The English Patient

The English Patient Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3

One of the soldiers, an Indian Sikh, sets up a tent in the garden. At first he will not come into the house at all, occupied instead with dismantling the mines around the villa, leftovers from the war. Hana watches him bathe in the garden, and it's clear she's attracted to him. The other soldier, named Hardy, has left, but the Indian sapper remains, to the chagrin of Caravaggio (who is irked by the Indian's habit of humming contemporary Western songs). Caravaggio wanders at night and the sapper follows him, but Caravaggio tells him never to follow him again.

The Indian sapper came to the villa because he heard the sound of Hana's piano-playing. During the war, the retreating German army often left pencil mines within musical instruments so that returning owners would be wounded. Hana loves the physicality of the sapper's movements, his innate sensuality. Caravaggio, however, thinks he is too fussy - that he washes his hands too much. The sapper counters this by calling Caravaggio "Uncle," and responding that in India, you wash your hands all the time, and before all meals.

Caravaggio creeps up on Hana, who is asleep in the library. Hana tells him that she almost had a baby a year ago, but had an abortion because of the war and the death of the father. She was in Italy at the time - and the combination of the war, her work in the hospitals, the death of her father, and the abortion all have pushed her to a place where she is more comfortable with death than with life. For a long time she used to talk to the baby in her head, but then she stopped because there was so much imminent danger during the war that she could no longer live in her head. With all the death around her, Hana says, "I stepped so far back no one could get near me. Not with talk of snobs, not with anyone's death."

Caravaggio and the Sikh take a trip to the valley together and talk about Hana. The sapper says his nickname is Kip, because his first bomb disposal report in England was covered with butter and the officer had jokingly said it was kipper grease. His real name is Kirpal Singh. Kip also meets the English patient, who tells Hana that they're getting along "famously." Hana simply notes to herself that there are too many men in the house now.

Kip finds a large mine in a field north of the villa, and is surprised by its scale and complexity. Hana insists on helping him dismantle it - she holds the wires while he assesses the mine and cuts the right wire. He manages to defuse the mine, but it's a sweaty, intense experience - and one that leaves him terrified and plagued by nightmares. Hana holds him so that he feels safe, but Kip has lost his equilibrium. He feels annoyed that Hana stayed with him while he defused the bomb - because now he feels like he owes her; that he is somehow responsible for her.

Later that night, Caravaggio, Hana, Kip, and the English patient have a party in the patient's room. Kip dances with them until they all hear a faint explosion in the distance. Kip says it couldn't have been a mine, but then he smells the scent of cordite and excuses himself without revealing his suspicions. Kip runs to where the mine went off and finds Hardy, the other soldier, amongst the dead. He buries him and returns to the party to find Caravaggio and the English patient asleep, but Hana still awake. Kip is secretly resentful at Hana's casualness earlier the afternoon while he dismantled the mine - for involving herself without a thought that her life could have ended so easily. All he wants to do now is touch Hana, to feel her, but he is plagued by fear and insecurity. Finally he makes his move: he dismantles the patient's hearing aid and touches Hana's shoulder.

Caravaggio asks Kip whether he would be able to fall in love with Hana if she were less intelligent than him - in other words, if he knew she was his intellectually inferior. He says that Hana is in love with the English patient because he "knows" things - because he's a talker who can seduce with words. Caravaggio says that they should all leave - that they're risking their lives in the villa for no reason. Hana responds that they can't leave the Englishman, and Caravaggio says she is stupid for risking Kip's life for the sake of a man who is already dead. Hana through a subtle physical movement shows that she's allied with Kip - and that Caravaggio's words affect her little. One night, Hana sneaks into Kip's tent, and they become lovers.


The love triangle between Caravaggio, Hana, and the English patient is complicated by the arrival of the Indian sapper, Kip. In the last chapters, there was no contest for Hana's affections - she was attracted only to the patient, for he represented death and the spiral of darkness that Hana found so alluring. Caravaggio, with his chastisements and philosophizing, offered little but the vague abstractions that Hana always hated about life. Kip, however, is the antithesis of the English patient - alive, taciturn, in the prime of his life. The title of this chapter, "Sometimes a Fire," thus gives us a sense of Hana's imminent internal conflict and impending journey. If she begins this chapter dead inside, with "no use for men," as she puts it, by the end, she will walk "without a false step" into Kip's tent so that she can be his lover. She will leave the safety of the villa, if even only for a night.

The dismantling of the mine in the garden becomes a symbolic moment in the main characters' journeys. Having fallen in love, Kip clearly wants to be as far from the bomb as possible - and resents not only Hana's nonchalance towards it, but also the fact that he's dismantling it in order to save her. After all, he comes to the villa solely to warn Hana about the possibility of the mine in the piano. He stays because he wants to ensure her safety and de-mine the area, which puts his life at risk, since he would expect Hana to leave the condemned property at his request. Why Hana doesn't leave, of course, is tied in to our analysis of her character in the last chapter: she's afraid to leave the patient she's become so dependent on for a fleeting sense of purpose. She's afraid to leave her refuge from the world. She's afraid to reconnect.

Caravaggio, meanwhile, is obviously in love with Hana, and now with Kip beginning to take over the role of the virile man, he can do little but chastise them both for remaining at the villa, and attempt to mask his jealousy. At the same time, however, he unwittingly drives them into each other's arms by daring Hana to abandon her doomed love for the English patient - to rediscover life in some form. Everyone, it seems, is learning from each other. In Caravaggio, Hana sees a man who can sink into love, someone who can fill up with deep, passionate feelings. In her own heart, she finds nothing but coldness. But around Kip, she begins to feel the "fire" of the chapter title - that inkling that the embers of life might kindle. And so she pursues it, telling Kip that she actually feels happy with him. She's surprised by such happiness.

Of course, there is still an absence of conflict in the novel. At this point, Hardy has died - but certainly not as a direct consequence of anyone's actions, meaning that there is no guilt on any of our protagonist's shoulders. Caravaggio is not jealous enough to be motivated to sabotage a relationship between Kip and Hana, and the English patient is curiously absent through much of the chapter - merely a projective surface for Hana's feelings. So where is all of this leading? Indeed, one of the more subtle aspects of The English Patient is its willingness to challenge traditional narrative structure, which often relies on planting incidents and paying them off later, all in the effort of heightening a central conflict. There is no central conflict here as of yet, because no one is in danger.

At the same time, we do sense the beginnings of "plants" that might pay off later. We realize that there are active mines around the property that can kill any of the characters at any given time. We see that Hana is starting to open her heart to Kip and make him vulnerable - should he die, it would likely send her into a spiral from which she would never recover, as she has just spent most of her adult life obsessing about death. And what of Caravaggio or the English patient? Surely they must serve some larger purpose than as mere foils to the Hana/Kip story? As we continue, let us see not only how each character serves Hana's arc, but also how Hana serves their individual journeys. For Ondaatje's novel is less about a central character's journey and much more a dream novel where characters can take us on tangents for the purposes of achieving a greater impressionistic effect - one that suggests how a dying, burned man manages to bring all these characters together and change the course of all their lives.