The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
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Chapter 4

After the writings of Herodotus, the Western world expressed little interest in the desert for hundreds of years. In the 1920s, the National Geographical Society held a few lectures on the subject of the desert, and in the 1930s, these modest lectures continued. By the end of the 1930s, however, the expeditions had begun again, and the Libyan desert had become one of the theaters of war.

Hana sits by the patient in his room, and he tells her that he was part of an expedition in 1930 that went searching for the lost oasis of Zerzura. The Desert Europeans all knew each other, says the patient - like a small "clutch of a nation" mapping and re-exploring. But on their first journey in 1930, they were hit by a terrible sandstorm that destroyed all their food and most of their animals. He found a desert town called El Taj, where he was saved. His journeys continued until 1936, when he met Geoffrey Clifton, who introduced him to his new wife, Katharine Clifton. Clifton, wealthy, with his own plane, became part of the expedition in search of Zerzura.

The patient says that the expedition party was surprised that Clifton brought his wife, creating a bit of tension between the party members. But one night, Katharine recited poetry and the patient fell in love with her voice. Soon enough he fell in love with her body, her awkward willowness, and they became lovers.

Katharine Clifton dreamt of the English patient one night, and woke up screaming next to her husband. In the dream, she sensed that the patient was angry, hostile that a married woman was close to him. She dreamt she was bent over like an animal, yoked back, unable to breathe. When she met him later, she watched him, talking bombastically, with lofty intellectualism, and thought of slapping him - a desire in equal parts sexual and furious.

Katharine was a firebrand, unable to handle the Englishman’s politeness and formal decorum. Though they could not be apart for long, and snuck around for erotic rendezvous, Katharine wanted more. She somehow wanted Geoffrey to find out about the affair, but couldn’t bear to tell him. Torn, frustrated, Katharine began physically assaulting the patient - leaving bruises on him from blows, cuts from flung plates and forks. He made up excuses for his wounds, and yet continued the affair, feeling disassembled by her.

Indeed, the English patient, normally frigid, independent, a loner, suddenly found himself unable to be without Katharine. Though he was not comfortable with adultery, he believed that they were an almost cosmic force together. Still, she remained frustrated with their inability to truly be together, and treated him frostily in public.

Finally, Katharine cut him off, saying that they could never see each other again. She couldn’t risk her husband finding out about them. He walked her home and told her coldly that he did not miss her yet. "You will," she says. The Englishman admitted he had been truly disassembled: he could not live without her.


The novel takes a surprising turn out of Hana’s story, into the English patient’s memories. Remember at the end of the last chapter, we weren’t sure where the story was heading - because suddenly we had a proliferation of characters who had reign over the narrative, able to control it’s direction, and we couldn’t be sure whether it was a Kip-Hana relationship we were beginning to chart, a Kip-Caravaggio rivalry, or a Hana-English Patient symbolic love affair. Ondaatje surprises us then by following none of these lines, and instead returning to a character we seemingly abandoned - the English patient.

The English patient himself reveals his own torturous love affair with perhaps the most compelling character in the novel, Katharine Clifton. Katharine is very much an untamed stallion. Though she is married to a bit of a wet blanket, she is nothing but raw emotion and fury and passion - something that she manages to disguise in public. The Englishman, meanwhile, is of a loftier nature - more frigid, more intellectual, and in Katharine, he finds a soulmate who brings him down to earth. The problem, of course, is the definition of the relationship.

The Englishman keeps denying to himself that he needs her, then realizes more and more he can’t bear to be without her for even a moment. Katharine, meanwhile, can’t bear not to have her love be public. She deliberately causes wounds and marks on the Englishman’s body so that somehow they might be discovered. But they are not - for the Englishman does not want to be owned, and Katharine does not want to tell her new husband. Finally, their romance is buried.

These are short chapters, but the feelings and imagery conjured in both are intense. Notice how the Englishman first falls in love with Katharine - through the sound of her voice reciting poetry. This harkens back to his falling into the desert from the burning the plane - the raw sounds of the Bedouin voices, the lonely boy dancing and ejaculating in the desert. There is a silence, a loneliness that is intrinsic to the Englishman’s soul - and it is appropriate, then, that he begins these chapters with a review of the West’s involvement in the desert, which has been intermittent, noncommittal, until the arrival of war. The desert, he seems to imply, has always been too much for the West to understand.

The novel, then, reflects the desert in some way - it is a place of silence where there is a sheer absence of stimulation. The desert is defined more by absence than presence. But then, in a torrent, a sandstorm can arrive to destroy everything. It is the perfect mirror for life - for these characters’ lives, who are defined by nothingness, sacrifice, absence, until a torrent of passion consumes them, swallows them up, and leaves them raw, naked, wounded, changed. If we follow the imagery of the desert - the history of the desert, as narrated by the English patient - we clearly see the themes, symbols, and rhythms of Ondaatje’s story.

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