Study Guide

The English Patient Themes

  • Love

    Pat Benatar and her army of ladies of the night told us that "Love is a battlefield"… but normal old love is nothing compared to the love that blooms on the battlefields of Europe and Northern Africa during World War II.

    Almásy and Katharine. Hana and Kip. Caravaggio and his thumbs. Not all love stories have a happy ending.

    Questions About Love

    1. Katharine mentions many different types of love: "Romantic love. Platonic love. Filial love." How is each type of love present in the film?
    2. Does Katharine love her husband, Geoffrey, even though she is having an affair? Is it possible for her to love each man differently?
    3. Why does Hana believe everyone she loves will die? Does this fear prevent her from loving?
    4. It's easy to see who/what Almásy, Katharine, and Kip love, but who/what does Caravaggio love?

    Chew on This

    In The English Patient, love can be just as destructive as war. Many people are hurt or killed because of Almásy and Katharine's love affair.

    During World War II, feelings of love are heightened, because everyone knows they could lose the person they love in an instant.

  • Memories and the Past

    War is something most people want to forget. But if we forget the past, we are doomed to relive it. (Who said that? Winston Churchill? PewDiePie? We forget.) So despite how terrible war is—maybe someone was burned alive, or had a best friend killed by a land mine—we have to remember it.

    One of the best ways to remember a war is to talk to the people who lived through it. But memories disappear when the people who hold the memories pass away. Almásy has memories of the world before the war to share, but Hana will have memories of the war itself.

    Questions About Memories and the Past

    1. Do you think Almásy has amnesia, or is he trying to forget certain things? What does he want to forget, and what does he want to remember?
    2. What helps to jog Almásy's memory?
    3. Which other characters care about Almásy's past, and why?

    Chew on This

    It's appropriate that Almásy stores scraps of his memory inside the Herodotus book, because it's a history book and it becomes part of Almásy's personal history.

    All the characters are haunted by loss in their past, but they deal with it in different ways. Almásy wants to forget. Hana tries to move on. And Caravaggio wants revenge.

  • Identity

    The English Patient is packed with characters from all over the world—Canada, India, England—and some, like Almásy, don't want to be identified by their national identity.

    For a good portion of The English Patient, Almásy is He Who Shall Not be Named, (which is fitting, seeing that the actor would go on to play Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise). But although Almásy wants to hide his identity, many other characters are looking to reclaim theirs: for example, Kip wants India out from under British rule.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Almásy not want to be associated with any particular nation? What are the consequences of his desire to remain unidentified?
    2. Physical changes aside, how has Almásy changed after the war?
    3. An Indian, Kip doesn't really like the British. What does he like about Almásy and Hardy?

    Chew on This

    Many people have identities as spies during the war, like Caravaggio and Geoffrey, but they are not viewed in a negative light because they worked for the Allies. Someone's identity as a "good" or "bad" guy depends on your allegiance.

    It's easy for Almásy to disguise his identity when he's burned beyond recognition. That's what he always wanted, so being burned is kind of a blessing in that sense.

  • Marriage

    Marriage is symbolic of love, hope, and better health insurance. But it's the "hope" part that's key in a time of war. If people gave up hope, the world would be damaged forever.

    Some characters in The English Patient see love as something romantic. Others see it as more of a suggestion of fidelity, not a binding contract. And these characters meet different fates: Hana and Kip retain hope, and Almásy and Katharine die horrible deaths.

    We just want to say, that if Almásy and Katharine got married they would have the grimmest marriage vows: "I, Almásy, take you, Katharine, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until starving to death in a cave and a fiery plane crash do us part."

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Almásy has an issue with "ownership." Is being married the same as being owned? Is that why he's never been married?
    2. Why did Katharine marry Geoffrey? Did she make a mistake in marrying him?
    3. What does Katharine mean when she says she is a "different wife" with Almásy?

    Chew on This

    The English Patient is a film that takes marriage very seriously. Any character that is an adulterer meets a grim fate.

    Hana is one of the only characters with a romantic view of marriage. Almásy disdains it. Katharine seems to have married Geoffrey out of convenience and companionship. But Hana sees romance in marriage.

  • War

    Ever since there have been war and movies, there have been war movies.

    But as the wars of the past get further away from memory, and the people who make the movies get older, they started exploring other aspects of war aside from the violence and horror and politics.

    Unlike other World War II moves of the 1990's, like Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line, there are very few scenes of the actual war in The English Patient. Most of the film takes place either before or after the war. But the tension leading up to the war—and the attempt to rebuild after the destruction—influences the actions of all the characters, making it an important theme.

    Questions About War

    1. How does Almásy alter the course of the war?
    2. In what ways is there still evidence of the war even after the Germans surrender? How does it affect the lives of Hana and the others in the monastery?
    3. Almásy longs for a world without borders. Is a borderless world possible? Will there always be war in a world with borders?
    4. Why won't Geoffrey return to England along with everyone else when war breaks out, despite Katharine wanting to return?

    Chew on This

    There are no winners in war. We see many more deaths of Allied good guys in The English Patient than we do the deaths of any "bad" guys.

    As a wartime nurse, it is Hana's job to help people to heal. Sometimes she takes care of others when she should be taking care of herself.