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The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 5 : Katharine | Summary



Katharine Clifton knew members of the expedition were irritated at her arrival with her husband. The first sexual thoughts she had toward the English patient were spurred by a nightmare from which she awoke screaming. In the dream, he had been strangling her during sex. She disliked him most of the time, wanting to slap him, although "she realized even that was sexual." Before an expedition to find Zerzura, he dropped her off at a hotel in Cairo, swiping his sweaty arm across her neck, leaving a trail that reminded her of blood.

The two began a sexual relationship, although Katharine worried about her husband finding out and going insane. Her lover asked her what she hated the most. She said she hated lies, and she won't lie about their sexual relationship. He said what he hates most is "ownership." She punched him in the eye. It was the first of many injuries she inflicted upon him, including jabbing him with a fork and smashing a plate over his head. She sneers at him condescendingly when he lies about his injuries to the others, even suggesting to her husband that the scratches might have been made by a woman. In public, she treats him coldly. Although she had "disassembled" him, he can't stay away from her. She eventually ended their relationship. On their last night together, he walked away, only to walk back to tell her he didn't miss her yet. She told him he will.


The author paints a portrait of the toxic relationship between the English patient and Katharine in this chapter—it may not seem that way to the English patient, but their relationship seems tumultuous and disturbing from the outside. The relationship breaks down the English patient. He said his love for Katharine "disassembled" him. Although she dreams of him choking her, the only physical abuse in the relationship begins with her. She punches him, throws things at him, and stabs him with a fork, responding with disdain when he tries to make excuses to others who notice his scars. Nonetheless, he keeps coming back for more, all while refusing to commit. She claims to hate lies most of all, while sneaking around behind her husband's back. He claims to hate ownership, while it is hard to describe her power over him in any other terms. He had fallen in love with her voice alone months before. The author offers the juxtaposition of the English patient's enduring love for Katharine with the disturbing nature of their interactions, complicating the idea of romance.

Katharine's last words to the English patient prophecy his future. She tells him he will miss her. It seems to be all he has done since they parted. Readers will soon learn that missing her sealed the English patient's tragic, fate as well as hers and her husband's.

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