The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 1 : The Villa | Summary



A young nurse and a burn victim live in the Villa San Girolamo, which had been first a nunnery, then a stronghold for the German army, and finally an Allied hospital. The villa had been damaged by a mortar attack that created gaping holes and sheared off portions of the outside walls and roof. The Germans left the building mined, so the ruined villa contains unknown dangers. Still, the nurse insists on remaining in the building with her patient when the other medical staff and patients evacuate.

The 20-year-old nurse prefers to care for her single patient, unconcerned about the danger, free to recover from "what had happened to her during the war," and to make her own rules. She is done with being ordered to "carry out duties for the greater good." She has taken down all the mirrors in the villa and escapes into the stories in books from the villa's library, often reading aloud to her patient. Books also serve another practical purpose—to repair the missing stairs of the villa. The nurse nails them in stacks to create a new step. She has planted vegetables outside and trades items left in the villa for other things they need. The nurse cares for the burned man, whom she thinks of as "her despairing saint" with "the hipbones of Christ," carefully washing his body every four days.

The nurse asks the patient about his identity, mentioning that he had said he was English. His body is badly burned, and he recalls the time he spent in the desert after he fell burning from the sky. At times, he didn't even know his own identity. The Bedouins rescued him and cared for his wounds. He remembers a medicine man who wore a coat of small bottles filled with all manner of ingredients he mixed between his feet. The patient's captors and caregivers kept him alive for the information he could give them from his encyclopedic knowledge of the geography of the area and his ability to recognize weapons and ammunition by touch. He believes his captors are water people and recalls all the evidence that this area of the desert was once a lake, including cave paintings of swimmers. The patient keeps by his bedside a copy of Herodotus, into which he has glued excerpts from other texts, as well as his own writing and drawings.


The author throws readers into the middle of a story without much explanation, introducing them to the theme of identity, and the nonlinear narrative format of the novel, which shifts unpredictably in perspective between the characters. Readers learn pieces here and there about the nurse and the burn victim, but the author intentionally creates more questions than answers about who the two may be, and how they ended up together. Along with readers, the nurse questions the identity of the burned man. The nonlinear narrative format perfectly serves this mystery, as readers don't know the history of either of the main characters and must gather clues from seemingly random memories and experiences of the two in the villa.

The story shifts from the villa to the time the English patient spent with Bedouins in the desert, and back again. It shifts perspectives as well, keeping readers wondering whose perspective the sections of text belong to. Sometimes readers see what the nurse is doing, and sometimes what the English patient experiences or recalls. At other times the text cannot easily be assigned, like the section about the many types of winds. Readers must infer that this is part of the burned man's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the desert.

The first chapter of the novel also introduces the symbol of books. Certainly, books show up enough to be considered a motif, but the author makes it clear that the books represent something more than just stories. To the young nurse, books are an escape, a refuge from the trauma of war. Hiding in the villa, caring for her lone patient, she can step into a safe world of books, as though escaping a prison cell. She literally uses books to navigate her daily life when she nails them together to rebuild a missing step. She turns to books for her salvation. The English patient's book is a record of his accumulated knowledge. It holds all the different pieces of his experiences and his learning. It is a repository of his life.

One of the motifs in the novel is religious imagery. It recurs throughout the novel but is especially plentiful in the first chapter. Readers should note that much of the religious language and imagery in this first chapter refers to the English patient. The nurse washes his body at regular intervals, like a ritual, almost worshipfully, referring to him as "her despairing saint." His scarred body, with the "hipbones of Christ," reminds her of a crucifix. The English patient recalls his time with Bedouins using religious imagery too, thinking of the way they cared for his burns and anointing him with oil, just as Samuel anointed King David to identify him as God's chosen leader for Israel.

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