I will talk about the use of chiaroscuro in The English Patient. First, I will speak about the character of Caravaggio in connection with the painter. Then, I will make a realistic reading of chiaroscuro, giving concrete examples of chiaroscuro effect in the text. Finally, I will make a more symbolic reading of Chiaroscuro in the novel as a whole.
THE THIEF AND THE PAINTER
According to Bachelar, fire encompasses contradictions: heaven and hell, good and evil, hot and cold, love and hatred, etc. On page 23 of « La Psychanalyse du Feu » it is written: “Parmi tous les phénomènes, il [le feu] est vraiment le seul qui puisse recevoir aussi nettement les deux valorisations: le bien et le mal. Il brille au Paradis. Il brûle en Enfer. Il est douceur et torture.” The contradictory but complementary elements that we mostly encounter in The English Patient and Butterfly Burning are light and darkness in the form of chiaroscuro.
The English Patient’s setting is a very special world → the use of chiaroscuro creates a dramatic effect which emphasizes the particularity of such a space where characters defy fixed citizenship or the constraints of law: they are new immigrants, political agitators, outlaws, saboteurs, spies, and thieves. Caravaggio, a thief turned into a spyis described by Hanna as being "in a time of darkness" (65): “There is a man named Caravaggio, a friend of my father’s. I have always loved him. He is older than I am, about forty-five, I think. (…) He is in a time of darkness, has no confidence.” Caravaggio is part of the criminal underworld, and the whole story is set in a time of darkness: World War II.
→ But what is the link between the character and the painter? Does the thief reflect the painter’s figure or work in a specific way? At the beginning we don’t really know. At one point in the novel the thief is talking to the English patient, and the English patient says, “’David Caravaggio – an absurd name for you, of course”( 116). What does he mean by that? Of course, the thief is not an artist except in the art of robbery.
The painter Caravaggio lived an extravagant and violent life. He was repeatedly in trouble, arrested for assault, libel (= diffamation), using foul language to the police. He even murdered a man called Renuccio Tomassoni and was condemned to death. In the next few months (while hiding from the police), he painted the second of his three “Davids” to which Ondaatje directly refers in the text: "There's a painting by Caravaggio, done late in his life. David with the Head of Goliath. In it, the young warrior holds at the end of his outstretched arm the head of Goliath, ravaged and old. But that is not the true sadness in the picture. It is assumed that the face of David is a portrait of the youthful Caravaggio and the head of Goliath is a portrait of him as an older man, how he looked when he did the painting. Youth judging age at the end of its outstretched hand. The judging of one's own mortality..." →IMAGE
= only direct allusion to the painter
It could be assumed that the thief, like the painter, has a passionate temper. He is actually “boiling" inside. He is in a ferment because the demons of his past life haunt him. He wants to take revenge over Almazy who has denounced him to German authorities. As Baudriar says, revenge is like an inner fire in the sense that both can be contained in material, as something latent in one’s heart (pp. 23): “Il [le feu] redescend dans la matière et se cache, latent, comme la haine et la vengeance.” In this perspective, we can link Caravaggio with the element of fire by saying that his thirst for revenge acts upon him like an inner fire.
Like the painter, he also had a violent and tumultuous life. He also planned to murder a man. Caravaggio answers the English Patient’s critic about his name by saying “’At least I have a name” (116). This seems contradictory to what had...