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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
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.
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 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The English Patient!