English Patient Everymans Classics Contemporary
It's hard to believe Ondaatje wasn't inspired, above all else, by "Wuthering Heights," especially in his characterization of a Katherine and Almasy whose obsession with love as possession is a latter-day equivalent of the undifferentiated passion of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. And Ondaatje's related but contrasting pair of lovers, Hana and Kip, appear to occupy a place comparable with Bronte's Cathy Linton and Hareton, whose recognition of each other's separateness at least holds forth the promise of a relationship between two individuals.
But Ondaatje surprises us. His Kip and Hana finally retreat to the boundaries of nationality, race, and past traditions, reclaiming for themselves as much identity as such markers are capable of offering. In "The English Patient" Almasy plays both the roles of Heathcliff and Hareton. It is the latter who is redeemed from the primitive through the books Cathy finally shares with him, teaching him to separate himself from the primeval natural principle and to love. Almasy learns much the same from his Kathy, who shows him the true meaning of Herodotus, of history, of words themselves. He learns he cannot remain a free agent, avoiding responsibility and "ownership," because without incurring debts to another person, agency is pointless and freedom is an illusion. Almasy must lose his fabricated identity--symbolized by the "features," or mere markers, of history, the desert, and the physical body--in order to gain his soul, which turns out to be Kathy.
When Almasy makes good on his promise and returns to the cave, the necrophilia scene (as subtle as any in all literature--compare its obvious counterpart in "Wuthering Heights") is an electric and electrifying intercourse of tongues, an exchange of lying words for a shared language. Kathy's sacrifice in taking into herself the old words of Almasy is her answer to his own sacrifice, an exorcism of the qualified, secretive language Almasy had formerly insisted on calling love. With that act Almasy is transformed from "demon lover" to lover, from a desert nomad and recorder of landmarks to co-author of and mutual participant in a new "text," an authentic discourse of love between two independent people who ultimately relate as one.
To those who distrust the story's representations of history, remember that the story itself questions all such representations. Which is not to say it's a "romance." It's a love story--above all, a love "history," and as such it rings as true as any history since Emily Bronte's.