to appease God through flagellation and extreme self-deprivation in the belief that they are appeasing God’s wrath for their innate sin.  Unfortunately, the plague also brings out the darker side in some characters’ human nature as they seek to benefit from others’ misfortune during a time of crisis.

A Story of Courage, Compassion and Rebirth

Nevertheless, Year of Wonders is also a story of courage, compassion and rebirth. Despite great suffering, Anna and other characters such as Michael and Elinor Mompellion demonstrate that humanity can triumph over adversity through self-sacrifice, friendship, love and a belief in the preservation of human dignity.

Anna is Transformed at the End

By the end of the novel, the plague has abated in Eyam and Anna has been transformed.  Through the necessity of circumstance, the encouragement from Elinor Mompellion and her own courage, Anna becomes the local midwife and healer. Readers witness Anna’s emotional and intellectual growth throughout the novel as a result of her relationship with the Mompellions and her exposure to the extremities of the plague.  She is no longer subservient to anyone.  She has thrown off the manacles of her abusive childhood, the spectre of the plague, religious dogma and even the patriarchy of the time.  She has had to flee Eyam to ensure her own safety and that of an illegitimate child marked for death.  The child’s father, a member of the local gentry, is enraged at having being betrayed by an unfaithful wife and seeks to destroy the evidence of his wife’s betrayal.  Anna escapes from England and begins a new life in Oran (modern day Algeria), the home of the Andalus Arabs.  At the conclusion of the novel Anna has become a doctor, scholar and mother whose compassion and talents mark her as woman of independence and strength.

Structure of Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders commences about two-thirds of the way through the chronological sequence of events covered in the novel.  A narrative structure such as this is known as starting the novel’s events in medias res, which is Latin for ‘in the midst of things’.

The Novel Opens

The novel opens in autumn 1666 with Anna’s recollection of how she ‘… used to love this season’ (p.3).  Her fond memories of apple harvesting and its accompanying sensory delights have been forever tarnished by the carnage wreaked by the plague over the previous year.  Readers learn only vague details of the tragedies that have befallen the town of Eyam.  The opening chapter also focuses on the broken and fallen state of the previously charismatic Michael Mompellion.  Anna describes him as one of the living dead, and his words and actions are those of a bitter and haunted man (p.4). When Anna tries to wake him from his grief-induced torpor, he inflicts physical pain upon her by forcefully grabbing her wrist while trying to impress upon her the bleak nature of existence (p.19).  Anna reveals that she only serves Mompellion out of her love for his recently deceased wife, Elinor.  We also witness his cold and harsh treatment of Elizabeth Bradford along with his apparent lack of faith and his contempt for the idea of a compassionate God (pp.16–19).

The opening chapter also hints that Anna has undergone a transformation during the past year.  When going to confront Elizabeth Bradford she reveals that, “It was as if there were two of me, walking down those stairs.  One of them was the timid girl who had worked for the Bradfords in a state of dread, fearing their hard looks and harsh words.  The other was Anna Frith, a woman who had faced more terrors than many warriors.  Elizabeth Bradford was a coward.  She was the daughter of cowards.  As I entered the parlour and faced her thunderous countenance, I knew I had nothing more to fear from her” (p.15).

Brooks’ choice to start the novel in medias res is a deliberate attempt to provoke curiosity in readers as to why the characters find themselves in their current states.  It encourages readers to contemplate the enormity of the force that has caused such devastation in the town of Eyam during the previous year.

Significance of the Title ‘Year of Wonders’

While at first it may seem odd to have Year of Wonders as the title of a novel that catalogues the horrors of a village beset by the plague, it is the transformation of Anna Frith that provides the title with its multiple meanings.  On one level the novel documents the tales of human suffering, depravity and heroism that could only leave readers in a state of wonderment.  Nevertheless, the true wonder of the novel is the way in which Anna is transformed from an illiterate, god-fearing handmaid, who displays flashes of courage and natural intelligence, to a midwife, scholar, doctor and mother of two who frees herself from the shackles of domineering males and religious dogma.  By the conclusion of the novel she is a woman truly in control of her own destiny. Furthermore, it is the journey she undergoes in this transformation that makes her an individual of special qualities.  As Elinor realises, Anna’s transformation “… is the one good, perhaps, to come out of this terrible year” (p.235).

Transformation and Rebirth in Year of Wonders

While Year of Wonders documents the horrors of the plague, it also explores how such an ordeal has the capacity to test individuals.  Some characters never completely recover from the hardships, but despite extreme suffering and heartbreak others are strengthened and transformed by their experience.  As such, the novel examines humanity’s capacity for regeneration after catastrophic events.  It also celebrates those characters that possess the necessary fortitude to emerge reborn from the devastation, and it honours the friendship, guidance and sacrifice of those characters who allow others to move beyond the station that they were seemingly destined to occupy.

Anna’s Journey

Anna’s journey from illiterate housemaid to scholar, doctor and independent woman is such a remarkable transformation that it provides the novel’s title with much of its significance.  It is worth emphasising that Year of Wonders suggests that such transformations do not occur simply by chance.

Anna’s Transformation

Much of Anna’s transformation occurs as a result of the compassion and guidance of Elinor Mompellion.  Through Anna and Elinor’s relationship, the novel suggests that loving and nurturing friendships have the ability to transform lives and provide individuals with new opportunities.  Nevertheless, Year of Wonders also suggests that an individual must possess special characteristics if they are to emerge reborn from a devastating event such as the plague.  For example, it is Anna’s immense courage and compassion that continually allow to her to make the best of extremely harrowing circumstances and also to look beyond the prejudices and misconceptions of the time to follow what she regards as the most appropriate course of action.

Towards the end of the book there are two significant events that clearly symbolise Anna’s growing awareness of her own transformation.  Firstly, she tames Michael Mompellion’s horse, Anteros, and rides him past the Boundary Stone (pp.272–4).  Such an action symbolises her desire to leave the devastation of the plague behind. Furthermore, she knows that she has emerged from the plague reborn when she says:

“We live, we live, we live, said the hoofbeats, and the drumming of my pulse answered them. I was alive, and I was young, and I would go on until I found some reason for it. As I rode that morning, smelling the scent of the hoof-crushed heather, feeling the wind needle my face until it tingled, I understood that where Michael Mompellion had been broken by our shared ordeal, in equal measure I had been tempered and made strong” (pp.273–4).

Secondly, it is Anna’s growing sense of self-determination that sees her rescue Mrs. Bradford’s newborn child from death.  While her actions are borne out of maternal instinct and the need to protect the defenceless, the rescue also represents a moment of rebirth for Anna.  By adopting the baby girl in order to ‘….raise her with love’ (p.289), Anna challenges the dominant patriarchy of the period, becomes a mother once more and inadvertently forces herself to move beyond the confines of Eyam into the world of the unknown.  Moreover, it is this event that sets her on the path to Oran where she becomes a scholar and doctor.

Analysing a Sample Essay Topic on Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders demonstrates that a time of crisis brings out the darker side of human nature.’ Discuss.

The first thing to do with any essay topic is to identify the key phrases and define them so that they have meaning relevant to the context of the novel. In this essay topic the phrases that need to be defined are ‘time of crisis’ and ‘darker side of human nature’. ‘Time of crisis’ could refer directly to the devastation and confusion caused by a plague that appears to have no apparent cure.  The term ‘darker side of human nature’ could take on a number of meanings in the context of the novel.  It might refer to people’s capacity to exploit others for their own benefit; humanity’s capacity to revert to barbarity during times of fear; the need to control or exert power over others or the refusal to accept responsibility when faced with danger.

After defining key terms you must then judge whether you agree, disagree, or partially agree with the essay topic. In most cases, the better text responses are those that attempt to address the ‘grey areas’ of the topic rather than completely agreeing or disagreeing with the proposition.  For example, in some situations the horrors of the plague do cause individuals to act abhorrently.  Nevertheless, there are a number of instances where characters act out of a true sense of altruism and the need to maintain order and human dignity.

After defining key terms you now need to develop a contention that contains the defined key terms and responds to all parts of the essay topic.

An appropriate essay contention in this case might be:

Although the devastation and climate of fear brought about by the plague results in some abhorrent and repugnant human behaviour in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, the novel also affirms humanity’s capacity for compassion, bravery and dignity during times of suffering and confusion.

Having written the contention for the essay, the next stage is to construct three to four supporting arguments that explore all aspects of your main argument.

Some appropriate supporting arguments here might be:

  1. The climate of uncertainty brought about by the plague results in some individuals directing their anger and misplaced fear against other villagers.
  2. The confusion and devastation caused by the pestilence allows some individuals to exploit others for their own selfish needs.
  3. Despite the great suffering resulting from the plague, many characters display great selflessness and compassion towards their fellow humans.
  4. Even though the plague decimates the village’s population, strong bonds of love and friendship survive.

The next thing to do is to briefly identify the relationships, events or quotes that you will use to develop each of your supporting arguments.  Once you have done this you should have a sound essay plan to follow when writing your text response essay.

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