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The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Plot Summary

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Hana, a Canadian nurse, travels to Italy as part of the Sicilian invasion. She treats injured and dying soldiers, and she is psychologically and emotionally scarred as a result. She learns her beloved father, Patrick, has perished from burns in the war, and that he was left behind by the other troops to die in a dovecot—or dovecote, a shelter for domestic pigeons. Unable to save her father, she becomes the devoted caregiver to a burned man, known as the English patient. When the rest of the doctors and patients leave the makeshift hospital in a bombed villa outside of Florence as the Germans withdraw further north into Italy, Hana refuses to accompany them, claiming the English patient is too fragile to move. She remains to care for him.

The English Patient

The English patient is a Hungarian count named Almásy who spends the decade before the war on geographic expeditions in the Sahara. He meets Katharine, the wife of another explorer named Geoffrey Clifton, and the two have a passionate, but toxic affair. When Clifton finds out, he tries to kill all three of them by crashing his plane, but Clifton is the only one immediately killed. Katharine is injured, and the English patient carries her into a cave, where she dies after he is unable to return to her. He goes searching for help, walking for days across the desert, but British forces are suspicious, and cage him. The English patient goes on to become a spy for the Germans. Years later he returns to the cave, and to Katharine's corpse. He moves Katharine's body to the plane and takes off. Midair the plane catches fire and crashes, and the English patient suffers burns that make him unrecognizable. Bedouins rescue the English patient and treat his burns before he is eventually placed in a hospital where Hana becomes his nurse.


One-time Canadian thief turned Allied spy, Caravaggio is working undercover at a German party when his likeness is inadvertently captured on film. Trying to maintain his anonymity, he is caught retrieving the camera containing the image. The Germans torture him by cutting off his thumbs. He is an old friend of Hana and her father, and when he hears her name in the hospital where his hands are being treated, he asks her location. He makes his way to the villa to find her.


Kip is a young Indian man who trains in England to become a sapper—a soldier who disarms bombs—with an eccentric British teacher named Lord Suffolk. When Suffolk is killed by an explosion, Kip finds it too painful to remain in England and chooses to join the invasion in Italy. He risks his life daily to clear areas of bombs and to build bridges to replace those blown up by retreating Germans. Outside of Florence, Kip is drawn to the villa by the sound of a piano, played by Hana. He is worried the instrument might be mined.

At the Villa

Hana, the English patient, Caravaggio, and Kip create a makeshift family in the villa. Hana treats the English patient, and he shares his memories of the desert and of Katharine with each of them as they puzzle about his identity. Kip works in the surrounding area to clear out any bombs, and finds a few devices inside the crumbling villa. He and Hana begin an intimate relationship. Caravaggio is addicted to the morphine he raids from Hana's supply, which is intended to treat the English patient's pain. Thinking back on his knowledge of British intelligence, Caravaggio deduces the English patient's real identity. Plying him with morphine and alcohol, Caravaggio gets the English patient to confirm he is Almásy, but his identity doesn't really matter to anyone after all.

Kip hears reports over his radio of the Allied nuclear bombing of Japan, and he is devastated. Pointing a rifle at the English patient, Kip pours out his feelings of betrayal, rejecting the Western civilization in which he once had such faith. The others ask him to put down the gun, and he does. Distraught, Kip leaves the villa on a motorcycle, tearing across Italy. Years later, he becomes a doctor in India. He is married with children, but he still thinks about Hana. Hana never finds a caring community.

The English Patient Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The main characters are damaged by World War II.

Rising Action

2 The English patient has an affair with Katharine.

3 The English patient is burned in a plane crash.

4 Hana cares for the English patient in the villa.

5 Kip and Hana meet and have a relationship.

6 Caravaggio exposes the English patient as Almásy.


7 Kip confronts the English patient on the use of bombs.

Falling Action

8 Kip leaves the villa, feeling betrayed by the West.


9 Kip is a doctor back in India and thinks fondly of Hana.

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