While 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.
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...o 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.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. London: Pan Books, 1993
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