The English Patient Themes
by Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient Themes

The main themes in The English Patient are national identity, war, love, and grief.

  • National identity: Count Laszlo de Almásy is Hungarian, but he is a varyingly mistaken for a German spy and an Englishman. His identity is stripped from him by the nationalistic forces behind World War II.
  • War: All of the residents of the villa have suffered losses in the war, whether they are physical or emotional, depicting war as brutal and unjust.
  • Love and grief: Almásy's failure to save Katherine defeats his will to live, and Hana's decision to abort her deceased lover's child highlights the grief of lost love.

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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Hana finds this passage scribbled into her burned patient's copy of Herodotus' Histories: "There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lover enters the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire." The ravages of war and the destructive power of illicit love provide much of the content and context for this novel. Yet Ondaatje's main concern is with the "organ of fire," with how the heart copes with things "smashed," things "revealed in a new light." His goal is not to reveal the nature of the good, the triumph of good over evil, the redeeming power of love or the price of war. Love and war alter the rules, void the expectations and security of everyday life. The heart is more revealed, more naked without the covering of social routine and family obligations.

Rather he shows how the heart reacts to the circumstances of life however brutal or tender. Personal betrayal, loss, or love affect us more deeply than a world war. As a desert explorer, Count Almasy—who later becomes the English patient burned...

(The entire section is 2,494 words.)