The English Patient

by

Michael Ondaatje

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

Books help Ondaatje’s characters to understand and interpret the world and each other, but books also symbolize the incredible connection between personal narratives and history within the novel.  Books are important on many levels in The English Patient. The English patient, the title character and protagonist, carries a worn and heavily-annotated copy of Herodotus’s Histories, and his close friend, Madox, cherishes a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Books and stories are profoundly powerful in the novel and are often described as a life-sustaining force. For example, when Hana reads books from the villa’s library to the English patient, he swallows “her words like water,” and whenever he enters the home of new friend, he goes directly to the bookshelf and “inhales” the books. Hana even uses books from the villa’s library to rebuild the destroyed staircase, suggesting that books are not only a part of people but are essential to the building of the world as well.

Within the English patient’s copy of The Histories, a historical book that focuses on personal narratives, are his personal notes and thoughts, and he has glued in snippets that are important to him: parts of other books, Bible passages, important maps, and even a fern. The English patient’s copy of The Histories thus represents his own history as well as that of others, much like the copy of The Last of the Mohicans Hana uses as a journal. After reading the book by James Fenimore Cooper, Hana turns to a blank page near the back and writes her own story before closing the book and replacing it on the highest shelf of the villa’s library. According to the English patient, people are “communal books, communal histories,” carrying stories of the past into the future. Ondaatje argues that these personal narratives, often overlooked in the broad view of history, are crucial to understanding both the past and the present.

Books Quotes in The English Patient

The The English Patient quotes below all refer to the symbol of Books . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Love Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The English Patient published in 1993.
Chapter I Quotes

She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

Related Characters: Hana
Related Symbols: Books
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter III Quotes

If he were a hero in a painting, he could claim just sleep. But as even she had said, he was the brownness of a rock, the brownness of a muddy storm-fed river. And something in him made him step back from even the naive innocence of such a remark. The successful defusing of a bomb ended novels. Wise white fatherly men shook hands, were acknowledged, and limped away, having been coaxed out of solitude for this special occasion. But he was a professional. And he remained the foreigner, the Sikh.

Related Characters: Hana, Kip/Kirpal Singh
Related Symbols: Books , Bombs
Page Number: 104-5
Explanation and Analysis:

“I have seen editions of The Histories with a sculpted portrait on the cover. Some statue found in a French museum. But I never imagine Herodotus this way. I see him more as one of those spare men of the desert who travel from oasis to oasis, trading legends as if it is the exchange of seeds, consuming everything without suspicion, piecing together a mirage. ‘This history of mine,’ Herodotus says, ‘has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument.’ What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history—[…]”

Related Characters: The English Patient/László Almásy (speaker), Hana
Related Symbols: The Desert  , Books
Page Number: 118-9
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter VII Quotes

He looked back at the others, peered around the room and caught the gaze of the middle-aged secretary. She watched him sternly. An Indian boy. He smiled and walked towards the bookshelves. Again he touched nothing. At one point he put his nose close to a volume called Raymond, or Life and Death by Sir Oliver Hodge. He found another, similar title. Pierre, or the Ambiguities. He turned and caught the woman’s eyes on him again. He felt as guilty as if he had put the book in his pocket. She had probably never seen a turban before. The English! They expect you to fight for them but won’t talk to you. Singh. And the ambiguities.

Related Characters: Kip/Kirpal Singh, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden
Related Symbols: Books , Kip’s Turban
Page Number: 187-8
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter X Quotes

He was riding deeper into thick rain. Because he had loved the face on the ceiling he had loved the words. As he had believed in the burned man and the meadows of civilisation he tended. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Solomon were in the burned man’s bedside book, his holy book, whatever he had loved glued into his own. He had passed his book to the sapper, and the sapper had said we have a Holy Book too.

Related Symbols: Books
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The English Patient LitChart as a printable PDF.
The English Patient PDF

Books Symbol Timeline in The English Patient

The timeline below shows where the symbol Books appears in The English Patient. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter I. The Villa
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
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... (full context)
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
God and Religion  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...by bombs, including the lower stairs of the large staircase, which Hana rebuilt by nailing books together. (full context)
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...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.... (full context)
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter II. In Near Ruins
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...be at least 45 years old now. When she is done writing, Hana closes the book and puts it back on the highest possible shelf. (full context)
Chapter III. Sometime a Fire
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...he has been spending most of his time lately. He is so distracted by the books, he doesn’t at first notice Hana sleeping on the couch. He sneezes suddenly, and she... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
God and Religion  Theme Icon
...was a shy man and never really comfortable in the world. She read in a book recommended by the English patient that “a novel is a mirror walking down a road,”... (full context)
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Later, Hana sits reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling to the English patient. He asks her to slow down. Kipling must... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...“a love story” and “human betrayals.” Feeling guilty for invading his privacy, she puts the book down and leaves the room. (full context)
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Kip doesn’t believe in books the same way Hana does. As Hana watches Kip stand at the English patient’s bedside,... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...goes to the English patient’s room to read, he asks her to put down the book and instead read from Herodotus’s The Histories. According to the English patient, Herodotus’s book reveals... (full context)
Chapter IV. South Cairo 1930-1938
Love Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...had fallen in love with Katharine’s voice as she recited a passage from John Milton’s Paradise Lost . The English patient never enjoyed poetry until he heard it read by Katharine, and... (full context)
Chapter VI. A Buried Plane
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
God and Religion  Theme Icon
...Germans sent a spy named Eppler to Cairo in 1942 with a copy of the book Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier as a code book to send messages back and forth.... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
...patient tells him he left Katharine in the Cave of Swimmers with his copy of The Histories . (full context)
Chapter VII. In Situ
War and Nationality Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...were Indian. Miss Morden sat at a nearby desk, staring at him. Kip took a book off a shelf, Pierre; or The Ambiguities, and felt the woman’s eyes on him. She... (full context)
Chapter IX. The Cave of Swimmers
Love Theme Icon
...lasted a lifetime, but Katharine was smarter than him. Once, when Katharine ran out of books to read, she asked the English patient for his copy of The Histories. He had... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...out loud, but she wanted to read something else. The English patient handed her his book of Herodotus, and she read the story of Candaules, one the English patient has always... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
While in Cairo, the English patient worked for the Department of Egyptology and wrote a book about his explorations. It was a short book, only 70 pages, and he had wanted... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...had tried to warn him about Geoffrey’s connection to the English. Like the English patient’s book of Herodotus, Madox carried Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and used the book to try to explain... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
War and Nationality Theme Icon
God and Religion  Theme Icon
...and pointing to the hollow near the base of his neck. He left, carrying his book of Tolstoy. Once in England, Madox entered a church near Somerset with his wife, and... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...connection the English patient had with the cities of the outside world was through Herodotus’s book. Soon, even the idea of a city became foreign to the English patient. In a... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...but would soon return with help. When he left her, he gave her his Herodotus book. It was September of 1939. (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...him. Almásy begs Caravaggio to speak to him and asks if he is “just a book” to be filled with morphine and read.  (full context)
Chapter X. August
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
God and Religion  Theme Icon
...gold and marble in 1830. At Granth Sahib, there is a shrine of the Holy Book, where the ragis sings the Book’s verses. Kip tells Hana about Baba Gujhaji, the first... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
...and Caravaggio know that they will bury him, and everything he owns, except for Herodotus’s book. (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
God and Religion  Theme Icon
...Kip thinks of the ceiling he had loved. Isaiah had been in the English patient’s book, his “holy book,” which he passed to Kip. Kip had refused the book, telling him... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
...and she still thinks of the English patient and the words he read from his book. She accidentally hits a cupboard with her shoulder, knocking a glass from the shelf. As... (full context)