The objective of this project is to provide a detailed subject index to a popular novel, The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. Since fiction is almost never indexed, there is no established group of users for the final product, nor even a demonstrated interest or demand. Yet there are very real, widely acknowledged benefits that indexes bring to nearly every “serious” book of nonfiction. Why should works of fiction not offer their readers the same? As Hazel Bell so aptly puts it,

If indexes are to be held suitable adjuncts to any texts, to enable location of specific passages and collate dispersed references to the same theme, then surely fiction that is serious, lengthy and complex is at least as deserving of these aids to study and research as any other form of writing.1

Philip Bradley collected the thoughts of the literary world on this question in 1989, concluding, “The demand for indexes to fiction is small. On the whole they are not wanted by novelists, reviewers, readers, or publishers. Literary societies show some interest in them and indexers are lukewarm.”2 Given such a state of affairs, it is no wonder publishers don’t go to the expense of indexing novels. It is just as true, however, that if readers and buyers demanded novels with indexes, publishers would supply novels with indexes. But since novels have never had indexes,3 relatively few readers can be expected to voice a desire for them. Not so the tenure-seeking professor or the college term-paper writer, but then relatively little is written on current, contemporary fiction. Yet this is the fiction that later turns into classics — the group of novels most widely agreed to deserve indexing.4 In addition to simple economic explanations, there is also controversy about the desirability of indexes to fiction. Bradley reports that of those who voice an objection more detailed than “why bother?,” the most common thread is the notion that an index would somehow do violence to the text itself, that any attempt to put the substance of a work of fiction into any form other than that in which is it written is not just useless, but destructive. He quotes respondents’ comments such as “students and sub-academics should not be encouraged to imagine that a work can be defined or even understood simply by the topics it contains” and “...not having an index is an essential feature of the novel. Its unity must not be disturbed by the presence of an extraneous item such as an index.”5 But a note of outraged morality lurks behind all these statements. These commentators don’t trust the reader! It’s as if they feel that providing an novel with an index is an invitation — an encouragement even — to cheat somehow. Cheat who, of what? Every reader is entitled to his or her own experience of a published work — why else would an author publish it? An index is a tool, nothing more, nothing less: whether it is used to revisit a favorite passage, to “cheat” by not reading or by jumping to selected passages, or to locate passages for further study, it is not a moral instrument. Bell admits that an indexer’s work can be unsettling, asking, “Do we aim to reduce a chiming clock to tidy piles of metal pieces; elegant buildings to stones and mortar, neatly laid in rows?” Certainly not, and yet disassembly is one aspect of an indexer’s work. Obviously authors who feel strongly that such a tool will harm their creations — who are particularly sensitive to the pain of finding “their so carefully assembled spells efficiently unraveled by us, the harmony shattered,” should not be forced to see their work published with one, but otherwise, why not? Especially if the indexer follows Bell’s admonishment that “literary indexers...should value the book in hand as ... an aesthetic unity with is own rhythm, pace and pattern.” It is a task easier to describe than to execute, but that is no reason not to try.6

Synopsis and Description of the Novel

It is 1944, and the war in central Italy is over. It has moved north, leaving in its wake a landscape of ruined places and people. In an isolated Tuscan villa that served as a military hospital, two people remain, forgotten by the rest of the world: a young Canadian nurse, Hana, almost destroyed by war and the death of her father, and her last patient, a man burned beyond recognition, who drifts in and out of his own memories and dreams. Into their lives comes Caravaggio, a thief who has been tortured and maimed by wartime inquisitors, and Kip, a young Sikh who has spent the war dismantling bombs. While events taking place in the outside world prove that history has reached a definitive turning point, in the Villa San Girolamo Ondaatje’s four protagonists carry on a remote, intensely personal existence, as they play out their interior drama.7 The English Patient is a relatively short novel, in the Vintage paperback edition just over 300 pages. The story takes place in post-war Italy as well as in the North African desert, and the plot involves the desert explorers of the 1930s; wartime events in the desert as well as in Cairo, including spying, Bedouin healing practices, and early aviation; and events in postwar Italy including mine detection and defusion. There are also important subplots in Toronto and England. It unfolds in an unpredictable and irregular fashion, following events in the lives of the four main characters both in the present and the past. It is a complex and confusing novel whose readers might easily want to consult the index simply to untangle the threads of the plot — possibly even in the course of a first reading — to clarify events that had another meaning (or whose meaning was elusive) in an earlier context.Examination of Similar IndexesAlthough there are virtually no published indexes comparable to the work at hand, a certain amount can be learned from four articles describing efforts similar to this one, all discussed in the bibliography: Philip Bradley’s index of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels; Hazel Bell’s work on several of the novels of A. S. Byatt; Ambrose Ransley’s efforts on The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne; and Anthony Raven’s work on Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

The main differences to be gleaned from examining the articles is what Ransley identifies as the difference between denotative and connotative indexing. He notes that Spalding’s index to Proust is one that ” ’locates’ emotions, as it were, as well as facts,” compared with Bradley’s more denotative efforts with the Scott novels.8 It is the purpose of this project to locate emotions, not just facts, and Ransley’s description of his work with The Scarlet Letter has been, and will continue to be, an excellent guide.

Indexed Novels or Groups of Novels

Bradley, in his examination of the need for indexes to novels, provides a section detailing -- or mainly, detailing the lack of details in — the few indexed novels he was able to find. The following list is compiled from that as well as from other articles on the subject.

Austin, Jane. Emma and Pride and Prejudice
(insubstantial; in prewar Oxford editions).
Balzac, La Comedie humaine
(1976-1981 Gallimard editions)
Byatt, A. S. Possession; Still Life; The Virgin in the Garden; Shadow of a Sun; The Game
(unpublished; all indexed privately by Hazel Bell)
Dickens, Charles. Two Dictionaries (1872 and 1909) and a Concordance (1907)
Galsworthy, John. Forsyte Saga
(indexed by an anonymous librarian, mentioned by G. Norman Knight, as quoted by Ambrose Ransley9)
Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
(partially indexed by Ambrose Ransley)
James, Clive. Brilliant Creatures (1983) Jerome, Jerome K. Three Men in a Boat
(indexed by Anthony Raven for the Pavilion edition, 1982)
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four
(1984 Clarendon Press edition)
Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
(indexed many times: in English translation by P.A. Spalding [1952] and also by Terence Kilmartin [1983], who made use of the French index to the 1954 Gallimard edition)
Renault, Mary. The Lion in the Gateway
(First edition, 1964)
Scott, Sir Walter. The Waverley novels
(indexed by Philip Bradley; published as An Index to the Waverley Novels, Scarecrow, 1975)
Surtees, Robert. Handley Cross, Hillingdon Hall, and Jorrock’s Jaunts and Jollities
(indexed by Robert Collison, published as Jorrocks Handbook, 1974)
Vonnegut, Kurt. Jailbird
(First edition, 1979)
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando
(First edition, 1928)
Non-serious indexes include those to Lucy Ellmann’s Sweet Desserts (Virago, 1988) and to Malcolm Bradbury’s My Strange Quest for Mensonage (Deutsch, 1987).

Procedures and Problems

It is no wonder that authors are leery of indexers’ efforts to provide “access” to their work. Ondaatje has carefully arranged the events of his novel to unfold in a particular way, in a certain order, for a deliberate effect, and yet it must be the indexer’s first task to order them in a completely different way. For the author’s artistic intent, the indexer’s goal is to substitute order and logic.

Arrangement and Style of Entries

The style manual used for this project was Indexing Books, by Nancy Mulvany. A discussion of the choices allowed and deviations made from her prescribed methods follows.Subheadings are arranged flexibly: where possible, they are arranged in a logical thematic or chronological order, but where no such order can be imposed, they are arranged in the order in which they appear in the book. Alphabetical order promised no gain in readers’ understanding, at the cost of potential confusion over which term was being alphabetized. The very long entries under the main characters carry subheadings arranged in as logical a manner as possible, followed by sub-subentries likewise ordered.10 To suit the subject matter at hand, the language is as “natural,” or readable, as it can practically be.11 The index follows Diodato’s “Guideline” regarding cross-references versus duplicate entries: “Replace a see reference with a duplicate entry if the duplicate entry would: (1) contain the same number or fewer lines than the see reference; and (2) have three or fewer page references; and (3) have one or no subheading.”12

Because the index is so hierarchical and subheadings carry so much of the meaning, the index is presented in an indented, rather than the customary run-on, style.

Choice of Entry

Richness of Language. In a work as rich as Ondaatje’s, it is tempting to create an index that more closely resembles a concordance; certainly the author’s particular turns of phrase are as likely to be sought by readers or students as developments in character or plot. Yet an index is not a concordance; an excess of entries only detracts from the usefulness of the effort. Any serious student engaged in a linguistic analysis of a text could no doubt acquire an electronic version and conduct word searches; the contribution this indexer hoped to provide was to do the intellectual footwork of identifying and pinpointing the development of the underlying themes: to provide access to the subject matter of the book, including access to particularly memorable words or phrases, but by no means providing comprehensive access to the author’s language.

Depth of Indexing. The author’s richness of language extends to exquisitely detailed scene-setting. The novel contains countless references to people (even major characters lack full names), place names in the desert, in Cairo, in England, and in Italy, as well as cultural details such as the names of songs, songwriters, novels, novelists, and so on. The early technique of entering everything quickly changed when presented with more than twenty different Arabic names — most with translations — for types of wind in the desert. Clearly only the extremely rare reader would attempt to locate the specific Arabic word; one entry under “winds” clearly sufficed. However, this early changeover to a more discriminating approach to entries did risk missing references that later became significant and were not possible to track backwards.

In addition to decisions about exactly how many terms to enter was another decision about whether to allow multiple entries under the same heading, using different subheadings, for the same page. The complexity of the plot quickly convinced this indexer that an exception to more usual techniques was justified.

Specificity of Indexing. There are many ideas or themes that are strongly related to one or more characters, but that also deserve mention in and of themselves. In these cases, specificity was preferred to hierarchical order; thus, race; sleep; books; and morphine are entries on their own. But “race” is also a subheading under Kip; and the subheading for Caravaggio under morphine refers the user to his main entry. In other words, logic was preferred to consistency, bowing to the ultimate needs of users. Relationships between characters are entered under both characters; thus, the English patient has a subhead for Katharine, and Katharine Clifton has a subheading under the English patient. There are distinct differences between the lists of entries; the English patient’s obsession with Katharine is relevant to her, but more logically belongs under his entry. Cross references, of course, refer users to the appropriate related entries. This was done deliberately, to prevent the user having to wade through as many entries in search of the relevant one.

Idiosyncratic Problems. The author’s poetic, elliptical language demanded an extra dimension of interpretation from the indexer. For example, Hana describes her pregnancy and abortion thus: “I was almost going to have a baby a year ago... I lost the child. I mean, I had to lose it. The father was already dead. There was a war.” (p 82) Although here the meaning is inescapable (at least after several readings), the indexer is inevitably editorializing simply by using the words “pregnancy” and “abortion,” neither of which Hana uses.

The English Patient’s momentous discovery of the Cave of Swimmers and the lost oasis of Zerzura leaves more to be guessed at: “On May 5, I climb a stone cliff and approach the Uweinat plateau from a new direction. I find myself in a broad wadi full of acacia trees.” Although there can be little question of the discovery, it leaves the indexer a little queasy to base an entry like “Zerzura, discovery of,” on so slim a textual basis.

A final, and most slippery, example will suffice to show the difficulties of the text. Hana describes her nursing duties, saying “I know death now, David. I know all the smells, I know how to divert them from agony. When to give the quick jolt of morphine in a major vein.” (p. 83-84). This is euthanasia she describes, isn’t it? Or is it?

Finally, the indexer had to answer the difficult question of whether to attempt to preserve the mystery of the English Patient’s identity, as the author does throughout most of the novel. Bell describes the quandry thus: “Elements of mystery, undeniably, cannot survive indexing: a charming child’s riddle quoted I listed under its solution, ‘egg’; and to read the index before the text would indeed negate the sheer shock of the sudden death of one heroine. But consulting the index to such books before the text should be deplored anyway!”13 Again, the note of morality creeps in: if a reader wants to consult the index first, should it be deplored? Admittedly, doing so does change the reader’s experience as designed by the author. Many things, however, can similarly alter a reader’s experience, such as reading the pages out of order, or even taking so long to read the whole book that important early details slip the reader’s mind. The author can go only so far in dictating the reader’s experience. But where does that leave the indexer when she has a choice between upholding the author’s intent and facilitating the index user’s access to the novel’s subject matter? This indexer decided to trust the novel’s readers not to ruin their own joy in the unfolding story by rifling through the index first — unless they want to. For simplicity of use, all references to the English patient and his “real” identity appear in one location; because he is known as the English patient throughout the great majority of the book (and for the sake of users who have forgotten his real name), this was chosen as the main heading.


Six volunteers served as evaluators of the finished index. Evaluators were given a form that asked them to read each of 4 separate, randomly chosen pages; choose as many as three terms they could imagine looking up; and attempt to do so, tracking their progress on the form. In addition, they were asked to try to locate up to four words, phrases, or ideas from the novel that they could imagine wanting to look up. Unfortunately the complexity of the form put a number of evaluators off, and the second part in particular lacked much data. However, several t”erms were added to the index based on their appearance more than once in evaluators lists of terms sought. Of the total of 62 terms looked up on designated pages, 46 could be termed successful, for a 74% success rate. Evaluation suffered from lack of time.


Indexing Fiction

Bell, Hazel K. “Indexing biographies: lives do bring their problems.” Indexer 16 (Apr ’89), p. 168-72; “Indexing biographies: the main character.” Indexer 17 (Apr. ’90) p. 43-44; “Indexing fiction: a story of complexity.” Indexer 17 (Oct. ’91) p. 251-6; Bell, Hazel K. Indexing biographies and other stories of human lives. London: Society of Indexers, 1992.
The booklet listed last is drawn from the three articles preceding, and they do make a logical collection. Bell, an experienced indexer of biographies and fiction and the former editor of The Indexer, is highly qualified to offer this compilation of a lifetime’s worth of insights, practical advice, and general thoughts on the nature of such work. Her writing has been invaluable in undertaking the current project.
Bradley, Philip. “A long fiction index.” Indexer 8 (Apr. ’73), p. 153-59.
This report on the author’s compilation of an index to Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels offers interesting reading, particularly about his solution to creating an index useful to any edition of the novels, but as it focuses as much on the actual production of the index (using the technology of the early 1970s) as on the indexer’s problems and solutions, it holds limited value for the project at hand. The sample pages from the index, however, do offer the rare opportunity to examine actual entries from an index to a work of fiction.
Bradley, Philip. “Indexes to works of fiction: the views of producers and users on the need for them.” Indexer 16 (Oct ’89), p. 239-48.
This article provides a comprehensive discussion of the pros and cons of indexing fiction as well as a guide to fiction that has been indexed. In addition to gathering and presenting the opinions of most segments of the literary world, Bradley offers his own thoughtful position on the matter.
Knight, G. Norman. “Indexes to Novels.” Indexer 10 (Oct. ’77), p. 159.
A very brief discussion, with mention of some indexed novels.
Perlez, Jane. “The Real Hungarian Count Was No English Patient,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 1996, p. C17.
A discussion of the relationship between the real-life Count and Ondaatje’s version.
Ransley, Ambrose. “Towards a fiction index.” Australian Library Journal 36. Part 1 (Feb ’87), p. 44-54; Part 2 (May ’87), p. 103-13.
In this extensive, two-part article, Ransley considers in detail the question of how to index the unspoken themes and richly symbolic language of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. It is by far the most in-depth examination of the particular process of indexing fiction, and an excellent resource for this project.
Raven, Anthony. “Indexes to works of fiction.” Indexer 17 (Apr ’90), p. 60-61.
In this letter to the editor, Raven replies to Bradley’s article above, responding vigorously to counter the notion that indexing fiction is “positively detrimental to the aims of fiction as an imaginative, creative genre.”14 His most important point is that “facts” in works of fiction are no less real, within the context of the work, than are those any other work.
Rubin, Lilian. “Correspondence: Indexing Fiction.” Indexer 7 (Autumn ’71), p. 203.

Indexing Books

American Society of Indexers. “Index Evaluation Checklist.”

Bell, Hazel K. “The Ah! Factor” (Principles for selecting index entries.) Indexer 17 (Apr. ’91), p. 191-92.
Bell outlines a flexible method for establishing what entries will see print in an index, arguing, as ever, for sense over rigid rules. The “Ah-ha” and “Ah, yes” entries, of course, but sometimes the “Ah” and “Mm” are whittled or omitted.
Bell, Hazel K. “Reading for fine indexing.” Scholarly Publishing 23 (Jan. ’92) p. 115-21.
Bell takes the uninitiated by the hand and guides them through the process of creating an index, from the first “innoculatory” reading (so that the indexer will not be distracted by mere interest in the unfolding plot) to the final editing. As usual, a flexible, intelligent, and perceptive guide.
Diodato, Virgil P. “Duplicate entries versus see cross-references in back-of-book indexes.” Indexer 19 (Oct. ’94) p. 83-7.
This brief article offers useful guidelines for when to use which kind of entry. It also points out that users and librarians have differing preferences in the matter, a point any librarian/indexer would do well to bear in mind so that she may try to heed the desires of users rather than colleagues or herself. Finally, it raises the question of the “authority” of indexes: in cases where a duplicate entry would, according to the a author’s guidelines, have been preferable, the author posits that the indexer may have been trying to lead the user to the “preferred” term. Diodato proposes this justification only for scientific/technical works, although he does indirectly suggest that such a practice may be at work in the humanities. Indeed, it makes utter sense that an indexer may be loathe to make a duplicate entry under an alternate, and somewhat less “authoritative,” version of a name lest the user be led astray, thinking the index an appropriate authority to be relied upon for the correct version. Should indexers be taken to task for trying to provide such authority, particularly when the cost is only that of requiring users to consult an additional page in the index? I don’t think so.
Mulvany, Nancy C. Indexing Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
An excellent and invaluable resource covering every practical detail of constructing an index.


1. Bell, Complexity, p. 255.

2. Bradley, Need, 248.

3. Bradley, Need, p. 240.

4. Bradley, Need, p. 245.

5. Bradley, Need, 240-42.

6. Bell, Complexity, p. 255.

7. Quoted from the Vintage Web page reading guide.

8. Ransley, part 1, p. 47.

9. Ransley, part 1, p. 47.

10. Bell, “Fine Reading,” p. 119-20 eloquently supports this approach to ordering subheadings.

11. Bell, Complexity, 254.

12. Diodato, Duplicate Entries, p. 83.

13. Bell, Complexity, p. 255.

14. Bradley, Need, p. 240.