The English Patient Questions and Answers
by Michael Ondaatje

Start Your Free Trial

How do I compare and contrast the global issues raised in The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift?

Expert Answers info

D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2016

write11,281 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

It is not often these two works are put together, but both, separated by centuries and by genre, one a novel, the other an essay, critique nationalism.

In "A Modest Proposal," Swift condemns, through satire, the way his clueless narrator dehumanizes the Irish poor and sees them as nothing but a potential food supply for the rich. The narrator literally proposes selling babies at a year old as gourmet items to be served as a dinner delicacy at rich people's tables. Underlying this, Swift critiques how the English overlords in Ireland used nationalism and their own sense of national identity to set themselves apart as more human than the Irish. While the narrator does not say this directly, it is implicit that this "modest" proposal can be made because the Irish nationality has been dehumanized.

Likewise, Ondaatje criticizes the European nationalism that led to World War II. After all, what does it mean, he asks, to be English or French or German? Why do these labels allow us to dehumanize and kill fellow humans? The "English" patient becomes the symbol of this. He is called "English," but he is not: he is so scarred by burns that he becomes simply a human being, which is, at heart, what we all are. Just as we are horrified by the notion of eating poor Irish babies because we see them as sharing a common humanity with us, not as being "poor" or "Irish," so we should condemn the nationalisms that allow us to kill each other in wars, and, instead, embrace our commonalities as humans.

Of course, the two works can be contrasted, for Swift makes his point through satire in an essay, while Ondaatje uses a novel format with developed characters and a love story to make a similar point.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial