Hana stands up in the garden near the orchard of a villa and heads in the direction of the house. She walks through the kitchen and up the dark stairs to a back bedroom that is painted like a garden. In the bed is a badly burned man, and he turns to look at Hana as she enters the room. She bathes him every four days, dripping water onto his open and weeping wounds. As Hana works, the man, known only as the English patient, tells her a story about the desert. He had fallen flaming from the sky, he says, and the Bedouin, a native tribe of desert Arabs, saved his life and carried him out of the desert. Selected from the villa’s library, Hana reads various books to the English patient, including his own copy of Herodotus’s The Histories. It is the final days of World War II, and they are the villa’s only residents. The Italian villa had served as a makeshift hospital for the Allies. When the other nurses and doctors moved the patients north, Hana insisted on staying behind with the English patient, who is not stable enough to move. The villa has been nearly destroyed by the war. The structure itself has endured countless mortar strikes, and bombs and mines litter the property, making many of the room unsafe to enter.
A man with bandaged hands named Caravaggio has been at the military hospital in Rome for nearly four months now. He hears a group of doctors talking about a nurse and her patient in a villa to the north and stops to ask her name. The woman, Hana, is suffering from shell shock and had refused to leave the villa on account of her patient, a badly burned amnesiac presumed to be English. The war in Europe is over, the doctors say, and they can no longer force Hana, or anyone else, to do anything. Arriving at the villa, Caravaggio enters the house quietly and approaches Hana, kneeling down next to her “like an uncle.” Hana is shocked. This man—who was a friend of her late father, Patrick, and whom she has known for so long—has come all this way to see her. If Caravaggio is to stay at the villa, Hana says, they must secure more food. Hana knows where they can find some chickens if Caravaggio will offer his skills as a thief. “I’ve lost my nerve,” he says holding up his bandaged hands. As an Italian, the Allied forces had utilized Caravaggio’s skills and sent him to steal important papers and maps; however, he had been caught by the Germans, and they nearly cut off his hands. One night, after leaving the English patient, Hana goes downstairs and removes the cover from an old piano and begins to play. As she plays, a storm rolls in and lightning streaks the sky. The room is illuminated, and Hana sees that two soldiers, one of whom is wearing a turban, have entered the room.
The man in the turban, an Indian sapper named Kip, puts up a tent near the villa’s garden. The other soldier, Hardy, is stationed in a nearby town. The men have been sent in to sweep the area for bombs and land mines, and they know that musical instruments are popular hiding spots. Luckily there is not a bomb in the villa’s piano, but there are plenty of others. Hana is intrigued by Kip’s dark skin, and she watches him as he moves around the property, diffusing bombs left in the German’s retreat. One day, Hana hears Kip shouting in a field near the villa and finds him standing with his arms in the air, holding up two wires. It is a “trick” bomb, he says, and he needs Hana to hold the wires so he can diffuse it. Hana takes the wires, and Kip suggests taping them to the tree so Hana can leave. He doesn’t quite know how this bomb is wired, and it isn’t safe for her to stay. Hana refuses, and Kip is able to diffuse the bomb, but he is badly shaken. They could have been killed, and Hana approaches her life with a nonchalance that Kip doesn’t quite understand. Afterward, Hana falls asleep on Kip’s chest, and Kip sits awake, angry at Hana for making him responsible for her life. Soon, Hana begins to visit Kip’s tent at night. She knows that Kip loves her, even they he doesn’t need her like the English patient does, and Kip thinks that she is “remarkable.”
There was little interest in the desert before the 20th century, the English patient tells Hana. By the early 1900s, European men were exploring and mapping the desert, finding ancient cave paintings and evidence of lost civilizations. In 1930, the English patient went into the desert in search of Zerzura, an ancient city in the Gilf Kebir. The European explorers, including the English patient and his friend, Madox, were “nationless” in the desert among the native tribes. In 1936, the English patient’s expedition was joined by Geoffrey Clifton, an Englishman, and his wife, Katharine. Geoffrey was a pilot and had done some work with British archaeologists. In the desert, the English patient and Katharine quickly fell in love, but Katharine worried that Geoffrey would go “mad” if he found out, and she quit the affair just as quickly as it started.
One day, Caravaggio tells Hana about a Hungarian desert explorer named László Almásy, who guided German spies across the desert in the early days of the war. Caravaggio believes that the English patient is actually Almásy, and even though Hana thinks it is absurd, Caravaggio gives the English patient a cocktail of morphine and alcohol to get him talking. Caravaggio asks the English patient to tell him about 1942, and the English patient says that he had just arrived in Cairo and was headed back into the desert. Madox had left a plane out there, and the English patient had to get Katharine from the Cave of Swimmers, where he had left her after Geoffrey’s murder-suicide attempt. Geoffrey had attempted to crash his plane into the English patient in an effort to kill Katharine, the English patient, and himself. Geoffrey, however, was the only one to die on impact. He missed the English patient completely, and Katharine, the plane’s passenger, was badly wounded. The English patient’s only choice was to leave Katharine and go for help, but no one would listen to him, and he was forced to go back alone. Now, years later, he found Katharine’s dead body in the cave where he left her, and implies that he had sex with her dead body. Unearthing the Madox’s plane from the sand, the English patient loaded Katharine’s body into the plane and took off. Oil leaked into the cockpit and sparks ignited the plane, forcing the English patient, now on fire, to eject from the plane.
Caravaggio confirms that the English patient is indeed Almásy, but he ultimately decides that it doesn’t matter on which side of the war he fought. Caravaggio has grown fond of the English patient and sees no point in turning the burned main in to British Intelligence. One day, as Hana sits in the kitchen, she sees Kip grab the earphones he wears for communication with the military. He screams and falls to his knees, then he goes to his tent and returns with a rifle. He walks into the villa, past Hana in the kitchen, up to the English patient’s room. Kip fires at the fountain out the window and then levels the gun at the English patient. Two bombs have been dropped on Japan, and both Nagasaki and Hiroshima have been annihilated. Hana and Caravaggio run into the room, and the English patient tells Kip to kill him. Caravaggio tries to tell Kip that the English patient isn’t really English, but he won’t hear it. Anyone who drops a bomb on brown people is an Englishman, Kip says. Caravaggio falls into a nearby chair. He knows that Kip is right; such bombs would never be dropped on white cities.
Kip puts down the gun and leaves the villa. He strips his uniform and takes off his turban, tying his long hair into a topknot. He finds an old Triumph motorcycle hidden in the chapel and rides away from the villa. As he does, Caravaggio is waiting near the exit. He steps into Kip’s path, stopping him, and embraces the man before allowing him to continue on. As Kip rides farther and farther away from the war, Hana writes to Clara, her stepmother, and prepares to return home to Canada. Hana can’t quite remember the year, but she knows the date, as it is the day after the bombs were dropped on Japan. “If we can rationalize this,” Hana writes Clara, “we can rationalize anything.” Meanwhile, as the English patient tries to sleep, he notices a dark figure in his room and hopes that it is Kip. He stays awake all night waiting for the figure to move, but it doesn’t. Years later, Kip is living in India. He is now a doctor, and he has two kids and a “laughing wife,” but he still thinks about Hana. He can see her in his mind, moving about her life, grown now into a woman. As Kip sits down to dinner with his family, Hana bumps into a cupboard in Canada, knocking a glass from the shelf. As the glass falls to the floor, Kip reaches down and catches a fork his daughter drops from the table.