The English Patient: Chapter 9

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Summary – Chapter Nine, ‘The Cave of Swimmers’

Chapter Nine begins with the following line: ‘I promised to tell you how one falls in love.’ In the first person, the patient explains the time when he met Katharine. After she and Clifton first appeared, they went to Cairo for a month. On her return, he saw she had changed. She now read constantly and read everything about the desert, and kept more to herself. Clifton used to praise her and the patient admits he is a man ‘whose life in many ways, even as an explorer, has been governed by words’.
 
After an expedition, Clifton arranged a party for the returnees and Katharine read out a story of Candaules from The Histories  and told how Candaules used to describe the beauty of his wife to Gyges (like Clifton did with the patient). In the story, Candaules tells Gyges to contrive a means to see her naked.
 
The patient points out that he had often used Herodotus ‘for a clue to geography’ and Katharine had done so ‘as a window to her life’. He describes this as a story of how he fell in love with her. He thinks there may have been no ulterior motive on her part, ‘but a path suddenly revealed itself in real life’.
 
With regard to Gyges, he sees the wife naked as the King contrived it, and she sees him. She informs Gyges he has a choice: to kill Candaules or be killed. The patient tells Caravaggio how words have power, as with the help of this anecdote he fell in love.
 
Katharine had been a part of the expedition for about a year and as he wrote his book in Cairo he struggled with the thought of her presence. He also became doubly formal in her company. After she asked him to ‘ravish her’, they began their affair. He refers to the small indentation in her neck as the Bosphorous.
 
The patient says that Clifton did not know about the affair, but he was firmly embedded in the ‘English machine’ and only Madox warned him about this world; the patient carried Herodotus and Madox carried Anna Karenina. He tried to explain Clifton’s world in terms of this novel.
 
Analysis – Chapter Nine
The influence of language on how we see the world is reiterated in this chapter when the patient explains how Clifton’s praise of his wife shaped the way he also saw her. This is also furthered with the reference to Katharine reading of Candaules, of Madox carrying a copy of Anna Karenina and to the earlier mention of Eppler using Rebecca as a form of a code book. These instances and others (such as the references to Kim) heighten the postmodern awareness of how language can control the way we see the world, as opposed to the liberal humanist perspective that prefers to view language as being controlled by us.
 
 

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