The English Patient Additional Summary

Michael Ondaatje


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The English Patient is Ondaatje’s most conventional novel, but it retains many characteristics of his earlier works in its shifting viewpoints, its use of historical documents, and its insistence on the ambiguity of truth. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1992.

As the novel begins, Hana, a young Canadian nurse, has been left in charge of a badly burned patient who seems to have been shot down while flying over the desert. They are the only inhabitants of the Italian villa that had been used as a hospital until the close of World War II, when staff and patients moved elsewhere. Hana often puzzles over the notebook the patient has made from an old copy of Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709). Most of his entries concern the Arabian desert.

Hana is joined in the villa by Caravaggio, a thief whose thumbs have been cut off. He accuses her of being in love with the English patient, but she denies it, saying that she thinks he is a “despairing saint” whom she wants to protect. Soon the three are joined by Kip, a young Indian explosives expert. Kip is a detached and solitary person who sleeps in his tent at the edge of the villa’s grounds. After Hana helps him defuse a bomb, they are drawn into a love affair, although Caravaggio is also vying for Hana’s attention.

The novel’s fourth section concerns the events that happened to an expedition...

(The entire section is 512 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Revisiting characters from In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient opens with Hana, a Canadian nurse, newly arrived with her English patient at the ruined Villa San Girolamo. The patient, Almasy, once a desert explorer, has been burned over his entire body. Soon the two are joined by Caravaggio, a Canadian thief conscripted as a spy, and Kirpal “Kip” Singh, an Indian bomb-detonator.

Ondaatje immediately reveals the intensity of recent suffering in the group’s sharpened perceptions. Indeed, the entire book is expressed in the striking imagery characteristic of poetry. Hana drops a peeled plum into the mouth of Almasy, whom she calls her “despairing saint” with the “hipbones of Christ.” Emphasizing the crucial role of imagination in shaping identity, the Christ-like patient becomes the blank tablet on which the villa inhabitants begin to carve their new selves. Kip and Almasy develop a bond based on their mutual knowledge of explosives and weapons. For Hana, mourning her father, baby, and lover, Almasy represents someone to nurture. Caravaggio, in contrast, blames Almasy for the mutilation of his thumbs on grounds that Almasy was once a German spy; he increases his morphine to make him talk.

The novel relies heavily on punning—Kip is a pun on Kim, the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s story and a mutilation of his actual name, Kirpal. In fact, mutilation becomes a key theme as the characters’ mutilated identities are healed through allegiance to nationality. Leading the way,...

(The entire section is 625 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Chapter 1: The Villa

Near the end of World War II, a young Canadian nurse, Hana, is living in an...

(The entire section is 1585 words.)