The Significance Of Symbolism In Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade January 2002

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Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is a novel containing much important symbolism. Ondaatje uses metaphors and symbols masterfully to convey meaning throughout the novel. Fire, the desert, books, and the Italian monastery are all signicant symbols in the story. The characters are effected by these symbols both positively and negatively. There are many hidden symbols and representations that are visible in both the novel and the movie versions of the story.

Fire is a symbol used frequently during the story, and perhaps the most significant. It represents both devastation and retribution to almost every character. Count Almasy, the English patient, was burned horribly beyond recognition by fire from his plane crash. A once noble and strong man, he is left helpless and scalded, as a result of the terrible accident. Being burned by fire, however, allows him to suppress his memories and identity. He fakes amnesia to disguise and hide his twisted past.

Katharine, Almasy's adulterous lover, is also killed in the plane fire. The English patient's burns also cleanse him of national identity. His hatred for nationalities and social classes are shown in his popular quote "Erase the family name! Erase nations!," which rings true for him, as the fire has burned off his face, rendering him without nationality. None can identify where Almasy comes from. After the word of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, Japan reaches the Sikh sapper Kip, his relationship with the Canadian nurse Hana ceases, and he loses trust and love for all English "dealmakers." When Kip "sees the streets of Asia full of fire," he isolates himself from the English, and his darker side is displayed. The Nazis tortured David Carvaggio after his capture with fire; they cut off his thumbs and burned his palms so he could never steal again.