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The English Patient

  • Study Guide

Chapter I

Summary Chapter I


Ondaatje takes full advantage of the possibilities of narrating in different tenses, alternating between present and past, changing tenses as he changes scenes. The novel uses flowing transitions to move from present action to flashback, mirroring real action and remembrance in smooth movement of prose. Such transitions and tense changes effectively put us in the position of outside observers peering into a scene. We do not know what has happened in the past and are not given any explanations for what we see, but things are explained to us little by little. Ondaatje's use of tense creates the illusion of a continuous reality, a past that is in line with a present—in fact, inseparable from it.

The descriptiveness and lyricism of Chapter I are especially notable. The account of the patient's burned body and the Italian villa are detailed and realistic. Religious allusions are frequently in these passages: the nurse thinks her patient's hipbones are like the "[h]ipbones of Christ"; the Bedouin medicine man uses his oils to "anoint" the patient, much like John the Baptist and the baptism of Christ; and the patient thinks the figure of the medicine man looks like the drawings of the archangels he had tried to copy in school. Christianity permeates the minds of these characters, though they often choose to put it aside to deal with the realities of war. The nurse, who places the practicalities of survival before her religion, uses a crucifix to make a scarecrow for her garden. This image of the 'crucified scarecrow' is in great contrast to the religious images that have come before it. While the former images heighten the tone of the events, the latter brings the situation back into reality, making a point about the place of religion in war.