The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Chapter 8 : The Holy Forest | Summary



When Caravaggio accidentally knocks a fuse box off a counter, Kip dives to catch it just in time, breaking into relieved laughter. Caravaggio tells a story about being tricked by an Indian family into trying on a sarong—a type of skirt—during a robbery. Hana notes that Caravaggio has always been "diverted by the human element during burglaries." He is inadvertently pulled into a game with Hana and Kip as they play hide-and-seek late one night. Hana knows Caravaggio is lying on the floor of the library and uses him as a decoy to trick Kip, who mistakes Caravaggio for Hana, tackling him. Caravaggio is angry, leaving the two young people to their game. He realizes he is in love with the woman Hana has become "because she was made up of nothing he had provided."

Kip recalls a tense day in 1941 when he disarmed a huge Esau bomb with a new type of fuse. He was alone in a pit in the cold mud, embracing the bomb as he worked to freeze the fuse with liquid oxygen. Hardy assisted him from the top of the pit, readily calling him "sir," although other soldiers hesitated to do so. Kip's colleague, Captain Carlyle, had attempted the same technique on a similar bomb, only to be engulfed in flame when the explosive ignited the gas in the pit. Kip made a mistake by breaking off the fuse head. Not knowing how much time remained before the bomb detonated, he ordered Hardy away from the mouth of the hole, but Hardy stayed. Kip carefully chiseled away at the bomb, trying to reach the rest of the fuse before it defrosted. He was barely able to reach the wires but finally defused the bomb. Hardy pulled Kip out of the pit and embraced him. Onlookers stared at Kip, "the Indian ... the slight brown man" without shoes, exhausted from his efforts. Kip felt "only Hardy ... keeps me human now."

On warm days, Kip and Hana wash their hair. Hana enjoys Kip's long hair, free from the turban. Kip tells Hana that his brother thinks he is foolish to trust the English. Kip has truly "assumed English fathers, following their codes like a dutiful son." As close as they are, Hana doubts Kip knows the color of her eyes. For a month, they sleep next to each other without having sex, learning to enjoy "the idea of him or her." They take pleasure in the intimate gesture of scratching each other's back. It reminds Kip of his "ayah" back in India, a hired woman whom he loved more than anyone, and to whom he felt closer than any of his family.


The author explores the idea of love, using three examples in this chapter. Caravaggio, who had known Hana as a girl, realizes he has fallen in love with her now as a woman. What he loves most about her is that she has created the person she is now. He believes she has become a woman to whose identity he has contributed nothing. It is the love of a man who is averse to commitment. It stands to reason that if he loves the fact that he has not formed her personality in any way, she does not need him. He is free to love her from afar without risking her expecting anything from him in return.

The love between Kip and Hana, on the other hand, is expressed, if not often in words, then in physical affection. They abstain from sex for a time in order to love "the idea of him or her" and show tenderness in other ways. There is something held back in their love, however. Hana doubts if Kip even knows her eye color. The final example of love is perhaps the purest. It is the love of a parent and child. Kip's "ayah" was like a mother to him, and he loves her more than any other person. This is the only example of love in the chapter in which there is no reservation.

In this chapter readers also learn the story of the relationship between Kip and Hardy through Kip's memory of diffusing the Esau bomb, thus shedding light on the significance of Hardy's death in an earlier chapter. Hardy had been one of the few soldiers who worked under Kip who called him "sir" without hesitation. Hardy risks his own life to return to the mouth of the pit to assist Kip. The two men are very close emotionally. Hardy embraces Kip, and Kip thinks of Hardy as the only person who keeps him sane. Readers can better understand now what it meant to Kip to find out about the death of Hardy earlier in the novel. His reaction to reach out to Hana for support is seen even more poignantly as a result of this knowledge.

The author returns to the theme of race in this chapter. Soldiers under Kip have a problem with his authority because of his race, hesitating to call him "sir." After he heroically defuses the bomb, onlookers see him only as "the Indian ... the slight brown man," rather than the man who has saved their lives. This will remind readers of Kip's thoughts earlier in the novel about the English expecting Indians to risk their lives for them but still refusing to speak to them.

The episode of the Esau bomb is a master class in suspense. The author isolates the hero in a dangerous situation. He uses sensory details to portray the obstacles the hero faces, in this case freezing liquid oxygen, sticky mud, and cold, hard metal. He includes the story of another person who has tried the same thing and gone up in flames, literally, in order to make the danger real to readers. The author increases suspense and pressure on the hero with the unpredictability of the bomb, which could blow up at any moment, but also with the race against the clock once the fuse head breaks off and the metal begins to defrost.

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