The English Patient

by

Michael Ondaatje

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The Desert  Symbol Analysis

The Desert   Symbol Icon

Much of The English Patient takes place in the Gilf Kebir, a desert plateau in North Africa, and this desert landscape is symbolic of the English patient, László Almásy’s, lack of a national identity. Almásy spends most of the 1930s in the Gilf Kebir looking for the mythical city, Zerzura, and he falls in love with the isolated impermanence of the desert. According to Almásy, the desert cannot be claimed or owned. It is “a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East.” The desert’s legendary windstorms bury and erase anything standing still, and the remote location means that one’s nationality becomes “insignificant.”

In the desert, Almásy, a Hungarian desert explorer, becomes nationless and soon grows to “hate nations.” Almásy claims one is “deformed by nation-states,” and his good friend and fellow desert explorer, Madox, dies “because of nations.” While Almásy does his best to become nationless like desert, he ultimately discovers that escaping one’s national identity isn’t so easy. After Katharine, Almásy’s former lover, is injured deep in the Gilf Kebir and Almásy must go for help, the British military refuses to listen to him because he is Hungarian, and Katharine dies waiting. Almásy later leads a German spy across the desert into Cairo during World War II, and after a plane crash leaves Almásy burned and nearly dead while trying to recover Katharine’s body, he must conceal his identity to avoid capture and certain death. Even when Almásy is burned beyond recognition and being cared for by Hana, a stranger for all intents and purposes, he is still unable to conceal his national identity. Unlike the boundaryless and unclaimed desert, Almásy is never able to fully severe ties with his nationality, which suggests the link between identity and nationality is one that cannot be broken.

The Desert  Quotes in The English Patient

The The English Patient quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Desert  . 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 III Quotes

“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 IV Quotes

By 1932, Bagnold was finished and Madox and the rest of us were everywhere. Looking for the lost army of Cambyses. Looking for Zerzura. 1932 and 1933 and 1934. Not seeing each other for months. Just the Bedouin and us, crisscrossing the Forty Days Road. There were rivers of desert tribes, the most beautiful humans I’ve met in my life. We were German, English, Hungarian, African— all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. Madox died because of nations.

Related Characters: The English Patient/László Almásy (speaker), Madox
Related Symbols: The Desert 
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

The ends of the earth are never the points on a map that colonists push against, enlarging their sphere of influence. On one side servants and slaves and tides of power and correspondence with the Geographical Society. On the other the first step by a white man across a great river, the first sight (by a white eye) of a mountain that has been there forever.

Related Symbols: The Desert 
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Desert  Symbol Timeline in The English Patient

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Desert  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
The English patient tells Hana about the desert and picnics with a woman who used to kiss his body that is now covered... (full context)
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...customs and culture when he crashed his plane, and even though they were in the desert, he knew they were once “water people.”   (full context)
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
In the desert, the only thing that is celebrated is water. Nothing is permanent, everything drifts, and some... (full context)
Chapter II. In Near Ruins
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...and he doesn’t know who he is either. The Bedouin brought him in from the desert, but he had no identification with him. The Bedouin keep military name tags as “great... (full context)
Chapter IV. South Cairo 1930-1938
War and Nationality Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
After Herodotus’s time, the Western world cared little about the desert until the 20th century, and even then it was mostly private expeditions by members of... (full context)
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Hana sits by the English patient’s bed and listens to his stories of the desert. In 1930, he had gone to the Gilf Kebir Plateau in search of a lost... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
The English patient tells Hana that his first desert exploration was in 1930 with a fellow explorer named Madox. They went on a seven-day... (full context)
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
In 1931, the English patient met another explorer, Fenelon-Barnes, on a journey into the desert. One day, the English patient went to Fenelon-Barnes’s tent, but he had gone on a... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...They were German, English, Hungarian, and African, but their nationalities were “insignificant” to the native desert people. In the desert, the explorers were “nationless,” and the English patient grew to hate... (full context)
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...maps simply reflect the first time a “white eye” sets sight on a mountain or desert that has always been there. He continues his story and tells Hana that one does... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
British Colonialism and Racism Theme Icon
...Geoffrey Clifton. Geoffrey was newly married, and looking to go on an expedition into the desert. He soon came to Cairo and met up with the English patient’s exploration team, including... (full context)
Chapter V. Katharine
Love Theme Icon
...for the other man, although when she saw him and listened to him talk about desert explorations, she had wanted to slap him. Katharine was always wanting to slap the English... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
...English patient could not keep himself from Katharine, and when he was not in the desert, they were together. At night, he would lie in her arms, but Katharine often felt... (full context)
Chapter VI. A Buried Plane
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...about a Hungarian named Almásy who aided the Germans during the war. Almásy was a desert explorer who knew all about the landscape and the local dialects of the native people.... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...English patient the Brompton cocktail, he begins to tell Caravaggio all about Cairo and the desert. Caravaggio asks him about 1942, and the English patient says he had just come to... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
When the English patient finally reached Madox’s plane buried in the desert in 1942, he loaded Katharine’s body into it and took off. The plane, however, was... (full context)
Chapter IX. The Cave of Swimmers
Love Theme Icon
Katharine became obsessed with the desert and began to read everything she could about it. The English patient was 15 years... (full context)
War and Nationality Theme Icon
History, Words, and Storytelling Theme Icon
...ordered by British Intelligence to keep an eye on Almásy and his expeditions into the desert, Caravaggio says. The English knew that the desert would eventually become a theater of the... (full context)
Love Theme Icon
War and Nationality Theme Icon
...in the Middle East. British Intelligence worried that Almásy would use his knowledge of the desert to help the Germans, Caravaggio says. The English patient is quiet for a moment and... (full context)