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The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Context


The End of World War II: Africa, Italy, and Japan

World War II (1939–45), an international conflict, consisted of a series of battles between the Allies—Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), and later, the United States—and the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. After the Allied forces were initially defeated in France in 1940, Canada became involved in the war, joining with Allied forces under British leadership. By 1942 five divisions of Canadian troops arrived in England for deployment in Europe and Asia. This is how Canadian nurses, like the character Hana, came to serve on European battlefields. By 1941 Axis forces had succeeded in occupying much of Europe and some of northern Africa. Allied forces responded by invading mainland Europe and northwest Africa in hopes of freeing occupied countries from Axis control.

The English Patient is set in the final days of World War II, as the Allies drove the German army northward and out of Italy. The Allied landing on the west coast of northern Africa in July of 1942 began a nearly yearlong effort to push Germany off the continent. Axis forces threatened to invade Egypt—a British partner on the eastern portion of the continent—as well. By May 1943 the Allies defeated the German forces in northern Africa, forcing German troops to retreat to Sicily. The Allies then used the region of northern Africa as a staging ground for the successful invasion of Italy to the north, beginning with Sicily. Italy, one of the Axis powers, surrendered to Allied forces after Sicily fell and Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, their leader, resigned. Pushing the remainder of the Axis forces—namely Germany—out of Italy proved difficult because of the mountainous terrain and fortified hill towns in which German troops took refuge. In April 1945 the Germans—spread too thin between resisting the Allied forces to the west and the U.S.S.R. to the east—surrendered, and the war in Europe ended on May 8th, 1945.

Although the war was over in Europe once Germany surrendered, it continued to rage in the Pacific. Japan, the third and prominent member of the Axis, continued to challenge the Allied naval and ground forces until the historic use of atomic weapons by American bombers at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. For the character Kip—a young Indian sapper (military engineer) trained to disarm bombs—the Allied use of nuclear weapons shatters his faith in the benevolence of western civilization. The utter and unprecedented devastation caused by the atomic bomb—paired with a declaration of war on Japan by the U.S.S.R.—pushed the Japanese to surrender, and World War II came to a close on September 9, 1945.

Bombs and Landmines in World War II

Aerial bombing was widely used first in World War II. Aerial bombs are explosives encased in metal chambers dropped from airplanes that detonate before, on, or shortly after impact. The designs of these bombs evolved rapidly over the course of the war, as each side tried to gain an advantage over the other. Both the Allied and Axis forces made use of heavy aerial bombing throughout the war. It is estimated some 10 percent of bombs dropped failed to detonate and were left behind, buried in the earth. In the novel, Kip, an Indian sapper, works desperately to defuse one such bomb—called an "Esau"—deep in a muddy hole. Unexploded bombs pose a deadly threat in the novel, but they were a real threat to post–World War II life as well. At that time, land mines and unexploded bombs from World War II were still being discovered, often killing those who came across them unknowingly.

The use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the first time such bombs were deployed in warfare. Nuclear or atomic bombs—named for the way their fuel is produced (by splitting the nuclei of atoms)—are many times more powerful and destructive than other bombs. Such bombs are capable of destroying structures several miles from the initial detonation sites through powerful shockwaves emanating from them. Kip is horrified at the thought of the destruction such bombs inflict on the people of Japan.

Mines were another important weapon in World War II, used extensively by the Axis armies, mainly German. Land mines are placed underground and triggered by the weight of a vehicle or person to generate explosions of various forces. Antipersonnel mines, like the German S-mine, were triggered by as little as 15 pounds of weight, which launched the device a few feet into the air where it exploded, sending shrapnel in all directions. Some carefully set mines, like those described in the book, could be triggered by movements as small as picking up an object or opening a door. In the novel, Kip is extremely wary because of his experiences with such tricky and deadly devices. He finds and disarms several within the villa where he stays with the other main characters of the novel.

Setting and Character


The damaged Villa San Girolamo in which the four main characters of the novel gather is located in Tuscany, a region in west-central Italy. The region is made up of gentle hills and valleys, and it is bordered to the north and northeast by mountain ranges. In the novel, these mountains and the hill towns with ancient fortifications become refuges for fleeing German troops and barriers to Allied forces seeking to drive the Axis out of Italy at the end of the war. Tuscany is one of the most fertile areas in Italy, and much of the region is used as farmland. The pastoral beauty of the region of Tuscany provides a stark contrast to the death and destruction of war and the bombed villa itself.

North African Desert Geography and Exploration

The portion of the novel that describes the English patient's past is set mostly in the Sahara, the world's largest desert, stretching over three million square miles across North Africa. Desert terrain is characterized by vast expanses of sand in a dry, hot environment. Along with few rivers and oases, the Sahara includes a system of wadis, streams that fill occasionally in times of rainfall.

The Gilf Kebir region of the Sahara—the setting of the English patient's expeditions—is a plateau stretching across southwestern Egypt and into southeastern Libya. In southwestern Egypt, just near the Libyan border, the real count and spy Almásy discovered the Cave of Swimmers in the Gilf Kebir. The rock cave with Neolithic paintings on the walls—thought to be depictions of people swimming—is the shelter into which the English patient brings the wounded Katharine, his lover.

Records of exploration of the formidable Sahara date back as far the 5th century BCE. The English patient carries the Histories (c. 440 BCE) of the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, which include an account of the Berber exploration of the region. European exploration of the Sahara flourished in the 19th century, supported by colonization of the region that began with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's French invasion of Egypt (1798–1801). In the 1920s Belgian-French explorer Georges Marie Haardt and French explorer Louis Audouin-Dubreuil became the first to cross the Sahara by car. The fabled lost oasis of Zerzura, mentioned in the novel, inspired a number of explorations of the Gilf Kebir region in the 1930s, including one led by British explorer Ralph Bagnold, accompanied by the real Count Laszlo Almásy, who inspired the character of the English patient. Although no explorers succeeded in finding Zerzura, their expeditions increased knowledge of both the region and the most effective modern methods of travel and exploration of the area.

Count Laszlo Almásy

Laszlo Almásy was born into nobility in what is now Austria. He became a desert explorer in the 1930s bent on finding the elusive oasis of Zerzura, just like the English patient. In his search he surveyed much of the Sahara, discovering some notable cave paintings, similar to the ones described in the Cave of Swimmers. As in the novel, too, Almásy became a spy for the Nazis. His primary assignment of smuggling other spies through the desert utilized his knowledge of desert geography and terrain. Interestingly, Security Service (MI5) records released from the British National Archive portray him as a rather extravagant, bumbling agent. Contrary to his passionate affair with Katharine in the novel, it is widely believed the real Count Almásy was gay. He did not suffer terrible burns nor was he nursed in Italy as the novel portrays. In fact Almásy did not die until 1951, of dysentery.

In the Skin of a Lion

Although The English Patient (1992) is not strictly a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion (1987), Ondaatje extends the stories of several characters from his earlier novel here. In the Skin of a Lion follows the life of Patrick Lewis from his boyhood days in the backwoods of Canada to his life in the big city of Toronto. It includes his love affair with Clara Dickens, the mistress of a millionaire named Ambrose Small who disappears with her. Patrick later has a relationship with Alice Gull, a former nun—and mother to Hana—who introduces him to the radical, underground labor movement. Patrick befriends a thief named Caravaggio, and the two plot to sabotage a water plant under construction as a form of protest. Patrick becomes a father figure to Hana and later reunites with Clara after Alice's accidental death. The novel tells the stories of the immigrants who help build the infrastructure of the very country in which they are treated as outsiders. Hana and Caravaggio's stories extend into The English Patient when they are reunited at the villa outside of Florence. Hana writes to her stepmother, Clara, in mourning for her father, Patrick, who has recently died in the war.

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