About Sunline Press

Gender: To the Lighthouse

:: Back to Page 1 ::

 The Quest (from To the Lighthouse: From Social language to Incantation)

The 'Time Passes' section exposes the fragility of Mrs Ramsay's triumph at the dinner table. The world goes on, deaths appear only parenthetically, and time becomes an inexorable force, calling destruction in the symbol of the deteriorating house where once there had been light and joy, with only the elemental Mrs McNab to combat it. The quest for reality dramatised in Mr Ramsay's intellectual attempt to reach the end of the alphabet, yet foundered on 'R' (significantly his own initial and symbolic of the ego he cannot transcend) and Mrs Ramsay's mystical communion with the lighhouse ( a traditional symbol of knowledge) is continued in this section by the figure of the 'searcher'.

The searcher hopes to find 'some absolute good, some crystal of intensity ... something alien to the processes of domestic life ... which would render the possessor secure.' (144)

The searcher's quest is frustrated: there is no absolute, no escape from process, no security, and thus Lily takes up the quest at the beginning of Part 111. 'What does it all mean, what can it all mean?'(159), utilising the perceptual modes of both Ramsays. She realises that she cannot simply have faith only in Mrs Ramsay as this has failed before. Instead she must incorporate fact and vision: 'One wanted .. to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy.' She constantly acknowledges that there is no one way of knowing people, similar to James' realisation that 'Nothing is simply one thing' (202)

It is the whole complex being of Mrs Ramsay that she is trying to capture in the purple triangle on the canvas - a triangle that corresponds to the 'wedge of darkness', the hidden side to Mrs Ramsay which emerges in her encounter with the lighthouse, as well as to her more public talent for creating relationships, weaving the social fabric, embodied in the triangular shape of the sock she is knitting.

She attempts to call upon Mrs Ramsay to help her vision, but the vision only comes after the urgency subsides ('One got nothing by soliciting urgently .. Let it come, she thought, if it will come') and she realises that it must unite both modes of perception, and at this moment she imagines Mrs Ramsay there - 'There she sat'. She is not in flowers as Lily as previously imagined her, but in a more characteristic pose, knitting. The ecstasy has been combined with something more ordinary.

However, the process of knowing is not yet complete, for Mrs Ramsay's love engenders love, and Lily immediately moves to the edge of the lawn to offer her sympathy to Mr Ramsay. When she feels that he has receive it, and Carmichael has consecrated the moment with his embracing gesture (the work of art as an act of love), she repeats the words of Christ, 'It is finished', and by comparing Carmichael to an 'old pagan God', Woolf brings together Christian and pagan mythologies to extend the significance of this 'ordinary miracle', making the reader feel that Mrs Ramsay's love is eternally present, that it transcends religious categories, that it is simply, as Lily suggested earlier, necessary in order for the 'world to go on at all'. This is the final vision Lily experiences.

Painting and novel are completed together. Lily unites the perceptual modes of both the Ramsays, combining the intellectual, rational and analytical with the intuitive, contemplative and mystical. But she also combines the qualities of the Ramsays in another sense. Mr Ramsay's search is verbal. Whether chanting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', or looking forward to give a lecture in Cardiff, or seeing all human knowledge as a great alphabet. Mrs Ramsay's search, on the other hand, is wordless. She achieves her wishes, forms social relationships, brings hope through the things she does - knitting, placing the shawl on the skull, bringing unity at dinner.

Allusions

Motif of 'We perish, each alone.' 207, 224 Allusion to William Cowper's 'The Castaway' repeated by Mr Ramsay relates to the idea that humans are inevitably left to grow old and die, and that isolation and loneliness make up a large portion of our lives. This idea is echoed throughout the novel, however it is counterbalanced in the end by Mr Ramsay reaching the lighthouse and delivering the parcel (Mrs R's attempt to alleviate loneliness) with a spring in his step 'like a young man', and by Lily completing her painting and having her vision. These lines link with the images of isolation and desolation, and its resolution is inextricably tied to the symbolic journey to the lighthouse.

It also symbolises Mr Ramsay's emotions and state of mind at this point of his life. Mrs Ramsay is dead and he has been left 'a desolate man, widowed, bereft'. He is getting old and exhausted and he has failed to reach Z. At that moment his quoting from Cowper's 'Castaway' symbolises that Mr Ramsay feels that is 'whelmed in deeper gulfs' beneath a rougher sea than the castaway. It also suggests his determination to continue his intellectual pursuits. He reads a 'little shiny book' even in the boat. Like the castaway, who in the face of certain death did not abandon his efforts to swim through the engulfing waves, Mr Ramsay does not give up his endeavour. Therefore his murmuring, 'Someone has blundered' and 'We perished each alone', besides evoking the sense of chaos and loneliness of life, shows his unflinching resolution to pursue his intellectual quest.

References to Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade': 21, 36,

Mr Ramsay walks around the garden thinking to himself of philosophical matters and at times voices outloud lines from Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. Mr Ramsay sees himself in battle, an intellectual rather tham military confrontation, and attempts to make sense of the world. The enemy is his inability to fully conceive reality and reach Z, and he is constantly at war with himself. The line from the poem most repeated is 'Someone has blundered', and it suggests that like the men who had charged into a futile death because of a military blunder, he too has made a mistake somewhere in his life that has put him in this position. He knows that his best work is behind him and that he has not arrived at an answer (reaching Q and not Z in his metaphorical alphabet that positions Z as the attainment of truth and reality) and muses that perhaps had he not married he might have written better books. This echoes in his head as the 'blunder', the mistake that has caused his downfall, yet like so many of his thoughts, it is shown as just one view that is quickly displaced with its opposite, acknowledging that marriage and eight children showed that 'he did not damn the poor little universe entirely' (76).

On one level Mr Ramsay's reference to the poem is just another example of what Mrs Ramsay calls his 'phrase-making', an over-dramatised reaction by a man concerned with his own importance, yet it also shows the battles that individuals face in trying to achieve an explanation for their lives. Like the battle that the poem refers to, it is doomed from the start, but one must nevertheless fight to the end, just the other major allusion to Cowper's 'The Castaway', where in the rough seas the man still swims to the end.

Religious allusions

After having seen Mrs Ramsay sitting with James in the window with a rapture equivalent to the loves of dozens of men, Bankes saw Lily's painting of Mrs Ramsay reading to James, and he thought of Raphael's 'Madonna and Child' - objects of universal veneration. This allusion, therefore, becomes a symbol of Bankes' veneration for Mrs Ramsay. In the same way Mr Ramsay's sharing bread and cheese with the old fishermen and his son becomes symbolic. It suggests Christ's breaking of bread with the fishermen and evokes in the reader the respect that James and Cam felt for their father. Cam thought, 'he was most lovable, he was most wise, he was not vain or a tyrant'. This scene with its religious significance summons up Cam's old feelings of love and admiration for her father, and helps her to break away from the vowed pact she had made with her brother against him.

Social Class

In some of these cases gender representation is inextricably woven into social class representation. Mrs Ramsay's reverence of men of great intellect, of chivalry and manners are all bound to educated men of the privileged classes. Tansley on the other hand is intellectual but he is from the working classes and lacks the refinements and manners of the privileged classes, so that he is disliked as he knows this is the attitude present at the house and refuses to bend to their wishes of acting the lowly-born who should be grateful of his limited success. He does not play cricket, very much a game of the privileged at the time, and is not comfortable with the chit-chat of those who have always assumed their superiority. The text never interrogates class issues, but accepts his inferiority on the grounds that he simply is not a 'polished specimen', with all its associations of upper class gentility.

The novel explores gender, but again it is through the eyes of the privileged women, who can afford cooks and nannies, or in Lily's case, seem to have no financial problems but can live genteel lives, concerned only with worrying about not being married and painting. Those of the working class do not have this luxury and must marry to survive in many cases. Mrs Ramsay is no doubt concerned with the plight of the poor and sick, and pities them greatly, but again it is as if she is the noble benefactor, going out of her way to help those down the social scale from her. As she admits in her relations with others, she wonders if it is only for the sake that they will admire her and think of her kindly.

English Patient

Discourse: is a way of speaking and writing about things. The stories, the narratives that exist in society (in literature, advertising, anecdotes, morality, religion, science, etc) that tells us what is normal and acceptable. Specific attitudes are embedded and naturalised in these narratives. Discourses also allow certain things to be said and thought, in the very language they use.

Imperialist discourse - talks of progress, civilisation and savagery, democracy, science and religion, bringing enlightenment to the dark backwards customs of indigenous people. It positions white European, Christians as superior and knowledgeable and marginalises and oppresses those constructed as the 'Other' as the binary opposite.

In the past it has manifested itself in war and colonialism, where non-European cultures imposed their beliefs over (mapped) others.

At present America has imperialistic policies that they impose on other cultures, yet they are not labeled as oppressors and tyrants or constructed in the media in this way. Instead they are the champions of democracy, freedom of speech, free enterprise and demonise others who are usually Arabs, Muslims, and communists.

All have done nasty things but more people have died in the name of democracy and christianity than other political creeds. Of course we never hear much about these.

The English Patient

The novel is a story about stories and the act of creating narratives. It is a story of love and desire; four damaged people in a villa who need healing; it is concerned with war and loss; the tyranny of imperialism, nationalism and colonialism; personal and national identity. On a metaphorical level it shows the demise of imperialist discourses and the rise of the oppressed and dispossessed indigenous populations.

imperialism, colonialism and nationalism (138- 139, 283-287, 290 )

- maps, borders, Kipling's Kim, war, bombing of Japan, cultural imperialism and oppression , image of palimpsest, metaphor of desert and garden, references to David and Goliath and Caravaggio's painting

Ondaatje's critique of imperialism, nationalism and colonialism is shown through four characters in a villa who have been damaged by war. The English patient and Caravaggio are physically injured, Hana is psychologically wounded by what she had seen in war as well as being shell-shocked, while Kip is damaged by the trauma of being a sapper, but later through the realisation that he had inadvertently supported a civilisation that had exploited and oppressed his own people and had been responsible for dropping a terrible weapon on a fellow-Asian country.

The very idea of nationalism with its jingoistic rhetoric of saving the world for civilisation is shown to be responsible for creating borders and divisions between people. It is the cause of most wars as it pits one nation against nation when really the differences have been constructed for other reasons, often economic and in the interests of those in power.

In the novel there are many references to maps and borders.

'All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.' 261

The English patient after years in the desert came to see the absurdity of nationalism and war. In the desert these artificial borders were lost: 'We were German, Englsih, Hungarian, African - all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations.' (138) The novel uses the desert as a metaphor. The desert defies national identity, 'could not be claimed or owned - it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names' (p.138) It disappears and reappears as a changed landscape and can only be defined by its indefinability. The desert refuses to be mapped, an activity that attempts to impose artificial borders and fabricated identities. The English patient suggests it is therefore a place of freedom where artificial boundaries are shown as destructive: 'All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished toremove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith ... Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.' (139)

Ondaatje's critique of nationalism is shown by the terrible consequences of war and by using the desert as a metaphor to highlight that all notions of difference, the lines we draw on maps, the places we name are all artificial and are in essence destructive.

colonialism

'I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow convertedd the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I knew that if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I'd be banished.' 283

Kip is distraught by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He sees the 'streets of Asia full of fire.' and significantly he sees this in the image of the map (the coloniser's way of subjugating a nation), 'It rolls across cities like a burst map.' This was the culture that had proclaimed itself civilised and now sees the terrible hypocrisy, and sees it in the irony of 'This tremor of western wisdom' (284)

Kip had never believed in his brother's outward rebellion against his colonisers, and it is only after the bomb that he sees that his brother is right: 'My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers.' 284

Individual books also are used symbolically in The English Patient to draw parallels between the two cultures. Kim sets up another level of meaning in relation to colonial dispossession and cultural imperialism that foreshadow Kip's realisation at the close of the novel. The Last of the Mohicans is another text written by a white man showing the dispossession and genocide of an Indian race. In both cases they show the European's disregard and disdain for cultures other than their own; a sentiment forgrounded in the novel when the two cities of Japan are destroyed and Kip and Caravaggio agree that this would not have happened if they were a white race.

Setting: The Villa & the Desert

The English Patient is set in villa outside Florence, where four characters from different cultural backgrounds attempt to come to terms with the terrible things they had experienced in war. It is through the badly burnt English patient that the narrative shifts to his experiences in the desert of North Africa in the previous decade. The settings of the villa and the desert are not simply physical backdrops or geographical locations for a plot to emerge, but are imbued with many other symbolic meanings.

The villa is a refuge from the outside world and war. It is a peaceful place, almost a paradise from the last acts of war and destruction in the outside world: 'It is still terrible out there. Dead cattle. Horses shot dead, half eaten. People hanging upside down from bridges. The last vices of war. Completely unsafe.' (29) Yet while it has these elements of paradise - the quiet solitude, gardens painted on the walls - it also shows the effects that humankind has had on it in its constant activity of war. Wall are missing and rooms are littered with rumble. Moreover, there is danger in paradise with the threat of unexploded bombs and mines booby trapped within the villa. It is these reminders of war that symbolise the great depths humanity had fallen, with mines killing indiscrimately anyone who may come in their way. The bombed ruins in what was once acclaimed as the most civilised of places (Florence) reveal that there is no correspondence between civilisation - humanity's great feats of culture, its art and literature - and any innate goodness and humanity. The novel, through this symbolism, shows that all the claims of so-called civilised nations that they have risen above savagery in their quest for civilisation, and have often asserted their superiority over other nations because of their civilised ways, is not true as their actions have been as barbaric as any in history.

Significantly the villa was once used as a nunnery and a hospital. It is in these aspects that it echoes the idea that the villa, besides being a bombed ruin, is a place of healing and possible spiritual redemption. The destroyed chapel attached to it may show that institutionalised religion have little power in a world a power politics and nationalism, but within the villa, with no formal religious ties, it can still be a healing place where the characters seek redemption through simply helping others. This is certainly the case for Hana who dedicates herself to the dying English patient, while Caravaggio also overcomes his hatred and plans of revenge, finally accepting the English patient as no longer responsible for the torture he suffered. Hana and Kip also find love here and it is only events in the outside world, so momentous as the dropping of the atomic bomb that separates them.

Another important aspect of the villa is that it had long lost the divisions, the borders that separated one room from another or the inside from the outside. In many ways the villa and the garden flowed into one another - 'There seemed little demarcation between house and landscape, between damaged building and the burned and shelled remains of the earth. To Hana the wild gardens were like further rooms.' (43 ) This suggests metaphorically that unlike the outside world where nationalities are divided up according to border lines the Villa San Girolama is a place free of these impositions and all the characters are finally able to transcend their constructed national identities.

The other important setting in the novel is the desert. Unlike Europe it had no borders and was a place where one could lose all notions of identity and nationality. According to the English patient the 'desert could not be claimed or owned - it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the east.' This evocative passage reveals the impermanence of all things. Ownership and possession are Western notions when it comes to land, and have no meaning in the desert. For the English patient it is a liberation from his old ways of understanding and sees that concepts such as identity and nationality are constructs that deceive the individual. People's ideas of their identity were tied to where they came from, yet in the desert this disappears: ' All of us ... wished to remove the clothing of our countries.' Finally he wants to shed himself from this restriction and be free of such things - 'Erase the family name! Erase nations. I was taught such things by the desert.' (139) It is this collective identity that had led to wars through their pride in ownership and their intrinsic sense of being distinct and superior that had then manifested itself in imposing their beliefs on others.

The English patient repeats this idea of losing all notions of identity and nationality when he claims that being in the desert for two weeks made him forget the crowded metropolis where the self is stifled: 'the idea of the city never entered his mind' and it was the 'place they had chosen to come, to be their best selves, to be unconscious of ancestry' (246). Through this the desert is seen as a place of redemption where one can transcend the stifling constructed notions of who we are (self and identity) as well as a world preoccupied with money and war. The English patient states this spirituality of the desert when he says, 'There is God only in the desert, he wanted to acknowledge that now. Outside of this there was just trade and power, money and war. Financial and military despots shaped the world.' (250). In the desert preoccupations of materialistic gain do not exist, 'In the desert you celebrate nothing but water.' (23)

The novel uses the desert as a metaphor. The desert defies national identity; it disappears and reappears as a changed landscape and can only be defined by its indefinability. The desert refuses to be mapped, an activity that attempts to impose artificial borders and fabricated identities. The English patient suggests it is therefore a place of freedom where artificial boundaries are shown as destructive: 'All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith ... ' (139)

Ondaatje critique of nationalism is shown by using the desert as a metaphor to highlight that all notions of difference, the lines we draw on maps, the places we name are all artificial and are in essence destructive.

******

Symbolism

Patterns of imagery, symbol and metaphor inform a reading of the novel as much as character or plot. The novel starts with an image of a man on fire falling from the air to earth and then investigates why this has happened and the identity of the man. The plot moves back and forth, incorporating a series of related images - fire, scars, mutilated hands, bombs, warfare and healing as well as a fascination with esoteric knowledge. Added to this are the four main characters who together form another image: a constellation, perhaps, of the four elements, but essentially fire.

On another level the novel operates on a symbolism, with the desert and water, books, names, paintings, mirrors and religious symbolism all being essential parts that signify central ideas in the text.

Fire is the central symbol in the novel. The English patient falls burning from the sky ('I fell burning into the desert. I flew down and the sand itself caught fire.') and the narrative revolve around his burnt body. Hana is devoted to her patient as her own father had died of burns: 'So burned the buttons of his shirt were part of his skin, part of his dear chest.' Caravaggio also while escaping is thrown into a burning river ('He swam up to the surface, parts of which were on fire.') and his ascent through burning water parallels and inverts The English patient's descent on fire. And Kip works each day as a sapper with the threat of fire.

The symbolism of fire can be seen as having both political and personal significance. In the former sense the novel is concerned with the interaction between private identity and public events, and with the inescapable intrusions of geopolitical forces into people's lives. The villa may be a haven from the war but the text moves towards the terrible apocalyptic event of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The symbolism of fire culminates in Kip's vision of Asia: 'He sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map ...' In this case all characters have foreshadowed the apocalypse that ends the war and the novel. They have each been scarred physically or psychologically from fire and in the microcosm of the villa they represents the world that is to come. It also captures on the visual level the horrific cities with people burning to death, while also symbolising the ultimate destruction and pain that fire brings in this context.

Besides being a novel that fits into the genres of war, spy thriller and historical research it is a love story. It is in these personal dimensions of the novel that fire in a more conventional way symbolises passion. In the English patient's diary he had written: 'the heart is an organ of fire.' The cause of all the events emanates from the passion and love that turns to jealousy and anger felt by Clifton. Finding his wife had deceived him he attempts to kill all of them: from this the narrative evolves.

All the characters are bound by love and loss, absence and desire. In the relationship between the English patient and Katharine their love is an all-consuming fire of passion. But her death becomes a literal fire which burns away every trace of her lover's identity, leaving him as an anonymous patient in an English hospital.

Ironically this anonymity and loss of identity is what he had desired. He didn't believe in nations and family names: "Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn't want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the famly names! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.' (139) Also ironic is that this is achieved only by having his body reduced by fire to a blackened scar.

The love relationship between Hana and Kip is also ended by the news of the apocalyptic fire over Asia. Though Hana tries to explain she had nothing to do with this Kip sees all white nations as representing the one oppressive and cruel power that had always ruled, to which he had been blinded before. This realisation arrives only after his 'vision of fire'.

There are also other parallels between characters that have the image of fire at their centre. Onto the anonymous and unreadable map of the English patient's body Hana, and Kip project their own passions. For Hana he becomes every man who she had watched die under her care and more importantly her own father who dies from burns. Kip sees in him the one good Englishman he knew, Lord Suffolk, who dies from in the fire from an exploded bomb.

The opposite to fire is water and this is also used as an important symbol in the novel. Interestingly the English patient is associated with fire and also the desert, while Katharine is aligned with water, an element essential in surviving both fire and desert. She is seen as 'happier in the rain, in bathrooms steaming with liquid air, in sleepy wetness' (170), while he found peace in the starkness, the dryness of desert ('Everything that ever happened to me that wa important happened in the desert.' 177) Their love is in many ways based on their opposing nature and for the English patient, who is frequently aligned with the desert, he needs her as 'in the desert you celebrate nothing but water.'(23) In this context water is the traditional symbol of life and sustenance, making it possible for both to survive.Katharine is also said to have only a 'temporary passion for the desert' (171) and she is a stranger who cannot live fully here, just as their love relationship ended, not because of a lack of love but the inability to survive in a different element. The description of water in the desert early in the novel, foreshadows this event: 'Water is the exile, carried back in cans and flasks, the ghost between your hands and mouth.' (19)

Books are used symbolically, though they vary between characters. The English patient is a learned man who looks to books to give him information about the world and himself. His Herodotus is a prized possession, full of stories that give insights in human existence, but it has served a functional use in teaching him about the desert, almost a map where he had found towns and caves. For him Herodotus did not simply tell of the past, but 'the histories in Herodotus clarified all societies.' (150). Hana uses books as an escape from the present, 'she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.' (7) It is also Hana who repairs the staircase with twenty books, thus making it possible to reach the English patient in his room, and symbolically representing how books can be used to reach out and understand others.

In contrast Kip distrust books ('He did not yet have faith in books), which is not surprising as all the books were English and it was these books, such as Kim, that perpetuated the values and beliefs of the colonial conquerors, and represented the privileged position of Westerners as natural.

Individual books also are used symbolically in The English Patient to draw parallels between the two. Kim sets up another level of meaning in relation to colonial dispossession and cultural imperialism that foreshadow Kip's realisation at the close of the novel. The Last of the Mohicans is another text written by a white man showing the dispossession and genocide of an Indian race. In both cases they show the European's disregard and disdain for cultures other than their own; a sentiment forgrounded in the novel when the two cities of Japan are destroyed and Kip and Caravaggio agree that this would not have happened if they were a white race.

The symbolism of burned body

The novel explores the way imperial discourses have been used to subjugate and oppress non-European nations and cultures, constructing them as the 'Other' and consequently legitimating their dominance in the name of progress, christianity and civilisation. It is in this context of the novel that the blackness of the charred skin of the English patient can be seen as representing these imperial discourses and the demise of white male civilisation ravaged by WW11 and the onslaught of nuclear war. Moreover, it questions the very identity of Englishness and the white imperial discourse is now shown as a burnt-out discourse (soon realised in the demise of imperialistic colonies and the rise of independent indigenous nations) which reveals that the Empire has been expelled and been replaced with the rights of the indigenous people.

Initially Kip is enamoured with the white culture that represents civilisation and refined manners despite it positioning him as an inferior and destroying his cultural identity. He acknowledges later that his brother had been right in defying and fighting the English and that he had been tricked ('oh, we were easily impressed - by speeches and medals and your ceremonies' 285). Being a colonised subject he had been positioned to accept his own culture's inferiority and though marginalised and oppressed through history Kip still comes to the rescue of his master's civilisation, showing how thoroughly he had internalised the dominant ideology. This idea is shown metaphorically when he is consumed by Western civilisation when on his first training mission he finds himself in the heart of white civilisation, 'Then he descended, down into the great white chalk horse of Westbury, into the whiteness of the horse, carved into the hill.' (181)

The novel traces the change in Kip's attitude and his subsequent decolonisation when he learns of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He defies all things English as represented by the English Patient and returns home to become a doctor. He journey on a motor bike through Italy from Florence through other cultural centres is a symbolical journey backwards through these icons of Western civilisation, shedding himself of acculturation and beliefs in the West as the apex of civilised culture

NPOV

Fiction has often denied its own constructedness, passing off stories as 'slices of life' and characters as 'real people', and generally as reflections of the outside world. They are also presented seamlessly as if life flows this way. Of course texts are constructions and must select detail and present events and characters that are always arbitrary in nature. The modernist writers of the early twentieth century questioned the premise that people were 'knowable', and presented more complex versions of possible identities. Postmodern writers have gone further and have often called attention to the actual artifice of the story as well as knowing that all texts are informed by the existence of others (intertextuality), that all are constructs, and that our notions of identity as autonomous selves are mistaken.

The narrative point of view in The English Patient is used as a device to explore the concept of identity.

(Post-modern texts often alert the reader to its own artificiality and that it is a 'construct' to highlight the idea it is a text that is presenting a version and a set of values, and reminding the reader that it is not a seamless portrayal of real life and human experiences but a specially selected version.)

The English Patient is self-reflexive, it draws attention to its own artificiality. The reader is not lulled into a linear narrative that constructs an illusion of reality, but the reader is enlisted as an active participant in a process of reading, which constantly draws attention to the fact that what we are reading is a story, not because of content , but form and structure.

This is shown through:

- the repeated references to other books (stories that can be read from Herodotus, bible, paintings, other art works), the process of reading (Hana), the metaphoric reading of others' identities

- characters shown as palimpsests, their stories inscribed oon their bodies, the old identity erased and replaced by the new. Yet their earlier stories are revealed during the course of the current action, either as story they tell about themselves or by other characters with knowledge of their past or told by the narrator. Similarly, the Italian landscape and desert are palimpsests for other stories, which have been inscribed and erased throughout history.

Mapping, espionage, the architectural structure of the villa, the trompe l'oeil murals and mirages all function as tropes that refract and reflect these notions about identity. These all draw attention to the notion of reality, truth and fact, showing them to be not fixed and stable, but arbitrary and shifting.

The novel itself is yet another story, a fiction that is told to the reader. Kim in a quotation from the Kipling novel feels ' he would arrive at the solution of a tremendous puzzle' as we do as readers as the novel is layered on so many levels as well as being a mystery. Like Kip defusing a bomb, trying to work out the 'trick' we as readers attempt to find meaning of the EP's identity. This is shown with the end of one particular plot strand ('So you have run me to earth' 252) yet throughout the novel we have seen that identity is not fixed so this ambiguity makes us see that other interpretations are possible. In this way the work of the sapper, described in minute detail is yet another trope for the process of decoding and understanding a story about story and identity.

Frequency in which events are narrated with an incremental addition of etail in the pivotal events between Almasy and Katherine.

1942 crash which causes the burns: 5, 174-175; both versions are told by the English patient before he tells us about the 1939 crash, in which Katherine is injured.

1939 crash: told briefly (171) though we have already been told one of the versions of leaving Katherine in the cave before (169-170). Greater detail of the crash is then given later (256-257)

Three versions of leaving Katherine in the cave: 169-170, 248-249, 256-261.

This complexity within the narrative structure subverts the traditional mode of a linear narrative, drawing attention to the story as a construct as well as questioning the way time is experienced, especially in memory. It also destabilises notions the reader may have on the veracity of the stories as the English patient is telling these memories while being administered massive doses of morphine. On another level it might be asked how truthful can this story be as he has been a spy and he is telling to Caravaggio, aman who has been a spy and a thief. The question of reliability is still present even after we are told the mystery of his identity.

Essay Opening

The Texts and Contexts section is in basically about identity - how identity is constructed by discourses operating in society which are then 're-presented' in literature. Discuss the representation of identity in a text in the light of this comment.

Identity is a construct: the ways an individual understands what it is to belong to a certain gender, race or cultural identity is initially constructed by the discourses operating in society which naturalises certain ways of knowing what it is to belong to this social group. Literature can either perpetuate or challenge these notions through the representations of these groups. In The English Patient Ondaatje writing in the 1990's about the second World War questions the very notion of identity, showing how the dominant discourse of Western imperialism and civilisation have dispossessed those people of different races and cultural identities.

The novel foregrounds the the way non-Western nations had been colonised and dispossessed by European imperialism. Kip, the Sikh sapper, is shown throughout the novel to be the most sensitive and intelligent of men, yet he has been treated as an inferior by the British because of his race. Western civilisation on the other hand, which has always regards itself as racially and culturally superior (a belief Kip had inadvertently internalised in India) is constructed by the text to be simply materialistic, belligerent and lacking spirituality. The novel's final scenes reveal these values with the apocalyptic atomic bomb dropped being on Japan and Kip believing that the West would have never dropped an atomic bomb on a white race.

The English Patient explores these ideas of racial and cultural identity through the events and conflicts, yet Ondaatje also shows these complex ideas through other novelistic techniques such as symbolism and intertextuality. Throughout the novel Kip is used to symbolise the colonised East and this is seen through the importance of his name and its link with Rudyard Kipling's Kim.

Kim is the most important intertext in the novel. Kipling represents the old traditional forces of imperialism, where the British colonised in the name of civilisation and dispossessed the Indians of their land and cultural heritage. Kip, unlike his brother, has accepted this and had become 'English' in many ways. His name Kirpal Singh is changed to 'Kip', which combines both 'Kim' and 'Kipling'. Ondaatje's Kip can be seen to represent the drama of the indigenous person becoming decolonised, as he rebels finally at the end seeing how he had been tricked, and the English patient being the burnt-out imperial discourse. Through these techniques the text reveals through its representation of race and cultural identity a critique of Western notions of identity and supports the liberation of dispossessed races from the tyranny of the West.

Kip recognises his own colonisation when he confronts the English patient with his belief that the West would never had used such a weapon on a white race.

'My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The map drawers ... But we, oh, we were easily impressed - by speeches and medals and your ceremonies. What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen? (284)

This outburst signifies Kip's despair over all the beliefs and practices he had embraced. It marks his final understanding of his race's subservient position in the colonial relationship and he renounces all the things that he thinks the English patient stands for. In some cases this is ironic and Kip is mistaken as the English patient is not English and he shuns nationalism, possessions and the things Kip equates with the English. However it is more as a symbol that he sees the English as and recognises how he had been made into an 'Englishman' in some of his earlier attitudes. More importantly Kip equates war on other non-European nations as a distinctly English trait ('American, French, I don't care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you're an Englishman ... You all learned it from the English' 286).

Kip also rejects the cultural map that had been drawn over his own, together with his name. This rejection is mapped out in Kip's leaving and retracing his route - 'travelling against the direction of the invasion' (290) - through Florence, Greve, Cortona, Arezzo, Sansepolcro and Gabicce Mare to Ortona. Through this he consciously sheds himself of the cultural heritage that had shaped and enveloped him. At the end the narrative finds him as Kirpal Singh in India, a country that had also become independent in 1947.

The devastated Europe in 1945 can also be seen in a post-colonial reading as an end of imperialism and the English patient, a burnt out case, symbolises the end of notions of cultural superiority and heroism. Significantly he always carries a copy of Herodotus' Histories, the first narrative history of the ancient world and one whose main theme was the enmity between East and West. He changes the nature of this history as he has turned it into a 'commonplace book', inserting into its text pages of other books and his own observations. This subversion of the authority of the text is also seen in the way he refutes the conventions of colonial mapping by recognising that the 'desert could not be claimed or owned' (138), and that it had existing, beautiful names over which no new ones should be inscribed.

The image of the palimpsest is repeatedly used to show how one text is buried by another or added to. This represents the way indigenous cultures have been mapped and written over by other dominant cultures. This has happened in history by colonial and imperialist forces who have dispossessed the indigenous people of their language and customs and replaced it with their own.

The relationship between colonised and coloniser seen in the references to David and Goliath and the painting by Caravaggio of the same name. These represent the old relationship of the old oppressor with seemingly invincible power (European imperialism) being slayed by the small and weak by (indigenous nations)

Civilisation has often been represented by the ordered garden that has tamed Nature, while the desert is represented as dry, infertile and unstable with its borders built on shifting sands. Significantly it is in the desert that fulfilment can be obtained and the destructive forces of nationalism are abandoned and seen for their divisive nature.

Identity

The novel evolves around the question of whether the English patient is English or Hungarian, a victim or a former spy, yet the crucial issue of identity is transferred at the end to Kip.

The English patient talks about the 'accident of nationality', claiming it is the cause of disputes and wars. It is an absurd and futile notion and he loves the desert as out there all sense of nationality and even identity disappears.

The novel presents two varying versions of identity. The English patient sees it as the cause of war and hatred, a catalyst to intolerance and prejudice. He wants to shed himself of such constructed notions and become a man without family or nation. This is a spiritual act, similar to some Eastern religions, where the self is perceived as an illusion and peace can only come after this perception is transcended. The text endorses this viewpoint to a degree as the reader had witnessed throughout the novel the horrors of war that have resulted from nationalism and a sense of cultural identity.

However the novel also shows how Kip sheds the cultural identity of the English imposed upon him and returns to his roots, a member of a small nation with its traditions that he takes up by being the second son who becomes a doctor. His also rids himself of the name given to him by the English, with all of its suggestions of colonialism inherent in Kipling and Kim, and takes back his native name of Kirpal Singh. This is also seen as a positive act of liberation as he has now realised how he and his people had been exploited and treated like inferior subjects of a greater power.

  [- Execute('footer.html'); -]