The Destruction of Female Possession in The English Patient

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In Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient we see a world completely ravaged by war. The land itself is damaged, sometimes beyond recognition as it is torn apart by bombs. Just as these human-made structures have faced the damage of imperialism, so have female bodies in the novel. Ondaatje creates several parallels between man’s attempt to “own” the land around him and his “ownership” of the female body. As we see in the novel, this attempt at ownership almost always ends in destruction, “war,” and often, death. What I believe Ondaatje is trying to present to us is the impossibility of “owning” something that should ultimately be free, such as the female body (or any body, for that matter.) Though some feminist theorists such as Lilijana Burcar have claimed Ondaatje’s novel perpetuates the idea of male ownership of female bodies, I believe we see several examples of female empowerment hidden throughout the novel; examples of females outwardly rejecting such “ownership,” as Hanna refuses to be seen as a sexual object by Carravagio, and even changes her appearance to “defeminize” herself. We even see gender-roles reverse. The “male gaze” seems to apply not only to males, but to females as well as Hanna views the sapper, Kip, in a “feminized” and often “sexual” way. Most striking of all, however, is Ondaatje’s representation of the character Katharine as an almost voiceless physical body which is undoubtedly “owned” and consumed by Almasy’s desire. As we see, this “ownership” leads to what is arguably the biggest destruction in the novel: the destruction of both Katharine and Almasy altogether.

Before focusing on the most extreme example of male ownership that is Almasy’s ownership of Katharine, I want to first exa...

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...vere gender-divide that is only normally present in same-sex relationships. This along with Hana’s appreciation for her own body and sexuality show readers a new type of relationship. In this way, I feel Ondaatje’s novel is progressive and reflects several feminist values and ideals, though they are often hidden just below the surface.

Works Cited

Burcar, Lilijana. “Mapping the Woman’s Body in Ondaatje’s The English Patient”

Bordo, S. 1993. "Feminism, Foucault, and the Politics of the Body." In C. Ramazanoglu, (Ed.): Up Against Foucault. Explorations of some Tensions between Foucault and Feminism. London and New York: Routledge.181 -202.

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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