Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient focuses on the love story between the unidentified English patient—later revealed to be László Almásy, a Hungarian desert explorer—and Katharine Clifton, the wife of Geoffrey Clifton, a British spy posing as an archaeologist in North Africa in the years just before World War II. Badly burned in a plane crash and suffering from amnesia, Almásy is brought to a makeshift hospital in an abandoned Italian villa near the end of World War II. His nurse, Hana, believes her unknown patient to be too unstable to move, and she stays with him in the villa even though the war in Europe is largely over. Almásy doesn’t remember his name or nationality, but he clearly remembers his love for Katharine, and he tells his story to Hana and the others at the villa, including Caravaggio, an Italian thief who fought for the Allied Forces, and Kip, an Indian sapper who sweeps the villa for undetonated bombs and mines. While Ondaatje’s novel focuses primarily on the love between Almásy and Katharine, love is a driving force for the other characters as well, and it touches each of them in profound ways. Through the depiction of love in The English Patient, Ondaatje at once underscores the power of love to both heal and destroy and ultimately argues that love has the power to transcend anything, including war, distance, and even death.
Love in The English Patient is depicted as an immensely powerful force that, even as it offers passion and profound connection, changes people, driving them to jealousy or even insanity. Almásy’s story captures the power of love, but also its destructiveness. As Almásy recounts falling in love with the married Katharine, he explicitly describes himself as “insane.” His love for her also makes him extraordinarily jealous and possessive. He wants to completely separate Katharine from her husband Geoffrey, and feels that he does not have Katharine herself if her husband “can continue to hold her or be held by her.” Almásy’s relationship with Katharine is ends up being short-lived, but he falls so completely in love with her that he is nearly driven mad when he isn’t able to have her. What brings Almásy and Katharine’s love affair to an end is Katharine’s guilt about what she has done to her husband, and her fear about how the affair will affect her husband should he learn of it. “How can I be your lover? He will go mad,” Katharine says to Almásy in reference to Geoffrey. “I think he will go mad,” Katharine says. “Do you understand?” And Katharine’s fear is justified—Geoffrey does discover Katharine and Almásy’s affair, and he is indeed driven to madness. Geoffrey, a pilot, attempts to kill Almásy by crashing his plane into Almásy in the North African desert. Geoffrey’s plot fails and he misses Almásy, but Geoffrey does kill himself and almost fatally injures Katharine, who is in the plane with him. The novel portrays passionate romantic love as overwhelming in both the ecstasy it can offer but also in the way it can overwhelm a person’s reasoning. Further, it portrays such love as necessarily territorial and possessive. The competition over such love as a kind of warfare—the struggle between the Austrian Almásy and British Geoffrey parallels the global conflict that plays out in the months leading up to World War II, which will itself involve a massive campaign in North Africa.
Yet while The English Patient depicts love as a maddening, overwhelming and potentially destructive force, it also represents love as a healing power that comforts and restores the novel’s characters in the aftermath of World War II. Almásy’s love affair with Katharine and her subsequent death is the source of much of his suffering, but he finds comfort in telling his story to Hana and the others at the villa. “We die containing a richness of lovers,” Almásy tells Caravaggio at the end of the novel. “I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead.” For Almásy there is healing and closure in his love story, and as he approaches death, he is compelled to share that story with others. Hana, too, finds healing and closure in love. She falls into a kind of familial or paternal love with the English patient, who, like her own actual father, Patrick, is badly burned during the war. Patrick dies from his burns alone and far away from his daughter, and Hana comes to terms with this profound loss through her love for the English patient. Kip, who is deeply scarred and likely shell-shocked from his time as a bomb and mine specialist during the war, finds comfort in his romantic love for Hana. Unlike Almásy and Geoffrey who are driven mad by love, Kip finds stability in his love for Hana and believes that if he can just touch her, he will “be sane.” The emotional wounds Kip suffers because of the war begin to heal when he falls in love with Hana, and the love Hana feels for Kip similarly gives her a sense of connection after the war had filled her with nothing but loss.
By the very end of the novel, nearly 15 years have passed since the war and the occupants of the Italian villa have either died or gone their separate ways. Kip returns to India, where he becomes a doctor, marries, and has a family; however, he still thinks of Hana and the love they shared in the abandoned Italian villa. Kip’s love for Hana transcends not only the violence of war but time and distance as well, just as Hana’s love for her father and Almásy’s love for Katharine transcends death. Through such enduring love, Ondaatje highlights both aspects of this powerful emotion: its capacity to break one’s heart and spirit; but also its ability to give one strength and reason to live.
Love Quotes in The English Patient
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.
She picks up a cushion and places it onto her lap as a shield against him. “If you make love to me I won’t lie about it. If I make love to you I won’t lie about it.”
She moves the cushion against her heart, as if she would suffocate that part of herself which has broken free.
“What do you hate most?” he asks.
“A lie. And you?”
“Ownership,” he says. “When you leave me, forget me.”
Her fist swings towards him and hits hard into the bone just below his eye. She dresses and leaves.
She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water. She returned to her husband.
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography— to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books.