The English Patient Summary
by Michael Ondaatje

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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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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 to Katharine’s remains until 1942, returning only with German help. He attempted to cremate Katharine’s body and his own by crashing his plane in the desert, but Bedouin nomads rescued him and gave him medicine in return for information about guns. Ironically, he has been identified as “English” when brought to the British villa hospital outside Florence.

Caravaggio comes to the villa after hearing about Hana and her patient during his stay at a military hospital in Rome. As a former friend of Hana’s father, he wishes to comfort and protect her. Once there, however, he discovers another reason for staying. He suspects that the English patient is really Count de Almásy, the man he blames for the loss of both his thumbs. Caravaggio believes the maps and information Almásy gave the Germans resulted in his capture and punishment as a war spy. He tells Almásy that British Intelligence followed Almásy’s affair with Katharine Clifton from its earliest days, believed that he killed Geoffrey Clifton in 1939, and followed the Germans and Almásy into the desert in 1942.

Kirpal Singh, “Kip,” becomes Hana’s lover and the dying Almásy’s good friend. He respects the English patient as representative of a civilized tradition. Kip had been trained as a sapper in Great Britain by Lord Suffolk and his assistants, Fred Harts and Miss Morden, only to see his revered mentors killed by a new type of bomb. Before coming to Italy, Kip had already gained a reputation as a brilliant, fearless sapper who had dedicated his life to making the world safer, renouncing his elder brother’s view that he...

(The entire section is 3,131 words.)