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In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje – Hsc Module B Critical Study

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    In The Skin of a Lion Essay Vanessa Kidson English Advanced Mark: 18/20 In your view, how have narrative techniques been used to reveal memorable ideas in Michael Ondaatje’s novel In The Skin of a Lion? “The Bridge goes up in a dream. ” Ondaatje’s fictionalised re-telling of the historical events circling the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct reveal themes of Authority & Power, Rebellion & Freedom, and Love & Loss that continues to illuminate throughout his novel In The Skin of a Lion.

    Ondaatje’s use of 3rd-person omniscient narration, verbal cinema, and leitmotif of light & dark have allowed him to make these themes the most memorable for me personally. Power & Authority is a resonating theme throughout the entire text for it is continuously present in the lives of every character mentioned. Ondaatje explores different situations of power & authority by introducing new characters. A rather obvious example is the character Rowland Harris – the Commissioner of Public Works. He is a figure of authority and power.

    Although the bridge was his dream, it is the migrants’ hard labour that gave birth to it. But it is worded clearly that the bridge is his “baby” – not the migrants’ – demonstrating the power his voice has over the immigrants. In the chapter The Bridge Ondaatje invites us into the lives of the migrant workers. Throughout the entire novel he denies the collective migrants a voice, and by doing so he reveals how those who were in power had kept their stories silent. “Soon there are twenty. Crowded and silent. ” At this point of the novel, Ondaatje has not yet introduced any particular immigrant.

    But the fact that he has introduced them collectively – like as they are one person – has created an image far stronger than just that of twenty crowded men sitting silently in a truck. This scene is a vignette, contributing to the bigger picture – the truth. That truth is that all the immigrants are trapped in the same stark world, forced to keep silent. The puppet show, performed by Alice in Palace of Purification, is a dramatic metaphor of migrant life. The migrants are the puppets and the authorities are pulling the strings. “The audience around him was silent.

    The only sounds on stage were grunts of authority. They were all waiting for the large puppet to speak, but it could say nothing. ” Again, the migrants sit in silence. The contrast of silence and sound of the puppets and the authorities (respectively) amplifies the idea of the authorities having considerable power over them. Images of light & dark recur throughout the novel, acting as a leitmotif, contributing to the idea of the migrant workers being the inferior class. In The Bridge, the workers were awake in the darkness, on their way to the waterworks. “The truck carries fire at five a. . ” and they “stare into the passing darkness” Ondaatje’s use of language also contributes to the sense of power. The language is so exceptionally sophisticated in its description that we too, the reader, struggle to keep up with the flow of the story. Ondaatje consistently inter-cuts and juxtaposes scenes within scenes that leave us confused and powerless as the story progresses – much like how the migrants seem powerless. I am specifically referring to the surrealism of the novel, created by the verbal cinema that takes us away from the present world and into a different time altogether.

    We are continuously drifting in and out of times and places. These time-lapses introduce new characters, which in turn show us new perspectives on power and authority. This novel is about so many things, but a very significant idea that really stands out for me is the numerous acts of rebellion for a moment of freedom. Ondaatje uses light & dark to signify the small victories of the workers. Example, “Inside the building they moved in noise and light. ” In Palace of Purification, the workers spend their nights in an illegal nightclub based in the half-built waterworks.

    They wait til dark to take place in unruly activities, but in doing so they ‘move in light’ because for a moment they are free of hard labour. In The Bridge, the night before the opening ceremony of the bridge, the workers brushed passed the guards with their flickering candles in respect to the men who died during the construction of the bridge – “the bridge dead. ” Again, they appeared in the night, for darkness is where they inhabit. But the flickering of candles is symbolic of hope – a flicker of hope that one day they will be free from the sorrowful world they live in.

    The following day a figure on his bicycle smeared the ceremony by breaking past the barrier of guards to ride alone across the bridge. The moment is described as a “luxury” because for these people, freedom is a luxury; not a given. The exact quote is, “He wants the virginity of it, the luxury of such space. ” The rider wanted to claim the bridge as his own; he wanted “the virginity of it. ” The irony of such circumstance is that the migrants are there because they were trying to escape from the turmoil of their previous homes.

    They came for a new start, but found themselves only to be trapped again in a political game of social divisions. The man committed the illegal act for a moment of victory and freedom. An act of resistance is a moment of freedom. In the first chapter of Book One, Little Seeds, Patrick Lewis – a little farm boy – see the loggers skating on the ice in the early morning – “before the energy of the son” This is the first time we see an inkling of the workers lives, and they are yet again in the dark.

    From the perspective of a little boy, we don’t understand why they are skating, although “they seem exhausted” because he understands little of the world. But after reading The Bridge, we learn that this too is a moment of freedom. This little boy, Patrick, reappears in The Searcher, but he has grown into a man searching for a new job and a new life. He, like the migrants, is trying to break free from the past, which is why he joins the work on the tunnel. He does not identify with the migrants, but he too shares that sense of alienation; that sense of living in the dark.

    In Book Two, The Garden of the Blind, there is wonderful use of verbal cinema of Patrick committing arson, at midnight – an act of rebellion for Alice. Patrick swims away from his attack and climbs aboard a ship. He, “thrills to his brief freedom. ” In The Bridge, a nun is knocked off the bridge in the black of night by a sudden gust of wind (we later learn that this nun is Alice). After it is presumed she died, her first act of change – or what I like to call a ‘mini-rebellion’ – was the moment when she removed her veil in front of Nicholas.

    For me, by unveiling herself she was saying ‘Up until now, Jesus Christ has been the lamp unto my feet (Psalm 119:105), but I am not happy. I am giving up this life for a new light. ’ You can’t help but notice how the choices of the some of the characters, such as Patrick, Alice, Ambrose Small, and Nicholas Temelcoff mirror the migrants’ hope for a new life and light. Love & Loss is another significant theme that seems to revolve mainly around the character Patrick. Love & Loss are primarily highlighted by Ondaatje’s use of descriptive language and through direct narrative form.

    In The Garden of the Blind Patrick meets Elizabeth, and we learn about her “Tragic love affair” Her way of coping with her loss was by drowning her sorrows in drink, “I drink like a porpoise” she says. There appears to be a similarity between the old woman and Patrick. Patrick, too, has experienced a tragic love affair – two actually. His affair with Clara, the mistress of Ambrose Small, was doomed from the beginning because it was a given that she would return to Ambrose, “One of these days, soon, I’ll go [to join Ambrose (Patrick)].

    Yes…” On the night before Clara’s departure they had talked about her plan to join her ‘beloved’. “the sound of his name was like poison” We know that Patrick disagreed with Clara’s decision because the simile used to express his disliking of Ambrose is that of poison – the very sound of his name is almost enough to kill him. But it was only after Clara left that Patrick realized their affair had to end – it was fate. “The doom of Patrick Lewis… The words suggested spells and visions, a choreography of fate. ” His relationship with Alice came to an abrupt end when she was accidentally killed.

    The point of placing the following scene of Patrick setting the Muskoka Hotel on fire was not only to show an act of rebellion, but is also a horrific display of Patrick’s devastation caused by Alice’s sudden death. While climbing aboard the ship, the music mimics his “frail” state. “Now he will be a member of the night. He sees his visage never emerging out of the shadows. ” He has now become of the night and bears a great density of shadows in his life. In The Skin of a Lion is a highly evocative, confronting and honest novel.

    Although it is classified as fiction, I have never read a greater historical truth about power, authority, rebellion, freedom, love, and loss. Ondaatje was able to achieve this by his use of omniscient narration, verbal cinema, and through the motif of light and dark. In my personal opinion, I believe that Ondaatje has not only captured these moments in time and put them on display; he is much more than ‘just the author’. He has, ultimately, spoken for those who could not speak. And it is for this reason that In The Skin of a Lion has imprinted itself in my mind.

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    In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje – Hsc Module B Critical Study. (2019, May 01). Retrieved from

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