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The Destruction Of Female Possession In The English Patient

2612 words - 10 pages

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 examine the character of Hana. Hana, having been physically and mentally ravaged by war, uses the Italian Villa as a sort of “sanctuary.” In this sanctuary, Hana attempts to escape from the “norms” and dividing lines created in the world around her. “I was sick of the hunger. Of just being lusted at…Sick of being treated like gold because I was female,” (Ondaatje 85). As this quotation represents, Hana wishes to become something that is not, in the traditional sense, “feminine.” As Judith Butler describes in her chapter entitled “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions,” the idea of gender is nothing but a performance. Hana proves this as she physically changes her appearance, cutting off all her hair. She is still anatomically “female,” but chooses to defeminize herself. This is one of the earliest examples of female empowerment in the novel. However, it is soon apparent that the male attempt at ownership is powerful, and almost inescapable.
When an old family friend, Carravagio enters the Italian Villa, it is clear that Hana can not completely escape the male gaze, and she is once again sexualized. Carravagio seems almost unable to stop looking at Hana’s body, as we see her described several times...

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