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The Motif of the Desert in The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is the story of four different people’s experiences and how they came to live together in a small villa in Italy during World War II. The novel is abundant in symbolism, and the imagery brings the settings to life. The novel is also filled with motifs. Probably the most frequent motif Ondaatje uses is the desert. The motif of the desert appears in the novel to accomplish one of two things: to represent characteristics of English patient, or to reinforce the theme of nations.

The most often use of the desert motif is to symbolize an aspect or characteristic of the English patient. On several occasions, the vastness of the desert is emphasized. The English patient comments that “If a man leaned back a few inches he would disappear into darkness” (143; ch. 4). He also mentions that “The desert was always among us” (145; ch. 4). The concept of the great expanse of the desert represents multiple aspects of the English patient. Both his seemingly infinite knowledge base and unbelievable life experiences could be described as vast. Perhaps this is because of the ways in which the English patient has been influenced by the desert. In the desert “. . . it is easy to lose a sense of demarcation” and to be greatly changed by traversing its great distances (18; ch. 1). The desert is later described as a place where

“. . . nothing was strapped down or permanent, everything drifted . . .” (22; ch. 1). This is indeed descriptive of the English patient’s existence for in his lifetime he loses many thing close to him: Katherine, whom he love greatly, Madox, a close friend, and even his identity is lost to the desert. Another statement made about the desert asserts that it “. . . could not be claimed or owned” (138; ch. 4). The English patient too cannot be claimed or owned because he does not even know who he his: his identity is a mystery to all. However, the desert has caused the English patient to lose more than his name: he has been drastically changed by it.

After spending ten years in the desert, the English patient is a shadow of his former self. Of course, he is still very intelligent and observant; however, much of himself has been lost. The English patient himself says that “. . . in the emptiness of deserts you are always surrounded by lost history” (135; ch. 4). While he was referring to the many nomadic tribes that pass through the region, this can also be applied to the burned plane and Clifton’s and Katherine’s bodies which are forever lost in history. That is, very few will ever hear their story. Everything the English patient experiences in the desert is very short lived, and this is compared to the difficulty in finding an ample amount of water. The English patient speaks of water as the ” . . . ghost between your hands and your mouth” and notes that “In the desert you celebrate nothing but water” (19; ch. 1 | 23; ch. 1). This strengthens the idea that nothing in the desert is permanent, and everything is valuable. In this sense, the desert represents not only the English patient’s life, but life in general. At least, it speaks to the fact that many things in life are not permanent and that life is constantly changing, much like the desert. After one of the English patient’s long and difficult journeys through the desert, he arrives at a city and receives “. . . this new world slowly, as if coming out of a drowning” (138; ch. 4). Even now, signs that the desert is changing him are becoming more and more apparent. Nevertheless, the greatest change that the English patient exhibits is loss in the faith of nations. The English patient is a man who once lived for nations. He was a spy for Germany, after all, so nations were his job. The complex diplomacy and politics that were a part of the web of alliances that were pulled into World War II, were topics that he concerned himself with. However, the desert changes that completely. The English patient says that “. . . after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation” (139; ch. 4). He also says directly, “I came to hate nations” (138; ch. 4). This shows that he indeed has been changed by nations: a complete reversal of his previous role. Not only the English patient, but also his friend Madox loses interest in nations and eventually kills himself because of it. The English patient comments that “Madox died because of nations” (138; ch. 4). He becomes enchanted by the desert: by both the exotic names of unusual land features and the variety of nomadic groups that travel its seemingly endless expanse. He is also tired of the war and is beginning to see its futility. At one point, he exclaims “Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert” (139; ch. 4). This is what truly causes the English patient to lose his identity, not the plane crash or his extensive burns, but the change he undergoes through his stay in the desert.

The motif of the desert appears numerous times and with different interpretations. Nevertheless, it is clear that the desert is seen as a place with the power to change men completely. The purpose of the desert was to emphasize the English patient’s difficult life experiences, to show how he was changed, and to help describe why he acts as he does in the present. Hana, Caravaggio, and Kip believe that the English patient has amnesia or that his traumatic experience has caused his memory loss; however, as Caravaggio notes, why does he then remember his whole life story. The fact is, the English patient never forgets who he is: he just wishes he would.

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