Comparing selected aspects of Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden or The British Agent" and Graham Greene's "The Quiet American"

Seminar Paper, 2013

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Plot Summaries
2.1. W. Somerset Maugham: Ashenden: or The British Agent
2.2. Graham Greene: The Quiet American

3. Comparison
3.1. The Love Triangles
3.2. The Americans and The Spies
3.3. The Female Other
3.4. Moral Dilemmas

4. Summary

5. Bibliography

Publication history:This work was originally submitted as a term paper at Leipzig University in March 2013, as a contribution to the British Studies MA seminar "The Art of Espionage: English Spy Novels" supervised by Prof. Stefan Welz. The version at hand has been newly formatted and prepared for publication in August 2015. It contains a small number of corrections and additions.

1. Introduction

Espionage and love appear as two closely related matters throughout the history of the British spy novel. From the earliest examples of the genre, like Conrad'sThe Secret Agent, to the refined representatives of an already established genre, like Maugham'sAshendenand several novels by Graham Greene, to the extremely popular Cold War spy fiction of Fleming and Le Carré, there seems hardly a case in which the fate of the customarily male spy would not be bound up with that of a woman. It is interesting that between the two domains – political espionage and private love – there seems to exist a mutual attraction as well as an incompatibility. The duties of the spy put an end to his love affairs, or a love affair causes the failure of an important espionage mission. The secret agent may give in to emotional feelings, regardless of the dangers this entails, or he may prey upon love as the weak point of another, an enemy spy perhaps. And in some cases, like that ofThe Quiet American, the secret war affecting the fate of a country becomes coincident with the fight for the love of a woman.

The purpose of this paper is to compare this novel by Graham Greene with a particular episode from W. Somerset Maugham'sAshenden: or The British Agent, namely the episode set in 1917's Russia, comprising the last three chapters of the book. While Maugham's collection of short stories is based on some of the author's own espionage experiences during the Great War and was first published in 1928, Greene's novel, published in 1955, already descends from a different era and presents a love triangle against the background of the First Indochina War. It can be argued, however, that the two stories share a multitude of similarities: Both present an American as well as an Englishman who find themselves in an exotic "Eastern" setting. In both stories, one of these two men is a spy, attempting to alter the course of a country on the brink of a Communist takeover. The other man is a civilian pursuing his own interests. Last but not least, in each of the stories the country at stake is being represented by a native woman who arouses romantic feelings in both these men.

The comparison shall include both the private relationships between the respective three main characters of each novel as well as the political relationships between their countries. Emphasis will be given to a comparison of the two Americans, and to the missions of the two spies. InAshenden, the spy is the British protagonist of the same name, whereas in Greene's novel, he is the American antagonist to whom the title refers. In addition, the depictions of Vietnam and Russia shall be investigated, and how they are linked to the female characters arguably personifying these countries. The paper will begin with plot summaries for both works, with the summary ofAshendenhaving a narrow focus on the last three chapters of the book, i.e. those comprising what in the further course of this paper shall be called its "Russia episode."

2. Plot Summaries

2.1. W. Somerset Maugham: Ashenden: or The British Agent

Maugham'sAshendenis a collection of loosely linked short stories, comprising sixteen fairly self-contained chapters. In some cases, two or three chapters are forming a larger piece of story, whereas the entirety of these short stories is linked by a few aspects only. The main character Ashenden, a writer by profession, is being employed by the British secret service early in World War I and then sent on various missions. The war itself remains fairly in the background of the narration and for the largest part Ashenden is based in Geneva in neutral Switzerland, while his profession as an internationally known writer serves as the cover for his operations. The last greater episode comprises the chapters 14 to 16 and is set in 1917 in Russia. As once Maugham himself, Ashenden is send to Petrograd, "to prevent the Bolshevik revolution and to keep Russia in the war" (Maugham, ix), so that the Central Powers may not be able to concentrate their forces on the Western front.

The first of the three constituent chapters of this "Russia episode" is titled "A Chance Acquaintance" and is concerned entirely with Ashenden's journey to Petrograd. He has approached Russia from the East, i.e. he arrived in Vladivostok in a boat from Japan, and is planning to take the Trans-Siberian train westwards. During this eleven-day travel, he is sharing his compartment with an exceedingly talkative and rather annoying American on a business trip, a Mr. John Quincy Harrington, who intends to conclude a deal between a Philadelphia company and the provisional government under Kerensky. When finally arriving in Petrograd, Ashenden is glad that he will get rid of Harrington, but the American proposes they should meet as often as possible during their stay.

The following chapter is titled "Love and Russian Literature" and first introduces a group of Czech who are determined to assist Ashenden on his mission. Ashenden further expresses the hope that a certain Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov could be of help. She is presumably residing in Petrograd, is "on intimate terms with the leaders of the various political parties" (ib., 307) and Ashenden is acquainted with her since before the war. The largest proportion of the chapter is then recalling the love relationship they had in the past: Despite she was already married, she and Ashenden fell in love with each other. In order to avoid unnecessary pain to her husband, though, Anastasia proposes that before filing a divorce, Ashenden should accompany her on a one-week trip to Paris, to test if they really belong together. While she is satisfied with the result, Ashenden walks quietly off the affair, having realised that he could impossibly cope with her peculiarities.

"Mr. Harrington's Washing" is the last chapter of the book and takes the reader back to 1917 and Ashenden's attempts to fulfil his mission. He is meeting Anastasia who does not love him any longer but is eager to help him on political grounds. Furthermore he makes up his mind as regards keeping contact with Harrington, as he has realised that Harrington's business matters may be fit to serve as a cover and a good opportunity to get into contact with the political leaders. However, even more than during the train travel, Harrington seems completely ignorant of the realities of Russia; he acts annoyingly as well as naive, and gets himself in severe danger. Notwithstanding this, Anastasia develops a certain affection for him, not least admiring his courage, and although Harrington's commitment to his wife at home in Philadelphia is never questioned, he too seems unusually fascinated by Anastasia.

Meanwhile, the political situation worsens. When one night the provisional government is overthrown and the Bolsheviks seize power, it is clear that Ashenden's attempts have been in vain and that he and his accomplices are in danger. Harrington, still ignorant of the events, has finally acquired a signature under his business contract, but is forced to realise that the same is now worthless. Frightened by the gunfire he agrees to leave the country but is troubled by the fact that the hotel has not yet given him back his washing. He insists on seizing his cloths before he leaves, in spite of the turmoil in the city. Anastasia for some reason understands his behaviour "so well" (ib., 324) and accompanies him to the laundry. On the way back, Harrington is shot in a riot and dies in the streets, still clutching on his bundle of cloths.

2.2.Graham Greene: The Quiet American

In Graham Greene'sThe Quiet American, two essentially distinct matters become tightly interwoven. These are the love relationships between the three main characters on the one hand, and the world-political events of the First Indochina War on the other. The story is set entirely in Vietnam, mostly in the country's south and in Saigon. The year is not explicitly mentioned, but the historical references make it clear that it must be around 1951 to 1953. Greene remarks in his foreword that he allowed himself some small changes, as his novel was "a story and not a piece of history" (5).

Briefly sketched, the situation is the following: After World War II, the situation in French Indochina is highly unstable. Communist forces under Ho Chi Minh, the Vietminh, fight for independence from the French colonial rule and have gained power especially in the north. Due to intense pressure, France has granted Vietnam a nominal independence already in 1949, leading to the formation of the "State of Vietnam", but effectively maintains its colonial rule. The Vietminh continue their fight, and while a fairly conventional war is going on in the northern region of Tonkin, the south is being destabilised by minor Vietminh attacks and a vast variety of other forces forming alliances and breaking them again – "a land of rebellious barons" the novel's narrator calls it (37). The French are desperate in maintaining their control, the Vietnamese people tossed between the various parties. Journalists from all over the world are covering the events, and the Americans, though not yet officially involved in the war, are increasingly present in the form of humanitarian and economic aid missions.

This historical background greatly affects the lives of the three main characters. The main storyline is told in retrospect, embedded in a frame narrative: The protagonist and first-person narrator Thomas Fowler is an elderly British journalist and has been living in Vietnam for more than two years already, covering the war for a London newspaper. He is called to the police to identify a man that has recently been murdered, an American named Alden Pyle. The French inspector Vigot seems to suspect Fowler of being involved in the murder but cannot present hard evidence. From then, Fowler reflects on his responsibility for Pyle's death and begins to recall the events of the preceding months.

In the previous year he lived and was in love with a young and beautiful Vietnamese named Phuong. Though eager to marry her, and thereby giving her the security she and her authoritative older sister Hei are longing for, he is unable to do it, as he is married to a woman in England. They have not met for years and do not love each other any longer, but owing to her strict Christian belief she refuses her consent to a divorce. Eventually the young and motivated Pyle appears. He is seemingly working for an American economic aid mission, has only just arrived in Vietnam and consults Fowler for a brief overview on the current state of affairs. He falls in love with Phuong in an instant and when he realises that she and Fowler are yet unmarried and unable to change this situation, he decides to propose to her. He discusses the matter with Fowler openly, emphasises that he wants to play fair, that he regrets the situation and hopes to keep their friendship. Fowler, however, is unwilling to give up on Phuong. And indeed, in spite of the marriage, the security and the children Pyle could offer, Phuong initially rejects his proposal.

A rivalry between Pyle and Fowler continues to persist throughout the story. This rivalry is not only about Phuong though, but involves their contrary views on what is best for the country. They meet one another on trips into enemy territory two times, and during the second of these trips they get attacked by Vietminh soldiers. On that event, Pyle is saving Fowler's life. In the meantime it becomes increasingly evident, however, that Pyle not only has certainviewson the future of Vietnam, but is actively working for an American intelligence service. His employment in the economic aid mission is serving as a cover to get into contact with a certain General Thé who has broken away from the French and their "State of Vietnam", and who is now in command of his own private army. Deeply influenced by the ideas of the (fictitious) American scholar York Harding and books with titles such asThe Rôle of the WestorThe Challenge to Democracy(cf. Greene, 28), Pyle had come to Vietnam with the firm intention to lead the country to "national democracy" by the help of what he and York are calling a "Third Force" (ib. 25). This means a power that is neither communist nor a remnant of European colonialism. He believes it possible to employ General Thé as the leader of this Third Force.

In the later parts of the story, Phuong eventually leaves Fowler and moves in with Pyle, after she has learned that Fowler's wife continues to withhold her agreement to a divorce despite he claimed the opposite. What makes things worse is that his newspaper is recalling him to England within a few months and he can see no possibility to take Phuong along. At the same time, a series of bomb attacks is hitting Saigon: First a number of rather harmless bicycle bombs (cf. "a good joke," ib., 157), but little later a severe car bombing causing the death of many innocents. Officially, the Communists are being blamed, but to Fowler it becomes evident that it is in fact General Thé who was responsible for the bombings, and that the American secret service not only knew of the attacks beforehand and allowed them to happen with at least tacit consent, but even provided Thé the plastic explosives. Fowler is deeply shocked by the ruthless "games" Pyle is playing. Most likely due to a combination of his jealousy regarding Phuong as well as the recognition that he has to take sides in this war, i.e. to give up the neutrality he tried to maintain as a journalist, Fowler discloses Pyle's activities to Vietminh sympathisers. He is meeting the American a last time and, still hesitant, he leaves it to chance if Pyle will walk into a trap prepared by the Vietminh.

The story then returns to the frame narrative. As the reader knew from the start, Pyle has obviously been murdered on that occasion. Though Vigot seems confident that something about Fowler's alibi is not quite right, he decides to let the matter be. Pyle being dead, Phuong resumes living with Fowler as if it had always been that way. Eventually, a telegram reaches Fowler, his English wife telling him that she finally accepts a divorce.

3. Comparison

3.1. The Love Triangles

Neither the Russia episode inAshendennorThe Quiet Americanare prototypical spy stories. In Greene's novel the spy is in fact the antagonist, details about his work are scarce, and his mission is more or less condemned. The chapters forming Ashenden's adventure in Russia present a rather peculiar mixture in terms of both style and content: It may be that Ashenden's espionage activities are driving forth the plot, but they comprise only a small proportion of the text, and especially in the first and second constituent chapters of this story they are barely more than briefly mentioned. Ashenden's mission and the political situation of the country are functioning primarily as the framework for a multitude of often comical events involving Harrington and his peculiarities, as well as Ashenden's own love relationship of the past and his fondness for literature. As far as the actual spy mission is concerned, it progresses without a lot of suspense or twists, and eventually, without causing astonishment, it fails.

Greene's novel in contrast exhibits a much more coherent narrative: As indicated in the above summary, it entails two rather distinct subjects, a love triangle on the one hand, and the fate of an entire country on the other. Both are closely interwoven, though, i.e. both reflect one another metaphorically as well as they influence each other factually. As the story is told from the first-person perspective of Fowler though, i.e. from the very subjective perspective of an individual, and strongly reflects his personal fate and interests, it shall be argued that the primary level of narration is the one which is concerned with the personal relationships of the individuals. Against the background of the historical events taking place in French Indochina at that time, their love triangle is then gaining its metaphorical dimension.

This means that, effectively, the three main characters (and probably inspector Vigot as a fourth one) function as "representatives of their nations or political factions" (Woods, 75). Phuong obviously stands for Vietnam and Pyle for the United States of America. In the case of Fowler the matter is a bit more complex: He may either stand for Great Britain only, and therefore be "neutral" even in respect to the interests of the French, which is what he claims as a journalist, but it is equally possible to relate him to Europe's "old" colonial powers in general. The latter is supported by the many commonalities he is sharing with Vigot, who of course represents the French, and by the mutual understanding the men feel for one another. It shall here be argued that as far as actual politics are concerned, i.e. including his occupation as a journalist and his critical views on Pyle's secret service activities, he represents the neutral Great Britain only. This is reflected in the fact that although by no means anti-French, he acknowledges the Vietnamese's right of self-determination and is not even anti-communist per se (cf. Greene, 97). In the context of the love triangle and its metaphorical meaning though, he stands for the European colonial powers at large, that is to say that hispersonalrelationship to Phuong strongly echoes that of France to Indochina.

That reading the love triangle as a metaphor for the socio-political relationships between entire countries is not an instance of over-interpretation but must have been Greene's conscious intention, is supported by at least to arguments: Firstly, there exists a number of scenes in which a dialogue between the two men moves seamlessly from the topic of love to that of politics while their respective positions and arguments do not change (cf. e.g. ib., 156). In other words: It seems effectively interchangeable if they quarrel over a woman or a country. Secondly, the metaphor continues to function without qualifications even for small details of the relationships and character traits of Fowler and Pyle. It can be argued that there are practically no restrictions in interpreting their love affairs in political terms and vice versa. In this paper, references to any of the two domains shall therefore be treated as interchangeable without further justification for each individual case.

The Russia episode inAshendenemploys a remarkably similar constellation of main characters. Just as in Greene's novel there are two men, one of them American and the other British, one a spy and the other a civilian – and furthermore a native woman. However, other than inThe Quiet American, there is no immediate love relationship between the three at the time of their encounter in Petrograd: Ashenden and Anastasia had an intense love affair in the past, though, at a time when she was already married to a Russian. But by the time they meet again in Petrograd the feelings of them both have cooled down. The American Harrington is faithfully married and devoted to his wife, but develops a peculiar fascination for Anastasia, and she seems rather fond of him too. Finally and just as inThe Quiet American, the woman is the main representative of her country – a country on the brink of a violent overthrow.

3.2. The Americans and The Spies

In comparing the men from both stories, the fundamental difference is that inAshendenthe spy is the one who is British while the civilian is American, whereas inThe Quiet Americanit is just the other way around. Yet in spite of this difference in their profession, both Americans are sharing a remarkable amount of characteristics and are being looked on by the British in a similar way. Before delineating these commonalities, their most obvious dissimilarity needs to be highlighted: The foremost character trait of Harrington is his talkativeness. It provides the basis for most of the humour in the episode's first chapter and causes the greatest annoyance to Ashenden. Harrington "talked as though it were a natural function of the human being, automatically, as men breathe or digest their food; he talked not because he had something to say, but because he could not help himself" (Maugham, 275). Evidently, thequietAmerican in Greene's novel does not share this feature. As already the book's title is pointing to this attribute, it seems to be understood as quite a peculiarity for an American. Accordingly, when Fowler is questioned by Vigot, the first description of Pyle runs:


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Comparing selected aspects of Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden or The British Agent" and Graham Greene's "The Quiet American"
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
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Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Spy Novel, Spionageroman, Der stille Amerikaner, The Quiet American, Ashenden, Vietnam, Spionage, Geheimagenten, Erster Weltkrieg, Russland, Vietnamkrieg, Oktoberrevolution, Kolonialismus, Postkolonialismus, colonialism, post-colonialism, Topic Spionage
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M.A. Sylvio Konkol (Author), 2013, Comparing selected aspects of Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden or The British Agent" and Graham Greene's "The Quiet American", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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