The English Patient

Table of Contents

Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” written in 1993 tells a story of a historical fiction that openly displays race and identity as themes within the novel. This story takes place after the unforgettable trauma of World War 2 in an Italian Villa. The story speaks of 4 characters being Almasy the character who is spoken the most of and who is seen to be somewhat disfigured, Hana a female nurse, Caravaggio and an Indian man named Kip. All of the above-mentioned characters are from different parts of the world but are all together now experiencing the aftermath of WW2 together. It is understood that this novel is written as a post-modern text which ignites thoughts regarding things such as beliefs, society, and identity. The provided extracts are from Hanna and other characters explain how they both perceive The English Patient. In the following essay, I hope to discuss identity and show how it is complex and unstable within this story. I will then further use the provided extracts to support any statements that are made. The character Almasy is seen to scuffle throughout the entire novel to somewhat form a distinctiveness and identity that is detached and isolated from nationality. Although he is discussed and called “The English Patient” we as readers assume, but never get confirmation if he is “The English Patient” himself. He is later understood to be a Hungarian explorer working with a British Cartography group. However, his behaviors, mannerisms and how he conducts himself entirely are entirely English as he has been brought up and received his schooling in England. He departs from his European place of living and then takes his quests of exploring the desert. It can be said that he disgusts the notion of nationality, as he feels as if such insincere perceptions will convey only annihilation and despair. He views the desert as his ultimate and lone endpoint, where nationality can be seen to become fully unimportant, where he is seen as a man without any identity or nationality. Furthermore, it can be said that It is, in fact, the desert, where he can satisfy his vision of producing his view as paradise shorn of the existence of people and the separation of identity.As we continue it can be said that the misconception of being stateless and having fluidity as a character is emphasized by the disclosure and exposure of Kip’s knowledge and pursuits of absconding nationality. Like Almasy, Kip is an additional “international bastard”, who is known to be born in one side of the world but chooses to live in another part of the world instead. We as readers start to learn and understand that Kip’s character is born in India, however, he selects and finds himself attached to the Western world both in action and nature. Furthermore, he finds himself embracing the western world, he dances and sings to western music, he even finds himself dressing in a very western manner, and lastly even defuses a bomb in the hopes of saving English lives. Moreover, when Hana questions if Kip’s father is still alive and well, he responds as if it is not abundant worry to him: “Oh yea. I think. I’ve not had letters for some time. And it is likely that my brother is still in jail.” Such lack of concern and arrogance towards his blood is evidence of the notion that the character of Kip himself could be deemed fluid too.Upon reading the provided extract one, the first word that caught my attention was the word “own’ followed by the word “ghost”. The word own signifies some sort of ownership or possession as if he or it is Hannas alone, and by giving him the identity of a ghost it connotes that he is no longer a living or human being. When reading it was understood that the term ghosts was used in a metaphorical sense. When thinking of a ghost I am automatically forced to ask myself what a ghost is. A ghost is something one could refer to as being supernatural and unnatural to the living world which roams upon earth if their soul is not at peace, rather it is unsettled. It is the spirit and remains of something that no longer walks this earth. I then further questioned and realized that a ghost is a spirit that is somewhat stuck in purgatory and it could be scary depending on the context. Moreover, we think of ghosts as an insubstantial impression or image of a past life which states that life is gone but the words that he uses bring back and somewhat resurrect his past life in an insubstantial way as he is dying, his own physical body is not going to be there much longer, but his works and stories will carry on. In this context, Hanna does not fear her ghost. We as readers soon understand that the patient is something that can be said that will stick with Hanna for the rest of her life. He haunts Hanna now and will continue to haunt and stick with her throughout her future engagement, not in a negative way, but it shows that he remains with her throughout her entire life long past the demote of his death. He could be referred to and seen as this insubstantial being and as a form of spiritual guide for Hanna now and in the future. When further reading the extract and reading the following words: “here is a face, but it is unrecognizable. The nerves all gone” we come to understand that The English Patient’s trauma to his skin is deeply significant and serious as he is deemed unrecognizable and unable to give off any expression on his face. The English patient’s body is scorched yonder recognition, and his recollection regarding his past is ambiguous which makes the story somewhat easy for readers to find a blank space to critique his identity. The English Patient looks scary and we do not know what is going on in his mind. His face is consumed in a fire, therefore, confined, static, expressionless and emotions somewhat contained unable to shift direction, but just able to ‘be there’. This causes readers to wonder whether this is Almasy’s notion that skin is a true marker of identity, and that there is no obvious indicator of identity itself. Hanna sees this man/ figure as someone with no face having all his outer appearance and all his identity vanished. One cannot help but wonder if this is what Maybe this is what Almasy had wished for as skin is a marker of identity, and he wanted to experience a life without labels. It is said that he had hoped for a nationless state, and maybe this was a way of getting it where people were not viewed and classified by their outer appearance. Upon further reading extract 1 from lines 2-3 and seeing “you can pass a match across his face and there is no expression. The face is asleep”. One cannot help the fact that to be confused because as human beings, our instinct is to flinch and pull away when a small flame or fire is put close to our faces as we do not want to burn. The fact that the patient is not doing anything confirms to us as readers that this indeed is not a living person and he does not have any skin on his face which is usually very unnatural and disturbing. A living person would show a sense of reaction or emotion when the warmth of the flame was felt close to their face and show a sense of fright or fear. Furthermore, we as the readers being human beings know that we rely on facial expressions to understand people and their emotions. Thinking about the story it is known that when the patient starts recalling his pasts and speaks of the desert where he was a map maker and explorer we learn about him from his speech, his voice, and his books. The question then brought up is how is Hanna getting to know him? How does she get to know him if he has no facial expression or an outer appearance where she can learn and understand more about him. However, as unnatural and scary and the above mentioned seemed, I cannot help but get the imagery of a man who has gone through immense trials and tribulations, but somewhat may be at peace ” The face is asleep” (Line 3). This brings the imagery of when people are asleep. That is their most peaceful time where they are unbothered and in their most natural state. Although The English Patient was now a faceless man, he may be at peace with what has happened. Maybe the process of having his identity completely wiped undeniably away from him, maybe that is what he had wanted all along. Upon reading extract two reading the words “A man with no face. An ebony pool” it could be said that looking at the way Hanna perceives The English Patient and how Carvaggio sees him it became evident that there was an immense contrast between the concept of identity being whether it is complex or simple. When thinking of Hanna as a character it is known that she is a nurse who has seen the trauma that her patients have experienced and how it has affected them physically and emotionally. When seeing the words “no face” it almost gives off the idea that your identity has everything to do with your physical appearance and nothing more. We understand that the description of those words has an immense impact as it plays such a crucial role within the entire story when it comes to identity. Moreover, when looking at the words “an ebony pool” one automatically pictures the colour ebony and sees a similar colour of to what wood looks like. Readers are given the imagery of utter darkness and question whether The English Patient could be classified as a man of colour or not. We cannot tell as we only know he is male, but does not go further and explain further within the story. When thinking about the pool, one is pulled toward the thought of what it is a pool that happens to be water. We further then understand that he is described to be a man who is mobile and able to move around just like water within a pool when there is a slight breeze over water causing it to somewhat ripple or even move out from the pool by going comfort zone when necessary. Additionally, one is encouraged to think of the depth of a pool and its containment. The English Patient could be described as someone filled with depth and emotion just as a pool is filled with water. We know this as throughout the story we are told that he was burned and faced trauma but are never informed that he took it out on anybody in a negative way. That shows a sense of humanity and depth. Moreover, when thinking of a pool and comparing it to The English Patient in a literal sense, they can be viewed as one. When looking at both the pool and The English Patient one cannot help but have a sense of fear. When it comes to a pool, many people are fear what lurks below, and the fact that it is ebony makes it worse, and when it comes to The English Patient his unnatural appearance could be deemed frightening to many. However, just as people jump into the pool Hanna figuratively jumped into The English Patient’s life by making an effort to learn more about him. We can conclude that the concept of identity is very important within this story, its different types of characters and its specific storyline. This story shows the constant ideas regarding identity and shows postmodern texts with ideologies too and further provided evidence as to how they described the story from their point of view. We can further understand and conclude that identity is not fixed, as the characters showed their ability to portray the concept of fluidity and therefore complex and somewhat multifaced..