The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje

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Student Question

What is the link between the elements (fire, water, wind, sand) and theme in The English Patient?

Expert Answers

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This is going to be a challenge.  The discussion of elements and theme  is a challenging one because so many of the themes in Ondaatje's work are not absolutely clear.  The elements only add to this.  For example, the Aristotelian notion of fire can be applied to the condition of the desert.  The desert represents that which is primarily hot and then in a secondary setting, dry.  The desert's heat and its dry condition is evident in the theme of love and abandonment between Almasy and Katherine.  The fact that he leaves her in the desert to seek help with a fire lamp that ends up dying out in his absence helps to enhance this.  Another theme linked to the elements could be the construction of nationhood.  The novel's understanding of nation is one in which the nation is complex, not entirely clear in its definition.  For Aristotle, the construction of the Earth is one in which a condition of dry and cold helps to enhance how nationhood does not entirely summarize the condition of being.  The characters in the novel struggle through their own national identities on an Earth that fails to give much in way of respite to them.  Few can really embrace how their national identity helps them through the period of the Second World War.  Rather, they are forced into nationalistic identities on an Earth that ends up being both "cold and dry" to them and their hopes for happiness in this life.

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