The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 4 : South Cairo 1930–1938 | Summary

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Summary

Few Westerners were interested in the desert until the 19th century. Expeditions in the early 20th century were privately funded and reported about to the Geographical Society in London. The English patient describes the decade he spent exploring the desert in Libya—specifically the Gilf Kebir—first with camels and then later with cars. He remembers the sandstorms that threatened to bury them alive and the wadis filled with acacia trees he found in their search for Zerzura. Madox—a British explorer at the head of major expeditions in the Sahara—would later write a report for the Geographic Society on "several expeditions which have attacked the Gilf Kebir." The English patient's time in the desert inspired him to abandon his own name and national identity. He claims his ability to do so later made it easy for him to disappear when war came to the region, and his scorn for national identities is clear when he claims "Madox died because of nations."

On one expedition with Madox in 1936, a new explorer, Geoffrey Clifton, joined them, accompanied by his wife. The English patient fell in love with Mrs. Clifton's voice as she recited poetry around the campfire. He later showed her around Cairo, and as they danced, she seemed to study him. She asked him, "If I gave you my life, you would drop it, wouldn't you?" He doesn't deny it.

Analysis

In the fourth chapter, the author returns to the mystery of the English patient, offering more clues to his past. The fragments of information are like puzzle pieces, and readers begin to put together the pieces of his past. The English patient describes his time in the desert as an explorer in the 1930s. Readers will recall that the man was burned in the fire of a crashed plane in the desert, so this piece of his past seems to explain why he might have been in the desert, but not the existence of the airplane. The author also suggests that Clifton's wife will play an important role in the English patient's story, although readers are still unsure what this role might be. It does seem clear they had an adulterous affair. The author ends the chapter with her cryptic remark about giving him her life, suspecting he will drop it. This ending foreshadows what will follow in the next chapter.

The author reminds readers of the novel's epigraph, with more excerpts from the minutes of the Geographic Society. The epigraph finally makes sense. Readers now understand that the minutes from such meetings relay some events of which the English patient was a part. As readers recall, the epigraph mentioned the death of Clifton and the disappearance of his wife. The plot thickens as readers wonder what role the English patient may have had in their fates.

The theme of identity comes up again in this chapter. First, although readers learn more about the English patient as a desert explorer, his identity remains a mystery. Is his name among those listed for the expeditions? Is he speaking of himself in the third person at times? He claims that because of the desert, he developed the desire and ability to erase his family name and nation. Second, he implies that national identity is deadly, either because it fuels war or because war makes it so. He feels he has escaped to some extent because he erased his own. Madox did not, and he died. Without a family name or national identity, who is the English patient?

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