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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje

Chapter IX

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX, page 2

page 1 of 3

The English patient talks about "how one falls in love." He tells about the first time he ever saw Katharine, as she was emerging from a plane. She was too eager for his taste, and her husband Geoffrey, still in the flush of honeymoon, could not stop singing the praises of his new wife. After a month in Cairo, Katharine was more muted, reading constantly, but her husband was still young and excited. The English patient was fifteen years older than Katharine, and cynical about everlasting love. She was hungry for change, however: she learned everything she could read about the desert, and she grew up quickly.

Geoffrey's praise meant very little to Katharine, but she was charmed by the English patient's nuance. When she asked if she could read his Herodotus, he gracefully declined to give it to her, as his notes were in it. But he promised to show it to her when he returned from his journey. When he did return from the journey, which had been successful, Geoffrey threw a party for him. Before the party, he loaned Katharine his Herodotus to read as she pleased.

At the party, Katharine chose to read a famous story from Herodotus, but one the English patient usually skips over. It was the story of a very beautiful queen whose husband, the king, praised her beauty all the time. The king was telling a man named Gyges of his wife's beauty, but she was so beautiful that the king wanted Gyges to see for himself. So he arranged for Gyges to sneak into her room and hide in order to watch her while she undressed. The queen saw Gyges sneak out of her room and realized what her husband had done. The next day, she called for Gyges and offered him one of two options: either to slay his friend the king and thus possess her and the kingdom, or to stand there and be slain immediately. Gyges kills the king and reigns with the queen for twenty-eight years. After Katharine finishes this anecdote, which seems quite human and familiar, the English patient realizes he is in love with her.

In the months that followed, the patient and Katharine would be in the same company frequently, as they traveled in similar circles. She and Geoffrey were stationed in Cairo and moving in the circles of the city's society. The pateient would go to events just to see her, and could think of little besides her body, which became the inspiration for one of his books. Naturally, he grew more formal around her, as he did not want her to know of his secret thoughts. One day, at a formal garden party, Katharine came to him and said simply, "I want you to ravish me." After that, the English patient became her lover, and they would steal glances and touches everywhere. The only person they had to avoid was Geoffrey. However, Geoffrey was enmeshed in the circle of British aristocracy, and had a strong web of relations who watched out for him and would let him know if they ever found out about his young wife's infidelity.

Katharine became frustrated at what she called the patient's "inhumanity," his hatred of ownership, of identity, of being owned. She needed words to convince her that she was special to him, but he had none for her. She decided to leave him and go back to her husband.

The English patient remembers Madox, his best friend in the desert for ten years. Madox could describe his love of the desert in words, whereas the patient could only write factually about the environment around him. The two friends were different in many ways. Madox, for one thing, was entirely faithful to his wife in England. The English patient never knew for certain whether Madox knew about his relationship with Katharine, but he suspected he did. When Madox returned to England at the start of the war in 1939, he and his wife went to church, where they heard a very jingoistic sermon from the priest in support of the war. Madox took out his desert pistol and shot himself right on the spot. The patient reasons that Madox was a man who died because of nations.

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