"The English Patient". Hybridization of Culture and the Third Space in the Novel

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

19 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents


2.Presence of Hybridity Through the Characters
2.1 Cultural Hybridity in the novel The English Patient
2.2 Hybridity in the Third Space
2.3 Denial and Acceptance of Hybridity

3. Conclusion



Postcolonial literature is often used to describe the problems and consequences after the colonialization took place. Here, the independence of the political or cultural is important. In relation to post colonialism, the term hybridity plays also a significant role. Hybridity as such can be seen as a state in which two or more cultures convene. Since every culture has its own identity, it can be said that because of the hybridization, the identity can be lost. National identity is a crucial aspect when it comes to hybridization due to the fact that it is possible that one can lose its national identity when he or she comes in touch with another culture after colonizing.

Many authors wrote postcolonial novels in order to show the difference in Western and Eastern culture and their colonial attitudes to one another. There are different ways to read postcolonial literature thus there can be various postcolonial themes which one can refer to in the novels. Most of the authors used postcolonial themes in order to designate colonized cultures and people as irrational, degraded and naive; in opposition to the West described as rational, virtuous, mature or as the norm.

The Canadian author with Sri Lankan roots, Michael Ondaatje, caused with his novel The English Patient attention due to his plot of an interconnection across nationality, class, culture, and race. He created four different characters with different personalities and origins which left their home country and are located in Italy. Although the novel takes place in Italy, the author rather put the Western culture in general in the foreground. His novel contributes to the issues concerning culture clash, defamiliarization and hybriditization in general.

Hana, the 20 years old nurse from Canada, decided to stay back in the ruined villa San Girolamo, north of Florence, to take care of the burned English Patient while everyone else from the villa left to find a more secure place to live. The patient, the second character and by far the central character of the novel to which the title is referred, burned his whole body during a plane crash. This incidence caused his loss of his identity because no one was able to recognize who he is. The third character, David Caravaggio, is an old family friend of Hana’s father from Canada and a thief, who could use his stealing skills to help (...) during the war. He came to the villa to look for Hana and to make sure she is fine after the war. The fourth character of the novel is Kirpal Singh, nicknamed by his colleagues as Kip. The young Indian sapper came from India and worked as a bomb deterrent for the British army. As a Sikh he had lot difficulties to fit in the new culture. The four main characters in the novel differ in many ways but all of them struggle from the side effects of the Second World War. They all lost their identity and are now in the dilemma who they are and where they belong.

Ondaatje used many ways to show the reader the state of mind of each character. One way to think of, and on which the focus in this thesis will be is the way the Hybridity is shown. The mixture of the different cultural fragments are clearly described and emphasized in his work. The coming together of the four different characters in the villa shows a differentiation of nationality, race and culture.

This paper attempts to show how the author succeeded to illustrate the occurrence of hybriditization for the different characters with different cultural backgrounds and to what extend the Third Space is a tool to create new cultural experiences for the characters.

First, the term hybridity will be explained in more detail and afterwards the Hybridity Theory by Bhabha (1994) will be used in order to represent hybriditization. His theory will be applied on the four main characters of the novel in Section 2.1. The next Section, Section 2.2 will be used to illustrate the hybridity in the Third Space with the focus on the spaces of the villa and the desert. In Section 2.3 the question whether the characters still have the desire to belong to the different culture after the climax of the novel or whether they detach themselves from the hybridity they once experienced.

2.Presence of Hybridity Through the Characters

Hybridity and National Identity

Hybridity can be defined in various ways. It appears for every one differently and everyone has a different perception of it. Also, hybridity is not a fixed term; it changes and repeats by time (cf. Young: 27). In the early ages, the term was used in the biological manner as a process of crossing two different species (cf. Kuortti, Nyman: 4).The idea was adapted by the colonist ideologies in the twentieth century. They transmitted the idea on colonies which emerge into other cultures (cf. Kuortti, Nyman: 4). The desire of merging as a culture into another was illustrated in many novels of the past (cf. Young: 3). The novels dealt with the meeting and incorporating of one culture with another (cf. Young: 3). Hybridity questions the naturally and complete; the naturalized boundaries are seen as problems for colonizers but not for colonies (cf. Kuortti, Nyman: 11).

Events like the Second World War caused an accelerated migration of colonies to the West because the Western culture was seen as the erudite, highly regarded, mature and sophisticated culture, compared to the Eastern culture (cf. Moslund: 1). This came with result that the Eastern culture had the aspiration to be one of them and to be part of this Western culture. According to Young, “[Hybridity] may be used in different ways but it always reiterates and reinforces the dynamics of the same conflictual economy whose tension and division it re-enacts in its own antithetical structure” (Young: 27). Thus Young makes clear that the conflicts remained the same in the sense of hybridity.

Coherently to the term Hybridity is the term National Identity. Every nation consists of different traditions, language and cultures; hence, every nation can be seen as individual. Bhabha argues that a nation can lose its ancestry by time but the realization of their horizons is in the mind’s eye (cf. Bhabha 1990: 1). Thus, he claims that every nation can change or even disperse with time which can lead to that the individual lose its national identity at some point. As James discerns from Bhabha’s theory, “national identity becomes visible at the point where it is challenged by another culture” (James: 14). Therefore appears the national identity only in front of other cultures and gets then either suppressed and disperses by the time or it restrains the other culture. Further, Anderson purports that every nation which is seen as new or historical is an effect of an ancient past (cf. Anderson: 11) and also a repercussion on the future (cf. Anderson: 12). His claim supports the idea of Bhabha that the confrontation between two cultures and national identities in the past has an effect on the future.

Shortly, hybridity can be seen as a tool to bring various cultures together; just like it is shown in the novel The English Patient. Watters claims that many novelist failed because they could not take the profit of the established English fiction (cf. Watters: 67). Many Canadian authors aspired for writing fictions just as the English did but many authors had not the right potential for it (cf. Watters: 67). Ondaatje, the Canadian author of the twentieth century, succeeded to write his historical fiction in an affecting quality. Instead of writing about the Canadian culture or Canada itself, he rather chose to have the focus on the English culture. The title The English Patient led the reader think that the book is about an Englishman by which he can be misguided because he is not of English origin in reality.

The characters in the novel came from different cultures and yet some of them feel as being English and belonging to the English culture while others went through the process of hybriditization without noticing, which points out the hybriditization in the novel.

In the following I will introduce the Hybridity Theory by Bhabha (1994) and look briefly at the contrast between Bhabha’s and Young’s assumption. Afterwards the hybridity for each of the four main characters in the novel will be visualized.

2.1 Cultural Hybridity in the novel The English Patient

Bhabha argues that “Hybridity emerge in moments of historical transformation” (Bhabha 1994: 2). He insists that hybridity is an ongoing process with the consequence that different cultures merge together in order to lead the process of hybriditization (cf. Huddart: 7). Also a major point of his theory is mimicry. It is an important term in the postcolonial context by which the ambivalent relationship between the colonized and the colonizer is described (cf. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin: 139). According to Bhabha, it is a process by which the colonized individual is represented as “almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabha 1994: 86). He claims that the colonized subject is able to adapt the colonizer’s cultural habits and values but never in its entirety. It will always be a “blurred copy” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin: 139). The assumptions of the Theory made by Bhabha can be applied on the novel The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.

The historical transformation is that the time in the novel is right after the Second World War. The result of this event was that many people escaped from their home countries in order to be safe and to be in a better place. They searched for safety and security for their own and their families. Others operated in the army to serve their own or another country. It was the time when many cultures convene in a country and hybridity originated. The assumption of Young claims that although different nations and cultures are fused, hybridity causes nonetheless separation (cf. Young: 22). Different from Young, Bhabha claims, through hybridity it is possible that an international culture occurs (cf. Bhabha 1994: 38).

All four characters in the novel undergo a process of hybriditization but it occurs for everyone differently. What is similar for all of them is that they all went apart from their home country in order to serve another country and in another culture, which is the basis for hybridity (cf. Banerjee: 68).


Almásy is the main character of the novel and the person to which the title of the novel refers to. Due to the fact that the novel is written predominantly from his point of view, one can say that he is the protagonist of the novel. Beside the first person narration of the patient, there is also the omniscient narrator who has “the psychological privilege of the insight into the internal process of all characters and familiarities with their thoughts and feelings” (Nünning: 113). The plane crash in the desert was the reason that his whole body burned down and a black unidentifiable body was left. The fact that no one could recognize who he was gave him the opportunity to have the identity of the English patient. Until Chapter IX he does not reveal his actual name but introduces himself as being English although he is actually Hungarian. His character defines the other three characters in the range that they see him as a blank page with nothing written on it (cf. Banerjee: 152). It makes him more interesting and Hana looks up to him and admires him while Caravaggio has the possession to give him an identity or at least a face one can relate to. Kip on the other hand calls him Uncle and sees an authority in him with knowledge and maturity.

His desire to be English gets clear by looking at some passages in the novel. The passage describes the situation when the patient was rescued by some men of the Bedouin tribe after the plane crush and they brought him to Italy. It is discussable whether he does not want to remember who he is or whether he just wants to be English and thus hides his real identity on purpose.

What great nation had found him, he wondered. What country invented such soft dates to be chewed by the man beside him and then passed from that mouth into his. During this time with these people, he could not remember where he was from. He could have been, for all he knew, the enemy he had been fighting from the air. (Patient 6)

He describes the nation as great and appreciates everything he sees and notices. He feels safe and secure with them although he does not know them. What we get to know later on in the novel is that Almásy worked as a spy for the Germans and the XXX was searching for him. His class and education gave him the privilege to slip into the identity of an Englishman (cf. Banerjee: 69). Thus, he felt safe by knowing that the Bedouin tribe cannot identify him anymore.

Carbajal argues that “despite the cosmetic character of the patient’s Englishness, his donning of English cultural attitudes render him a character of colonial propensities.” (Carbajal: 137) Despite his emotional restraint he has the physical adamant relationship with the Englishwoman Katharine Clifton, the wife of his boss (...) Clifton. Even before his body got burned he feels attracted to the English culture. His attraction and his relationship with Katharine Clifton will be explained in more detailer later on.

Kip – Kirpal Singh

Not only the patient but also Kip experienced hybridity in the novel. He, as a young Indian man, decided to work for the British army as a sapper which made him to leave his home country India to serve for another country. Kip was the opinion that Indians always felt attracted to this culture and, as he mentions by the end of the novel, they were attracted to the English speeches, medals and ceremonies (Patient 303).

On the one hand took Kip the decision to explore the Western culture but on the other hand he did not made an effort to fit in and did not allow himself to go through the hybriditization. He rather preferred to be on his own instead of establishing new contacts (Patient 199). He as a young Indian man, and being more concrete as a Sikh, was confronted with lot of prejudices while working in England. But he also had prejudices against Englishmen. During the time when he applied to be a volunteer with an experimental bomb squad, he rather walked to a wall and stared at barometers when the other sappers talked to each other and made jokes. When the secretary looked at him continuously as if he would steal something, the differences between the two cultures get clear, “She had probably never seen a turban before. The English! They expect you to fight for them but won’t talk to you.” (Patient 200). There was no shyness from his side but the expectation that the others would start talking to him.

The time when he worked with the squad, the English culture overlapped his Indian culture so far that they changed his name.

Within a week his real name, Kirpal Singh, had been forgotten. He hadn’t minded this. Lord Suffolk and his demolition team took to calling him by his nickname, which he preferred to the English habit of calling people by their surname . (Patient 94)

This passage makes clear how Kip begins to lose his Indian identity. It is not dreadful for him at all that his colleagues gave him his nickname which estranged him from his roots. It is also clear that he is ashamed of his Indian name Singh. He prefers to be called Kip instead of his family name Singh. Being recognized as an Indian man is not valuable for him. As Bhabha claims, Hybridity is inter alia produced when a colonizer is repressed by the natives’ traditions (cf. Bhabha 1994: 112). Here, the colleagues repress Kip’s Indian identity whilst they give him a new name by which his Indian roots cannot be identified.

Nevertheless, he found a family as he was selected to join the team, headed by Lord Suffolk, the man he admired the most during his time in England, “He stepped into a family, after a year abroad, as if he were the prodigal returned, offered a chair at the table, embraced with conversations.” (Patient 201/202). The entrance in the team was the moment for Kip when he loosened himself completely from his parentage and completed his hybriditization.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


"The English Patient". Hybridization of Culture and the Third Space in the Novel
University of Wuppertal
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
The english patient, culture, hybrid, hybridization, third space, bhabha, identity, cultural identity, nationality, novel, michael ondaatje
Quote paper
Rashna Jennifer Qadria (Author), 2018, "The English Patient". Hybridization of Culture and the Third Space in the Novel, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/595177


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