God and religion do not appear be an important part of the lives of the characters in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. As the characters converge at the abandoned Italian villa during the end of World War II, they each begin to heal from the traumas of war, but neither God nor organized religion seem to have a place within that recovery. None of the characters partake in formal religious practices, nor do they pray or otherwise interact with God. Despite this noticeable lack, however, there are numerous biblical references throughout the book. As Hana, a Canadian nurse, cares for the unidentified burn victim she knows only as the English patient, she thinks that her patient has the “hipbones of Christ,” and she comes to look at the man as her “despairing saint.” The novel also takes care to describe the religious architecture of Italy, though this description also makes clear that most of the chapels and religious sculptures have been in some way damaged—if not destroyed—by the violence of the war. Yet while the practices and structures of organized religion in the story seem to have been destroyed by the war, many of the characters do seem to seek out some kind of religious solace in moments of pain or death. This suggests that a kind of religious spirit can survive the most terrible events, still remaining even in the aftermath of war.
The novel depicts World War II as having essentially broken religion. This breaking is evident in a number of ways. First, it is made clear in the way that the combatants in the war—a war fought in the Christian lands of Europe—show no respect for religious structures. The Italian villa that serves as a makeshift hospital during the war (and later becomes the home of Hana, the English patient, Caravaggio, and Kip) has a chapel that has been “scarred” by “phosphorus bombs and explosions.” Cathedrals and chapels all through Italy have been destroyed. As Kip makes his way through Italy diffusing German bombs and landmines, he finds himself sweeping several chapels and churches, including the Sistine Chapel, perhaps the most famous religious structure in Europe. Through the wanton neglect of the Europeans for their religious structures, the novel implies that perhaps the religion itself never held as much sway over Europe as any and all Europeans would have attested before the war. The novel also portrays religion during the war as having become hypocritical by having been bent to political ends. Madox, the English patient’s close friend and fellow desert explorer, attends church in England during the war, and listens to a sermon praising the English war effort. Madox believes the church has “lost its holiness,” clearly because the sermon, in being pro-England, is also pro-war. Madox then commits an act that he believes to be “a holy act,” an act of protest against this use of religion: he kills himself with his desert revolver. For Madox, and seemingly for many of the characters, the organized religion has been revealed as having “lost its holiness” in the destruction and trauma of the war.
And yet, the novel also contains numerous moments when a connection to God or religion seems to offer characters a degree of comfort or protection. For instance, after the retreating Germans wire all of Naples to explode when the power is restored, Kip does his best to sweep the city for bombs. Before finally giving up in exhaustion, without being certain that he and his fellow sappers have finished the job, Kip goes to sleep in the Church of San Giovanni a Carbonara. Kip is not a Christian, but in this moment when it is possible that he will die when the power is turned back on, he retreats to a sacred place. This is not his religion, but a holy place still offers a sense of peace and comfort. Similarly, while trying to survive all alone at the abandoned villa with the English patient, who is too unstable to move, Hana is forced to grow vegetables in the meadow outside the villa. She removes the six-foot crucifix from the villa chapel and erects it her garden as a scarecrow. Hana’s use of the crucifix could certainly be taken as being sacrilegious, but at the same time it could be taken as a new, if tentative, religious form. The crucifix, after all, continues to ward off evil, to offer support, to protect the weak and the innocent. The novel seems to imply that Hana maybe misusing the crucifix according to official rules, but not in spirit. And, by extension, the novel implies that perhaps it is the new spirit that should be heeded, and not the old rules (which, after all, were a part of the society that led to the destruction of World War II). Patrick, Hana’s father, who is also killed during the war, dies in a dove-cot in France, which is a structure used for housing doves. Dove-cots are considered sacred places in France, “like a church in many ways,” Hana tells her stepmother in a letter after Patrick’s death. Yet while it is like a church in many ways, it is certainly humbler than a church. And yet it is also still standing, and its association with doves make it a structure that is strongly associated with peace. Here, again, the novel seems to suggest that the old forms of religion may have been destroyed in the war, but that the human need for religion and spiritual sustenance remains. Further, the novel implies through Hana’s use of the crucifix and Patrick’s death in the church of the dove-cot, that in the post-war world there are possibilities for the experience of new forms of religious practice that are perhaps humbler, less organized, less rule-bound, but that nonetheless offer a connection with God.
God and Religion ThemeTracker
God and Religion Quotes in The English Patient
She worked in the garden and orchard. She carried the six-foot crucifix from the bombed chapel and used it to build a scarecrow above her seedbed, hanging empty sardine cans from it which clattered and clanked whenever the wind lifted.
He sits with his hands below the table, watching the girl eat. He still prefers to eat alone, though he always sits with Hana during meals. Vanity, he thinks. Mortal vanity. She has seen him from a window eating with his hands as he sits on one of the thirty-six steps by the chapel, not a fork or a knife in sight, as if he were learning to eat like someone from the East. In his greying stubble-beard, in his dark jacket, she sees the Italian finally in him. She notices this more and more.
The Villa San Girolamo, built to protect inhabitants from the flesh of the devil, had the look of a besieged fortress, the limbs of most of the statues blown off during the first days of shelling. There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remnants of the earth. To Hana the wild gardens were like further rooms. She worked along the edges of them aware always of unexploded mines. In one soil-rich area beside the house she began to garden with a furious passion that could come only to someone who had grown up in a city. In spite of the burned earth, in spite of the lack of water. Someday there would be a bower of limes, rooms of green light.
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.