Fort St Band 6 Ondaatje Essay by B.L

A valuable text has something to say and says it well. How valid is this claim, considering the different contexts in which a text can be received?

The novella “In the Skin of a Lion” remains a valuable text due to the universality of its themes and its strong textual integrity. Ondaatje successfully reveals that our perception of the world contain many social constructs that hide the true complexities of life. This is achieved through the author’s unorthodox narration that emphasises upon the realism of colonial Canada. Three core elements which shape the powerful narrative are: the interdependent relationship between labourer and capitalist, the repeal against narrative gender conventions, and the continual emphasises on the non-chronological nature of life. By considering these different contexts in which the text is received, the universal theme of breaking through social constructs is reinforced.

(What appealed to me most saliently about O’s novella is…)An unique element of Ondaatje’s narration is his positioning of the responder to overcome the traditional one-dimensional ideas of a chronological life and appreciate its actual complexities. The author creates this sense of hyper reality through expounding the randomness of our memories and experiences. Ondaatje circumvents the linear convention of, “clear stories and authors accompanying their heroes with clarified motives” through authorial intrusions such as, “the first sentence of every novel should be ‘trust me this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human’”.  By opposing the linear story line and choosing a fractured story-telling method, Ondaatje gives the readers a more accurate representation of life. This is emphasised by the repetition of, “let me re-emphasize the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects”. On the other hand, we also see that Ondaatje is able to realign these seemingly scattered stories by the end through showing each character’s relationship with the others. The motif of the ‘web’, “Patrick saw a wondrous night web – all of these fragments of a human order” emphasises his realization that his life was “no longer a story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices”. With this motif, Ondaatje attempts to mirror the interconnectedness of our own lives, and skilfully recreate the hyperreality of his ‘real’ characters.

In keeping with his theme of reality, Ondaatje demonstrates that the clear-cut opposition between the capitalist leaders and the labourers is a novelistic convention that is unreal. For instance Commissioner Harris is initially assumed to be another representative of “integrated quote” the manipulative capitalist class. Yet Ondaatje reveals that Harris’ ignorance of the worker’s plight is only a result of his “focus on work that lead to loss of awareness’. This strong connection to his vision is shown through his personified horror of the Nun accident, “This was his first child and it had already become a murderer”. His use of the metonymy “you’re as much of the fabric as the aldermen and the millionaires”, characterises the irony of an ‘exploiter’ who recognises the contribution and value of the labourers in the building of the city. Co-dependently, the workers such as Temelcoff’s also depend on the opportunities offered by the capitalist. His example of becoming “a citizen here … successful with his own bakery” demonstrates that the transition from an under-privileged immigrant to a respect citizen is only possible because of the capitalist system. In the end Harris acknowledges that Patrick is searching for a “villain” and targets him because he has something “tangible around him”. However he understands that “the ‘them’ that so many workers loathe do not form a homogenous group” (Wojciech Kallas). These aspects of the book demonstrate the falsehood of stereotyping the marginalised and the dominant. Thus, the ambivalent relationship between the capitalist and labourers is another example of how society oversimplifies aspects of reality.

On the same level, Ondaatje’s radically different approach to the depictions of faceless women behind strong patriarchal protagonists in colonial literature is another attempt at offering a realistic insight into industrial Canada. Instead, it is the female characters that lead the main protagonist Patrick out of isolation. In defining gender equality, the composer chooses to portray Clara’s sexuality as an empowering gift rather than a burden of her gender.  The title “in the skin of a lion” is an inter-textual allusion to Enkidu, a half-man half-beast who is separated from civilisation. Similar to Enkidu, Patrick also has a “space between him and the community. A gap of love” His anti-social behaviour signifies his inability to mesh with society. In this way, Clara becomes the parallel of the priestess whom makes love to Enkidu for seven days. Her womanly sexuality becomes a powerful tool that empowers the powerless male protagonist and “humanises” him. Alice is another powerful female character who draws Patrick out of his passiveness with her strong political activism and solid values. She rebels against the unfairness of the labourer’s working condition as shown through her persuasive dialogue. The imperative, “You name the enemy and destroy their power. Start with their luxuries”, emphasises her bold criticism of capitalism and her speech has a profound impact on Patrick’s values. Right after their conversation, Ondaatje states “he was suddenly aware that he had a role” which demonstrates how Alice “inspires Patrick out of his state of inactivity” (Barry Spur) and influences him with her ideology. Accordingly, after Alice’s death, he goes to set fire to the Muskoka hotel. Thus the fact that Alice and Clara are supposed to be submissive yet are empowered demonstrates the shallowness of the tradition idea of male superiority and gives the reader a more accurate portrayal of reality.

By incorporating the context of Skin of the Lion, the reader gains a deeper and more coherent understanding of complexities of the character’s realities. The theme of gender inequality, interdependency between the exploiter and the exploited and the loose structure of life all directly argue against the traditional one-dimensional colonial literature. It is through Ondaatje’s truncated structuring of the book and his skilful utilization of a variety of techniques that the important ‘realism’ is communicated to the audience, making it a timeless text.

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