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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Quiz

How is the theme of nationality and nationhood expressed in the novel? Can nationality and ethnicity be transcended?

The idea of national identity is continually questioned in The English Patient. One way to answer this question would be to consider some of the characters' different nationalities, and how they respond to their nationality when placed in different situations. Almásy, for example, though Hungarian by birth, is educated in England. His speech and mannerisms are so shaped by his education that many people simply assume he is English. However, Almásy rejects all national identity, choosing to shed "the clothes of his country" in the desert, where nationality does not matter nearly as much as character. In wartime, however, national identity is of utmost importance, and Almásy's casual attitude towards national allegiances lands him in a great deal of trouble. To him, it does not seem wrong or unethical to help a German spy cross a desert—he sees the war as just a silly feud between nations. Despite his beliefs, the realities of the world outside press in on him, finding him even in the desert. Even when Almásy's identity is truly masked by his burns, nationality remained oppressive to him.

Nationality also plays a large role for Kip. Though born and raised in India, Kip chooses to join the British army to fight in World War II. Despite the fact that he puts his life on the line everyday to save English lives, he knows that the British still hold contempt for him because of his race. Most of the time, Kip tries to put this knowledge aside and dismiss the fears of his older brother. When the atomic bomb falls on Japan, however, Kip's worst fears are realized. He returns to India, embracing his nationality and his prescribed path, becoming a doctor in accordance with the custom of his family. In the end, neither Kip nor Almásy are able to transcend their nationality. The outside world presses into their sheltered environments and reinforces the label of national identity despite their efforts to shed it.

Describe the function of the body in the novel. How is the body used as a larger metaphor for the connection between people?

In The English Patient the body represents as a vessel for exploration into relationships between people and the larger issue of identity. The novel is replete with images of the body: Almásy's burned body, Kip's dark and lithe body, Katharine's willowy figure, and so on. Each description provides not only a window into each character's existence, but, more important, provides a map of that person's history. Almásy remembers the vaccination scar on Katharine's arm and immediately envisions her as a child getting a shot in a school gymnasium. Caravaggio looks at Hana's serious face and knows that she looks that way because of the experiences that have shaped her. Understanding the bodies of the different characters is a means of drawing maps, a way of getting closer to the experiences that have shaped‐and been shaped by—identity.

Bodies also function as a means of physical connection between people, tying individuals to certain times and places. When looking at instances of body imagery in the novel, it is important to pay close attention not only to the words used, but also to the reactions and observations of the other characters to the bodies of others.

How is adultery addressed in the novel? Do the characters feel shame about their adultery? Why or why not?

Though the love affair between Katharine and Almásy is illicit, this illicitness is not the primary focus of their relationship. Passion and obsession overwhelm them, causing them to block out the outside world and its rules of right and wrong. Almásy does sometimes have glimpses of the reality of his actions, and admits that he and Katharine are "sinners in a holy city." Nonetheless, he does not ever show remorse over their deception or betrayal of Geoffrey. Almásy cares only about possessing Katharine, and she alone occupies all his thoughts. Katharine shows a similar lack of regret for hurting her husband. When she finally breaks off the affair with Almásy, she cites the fact that "he won't ever change" and that Geoffrey will go mad. Aside from that admission, however, she does not seem to worry about the consequences of her adulterous liaisons. She, too, is largely overcome and overwhelmed by passion.

The adulterous nature of Almásy and Katharine's affair, then, is merely incidental to the nature of their love. Almásy does mention the fact that while he carries Herodotus—which includes a story of adultery—and sleeps with the wife of another man, Madox carries the famous adultery novel Anna Karenina yet remains perfectly faithful to his own wife. However, this observation is merely a note of irony that is added to the story. Such an incidental treatment of adultery reminds us that The English Patient is a product of 1992, not 1945. If the novel were written fifty years earlier, the adulterous nature of the affair would likely have figured as a much larger role. Ultimately, the incidental nature of the adultery sheds light on the form of the novel and on the characters themselves, emphasizing the self-centered nature of their attitude toward the betrayal they commit.

Suggested Essay Topics

How does the motif of reading in The English Patient inform the novel as whole?

Describe the role of the desert in the novel. How is this setting intertwined with the themes of the story?

We do not learn Hana's name until Chapter II, Kip's name until Chapter III, and Almásy's name until Chapter IX. Why might Ondaatje have chosen to withhold the names of the characters? What larger implications does this have regarding the characters' identities?

Which characters change throughout the course of the novel? Which ones remain static? What does this personal growth or stagnation reveal about the nature of each character?

Compare Kip to Caravaggio. How do their different emotional reactions to the war emphasize the different types of "humanity" that emerge in wartime?

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