The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 3 : Sometime a Fire | Summary



The Sikh is Kirpal Singh, nicknamed "Kip" by the English officer who guessed the butter stain on his report came from kipper grease. Kip had initially been drawn to the villa out of concern that the person playing the piano might be blown up by a mined metronome. Kip had been clearing bombs and mines and was in the process of rebuilding bridges following the German retreat northward through Italy. Sappers, as they were known, risked their lives daily, sleeping wherever they could find shelter, often in churches. Kip once found great comfort in a fresco of the Queen of Sheba he saw in a church and found himself desiring. Around the villa, Kip works to clear the area of mines and bombs. He sleeps in a tent outside, entering the villa only when invited and providing his own food. Hana is relieved by Kip's self-sufficiency. His second-in-command, Sam Hardy, often works with him, and stays near the village. Kip is young and energetic, constantly humming American music. He talks bombs with the English patient. One day Kip yells for help when, while working on a difficult bomb, he accidentally finds himself holding two live wires. Hana holds the wires while he successfully defuses the bomb. He is relieved, but she says she wishes she had died with him. She asks him to hold her while she sleeps.

Hana tells Caravaggio that she had been pregnant about a year previously. Although she had been talking to the baby daily, when her lover was killed she ended her pregnancy. She had been surrounded by dying men, and those who were alive lusted for her. One man called her a bitch on his deathbed. Her defense was to withdraw. She "stepped so far back no one could get near." That was when she met the English patient. She reads to him from Kim. It strikes her that they are a reversed version of the novel's premise, in which Kip is the Indian child mentored by the older English patient. Then she reflects that she is more like the boy, and Kip like Officer Creighton.

Caravaggio has avoided emotional intimacy and dependence all his life. He is used to disguises, although he feels there is nowhere to hide inside the villa, where "they were shedding skins," forced to be "nothing but what they were." He is still stealing things, including Hana's supply of morphine, wine, and a gramophone. One evening he dances with Hana in the English patient's room to the music of the gramophone, while Kip sits by the window. They hear a muffled explosion, but Kip assures them it is nothing. It is, in fact, a bomb that kills Hardy. Hana knows Kip is lying to protect them. Shaken by Hardy's death, Kip reaches out to Hana for comfort, clipping the English patient's hearing aid wires so he will not overhear them. Hana and Kip begin a sexual relationship.


The author offers Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim as a foil to his own novel, suggesting insights into the characters' relationships. Kim is Kipling's tale of a young boy, an orphaned son of an Irish soldier, who is raised in India and mentored by an old Indian man. His talent is identified by an officer named Creighton, who gets Kim on the fast track to the secret service. Hana initially thinks the story relates to the characters around her in the villa. But instead of a young Irish boy tutored by an older Indian man, an Indian boy—Kip—gives his wisdom to an older English man. Hana then reconsiders, placing herself in the role of Kim and Kip as officer Creighton. This suggests that she thinks Kip sees some sort of potential in her that he can nurture, a curious inference that should get readers thinking about the role Kip plays in Hana's life and the effect he has on her.

Death is interwoven throughout this chapter. Readers learn death is responsible for Hana's withdrawal. She has been overwhelmed by the deaths of so many soldiers under her care—as readers recall from the previous chapter—but this chapter describes those deaths in a more personal way. One soldier cursed her as he lay dying. Hana has lost not only her father to death but also her lover. Hana eventually admits that she is responsible for the death of her unborn child. In light of the trauma of her experiences, her own death would almost come as a relief, something she confesses to Kip after he defuses the bomb whose wires she holds in her hands. The next bomb to explode kills Kip's friend and fellow sapper, Sam Hardy. Hana perceives instantly the truth Kip tries to keep from her. Sadly, while death first caused Hana to withdraw from men and from life, it is Hardy's death that nudges Kip toward her, initiating their intimacy.

In this chapter, the author introduces the fourth and final main character of the novel, Kip. He is an energetic but reserved young man with great skills. In his job and his personal habits, he is meticulous. He too has been exposed to the trauma and destruction of war, and it has left him seeking comfort, which he finds mutually with Hana. Kip is concerned for the welfare of others and takes time to build relationships with each of the villa's residents. He is Indian, and readers will learn more about how he came to work for the Allies and train in England in coming chapters.

The theme of identity recurs in this chapter. The revelations about Hana's past and her tender new relationship with Kip and Caravaggio's own struggle with emotional commitment tell readers more about who the characters are. Caravaggio recognizes that the closeness of the villa provides no space for disguises. Each of them is forced to show who they really are, "shedding their skins." The theme of identity, begun as a mystery about the English patient, now extends to the other characters. Hana at first seemed to be a shell-shocked young nurse with psychological and emotional issues, but now she seems more of a vulnerable, despairing saint offering herself to Kip. Caravaggio seemed at first to be a mischievous spy whose exploits had caught up to him in an unfortunate way, but readers now suspect he is a drug addict who has never had a trusting relationship. In coming chapters, the author will continue to develop and complicate the identities of the main characters.

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