Ondaatje's The English Patient: Identity, Body, and Impressionism

"If ever there was a deus ex machina of our generation it was The Bomb. So how do you evoke that in a book? I thought about this a lot, actually. I thought about it a lot since I wrote it, because a lot of people have real problems with that scene. Some people think it's the essential scene, some people can say it's not. I was trying to convey that a public act like this does f--- up people utterly. It is what happens to Almasy as well. So, in a way, it's a kind of parallel story about fate. "--Ondaatje, Interview

"Hana's alone in male world, that's the central tension [. . .] She's surrounded by male history, the war, Hiroshima."--Ondaatje, Interview



The four main lives of the book--Hana, Caravaggio, The English Patient (Almásy), and Kip--each have their own story to tell. Their plots intersect with each other, often without clearly explaining why. Is one story in particular at the center of the book? Which one?
  1. How does the novel emulate the strengths and weaknesses of memory?
  2. Do the fragments of the various stories come together in any holistic way? If so, what is included? What is left out?
  3. How does the shape of the villa reflect the shape of the characters' lives? (cf. 13,
  4. How are national and ethnic identity played off of in the novel? How are they called into question? Are they finally denied or reaffirmed? Both?
  5. How does the youth of Kip and Hana compare and contrast with the old age of the Patient and Caravaggio? (120-123)
  6. Explain how sadness, grief, shellshock, and numbness express themselves in each character? (e.g. 41, 45)
  7. How is silence an essential element for each character?
  8. Why, according to Hana, is rest "receiving without judgment"? (49) Is she correct?
  9. Propinquity (150) implies both near relationship or kinship, yet also may suggest distance. Propinquity is both touching and not touching, a space that suggests yet denies, an opening up yet a closing down. How is this essential paradox at work in the novel? (126-127, 272-273)
  10. Trace the theme of survival in the book.
  11. How do books operate as metaphors and as texts that foretell and interpret lives in the work? (12, 81, 93ff., 111, 118-119, 144, 233-238, 253, 261)
  12. What is the importance of Hana's marginalia? (61, 209) of the Patient's commonplace book? (16, 95ff., 231)
  13. Why are statues and painting so significant to Kip? (70-71, 77-80, 116-117, 279-281)
  14. In what ways is Caravaggio a robber? (47-48, 166)
  15. How does Hana respond to being surrounded by men? How does she view her father? (90-91)
  16. Why do Kip and Hana become lovers? (103-106, 114)
  17. How does Almásy act as a bearer of knowledge? What is the impact of such knowledge? (e.g. 20ff.)
  18. Characterize Almásy and Katherine's affair.
  19. How is Kip shaped by his experience in England as a sapper? (187-192, 196-197)
  20. What does Madox teach Almásy about God and war and identity? (240-243, 247, 250)
  21. Why does the bombing of Hiroshima have such an impact on Kip? (282-287) What his view of what he was doing as a sapper?


What roles does the body play in The English Patient? Look at the following passages:
  • The burned body of The English Patient
  • Hana's daily bodily routines (e.g. 23, 92)
  • The loss of Caravaggio's thumbs
  • Caravaggio' stealing of the film (36ff.)
  • The cutting of Hana's hair (49-52)
  • Hana's playing the piano (62-64)
  • Kip's bodily awareness (75)
  • Hana's loss of a child [abortion?] (81-85)
  • Kip and Hana's love (e.g. 128ff., 218, 225-227, 270-271)
  • Almásy and Katherine's treatment of each other's bodies (152-153, 156-157, 162, 170-171, 175)
  • The yellow chalking of bodies (200)
  • The way mouths reveal character (219)
  • "We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience" (261, cf. 260-261).
  • Patrick also dies a burned man (292-293, 296)
  • Question: What model of personhood is present in The English Patient? How would a biblical view of personhood evaluate the novel's?


Ondaatje's style in The English Patient is impressionistic, offering short vignettes often in present tense, which give the text a kind of timeless feel. He tends to focus on poetic description of setting and action, his single sentences or observed objects carrying great metaphoric weight, yet he also tends to obscure their meaning in mysterious asides. Plot is often out-of-order, moments suggesting a truth which is only later revealed. His descriptions stress place, the bodily, and use of color.

Question: How does Ondaatje's style shape or interact with the novel's themes and concerns?