The English Patient


Michael Ondaatje

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Mirrors  Symbol Analysis

Mirrors   Symbol Icon

Mirrors are symbolic of the characters’ struggles with their respective identities within the novel. When Hana, a nurse, first arrives in Italy during World War II, she cuts her hair after it in falls into a bloody wound, and she doesn’t look in a mirror for over a year. Later, after months of nursing the never-ending line of critically-wounded soldiers who arrive at the makeshift hospital, Hana catches a glimpse of herself in her roommate’s mirror. Looking at her reflection in the tiny mirror, Hana barely recognizes the harden woman she has become. “Hi Buddy,” Hana says to herself, borrowing the name she uses for each of her many nameless, faceless patients. The mirror, then, forces Hanna to confront how the trauma of her role as a war nurse has changed her both inside and out, presenting an unrecognizable reflection that highlights the disconnect Hana feels with her former civilian life.

At the end of the war, when Hana refuses to leave the Italian villa due to the English patient’s unstable condition, she takes down every mirror in the villa and stacks them in the attic. Hana is traumatized by the war and her place in it, and in her refusal to look in the mirror, she effectively avoids confronting herself. Hana isn’t the only one who refuses to look in the mirror. Kip, the Indian sapper, struggles with his native identity in the whitewashed British military. He willingly conforms to Western culture, but he continues to wear a traditional turban, which he wraps around his head each day without looking in a mirror. Similar to Hana’s struggle with her place in the war, Kip struggles with the implications of his racial identity in a racist society, and by avoiding mirrors, he avoids this truth as well.

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Mirrors  Symbol Timeline in The English Patient

The timeline below shows where the symbol Mirrors  appears in The English Patient. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter I. The Villa
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Chapter II. In Near Ruins
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...falling into bloody wounds, so she cut it all off and hasn’t looked in the mirror since. She grew increasingly distant, and called all of her patients “Buddy” instead of learning... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...while in the room she shared with another nurse, Hana caught the glint of a mirror out of the corner of her eye. She picked up the mirror and looked into... (full context)
Chapter III. Sometime a Fire
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
God and Religion  Theme Icon
...She read in a book recommended by the English patient that “a novel is a mirror walking down a road,” and that is how she thought of her father. Caravaggio says... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
Inside the villa, Hana carries a large mirror down the upstairs hallway. The English patient wants to see himself. At the foot of... (full context)
Chapter IV. South Cairo 1930-1938
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
...a small expedition to catalogue fossils. In Fenelon-Barnes’s tent, the English patient noticed a small mirror on the wall, in which the bed was reflected. There was a small lump in... (full context)
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...there. He continues his story and tells Hana that one does not look in the mirror when they are young. It is only when one is older and concerned with their... (full context)
Chapter V. Katharine
Love Theme Icon
...the English patient’s eye, leaving a large bruise. Later, he examined the welt in the mirror, and realized that he had not looked at himself in the mirror for years. (full context)
Chapter VIII. The Holy Forest
War and Nationality Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
...his time with Englishmen, thinking about England or Lord Suffolk. Kip does not carry a mirror, and he wraps his turban each day without one, facing the garden outside.  (full context)