The English Patient Themes

  • Ondaatje explores themes of nationalism and identity in The English Patient. Count Laszlo de Almásy is a Hungarian born member of the Geographical Society's expedition to map Libya, but during World War II he is accused of being a German spy and mistaken for an Englishman. His identity is essentially stripped from him by the nationalistic forces behind World War II.
  • War has devastating effects on characters in The English Patient. Count Laszlo de Almásy's lover Katherine Clifton dies alone after a plane crash her husband orchestrated, and Almásy himself is badly burned in a suicide attempt. Another character, the French-Canadian nurse Hana, loses her father and her lover in the war and decides to get an abortion. Through these losses, Ondaatje criticizes war as a beautiful and unjustified act.
  • Many readers remember The English Patient as a great and tragic love story. Count Laszlo de Almásy's thwarted attempted to save his lover Katherine is the most compelling plotline in the novel and resonates throughout the narrative. Hana's affair with Kip is less intense by comparison but does provide some relief from the relentless horrors of World War II.

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.

Themes

Hana finds this passage scribbled into her burned patient's copy of Herodotus' Histories: "There are betrayals in war that are...

(The entire section is 610 words.)