Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
In the Villa San Girolamo, Hana, Kirpal Singh, David Caravaggio, and Count Ladislaus de Almásy, the “English patient” of the novel’s title, come together at the end of World War II. Each is haunted by ghosts of the dead, and each tells stories of how he or she came to be injured physically or emotionally. In the villa, these individuals unite as a multicultural society, in retreat from battle, their community ironically shattered at the war’s end.
The Canadian Hana is exhausted from nursing the wounded and the dying, her lover has died in the war, and she has aborted their child. Haunted by the ghosts of lover and child, she discovers that her father has died of burns in France, another casualty of battle. Hana asks to remain in the villa after the other hospital personnel and patients have left for safety in Pisa, caring for the burned and dying English patient, a surrogate for her dead father.
The English patient, the Hungarian Count de Almásy, listens to Hana read to him and talks to Kirpal Singh and David Caravaggio, flickering in and out of his morphine-induced dreams of prewar desert explorations and an affair with Katharine Clifton. He remembers when Katharine’s husband Geoffrey learned of their affair and attempted to kill all of them in 1939, crashing his plane in the Libyan desert when he and Katharine came to pick up Almásy. However, Geoffrey succeeded only in killing himself and injuring Katharine. Almásy had buried Geoffrey and carried Katharine into the Cave of Swimmers, promising to return as soon as he could get help. However, the British soldiers he found refused to listen to him, believing him a German spy. They imprisoned him so that he could not get back...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Near the end of World War II in 1945, the Villa San Girolamo in Tuscany, Italy—a former nunnery and German headquarters—has become a badly bombed out Allied military hospital. All the hospital staff and patients have moved on with the Allies, who are advancing across Europe. The only ones left behind are Hana, a twenty-year-old Canadian nurse from Toronto, and her badly burned and unidentifiable dying patient, who is believed to be English. Hana is joined at the villa by David Caravaggio—an Allied spy from Toronto who is a friend of her father—and Kirpal (Kip) Singh, a Punjabi Indian military engineer, or sapper, who works for the British army dismantling and defusing bombs. This motley foursome spends the summer of 1945 together in the villa.
All four characters have experienced losses due to the war. Hana’s father, Patrick, and her lover have both been killed in action, and she miscarried the child she conceived with that lover. The English patient—Count Ladislaus de Almásy—was forced to abandon his injured former lover, Katharine Clifton, after her husband intentionally crashed an airplane in an attempt to kill all three of them; he was prevented from returning to her rescue by the outbreak of the war. Caravaggio, an Italian Canadian thief turned spy, lost his thumbs when he was captured and interrogated by the Germans. Kip left his home in Punjab to fight in the war in Europe and lost his mentor, Lord Suffolk, when a bomb that Suffolk had been trying to defuse exploded. The four main characters also experience a loss of home and identity in their war-torn setting: All are foreigners in Tuscany.
Over the course of the summer of 1945, Kip and Hana (who celebrates her twenty-first birthday that summer) become intimate but celibate friends, but celibate for only one month. Caravaggio, who has become addicted to morphine, takes it upon himself to uncover the identity of the “English” patient through the use of morphine, to which the patient is also addicted. Almásy’s history is revealed nonchronologically, in bits and pieces....
(The entire section is 846 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The English Patient is Ondaatje’s most conventional novel, but it retains many characteristics of his earlier works in its shifting viewpoints, its use of historical documents, and its insistence on the ambiguity of truth. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1992.
As the novel begins, Hana, a young Canadian nurse, has been left in charge of a badly burned patient who seems to have been shot down while flying over the desert. They are the only inhabitants of the Italian villa that had been used as a hospital until the close of World War II, when staff and patients moved elsewhere. Hana often puzzles over the notebook the patient has made from an old copy of Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709). Most of his entries concern the Arabian desert.
Hana is joined in the villa by Caravaggio, a thief whose thumbs have been cut off. He accuses her of being in love with the English patient, but she denies it, saying that she thinks he is a “despairing saint” whom she wants to protect. Soon the three are joined by Kip, a young Indian explosives expert. Kip is a detached and solitary person who sleeps in his tent at the edge of the villa’s grounds. After Hana helps him defuse a bomb, they are drawn into a love affair, although Caravaggio is also vying for Hana’s attention.
The novel’s fourth section concerns the events that happened to an expedition...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Revisiting characters from In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient opens with Hana, a Canadian nurse, newly arrived with her English patient at the ruined Villa San Girolamo. The patient, Almasy, once a desert explorer, has been burned over his entire body. Soon the two are joined by Caravaggio, a Canadian thief conscripted as a spy, and Kirpal “Kip” Singh, an Indian bomb-detonator.
Ondaatje immediately reveals the intensity of recent suffering in the group’s sharpened perceptions. Indeed, the entire book is expressed in the striking imagery characteristic of poetry. Hana drops a peeled plum into the mouth of Almasy, whom she calls her “despairing saint” with the “hipbones of Christ.” Emphasizing the crucial role of imagination in shaping identity, the Christ-like patient becomes the blank tablet on which the villa inhabitants begin to carve their new selves. Kip and Almasy develop a bond based on their mutual knowledge of explosives and weapons. For Hana, mourning her father, baby, and lover, Almasy represents someone to nurture. Caravaggio, in contrast, blames Almasy for the mutilation of his thumbs on grounds that Almasy was once a German spy; he increases his morphine to make him talk.
The novel relies heavily on punning—Kip is a pun on Kim, the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s story and a mutilation of his actual name, Kirpal. In fact, mutilation becomes a key theme as the characters’ mutilated identities are healed through allegiance to nationality. Leading the way,...
(The entire section is 625 words.)