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The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Symbols



Bombs represent the tremendous capacity of human intelligence for evil. Each bomb or mine is carefully designed to inflict the greatest damage possible, to cleverly and mischievously maim and kill the greatest number of people. Lord Suffolk likens disarming bombs to playing bridge, because the bomb maker and the sapper must anticipate each other's moves, like opponents across a table. Kip tries desperately to discover the "trick" of the bomb, and he learns that bomb makers often include a second gaine—an initiating charge—to explode an hour after the first is disarmed. As the war progresses, bomb designs are evolving to evade disarmer's attempts. The enemy uses their intelligence to devise more and more devious ways to kill, like a mine in a metronome, set to explode when the musician turns it on. In the novel, bombs encapsulate the use of human intelligence, playfulness, and creativity for a deadly, evil purpose.

The Villa

The villa symbolizes the destruction of the war on the main characters. It has been bombed by the enemy and is missing entire sections of its roof and walls. Some of its damage isn't immediately visible. Hana can walk down the hallway as she might in a normal house, only to open a door and find herself looking out at the garden through a filthy room with the exterior wall blown away. The villa is crumbling in places, and the elements leave damp beds and corners strewn with leaves. The villa also contains unseen dangers. It has been mined, so it could be deadly at any moment, not unlike the capacity in the main characters to turn on one another in pain given the right circumstances—as Kip does when he points the rifle at the English patient. After the war, the villa is "in near ruins," as are its residents. The villa isn't really habitable anymore, and, by extension, the characters' lives here are clearly temporary. Yet they stay, perhaps because it reflects their own state so well, or perhaps because they wish to make it work to prove they can go on despite their own damaged states.

Kip's Turban

Kip's turban represents difference. The turban is a visible mark of a Sikh's identity as a Sikh, and a covering for the person's long hair. When Kip and Hardy first enter the villa at night, Hana is initially alarmed to see two soldiers with guns in the room. She immediately relaxes when she notices Kip's turban. She recognizes it an identifier of a Sikh, an Indian man. Readers can deduce that Indians are Allies. Kip's turban identifies him mostly as "other," however. He is different from those around him. The turban distances him. In the novel, he removes his turban only once, with Hana when they wash their hair. This removal of his turban shows the intimacy between Kip and Hana and her respect of his identity both as a man and as a Sikh.


Books symbolize a way forward for Hana. She nails together books from the library to replace a missing step in the stairwell, giving her literal footing for upward movement. But books also represent a metaphorical stepping stone. They are a way to reach other worlds. Through her reading, Hana is able to escape her trauma and the bleakness of her current surroundings. In the villa's library, Hana "fell upon books as the only door out of her cell." She spends nearly all her days immersed in stories she reads to herself and to the English patient. Stacked in the corner of his room are books "whose landscapes they have already walked through." To Hana, books represent the safety to explore and experience more than her immediate surroundings, rather than remain stuck in the pain and brokenness of her life.

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