Hana stops working in the garden and stands up. She can feel the weather changing, and a breeze shakes the nearby trees. Turning toward the house, Hana heads for the kitchen, but she doesn’t stop. She continues up the dark stairs to a room at the back of a hallway. Light pours from the room, which is painted like a garden. A man, the English patient, lies in a bed in the center of the room. As Hana enters, he turns to look at her.
The English patient’s room painted like a garden hearkens to the growth and renewal the inhabitants have come to the villa to find, as does the villa’s actual garden where Hana is working. They are each, in different ways, traumatized by the war, and they have come to the villa to heal.
Hana bathes the English patient every four days. She starts at his feet, wrecked and mangled by fire, and squeezes water from a washcloth up his legs. His shins are the worst, and bone is visible below the open and weeping wounds. She has been caring for him for months, and she knows every inch of his body. “Hipbones of Christ,” Hana thinks as she washes up his body. She has come to think of the English patient as her “despairing saint.” Her favorite part of his body is the indentation below his lowest rib. She looks at this “cliff of skin,” and draws a plum from her pocket. She removes the plum’s skin with her teeth and passes it into the English patient’s mouth. He begins to tell her a story.
Hana’s description of the English patient’s hipbones as Christlike and her reference to him as a “despairing saint” carry obvious religious connotations. Hana doesn’t seem to be particularly religious, as she never prays or partakes in any other religious observation, and this implies that God and religion are completely absent during times of war. However, thoughts of God and religion are still present and surface in other ways, such as Hana’s description of the English patient, suggesting that the religious spirit has survived the war after all.
The English patient tells Hana about the desert and picnics with a woman who used to kiss his body that is now covered with burns. Hana asks how he was burned, and he says that he fell from the desert sky. The Bedouin, the nomadic Arab people of North Africa, had carried him across the desert on a “boat of sticks.” The Bedouin were used to men falling from the sky. Since 1939, planes frequently crashed in the desert. The Bedouin did not know him, and he did not know them. Hana again asks the English patient for his name, but he doesn’t remember it—he only knows that he is English.
Throughout the novel, the desert is often described in terms of water, and here the English patient is carried out of the desert on a “boat of sticks.” This ironic description creates a competing image, which heightens and emphasizes the barren and dry state of the desert. The English patient reveals that his burns stem from a plane crash, which frequently happened over the desert, as North Africa was a theater of World War II.
The English patient can never sleep at night, so Hana finds a book in the library and reads to him. If it is cold, she climbs into bed with him, careful not to touch him, and reads late into the night. He listens to Hana’s voice in the candlelight, “swallowing her words like water.”
Books and stories are seen throughout the novel as a type of life force that gives the characters strength and reason to go on. Here, Hana climbs into bed with the English patient and reads in an effort to keep him warm, and he “swallows her words like water,” which implies that stories provide him with a kind of emotional or intellectual sustenance—a means to heal.
The Bedouin had placed cloth soaked in oils over the English patient’s burnt skin, “anointing” him. Each evening at nightfall, they would change the bandages and inspect his charred skin. One man, who never spoke, stayed with the English patient 24 hours a day and fed him dates that he would first chew in his mouth.
The way the Bedouin man feeds the English patient is very similar to Hana’s method, which reflects the extent of the English patient’s injuries, as he cannot feed himself and can barely chew. The word “anointing” again connotes religion, suggesting that God is still near despite the violence of war.
As Hana reads to the English patient, she looks down the hall, but she knows that no one is coming. The abandoned villa had been a makeshift war hospital, and Hana had lived here with the others nurses. The others nurses, however, are long gone. The war has moved north and is nearly over. Living in the villa alone with the English patient, books are Hana’s only escape. She looks down at the book on her lap and stares at page 17 for several minutes, noticing the bend at the corner of the page where someone previously marked their spot.
This, too, reflects the importance of books within the novel. Books are Hana’s only access to the outside world. She is completely isolated at the villa. She knows, after all, that no one is coming down the hall. The novel also implies that books are not inanimate objects but living things that carry the stories of those who have read them. Here, as Hana stares at page 17, she considers those who have left their mark before her.
Hana has planted enough vegetables in the orchard near the Villa San Girolamo to keep the English patient and herself alive, and she occasionally trades hospital supplies for meat and beans with a man in town. The villa is a shell of what it once was. Large sections of the building have been destroyed by bombs and many rooms cannot even be entered. Much of the roof is missing, allowing rain and moonlight to spill in.
The destroyed villa is symbolic of the inhabitants’ trauma. Like the physical structure that has been destroyed by war, those in the villa are shells of what they once were as well. They struggle with physical trauma as well as psychological trauma, and they have walled themselves off emotionally, like a room that cannot be entered.
The Bedouin taught the English patient how to raise his hands and arms to the sky to draw energy from the universe. One day, the English patient heard the sound of wind chimes, and a man wearing a large yoke with hundreds of hanging bottles approached him. The man carried different ointments in the bottles, and after propping the yoke between two sticks, he mixed different ointments together in a “skin cup” made with the soles of his feet. He rubbed the ointment—made of ground peacock bone, “the most potent healer”—onto the English patient’s burnt chest.
This passage underscores the differences between Western medicine, which Hana practices, and the Eastern practice of the Bedouin. Hana later implies that healing with peacock bone is ridiculous, but Ondaatje implies that it isn’t. The Bedouin and their medical practices (including the man who mixes topical medication on his feet) undeniably saved the English patient’s life, which suggests that Eastern medicine is not inferior to Western medicine, it is simply different.
The villa’s library sits between the kitchen and the chapel. Although there have been holes blown into the walls and roof by bombs, the library seems safe enough to Hana. A piano sits in the middle of the room, and birds and weather often enter the space. The rain has soaked many of the books, and the shelves groan under the added weight of the water. A set of doors at the far end of the room have been boarded up. If Hana could go through them, it would lead down the 36 “penitent steps” to the chapel. The Germans placed mines in many of the buildings before retreating, so any room that isn’t absolutely necessary is blocked off.
The bombed-out condition of the library foreshadows that the structure is not, in fact, as safe as Hana would like to believe. Her sense of safety is an illusion and a product of her denial. She has not fully come to terms with how awful the war has been—if she did, she would then have to face it, which she simply isn’t ready to do yet. Ondaatje again draws attention to the 36 “penitent steps” to the chapel, which implies that the war and everything about it is a sin for which humanity must atone.
In the library, Hana takes The Last of the Mohicans off a shelf and walks backward out of the room, stepping into her own footprints. She takes the book to the English patient’s room and sits in the window alcove. Opening the book, Hana is about to enter the lives of others. She loves losing herself in stories and going back in time, “her body full of sentences and moments,” like waking from a dream she can’t quite remember.
Hana must walk back out through her own footsteps so that she doesn’t trip an unknown bomb outside of this path. This, too, reflects just how unsafe the villa is. Hana’s “body full of sentences and moments” again reflects the importance of books in the novel. Here, Hana is quite literally made up of the stories she reads, and these stories in turn become a part of her.
The Italian town where the Villa San Girolamo is located had been besieged for weeks, and the villa, which had previously been a nunnery, was the last stronghold of the German army. When the Allies took over, they converted the villa into a hospital. The medical staff and patients were transferred south to a safer area, but Hana insisted on staying behind with the English patient. They have no electricity, and the winter has been cold. Much of the villa was blown up by bombs, including the lower stairs of the large staircase, which Hana rebuilt by nailing books together.
Hana’s use of books to rebuild the bombed staircase again reflects the importance of books in the novel. Books and storytelling are crucial to Hana’s healing and regrowth after the trauma of the war, and that importance is reflected here as books are crucial to the physical rebuilding of the villa’s structure as well.
There are few beds remaining in the villa—Hana prefers to sleep in a hammock. She frequently sleeps in different rooms, at times in rooms that have very few standing walls, and she occasionally sleeps in the English patient’s room. Hana lives “like a vagrant,” while the English patient is “reposed in his bed like a king.” Hana is 20 years old, and completely untouched by concerns of safety. Now that the war is ending, she has drawn up a new set of rules for herself, and she will no longer carry out orders for the good of others.
Ondaatje draws a parallel between the royal treatment of the English patient and the fact that he is assumed to be English—this seems to be one of the reasons why he is treated like a “king.” Hana herself, the one who does all the work, is forced to live in substandard conditions. This mirrors society at large, and the sense of English superiority that emerged with British colonialism in the 19th century.
Hana carries the six-foot crucifix from the chapel to the orchard and erects it as a scarecrow near her seedbed. Empty sardine cans hang from the cross, clanking and clinking in the wind. Her only possessions include a small suitcase containing letters, some clothing, and extra medical supplies. She could burn down all of this if she wanted to.
Hana’s use of the crucifix as a scarecrow is nearly sacrilegious, which again suggests that God and religion have all but disappeared in the war. However, the crucifix, a symbol of Christ, still protects Hana by protecting her garden, which is in keeping with the spirit of religion.
Hana picks up the copy of The Histories by Herodotus from the English patient’s bedside table. He had brought the book with him to the villa, and pages from other books have been glued into it. The English patient’s handwriting fills the pages and margins, and Hana begins to read. Herodotus writes of the different winds that cross the desert, including the africo, which can blow all the way to Rome, and the hot and dry ghibli, which blows out of Tunis and can cause anxiety. The khamsin from Egypt blows for 50 days and nights, and is known as the ninth plague.
The English patient’s copy of The Histories underscores the connection between history and personal stories in the novel. Ondaatje argues that history is personal and reflected in stories, like it is Herodotus’s book, and the English patient’s history and his own story become part of that book as well, as he fills the margins and inserts pages with his own writing.
Hana reads about the —, a wind out of Arabia whose name was erased by a king after it killed his son. She reads about other winds and learns that there are millions of tons of dust floating about the air at any given moment, waiting to bury entire armies and civilizations. Herodotus writes of the simoom, a wind so evil that a nation once declared war on it and marched into it dressed in full battle gear.
The wind and sand of the desert has the ability to erase people and things, just as it erases the English patient’s nationality and identity. The desert is also a symbol of the English patient’s identity in this sense, as Ondaatje suggests that both he and the desert are “nationless” and impermanent.
The English patient interrupts Hana’s reading and tells her that the Bedouin kept him alive for a reason. The English patient can recognize any location on a map, and he is extremely knowledgeable. Whenever he enters someone’s house, the English patient says, he goes directly to the bookshelves and “inhales” the books. “So history enters us,” he tells Hana. He knew all about the Bedouin’s customs and culture when he crashed his plane, and even though they were in the desert, he knew they were once “water people.”
Books again are seen as a type of force that sustains and enriches life. The English patient likens books to air that he “inhales” and can’t live without. The “history” of the book, that is the story, then becomes part of him as it “enters” him. Books are more than just stories in The English Patient; they keep people connected and impart personal, and therefore more authentic, histories and stories.
The English patient saw engravings on the rocks in Tassili depicting Sahara people hunting water horses, and in a cave in Wadi Sura, he saw paintings of people swimming. At one point, the English patient says, there was a large lake in the desert. We don’t know much about Africa, he says to Hana. Now, armies of thousands of men move across the desert, but the English patient isn’t sure who the enemy is. Who are the allies of the desert, he asks Hana, as all of Europe fights their way across North Africa?
Almásy, the actual explorer on whom the English patient is based, really did theorize that a large lake once existed in the desert. His contemporaries called his theory absurd, but in 2007, an ancient lake was found deep beneath the Sahara, supporting Almásy’s theory. This passage also reflects the ugly truth behind British colonialism. The West has taken over the East, whose people, for the most part, have nothing to do with the war being fought. Yet their lives are disrupted and disrespected because of World War II.
The Bedouin kept the English patient alive “because of the buried guns.” They handed him eight guns along with ammunition, and he identified each one. There were guns from different countries and time periods, and he said each name out loud, both in French and in the tribe’s language. This was his payment in exchange for the Bedouin saving his life.
The English patient says the words in French as well as in the tribe’s native language, which is again evidence of colonialism. French was brought to Africa by European colonialists, which minimized and jeopardized the region’s native languages.
In the desert, the only thing that is celebrated is water. Nothing is permanent, everything drifts, and some of the wells are considered cursed. Small towns spring up out of nowhere, and desert people dig down into ancient water nests, remnants of an “old sea” that had once been there.
This, too, reflects history and the ancient sea beneath the desert, which further highlights the impermanence and mystery of the region. The desert is transient and changing, like the English patient himself, whose identity has been erased by the desert.
Hana stands at a sink after leaving the English patient. She splashes water on her face and stands staring at the wall. She has long since removed all the mirrors in the villa and stored them in an unused room. She wets her hair and, walking outside, cool “breezes hit her, erasing the thunder.”
As the characters in the novel struggle with certain aspects of their identity and with the violence of the war, they refuse to look into mirrors, which suggests a certain shame or indignity in the violence they were forced to participate in during the war.