The English Patient


Michael Ondaatje

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The English Patient can help.

The English Patient Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje was born in 1943 to Mervyn Ondaatje and Doris Gratiaen in Colombo, the capital city of Ceylon, a former British colony located in present day Sri Lanka. Ondaatje is a Burgher, meaning he is of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Dutch ancestry. After his parents divorced, he was raised in Colombo by relatives. When Ondaatje was 11 years old, he moved to England to live with his mother and siblings. After high school, he attended Dulwich College in London before immigrating to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1962. In Quebec, Ondaatje enrolled at Bishop’s University, where he began to publish his poetry through the university press. Ondaatje graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965, and in 1967, he earned a Master of Arts degree from Queen’s University in Ontario. After college, Ondaatje taught at both the University of Western Ontario in London and Glendon College, York University all while gaining a reputation as a talented writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In 1970, Ondaatje won the Governor General’s Award, a Canadian award for artistic achievement, for his book of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. He served as an editor for Coach House Press, an independent Canadian publishing company, from 1970 to 1990, helping to foster new Canadian talent. His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, was published in 1976 and won the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Ondaatje was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1988, and in 2016, he was upgraded to Companion, the highest honor of the merit based order. Ondaatje published perhaps his most successful novel, The English Patient, in 1992, which won the prestigious Booker Prize that same year. His next novel, Anil’s Ghost, was published to popular and critical acclaim in 2000 and won the Giller Prize, a Canadian literary award. In 2005, Ondaatje was honored with Sri Lanka Ratna, the highest honor awarded to Sri Lanka foreign nationals. Ondaatje is the father of two children with his former wife, artist Kim Ondaatje. He lives in Toronto with his current wife, Linda Spalding, a Canadian novelist and academic.  
Get the entire The English Patient LitChart as a printable PDF.
The English Patient PDF

Historical Context of The English Patient

The English Patient is based on real-life Hungarian desert explorer, László Almásy. Almásy is credited with the 1933 discovery of the Cave of Swimmers, a cave containing ancient rock art in the Gilf Kebir plateau of the Libyan Desert. The paintings on the walls of the Cave of Swimmers depicts people who appear to be swimming, as well as animals such as giraffes and hippopotamuses. Almásy theorized that the paintings were a representation of life in the Sahara as it was more than 10,000 years ago prior to a massive climate shift, when the area had been a temperate climate rather than desert. Almásy’s contemporaries thought his theory farfetched and absurd; however, in 2007 a large ancient lake was discovered deep beneath the Sahara near the Sudan by Eman Ghoneim, an Egyptian American geomorphologist. In addition to discovering the Cave of Swimmers, Almásy really did guide Johannes Eppler, a German spy, though the North African desert in 1942 during Operation Salam, in an attempt to insert the German Africa Corps into British-held Egypt during World War II. While Almásy was successful in bringing Eppler and his radio operator, Hans-Gerd Sandstede, into Egypt, British code breakers were able to break the cypher used by Almásy and his German contacts, and both Eppler and Sandstede were apprehended by British forces in Cairo. Almásy returned to Hungary after the war and later escaped the country during the Communist takeover with, ironically, the help of British Intelligence. He died in Austria in 1951 due to complications of amebic dysentery. 

Other Books Related to The English Patient

The English Patient is an important piece of postcolonial literature, which means it examines the effect of Western power and colonization, particularly by the British, on the people of the East. One of the earliest and most significant postcolonial novels is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s novel follows an Igbo village leader in Nigeria named Okonkwo, whose culture is erased by British colonialism. Other popular works of postcolonial literature include Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a novel about Saleem, a boy born with magical powers on the eve of India’s independence from Britain; and I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem by French Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé. Condé’s novel tells the story of Tituba, a young biracial woman from Barbados brought to Massachusetts against her will and forced to work as a slave in the home of Samuel Paris, a clergyman and key player in the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The English Patient is heavily intertextual—meaning it references other literary works—Ondaatje frequently mentions The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Copper, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Ondaatje cites Puerto Rican American poet William Carlos Williams and his hybrid work, Spring and All, as a major influence on his own writing, as well as William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet and playwright, who is well-known for poems such as “When You Are Old” and “The Second Coming.”    
Key Facts about The English Patient
  • Full Title: The English Patient
  • When Written: 1992
  • Where Written: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • When Published: 1993
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel; Historical Fiction
  • Setting: An Italian villa near the end of World War II, as well as the North African desert (mainly the Gilf Kebir) during the 1930s and early 1940s.
  • Climax: Kip threatens to kill the English patient after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. 
  • Antagonist: World War II
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The English Patient

And the Oscar Goes to. The English Patient was adapted into a 1996 film by director Anthony Minghella. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards that year and won nine, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress, won by Juliette Binoche for her performance as Hana. 

The Real Kip. While a student at Dulwich College in London, Ondaatje went by the nickname Kip, the same nickname given to Kirpal Singh in The English Patient.