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The English Patient – Techniques Essay, Research Paper
The novel, The English Patient, by Michael Ondaajte constructs meaning through the use of tropes, images and symbolism, instead of merely portraying a linear set of events. There are many intertexual references, tropes of covering, which serve to create and strengthen meaning, as well as bold imagery, which erects another level of significance. Symbolism plays a vital role in the formation of meaning, with fire, religion, the English Patients body and the desert being essential to the founding concepts of the novel. The self-awareness of the novel, as well as the multiple relaying of one event, also assist is the creation of meaning.
There are many intertexual references throughout the novel, all of which serve to create and reinforce meaning. The Histories by Herodotus is constantly referred to and is carried everywhere by the English Patient. It speaks of the enmity of East and West and their irreconcilable differences. ??wonderful deeds manifested by both Greeks and barbarians?together with reason why they fought one another.? This exert from The Histories shows that while both East and West can achieve great feats they can never achieve the greatest feat of all, overcoming their differences. This foreshadows the apocalyptic dropping of the A-bomb on Japan and Kips subsequent realisation of this enmity. This is a key notion in the novel and the continual references help to foreground these differences, particularly highlighting the treatment of Asian nations at the hands of the English, or Western nations. This harsh conduct on the behalf of the English is emphasized by the English Patients use of cigarette papers, covering the text, much the same way as the dominating English cover the culture of the Indians. The English Patient represents everything that is English; he is knowledgeable and ?cultured?, able to speak on many ?refined? topics. This trope of covering is symbolic of the dispossession of their language, and government, indeed the very burial of their culture, suffered by the Indians at the hands of the English. Herodotus?s Histories also draw parallels between the Katherine/English Patient love affair and that of Gyges and the Queen, as well as revealing the power of words. During Katharine?s telling of the story, the English Patient falls in love with her, the story can be seen as the mechanism for their love affair. It becomes clear that Katharine is the Queen, Clifton is Candules, while the English Patient is forced into the role of Gyges. The narratives of the English Patient, Katharine and Clifton, are inextricably entangled with that of Candules, Gyges and the Queen, though centuries apart. The use of the intertexuality in this instance alludes to the narratives that inform lives. Katharine and the English Patient felt they were having a passionate and ?original? love affair, however when the parallels between The Histories and their love are drawn, the originality is lost, the narrative has already been written, already been lived.
The biblical story of David and Goliath is also referred to frequently in the novel and is critical in assembling meaning. Goliath is a dominating, seemingly unconquerable character, while David is a mere boy, with no apparent special qualities. Goliath represents the tyrannic arm of the British, while David is a metaphor for the revolt of the Indian people against the English. According to the story, before Goliaths defeat by David the people lived in fear, always waiting for a leader to free them. The mention of David in the novel can be seen as an allusion to Gandhi, the leader which freed the Indians from the English authority. This story foreshadows the break down of Imperialism and the consequent control gained by the Indian people in 1947. On a smaller level, the English Patient can be seen as Goliath, and Kip as David. ?When I see him at the end of my bed, I think that Kip is my David.? This refers to both the story of David and Goliath and the painting by David Carravaggio. In the painting David hold the head of an old Goliath; youth always holds the head of old. This symbolise the age of imperialism is over. Kip, the Indian, is young, holding the aged head of Imperialistic values.
The Last of the Mohicans is primarily concerned with the take over of American by the English and the wholesale massacre of a race. This intertexual reference draws attention to other periods of time when the English have disregarded cultures different from their own, covering the mores of the people and dispossessing them of there language and traditions. This helps to highlight and criticise Imperialistic values by presenting them in such a way that the reader sympathises with the plights of both the Native Americans and the Indians, as opposed to feeling support for the Imperial case. Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, is another text referred to in the novel, and tells of the oppression of the Indian people. A young Irish boy is taught and guided by a Tibetan lama in the novel, Kim. This demonstrates that Asians, and indeed people of all cultures have ?worthy? knowledge and deserve to be treated with dignity, not dispossessed of their language and culture. Kim also acknowledges the vital nature of maps when colonising other countries.
Symbolism is an essential aspect of the novel, and fundamental in constructing meaning. Fire is a used symbolically throughout the text and has great political significance, symbolising the geographical and governmental forces that play a part in all the characters lives. This concept reaches an apex when the A-bomb is dropped on Japan and Kip ?sees the streets of Asia full of fire.? He consequently gains a realisation of the trickery, and deception by the English, the ?dealmakers?; people he no longer strives to be like, no longer loves. This climax also symbolises the complete devastation that fire can bring, this being previously foreshadowed by the people of the villa, all of whom have been damaged by fire. Love is represented by fire throughout the novel. The relationship between Katherine and the English Patient is portrayed as an overwhelming passion of fire, this in turn, translates to the literal fire which occurs upon Clifton?s learning of the affair. Hana and Kips relationship is also scarred by fire; when the A-bomb is dropped on Japan, Kip comes to be unable to continue a relationship with a European, who he believes are all ?dealmakers?, not worthy of trust. Ironically, while fire can be seen as a scarring destructive force, it is also portrayed as a cleanser. ?Erase the family name! Erase nations!? The English Patient comes to hate nations while in the desert, yet he is still ?poisoned? by identity, he can be recognised and identified with a type of people. However, when he is burned he is cleansed of he identifiable nationality, indeed, much of the novel is centred on the discovery of his origins.
Diametrically opposed, yet inextricably entwined, is the image of water and the desert. The English Patient is associated with the desert and fire, while Katharine is constantly referred to in connection with water. In order to endure both the desert and fire, water is vital, much like the English Patients desire for Katharine; she is a vital aspect of his life. However, right from the beginning their relationship was destined to end, it could not last. Katharine had only a ?temporary passion for the desert?, she was a separate element, essential to survival, yet she was unable to endure the dryness, she was ?a ghost between your hands and your mouth.? The desert is also a metaphor for identity. It is constantly changing; it is indefinable and cannot be mapped. Identity can be seen in the same way. ??we became nationless. The desert taught me to hate nations,? this statement portrays the idea that people are not defined by their nation, by the man-made borders constructed, people are changing and as indefinable as the desert. In the desert there are no nations, or boundaries to catalyse war, in the desert there is peace, this is how the English Patient believes people should be, without borders and boundaries, free without the constructed limitations of nations.
Books are used constantly as symbols throughout the novel. When a step leading to the English Patients room is damaged, she hammers books together and creates new stairs. This symbolises how books can be used to reach out to others and understand them better. The references and symbolism of books also creates the idea that people are the narratives they live. Hana uses books as a way out; she immerses herself in the text and escapes. The notion put forward her is that narratives construct our lives, ?she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.? In this quote from the novel, Hana becomes so engrossed in the book she comes to be living a narrative.
Maps are used in the book both literally and symbolically. Maps give places names, identify them with a particular country, according to how they are named; it asserts ownership over the land. While the English Patient hates nationalism, he ironically was a mapmaker, this aids in constructing the English Patient as everything English. In the novel maps are portrayed in a critical way. They are shown to create artificial borders, and indeed, are the catalysts for war. Maps are also used to symbolise the destruction of ?other? cultures (i.e. those that are not English); mapping over one culture with another, the way the English mapped over the Indian people, dispossessing them of everything, even names of geographical sites. ?Give me a map and I?ll build you a city,? the English Patient claims. This quotation suggests that with a map the English can colonise any country, they can build their cities everywhere. This also puts forth the idea that with a ?map?, or knowledge of what the inhabitants of the colonised country are like, English concepts and values may be built into the people, loved and accepted by the people.
Religion is referred to many times in the novel. It is depicted as an irrelevant construction of man, yet something that can still be vital and indeed useful if the regulations are broken away. ?She dragged a six foot cross from the chapel and put it in the garden,? in this Hana has used a once useless sign of religion for beneficial. This suggests that religion, when incorporated into everyday life can be of great value, however when it is used simply for worship it is of no significance. ?Then he was anointed,? in the desert herbs are used to dress the English Patients wounds, to anoint him. This is another example of where religion related items are used in practical applications.
The setting, primarily the villa, works on many symbolic levels. It is a refuge, a place of healing for damaged people. All of the characters are in some way damaged by the war. The villa has previously been a nunnery and a hospital, places of healing for the soul and for the body. It is a place where there are no borders and boundaries, people from all areas on the world live in relative happiness and harmony. It is under these conditions that the characters can be healed. ?She turns into the room which is another garden,? there are no boundaries in the villa, the inside is out and the outside can come in, yet there is harmony and healing. This presentation of the villa supports the English Patients contention that there ought not to be borders, that boundaries are the reasons for international unrest and pain. The English Patient also believes that the villa is the same villa where Poliziano lived during the Renaissance. Traditionally it was the meeting place of the old and the new. This is the same for the period of time during which the novel is set; again the villa can be viewed as a meeting place for old and new. The English Patient represents old colonial values, while Kip represents the end of Imperialism occurring in 1947; under the villa roof these two meet, old and new.
The burned body of the English Patient is of great importance to the novel. The charred body is symbolic of both identity and Imperialism. ?Erase the family name! Erase nations,? these are the English Patients sentiments regarding national identity. Through the fire he has lost his identity, he has lost that which branded him with a nation. Thus the English Patients body is symbolic of a nationless, borderless world, he became like his beloved desert, when he plunged, burning into it; he has no identity. His burnt body also symbolism the burnt out Imperialistic discourse. His wounds and consequent death foreshadow and symbolise the reclamation of many third world countries by the original inhabitants. In 1947 the English are expelled from India, this is symbolised by the death of the English Patient.
Stories are often told multiple times in a The English Patient, defying the conventional use of linear events. The English Patients tells the story of the Cave of Swimmers three times, each time adding to or changing part of the account. This gives the impression that perhaps the reader is not always given the ?truth? regarding the sequence of events. It also proposes that human memory may deceive even the owner of such memories. The lack of linearity of events reveals that actions do not merely take place one at a time in a completely chronological form, instead there are event?s taking place everywhere all the time, in the time it takes for one happening to occur, millions of other are taking place all the time.
The text also has realisation of it?s own construction. Instead of moving along seamlessly, presenting ?real life? it alerts the reader to the fact that the novel is merely a narrative. This is very different to the majority of novels, which deny their own manufacture, and draws attention to narratives, which inform people?s lives. Stories that people live out, texts that people read and accept as normal, these are brought to attention by the acknowledgement that the novel The English Patient is a construction of the writer, Michael Ondaatje?s imagination.
It is through the use of symbolism, tropes, images and the lack of linearity, as opposed to conventional techniques that the author Michael Ondaatje constructs meaning in the novel The English Patient.
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