The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje

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Discuss gender and/or sexuality in The English Patient.

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The English Patient explores several dynamics of heterosexual relationships. Women are presented in several aspects: as the pure and exalted, as the weaker gender, and as subject and object of sexual desire.

There are references to a virginal statue and to the Virgin Mary, which represent the pure, asexual woman who is to be adored but not defiled. Hana holds this role in both her relationship with Caravaggio and her mothering of wounded soldiers.

The traditional role of women as the weaker gender exemplifies the power imbalance between men and women. Women are given secondary responsibilities and must be protected. Hana comments that her father was always willing to rescue a woman in distress. War is the business of men, while women simply nurse the fallen. Hana represents the traditional role of women by civilizing the house and garden; however, she balks at the conflicted way in which men treat women. She says that she is sick of being treated like gold because she is a woman, and when she helps Kip defuse a bomb, she protests when he fears for her safety.

A third aspect of women in the novel is their capability to carry and experience desire. Sensuality and sexuality are heightened in this war setting. Where there is a slim margin between life and death, life becomes more intense and desperate. Hana reports that soldiers have fallen in love with her before dying, and she compares physical love to morphine in its capacity to give comfort.

There is sensual imagery in Hana’s gentle care to the patient, in her whispers, in feeding him plums, in bathing him. She loves his ravaged body and blows cool air on his neck. While sleeping in the hammock of a soldier who died, Hana has sensual fantasies. Hana is very aware of her own body and of Kip’s. Even defusing the bomb is a sensuous encounter, and afterward, Hana seduces Kip for comfort: that is, to reaffirm her own life.

Sensuality is heightened through poetry and music: Kip is drawn to Hana when she plays the piano, and Caravaggio introduces them to erotic lyrics and dance. But the most erotic scenes feature the patient in his previous life with Katharine. The heart is an organ of fire, he says, and their illicit affair is indeed fiery. He is at first seduced by her voice reading poetry, then he observes her mane of hair and her willowy figure. He says he is disassembled by her. Despite their better judgment, they become insatiable. Katharine fears that, if they are discovered, her husband will go mad. He does indeed, and this leads to their tragic end.

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