Themes and Meanings
The English Patient indicts war for the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people. World War II prevents Hana from marrying her lover and having their child, Almásy from rescuing his beloved Katharine and marrying her after her husband’s death, and the international Geographic Society from completing its desert expeditions to map the Libyan desert. War replaces cooperation, creativity, and love with hatred and jealousy—leading to Geoffrey Clifton’s spying for Britain; Almásy’s fellow explorer Madox’s suicide over the outbreak of war; the severing of Caravaggio’s thumbs; and the death of Kip’s sergeant in an explosion in an Italian village square.
The novel also indicts nationalism as a leading cause of war. By insisting on identifying individuals as English, Indian, or Canadian, Ondaatje suggests, people erect artificial barriers. Although nationalism leads to cultural and personal pride, the case history of the “English” patient attests how meaningless national identity is. A Hungarian with a British education, in love with an Englishwoman, dedicated to an international scholarly mission, and assisting Germans who help him find Katharine Clifton’s body, Count de Almásy defies simplistic national categorizations. No one can be sure what his nationality is or where his allegiance lies. However, his loyalty is not to any nation; it is, instead, to the desert. Unmapped, uncharted, unowned (although, ironically, the maps that Almásy, Madox, and the other explorers make become the instruments of war), the boundless desert symbolizes common humanity, the nomadic, transitory existence of all human beings.
Finally, The English Patient questions the quality of European civilization, its nationalism and values, presenting an anti-European, postcolonial perspective. Through the character of Kip, the Dutch-Ceylonese Michael Ondaatje criticizes the arrogant assumption of superiority of white Western cultures. He exposes the destructiveness of European wars, the West’s exploitation of the East (British colonialism in India and the Allies’ atomic bombing of Japan), and Western abuse of its own poor and of people of color for selfish, materialistic ends.