The English Patient Characters
by Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient Characters

The main characters in The English Patient are Count Laszlo de Almásy, Katherine Clifton, Geoffrey Clifton, Hana, Kip Singh, and David Caravaggio.

  • Count Laszlo de Almásy is the titular English Patient, who is arrested under suspicion of being a German spy.
  • Katherine Clifton is Almásy's married lover.
  • Geoffrey Clifton is Katherine's husband, who tries to kill Katherine and Almásy after learning of their affair.
  • Hana is Almásy's nurse.
  • Kirpal "Kip" Singh is a Sikh in the British Army, who has an affair with Hana.
  • David Caravaggio is a friend of Hana's father. He's obsessed with learning the English Patient's true identity.

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The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Several of The English Patient’s characters (Hana, Caravaggio, and Hana’s stepmother Clara, to whom Hana writes letters) have appeared earlier in Ondaatje’s novel about Toronto laborers, Skin of a Lion (1987). Several others are based loosely on historical figures: the English patient on the real Almásy, a Hungarian explorer of mysterious ancestry who seems to have aided the Germans in World War II and who died in 1951; and Geoffrey Clifton on Sir Robert Clayton East Clayton, a British aristocrat and geographer who participated in a Libyan Desert exploration with Almásy in 1931 and 1932, shortly after his marriage to sculptor and pilot Dorothy Mary Durrant (the novel’s Katharine Clifton). Lord Clayton East Clayton died of a respiratory disease in 1932, and his wife died alone in a plane crash in Great Britain in 1933. Although Count de Almásy and Lady Clayton East Clayton certainly knew each other, there seems no evidence of an affair between them.

Ondaatje develops his fictional characters through flashbacks into their pasts; excerpts from books they read to the English patient; snatches of lyrics from World War II songs; entries from Almásy’s journal; and pieces of Hana’s letters to her stepmother Clara in Canada—the debris of their lives. The characters seldom exist in the present moment alone; they move in and out of the past, in and out of Italy, and in and out of World War II.

Further, as their stories converge, Ondaatje stresses the physical and emotional wounds of war that have brought them together. Almásy is dying of the burns that cover his body—and of heartbreak over the loss of the woman he loved. Caravaggio, having lost his thumbs when the Germans tortured him as a spy, has also lost the confidence that made him a thief before the war and a spy for the Allies during World War II. Kip has lost his British mentors, many sapper colleagues, and finally, his sergeant, the Englishman Sam Hardy. Hana, too, has lost everyone she loves: her father, her lover, her aborted child. All the characters have lost their homelands, their safety, and their innocence.

Coming from many cultures, they have formed a multicultural community in this Italian villa, just as Almásy has been part of an international Geographic Society exploration of the Libyan Desert before the war ended their work. At the close of the war, these individuals once more cross national boundaries and set aside cultural differences by trying to understand, listen to, and comfort one another. Hana and Kip begin to heal again in each other’s company. Caravaggio undergoes a dramatic reversal: Having heard Count de Almásy’s story, he no longer wants to kill Almásy in retaliation for his lost thumbs. Instead, he defends and protects Almásy from Kip’s anger after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although he hugs Kip in parting as well.

At the end of the novel and the end of the war, each character moves in a separate direction once more. Kip goes back to India; Hana returns to Canada after fulfilling the English patient’s desire to die by giving him an overdose of morphine; all leave the Villa San Girolamo behind them.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

More so than any other character, Hana is presented to us almost exclusively in the present. We learn very little of her youth and are given only a few glimpses of her recent past as a...

(The entire section is 4,109 words.)