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The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Chapter I

Themes

Nationality and Identity

Nationality and identity are interconnected in The English Patient, functioning together to create a web of inescapable structures that tie the characters to certain places and times despite their best efforts to evade such confinement. Almásy desperately tries to elude the force of nationality, living in the desert where he creates for himself an alternate identity, one in which family and nation are irrelevant. Almásy forges this identity through his character, his work, and his interactions with others. Importantly, he chooses this identity rather than inheriting it. Certain environments in the novel lend credence to the idea that national identity can be erased. The desert and the isolated Italian villa function as such places where national identity is unimportant to one's connection with others. Kip, who becomes enmeshed in the idea of Western society and the welcoming community of the villa's inhabitants, even dismisses his hyperawareness of his own racial identity for a time.

Ultimately, however, the characters cannot escape from the outside reality that, in wartime, national identity is prized above all else. This reality invades Almásy's life in the desert and Kip's life in the Italian villa. Desperate for help, Almásy is locked up merely because his name sounds foreign. His identity follows him even after he is burned beyond recognition, as Caravaggio realizes that the "English" patient is not even English. For Kip, news of the atomic bomb reminds him that, outside the isolated world of the villa, western aggression still exists, crushing Asian people as Kip's brother had warned. National identity is, then, an inescapable part of each of the characters, a larger force over which they have no control.

Love's Ability to Transcend Time and Place

One theme that emerges in the novel is that love, if it is truly heartfelt, transcends place and time. Hana feels love and connection to her father even though he has died alone, far from her in another theater of war. Almásy desperately maintains his love for Katharine even though he is unable to see her or reach her in the cave. Likewise, Kip, despite leaving Italy to marry in India, never loses his connection to Hana, whom he imagines thirteen years later and halfway across the world. Such love transcends even death, as the characters hold onto their emotions even past the grave. This idea implies a larger message—that time and place themselves are irrelevant to human connection. We see this especially in Almásy's connection to Herodotus, whose writings he follows across time through the desert. Maps and geography become details, mere artificial lines that man imposes on the landscape. It is only the truth in the soul, which transcends time, that matters in the novel.

Motifs

Bodies

The frequent recurrence of descriptions of bodies in the novel informs and develops its themes of healing, changing, and renewal. The text is replete with body images: 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 that character's existence; more importantly, it provides a map of that person's history. Almásy remembers the vaccination scar on Katharine's arm and immediately knows 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 way to draw maps, to get closer to the experiences which have shaped and been shaped by identity. Bodies thus function as a means of physical connections between characters, tying them to a certain times and places.

Dying in a Holy Place

The characters in the novel frequently mention the idea of "dying in a holy place." Katharine dies in a cave, a holy place to ancient people. Patrick, Hana's father, also dies in a holy place, a dove-cot, a ledge above a building where doves can be safe from predatory rats. Madox dies in a holy place by taking his life in a church in England. This idea recurs throughout the nvoel, but the meaning of "holy place" is complex. It does not signify a place that is 'holy' to individual people: Katharine hates the desert, Patrick hates to be alone, and Madox loses his faith in the holiness of the church. None of these characters, then, die in a location that is special to them. But the figurative idea of a 'holy place' touches on the connection between actual places and states of emotion in the novel. Emotionally, each of these characters died in a "holy place" by remaining in the hearts of people who love them. In The English Patient, geography is transcendent; it is the sacredness of love that endures.

Reading

Reading is recurs throughout the novel in various forms and capacities: Hana reads to Almásy to connect with him and try to make him interested in the present life, Katharine reads voraciously to learn all she can about Cairo and the desert, and Almásy consistently reads The Histories by Herodotus to guide him in his geographical searches. In each of these instances of reading, the characters use books to inform their own lives and to connect to another place or time. Reading thus becomes a metaphor for reaching beyond oneself to connect with others. Indeed, it is Katharine's reading of the story in Herodotus that makes Almásy fall in love with her. Books are used to pass secret codes, as in the German spy's copy of Rebecca. In their interactions with books, the characters overlay the stories of their own lives onto the tales of the books, constructing multi-dimensional interactions between persons and objects.

Symbols

The Atomic Bomb

The atomic bomb the United States drops on Japan symbolizes the worst fears of western aggression. The characters in the novel try to escape the war and all its horrors by remaining with the English patient in a small Italian villa in the hills. Staying close to the patient, they can immerse themselves in his world of the past rather than face the problems of the present. The atomic bombs rip through this silence of isolation, reawakening the characters, especially Kip, to the reality of the outside world pressing in upon them. The bomb reminds them of the foolishness and power of nation-states and reminds them of the violability of their enclosed environment.

The Italian villa

In Chapter II, Hana reflects to herself that "there seemed little demarcation between house and landscape." Such an organic depiction of the villa is symbolically important to the novel. Straddling the line between house and landscape, building and earth, the villa represents both death and rebirth. War has destroyed the villa, making huge holes in walls and ceilings. But nature has returned to fill these holes, replacing the void with new life. Such an image mirrors the spiritual death and rebirth of the villa's inhabitants, the way they learn to live again after the emotional destruction of war.

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