The English Patient Summary

The English Patient is a novel by Michael Ondaatje in which the residents of Villa San Girolamo share the stories of how they've been impacted by WWII.

  • Laszlo de Almásy, called the English patient, reveals to his nurse, Hana, that he is actually a Hungarian Count.
  • Almásy had an affair with Katharine Clifton, whose husband orchestrated a plane crash in retaliation. Almásy survived, but Katherine did not.
  • David Caravaggio and Kip Singh also reside in the villa. Caravaggio believes that Almásy injured him during the war, and Kip has a brief affair with Hana.
  • The villa residents go their separate ways and Hana helps Almásy die.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846

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.

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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. Hana first learns of his journeys as a desert explorer from 1930 to 1936. After many years of searching, he and his companions finally found the lost oasis of Zerzura. Aided by morphine, he continues his story to Caravaggio. He met Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton in 1936. About a year and a half later, he and Katharine had a tempestuous and passionate affair that she initiated and eventually broke off after a year.

Although his wife’s affair was over, Clifton—a pilot, adventurer, and spy for the British—became mad with jealousy at the knowledge of it. While flying with Katharine to pick up Almásy in September, 1939, Goeffrey attempted to kill all three of them by crashing the plane into Almásy with his wife still on board. The plane missed Almásy; Geoffrey died on impact, but Katharine lived. Almásy carried Katharine’s badly injured body to a nearby cave, the Cave of Swimmers, and left on foot to get help. He walked seventy miles in three days, reaching the British military installation at El Taj, but the soldiers there did not believe Almásy’s story. Instead of providing help to save Katharine, they imprisoned Almásy on suspicion of espionage.

Three years later, Almásy escaped, determined to return to the Cave of Swimmers to retrieve Katharine’s body. To gain the necessary supplies, he agreed to guide the German spy Eppler across the desert to Cairo. When Almásy recounts this episode to Caravaggio, Caravaggio becomes certain of the patient’s identity. He reveals to Almásy that British Intelligence officials had known about the affair between the English-educated Hungarian desert explorer and the wife of their agent, Clifton. They had suspected him of murdering Geoffrey, and they had planned to kill Almásy in the desert in 1942 but were unable to locate him.

Almásy reveals to Caravaggio how he evaded death. Almásy went to look for Katharine’s body in the Cave of Swimmers. He brought a gasoline can with him and carried her body to a buried plane that once belonged to his partner in desert explorations, Madox. (Madox had returned to England in 1939 at the start of the war and had committed suicide in a church.) Almásy was able to uncover and start the plane, but it caught fire and crashed before he could reach his destination. Almásy was badly burned in the accident, but he was looked after by Bedouins in exchange for his knowledge of weaponry. The Bedouins eventually brought him to Siwa Oasis, and he was flown to Italy by the Allies.

In August, 1945, Kip hears on his radio that atomic bombs have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Upset by what he sees as yet another betrayal by the West of the East, he leaves on his motorcycle. Hana writes him letters that he never answers. Eventually, he becomes a doctor, marries, and has two children, but he still thinks frequently about Hana.

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