The Gospel of Almàsy: Christian Mythology in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,386 words

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[(essay date spring 1999) In the following essay, Roxborough explicates the significance of Christian imagery and alternating mythical identities of the characters in The English Patient, tracing a narrative subtext that closely parallels elements of the New Testament.]

Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?--Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (137)

In an article on the elements of Arthurian romance in The English Patient, Bill Fledderus competently analyzes the parallels between Michael Ondaatje's novel and the themes and characters involved in the fabled quest for the holy grail. Although the "holiness" of the grail gives the retrieval process substantial religious significance, Fledderus concentrates on the ritualistic and ceremonial aspects of the quest, limiting direct discussion of Christian myth to a few relatively brief statements. While it is clear that elements of Arthurian romance exist in the novel, they function within a much larger religious framework that deserves close analysis. In order to comprehend the wealth of the "timeless or continually reinterpretable truths" (Fledderus 21) Ondaatje displays in his text, one must examine the meaningful panoply of Christian images that engage the reader and demand interpretation. Ondaatje's persistent allusiveness to the sacred myth produces a web of correlation in which his novel is exalted by appropriating the unique holy status of Christian imagery. The correlation is inevitably imperfect, however, and the resulting contrast between holy myth and impious action evolves into a subtly acerbic criticism of an increasingly debased, demythologized world.

In addition to explicit references to the Bible, Paradise Lost, and numerous Christian symbols, Ondaatje's characters adopt and exchange shifting mythical identities. The interaction of these identities and the collection of scattered images they contribute allows for the subtextual development of a narrative that culminates in an essential reenactment of the New Testament.

In the Beginning

A discussion of Christian imagery in The English Patient may easily turn into a work of encyclopaedic proportions. The wealth of explicit reference, intimation, and imagery evoked through the process of word or image association is overpowering and must be addressed. Any relegation of pertinent religious imagery will return to haunt the reader later in the story and detract from the fruitful reading it makes possible.

Ondaatje defines his idea of myth as being "biblical, surreal, brief, imagistic" ("O'Hagan's" ["O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle"] 25), and his treatment of Christian myth in The English Patient readily conforms to this definition. The first of the four elements mentioned is especially relevant in my analysis, since the Bible is the original source of all Christian imagery and a source from which Ondaatje steadily borrows.

Much of the novel's action, pieced together from Almásy's recollections at the Villa San Girolamo, takes place in a desert atmosphere. "We were desert...

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053095