The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient | Themes



Ondaatje is known for weaving all manner of texts into his novels, blurring the lines between fact and fiction and between narrative and myth. This novel includes quotations from, and references to, other novels, like Kim (by English writer Rudyard Kipling, 1901), The Last of the Mohicans (by American writer James Fenimore Cooper, 1826), Lorna Doone (by English writer R.D. Blackmore, 1869), and Anna Karenina (by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, 1877). It also includes the historical writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and from within it the story of Candaules, king of Lydia. Ondaatje also brings in songs and excerpts from textbooks and meeting minutes. The novel includes a plethora of texts—some real, some created by the author—that contribute to the richness of the novel.

Texts play significant roles in the lives of the characters in the novel. Some texts are informative, like the excerpt from Kip's textbook on the components of bombs, or the geographical descriptions of Herodotus. These texts then become part of the characters who read them, as Katharine is said to have "consumed all her reading." The English patient claims people are "communal histories, communal books." Texts also provide alternative realities for characters. Hana places herself within the text of Rudyard Kipling's Kim. She reimagines the story of Kim, with herself in the role of Kim, and tries to determine what role Kip might play in it. Katharine looks to a text as "a window to her life." In the story of Candaules, she identifies with a young queen who claims power over the men who desire her and shapes her own destiny. Through the text, Katharine is able to imagine a new path her life might take.

Interestingly, not only do texts inform characters and impact their choices, but characters alter texts themselves. The English patient fashions his copy of Herodotus into a commonplace book, similar to a journal or scrapbook. It becomes his "holy book" into which he has put "whatever he had loved." He has cut and pasted other texts into the pages, and added his own notations, records, and drawings. This text, within the novel, is itself intertextual. Hana too adds to texts. She takes books off the shelf in the villa's library, and writes on blank pages about her own life, as well as information she has learned from Kip and the English patient. Throughout the novel, texts are juxtaposed and intermingled, creating a tapestry of stories.

Destructiveness of War

War is a destructive force on several levels, the most visible being the damage to places, structures, and bodies. Kip works to replace all the bridges the Germans have destroyed in their retreat. Cities are booby-trapped with bombs, making many areas uninhabitable. The villa is missing sections of its roof and walls so that some rooms are littered with leaves and debris. Kip can only imagine "the streets of Asia full of fire" from the atomic bombs. The physical damage to places and buildings mirrors the damage war does to bodies. In the extreme heat of the nuclear explosions in Japan, Kip imagines "withering bodies." Hana sees so many soldiers arrive at the hospital missing portions of their bodies, some burned or with wounds being eaten by worms. The gore she witnesses leaves her numb. Caravaggio's "paws" for hands are a reminder of the lasting physical loss he can never fully hide. War's destruction is obvious and unmistakable.

However, war has destructive powers that are less visible. The dead may be the most visible example of destruction, but they cease to be visible once they are buried or blown apart. Patrick is simply gone, as are Lord Suffolk, Mrs. Morton, and so many others. But war also causes psychological and emotional scars. Hana is described as shell-shocked. She is withdrawn and traumatized. She recognizes the same symptoms in Kip when he speaks of the bomb exploding at Erith, which killed his mentor.

Looking back over his experiences, the English patient believes loyalty to nations has created the war and all of its destruction. He blames nationalism, seeing it as the ultimate cause of the destructiveness of war. He believes his friend Madox has died because of nationalism, and "people betray each other for the sake of nations." He wishes to "Erase nations!" The greatest example of war's destructive capabilities in the novel is the advent of nuclear warfare. It is described as the end of Western civilization. It destroys more than just Kip's faith in the goodness of the West. It is the end of any pretense of benevolence, or good intentions, toward the world by the West. The use of nuclear weapons is "the death of a civilization."


The novel centers on the mystery of the English patient's identity. His burns prevent physical identification, and he refuses to reveal his name to interrogators. As readers learn more about his experiences, they learn that the motivation behind such evasion is more than a desire to distance himself from any suspected misdeeds during the war. In his time in the desert, the English patient developed a wish to "erase the family name" and to disassociate himself from nations, which he blames for the war and for the death of his friend Madox. He wants to have no identity, no family name, and refuses to be owned—which he tells Katharine is what he hates most.

Caravaggio carefully pieces together details he learns from the English patient. With information he was privy to during the war, he is able to deduce the man's identity. Hana is skeptical, pointing out that the end of the war makes his identity irrelevant. At first, Caravaggio is eager to manipulate the burn victim into confirming his suspicions, plying him with morphine and alcohol, but the English patient's confirmation of his identity as Almásy is anticlimactic. Although Caravaggio knows the truth of the man's identity at last, he doesn't even bother to tell Hana but allows her to reassert her conviction that he is English. It seems the burned man's name and nationality are insufficient to define his identity. The man's identity as the English patient—rather than Almásy—is more apt because it encapsulates the stories he has told while under Hana's care in the villa about how he has come to be there. His identity at the villa is more real than the one he has shed.

The villa has a way of revealing the real identities of all its residents. In close proximity, in the vulnerable period after the trauma of the war, "they were shedding skins." Kip is safe to be himself and shows that he cares for Hana and her safety. Hana, too, is a new person. Caravaggio recognizes that she is a more mature woman, a survivor who has chosen her own character. As a spy, Caravaggio had been surrounded by lies and made-up characters, but now in the villa, he finds "they could imitate nothing but what they were."

Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality

Ondaatje explores the theme of race primarily through Kip's experiences as an Indian in Europe. He is the only main character of color, and he stands out, not only because of the numerous references to his brown skin, but also because of his turban. In this way, Kip, as an Indian and as a Sikh, is very much the "other" in the novel. Against his brother's warnings, Kip enlists in the British army. He experiences racism in the form of women limiting their conversation with him and fellow soldiers avoiding social interactions after work. He suspects he would earn a position with Lord Suffolk easily if it were not for his race, thinking irritably how readily the British expect Indians to die for them, but how reluctant they are to talk to one. In this case, his suspicions of racism are proven false. He does encounter racism in his work as a sapper, however. Although Sam Hardy readily calls him "sir," other soldiers are slow to follow suit. After Kip heroically risks his life to disarm the Esau bomb, a crowd of onlookers sees him only as a "slight brown man." As a man of color, Kip grows accustomed to being an "anonymous member of another race."

Race is revisited on a much larger scale in the novel's climax. As a person of color, Kip identifies with the Japanese. When he learns of the Allied nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he is enraged. He feels betrayed in that the West—for whom he has left his own country and risked his life—is "bombing the brown races of the world." Caravaggio confirms that the Allies "would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation." Kip returns to his own people in India, and Hana loses her lover. The racism and betrayal of the nuclear attacks divide the characters and brings the novel to a close.

Questions for Themes

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