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The Quiet American was written in 1955 and became a turning point in Graham Greene’s career. The novel focuses on the love triangle between the main characters (Salván 111). Pyle is a young American attaché to the economic mission, Thomas Fowler is a not young British journalist, and Phuong is a Vietnamese woman, whom they both love (Ruane 97). When Phuong realizes that she cannot get a future with Thomas, she decides to be with Pyle, who can marry her and give her what she wants (Caute 138). From the perspective of symbolism, Fowler represents the old colonial order, Phuong represents Vietnam or the colonized country, and Pyle represents America’s interest in Vietnam trying to prevent it from becoming a communist country (Ripatrazone). Their different backgrounds determine their future decisions, including decisions regarding love, and choice of partner for intimate relationships. The purpose of this essay is to consider the characters’ choice on an intimate relationship from the perspective of their backgrounds. The main question is: How does the sociocultural context determine the characters’ choice on an intimate relationship?
The Individualistic Position of the Man
The final dialogue illustrates how differently Thomas and Phuong consider their relationship. Thomas gets what he wants in the end – Phuong, and his pursuit of love is satisfied. He is confident now because his lover is by his side. Nevertheless, he is worried that Phuong still thinks of Pyle: “You spoke his name once in your sleep” (Greene 180). He also says sorry to Phuong and feels guilty because he understands that he cannot offer her everything she has wanted to do with Pyle. She would not see the Grand Canyon and the Empire State Building (Hassler). These sites represent grand statements of love and prosperity that Pyle has offered to her, but Thomas is different, and he cannot do the same.
Thomas is a highly individualistic person who tends to care about his interests. He is a conventional representative of the world of colonialists with their “cynical exhaustion.” He lived a full life previously, and he starts a new life in Indo-China with a young woman. He does not care about other people’s opinions, especially when it comes to his romantic attachments. The British man believes he has the right to live the life he choosing without waiting for any approvals. At the end of the book, the man concludes: “Everything had gone right with me” (Greene 180). Although he still has the need to talk to someone he could trust and someone who could understand him, Thomas is glad Phuong is beside him. He understands that Phuong will never understand him fully due to the differences they have, but his desire to love her and be with her is stronger than thin need. His individual happiness and romantic attachment are still more potent than his need for belongingness and communication with others.
Thomas’s individualism is determined by the environment he lived in. He was raised in the world of western values, where the individual, his or her rights, were the highest priority. Of course, public opinion was important, particularly when people are young, but when they grow older and more financially secure, they understand that people’s opinions can hardly make them feel happy. Thomas is not young, so he wants to receive what he wants irrespective of other people’s opinions.
The Role of the Sociocultural Context
Unlike Thomas, Phuong is a representative of the eastern world, where people live in communities and the attitudes of others are critical. Clearly, when it comes to survival, Phuong chooses life and opportunities, so she is ready to live with a married man. At the beginning of the final chapter, she is unaware of the news regarding her man’s potential divorce. She seems to be completely satisfied with her life as she is happy going to the cinema and watching films. She is financially secured, which is one of her major priorities. However, when Phuong finds out that Helen agrees to a divorce, she immediately wants to tell the news to her sister: “I must go and tell my sister. She will be so pleased. I will say to her, ‘Do you know who I am? I am the second Mrs. Fowlair’” (Greene 180). By marrying Thomas, Phuong tries to maximize her benefits. Her decision represents the desire of a woman to survive and gain a positive image in the society.
The young woman wants to live a respectful life in accordance with the conventions of her country. She becomes happier when she realizes that her social status will improve. Her desire to tell the news to her sister instead of remaining with her man in a very romantic moment is illustrative. Her desire to have a specific social status is stronger than her romantic attachment. Perhaps, she actually loved Pyle, but she says: “I never remember my dreams” (Greene 179). She lives in the community and focuses on the accepted norms in the real world rather than being fixed on her dreams.
Unlike Thomas, who concentrates on his love for the woman, Phuong seems to pay no attention to this aspect. She is a material world who watches films and lives in a comfortable place. She takes a telegram to show to her sister instead of simply sharing the news. It is more important to show than to actually feel for this young woman. Phuong’s romantic relationships are determined by the social context as the country faces considerable challenges and she needs security. The woman needs to be secured financially and socially. She needs a social status and the approval of her community.
The sociocultural context is a determining factor of the characters’ choice on an intimate relationship. Phuong’s perception regarding a romantic relationship with a man is explained by her desire to ensure a prosperous life, in which there is no place for poverty and fear. That is why she leaves Fowler and goes to Pyle and then comes back to Thomas again. She symbolizes colonized Vietnam, and the main goal for her in life is to survive, but other people’s opinions are also important.
For Fowler, Phuong is not just a mistress or a mean of escape from the tedium of his days. He has already come through the traditional path of life by being married; therefore, he looks for honesty in an intimate relationship with a woman. He contrasts his feelings to Phuong with the boredom of an ordinary marriage. His love is so pure and sincere that he is even resigned to the fact that his lover does not love him and think about Pyle.
Caute, David. Politics and the Novel during the Cold War. Routledge, 2017.
Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. Random House, 2010.
Hassler, Chelsea. “The Quiet American by Graham Greene.” Ploughshares, 2017, Web.
Ripatrazone, Nick. “Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ argues that to write is to be political.” America Magazine, 2018, Web.
Ruane, Kevin. “Graham Greene in Love and War: French Indochina and the Making of The Quiet American.” Graham Greene Studies, vol. 1. no. 1, 2017, pp. 97-109.
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Salván, Paula Martín. “The Language of Ethics and Community in Graham Greene’s Fiction.” Springer, 2016.