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The Role of Imagery, Symbolism and Metaphor in The English Patient

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Whilst the four main characters of The English Patient are extremely powerful, and important to the reader’s understanding of the story, they cannot stand alone without the patterns of imagery, symbolism and metaphor which underpin the text, and offer a complexity which extends beyond the literal level. These patterns reveal information about each character, and provide significant links between characters and ideas which lead to a greater understanding of the novel. Likewise, the plot would have little impact upon the reader were the novel not so densely coloured with these patterns of imagery, symbol and metaphor; amongst which skin, hands, mapping and the elements are particularly important.

A metaphorical idea which resonates throughout the novel, and is present in all of the characters (particularly the English patient and Caravaggio) is the concept of man as a sort of communal Book, whereby every aspect of his life, and his relationships with others are “mapped” onto him. This also operates literally, through the obvious markings of scars on the English patient, and in Caravaggio’s case, the loss of both thumbs.

…his black body, beginning at his destroyed feet… ahove the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

This description of the English patient’s body is gruesome and confronting; it addresses the theme of pain, the construction of identity, and of course the physical evidence of his tortured past, which the reader learns more about as this imagery develops. It is almost as if his body is a landscape; a war zone onto which all evidence of suffering is mapped.

Imagery of hands is used repeatedly in the novel to communicate the theme of the ambiguity of the past and experience, but also as being an important medium for reflection and observation.

Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog?s paws?he would smell the base of it?s paw. This, he would say, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet!?a hint of all the paths the animal had taken during the day.

Whilst hands are explored as a medium for recording history and experience, the idea of past experience as ambiguous and subjective is very important to the text. Whilst Hana’s father recognises the reflexive nature of the body, and hands, he does not acknowledge the other side to the argument; the fact that experience and identity can be hidden through the physical nature of the body. This manifests itself in the scarred state of the English patient; a man (despite his ‘label’) without nation, name or a tangible, accessible past. The scars on his body allow him to live as a blank canvas, and any speculations as to his possible identities, are just that; speculations, despite how credible they may be.

To find “truths’, is an impossible task, as the nature of history and experience is subjective. However, the body is a canvas onto which every experience is recorded, and this is evident in all of the characters of The English Patient.

A love story is not about people who lose their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing- not the wisdom of sleep or the habits of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.

This writing of the English patient’s refers to this metaphor, of experience as being “mapped” onto an individual through powerful emotions such as love. His love affair with Katharine affects him so much so, that when the affair comes to an end through Katharine’s insistence, Almasy is so damaged that he begins displaying obvious behaviour in public without being aware of it. His love of Katharine has possessed him, almost like a devouring or predatory animal, like the “jackal” he later compares himself to while it is unclear as to whether Clifton was directly told of the affirir, it is implied that he just knew intuitively; the casualties of this love affair, Katharine and Almasy, could not hide their “scars”.

Imagery describing the setting of the novel links to the idea of the villa as a paradise, and escape for the shell-shocked survivors, whilst the desert is an oasis; a calm, yet dynamic spiritual ground, governed by the elements. Both settings are linked with the symbolism of the elements, and the desert especially contains many references to water.

He, who has never felt alone in the miles of longitude between desert towns. A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something which feeds him more than water.

The “unmarked” nature of the desert is something which Almasy loves, as within it he feels alive, free and nourished, without the restrictions placed upon him through nations and identity. The desert is linked to the element water, as it refreshes and enlivens the soul, and also the imagery of hands, and their healing properties.

He sank to his knees and came towards the burned pilot and put his cold hands on his neck and held them there.

In the desert you celebrate nothing but water.

The imagery of hands and skin, along with the elements of fire, water, air and earth are all linked together in the descriptions of both settings, and overlap in their explorations of the themes of the novel. The element of water is particularly important to the setting of the desert, as its scarcity symbolises the harshness and brutality oft he environment, and also the war which has an impact on both settings; the Villa and the desert.

Regarding characters’ connections to the elements, whilst the English patient is clearly linked to fire, Hana is similarly linked to water. Water represents her need to be cleansed, and to cleanse others from the harshness ofwar. The purity of water relieves and numbs her symptoms of shell-shock, and she is able to escape into this ‘fantasy-paradise’ of the Villa, that she has constructed for herself and the other characters.

She wets her hands and combs water into her hair till it is completely wet. This cools her and she likes it when she goes outside and the breezes hit her, erasing the thunder.

The ritualistic nature of Hana’s connections with water are evidence of her need for something to sustain her spiritually. Having lost everyone who was ever close to her through war, Hana escapes her own past sufferings, and those of others, through her connection with the elements, particularly water. This is also mirrored in the desert setting, where Katharine’s preoccupation with the moisture of her surroundings in England prevents her from understanding and perceiving the beauty of the ‘nameless’ desert, as Almasy does. This appropriately links to Katharine’s need for tradition, for a tangible link to her ancestors, the family name, and her identity.

She would have hated to die without a name.

Katharine’s link to water (in many ways, the complete opposite of fire), and to her need for a recognisable identity provide an interesting and necessary contrast to the English patient, who is linked to fire and the obvious construction of identity.

Fire and burning is linked to the apocalyptic experiences that all characters suffer throughout the course of the novel, right up until the end, where Kip is betrayed by his paternal coloniser England, and makes a journey back through the ruins of European civilisation, “re-mapping” his path for life. Fire is portrayed as a destroyer, But also as a hidden healer; it marks an end, but also marks a new beginning for some. When the English patient fell burning in to the desert, it was indeed and end for him; metaphorically if not physically. His body is incredibly destroyed by the fire, his skin burned the “colour of aubergine”. For the English patient, fire is representative of anger, regret, and sorrow, but is also the elemental mediator of human actions. Clifton had planned to kill Almasy, Katharine and himself in a murder suicide, which, whilst it does not work out exactly according to plan, has tragic circumstances. However, whilst Almasy survives to live a few more years, it is not without continuous pain and suffering. No characters survive without being ‘touched’ in some way by the elements; either positive or negative. His lover having died in the Cave of Swimmers, amongst her chosen element of water, the fire has then destroyed all evidence of her existence. All he has left are his memories, which, blurred by the growing dosages of morphine, are also, as the novel raises into serious question, unreliable. Prior to this, when Katharine insists upon their separation as lovers, Almasy experiences another end.

His hunger wishes to burn down all social rules, all courtesy.

Katharine and Almasy’s relationship is effectively destroyed by the expectations of European culture. He wishes to “burn” these strict social codes in order to give priority to what really has meaning; love. The consuming nature of fire is also linked to the intense emotional and physical desire expressed in the relationship between these two lovers.

…the heart is an organ of fire.

Once captured by love, the heart is “burning and consuming”, it can never return to the way it was. In this instance, fire is seen as a new beginning; the consuming nature of fire is linked to love.

What he does gain through fire however, is the ability to detach himself from his name, race and past; his identity is stripped, or burnt off, along with the skin on his body. What and who he was is of no importance to him, and he is finally able to relinquish all labels, as he was wishing to his whole life. Ironically, the months before death, while confined to a bed in a villa far away from the desert he loves, he is able to gain psychological freedom.

I fell burning into the desert..

Then his legs are free of everything and he is in the air, bright not knowing why he is bright until he realises he is on fire.

These intriguing comparisons, between destruction and fire, between fire and love, are epitomised in the above quote which holds a painful beauty in its language. The element of air, is part of his journey through fire; another level or stage he must endure in suffering. Both sides of fire are revealed; illumination, light, a new beginning, versus pain, death and apocalypse. The symbolism of fire in the novel is no different to the other symbolism and imagery, in that there is always a complex and sometimes contradictory nature to the themes explored through such references.

When Kip hears of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, images of fire and destruction fill his mind.

If he closes his eyes he sees the streets are full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burnt map, the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them, the shadow of humans suddenly in the air.

In this instance, fire can be seen as a conquerer of all other elements; its consuming nature spreads over into other elements, almost ‘betraying’ the purity of water, or the freedom of air with its destructive, scorching flames. The character most linked with fire, the English patient, is also seen as a betrayer of sorts; a spy, a man guilty of adultery, a man unable to save his lover from death, and also a betrayer in Kip’s eyes. To Kip, the English patient represents European colonial powers, and their destructive nature. It is not of importance to him that the English patient may not even be English, he still feels betrayed by the colonial powers he has been mimicking his whole life. However, fire is also associated with Klp, who is literally “in the line of fire” everyday, through the possible dangers of defusing bombs. While he does not betray anyone, it is the fire that betrays him; firstly his partner is killed, and then the English powers who bomb Hiroshima betray his expectations, and his trust in their wisdom and culture. These images again return to Kip a little later in the novel, just prior to his leaving the villa.

When he closes his eyes he sees fire, people leaping into rivers into reservoirs to avoid flame or heat that within second burns everything, whatever they hold, their own skin and hair, even the water they leap into.

Kip’s acknowledgment of the evils of war and Western civilisation come suddenly, and spread like fire, pursuing his consciousness to the point where he must re-evaluate his situation, and identity. As the coda informs the reads of Kip’s return to India, it suggests that he has overcome this ‘internal’ fire, and he, like the English patient, is now free.

Patterns of symbolism involving the elements are integral to the meaning of the novel. The four main characters, Hana, Caravaggio, the English patient and Kip, are all linked together, and complement each other in what resembles a constellation, perhaps a reference to the four elements which permeate the novel; fire, water, air and earth, although they are non-specifically related to each character. The imagery in the novel is descriptive, poetic, and at times confiontational, which acts to shock the reader into acknowledging the incredible circumstances under which all characters are ‘surviving’, towards their own struggles to freedom. The implementation of imagery, symbolism and metaphor also mirror the horrors of the wa rin which these four people are involved. The themes explored through the elements in particular, are complex and contradictory, just as the elements are themselves. Sometimes harsh, sometimes cleansing, and almost always painful, these elements shape the characters and plot, and reside in much of the imagery explored in the novel. The techniques of symbolism, metaphor and imagery develop the novel’s themes of love, war, suffering and identity, which inform a reading of the novel which would not be as powerful through use of characters and plot alone. The subtlety and eloquence through which these themes are explored really inspire thought and reflection in the reader, which in turn credits a more complex understanding of the novel.

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The Role of Imagery, Symbolism and Metaphor in The English Patient. (2018, October 04). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
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