Issues Themes In The Skin Of A Lion

Issues, Concerns, Themes, Values #


1.   Integration into society #

All people are born in isolation and gradually become integrated into a greater society comprised of dominant and marginalised groups. How well integrated you become is a determining factor of your status in that society.  Societies can be exclusive or inclusive with individuals either engaged, involved and accepted or disconnected, alienated and rejected.

Some, like Alice Gull make an early decision to withdraw from society to join a religious institution secluded from the world, however when a chance fall from the bridge gives her the opportunity of a new life she chooses a new identity and becomes politically active in assisting other underprivileged to integrate and gain a voice in the greater society.

Patrick Lewis, as a migrant from the remote country, also encounters challenges finding his place in a large city.  The lack of  maternal influences and a taciturn father have crippled his emotional and linguistic instincts and he lives in a shell.  Patrick at Union Station:

*“Patrick sat on a bench and watched the tides of movement… He spoke out his name and it struggled up in a hollow echo and was lost in the high air of Union Station.  No one turned.  They were in the belly of a whale.” *

It is Patrick’s engagement with Clara Dickens and later Alice Gull who draw him out of his solitude and assist his eventual integration though as an frustrated activist who attempts change through terrorist acts. 

*“He normally took months to approach someone, and at the slightest rejection he would never go back”. Pg. 62 *

Patrick’s  isolation and insularity is demonstrated by a metaphor for the emotional and psychological barriers within him..  

*“There was a wall in him that no one reached. Not even Clara, though she assumed it had deformed him. A tiny stone swallowed years back that had grown with him and which he carried around because he could not shed it. His motive for hiding it had probably extinguished itself years earlier…Patrick and his small unimportant stone. It had entered him at the wrong time in his life. Then it had been a flint of terror. He could have easily turned aside at the age of seven or twenty, and just spat it out and kept on walking, and forgotten it by the next street corner.”  *Pg. 71 

Patrick is similar to  Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh.  A young priestess, whose name is Shamhat, offers herself to Enkidu, a wild brutalised man, and they make love continuously for seven days.  Enkidu is transformed by that experience, and becomes socialised, humanised and empathetic.

Other migrants feel isolated and powerless because of their exclusion from the society they are attempting to enter. The puppet show illustrates this aptly.  The migrants lack the language and cultural attributes to give them a voice in society. They are frustrated by their lack of power and influence in mainstream society and their only outlet is to ‘bang on the wooden floor as if to plead for help’.   Indeed the purpose of the whole novel is to give a voice to the disenfranchised, the ones who did the work but missed out on getting the credit in nation building; the vast number of  inarticulate migrants who form the basis of all developing countries.  As the front piece claims:  ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.’ 

Ondaatje writes from the perspective of the unacknowledged drones of society, the voiceless manual labourers who are scarcely regarded by society, the rich or history.   Slaves produced the pyramids, the infrastructure of the Roman Empire, the thousands of peasants creating the terracotta soldiers guarding the tombs of Chinese emperors had to be killed on completion lest they revealed the secrets of their labour.

This derisory attitude is reinforced many times:

*“A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame.”  *Pg. 26

*“In the tenth century, he *(Small) *liked to say, the price of a greyhound or a hawk was the same as that of a man”. *

Harris:  *‘You’re as much of the fabric as the aldermen and the millionaires. But you’re among the dwarfs of enterprise who never get accepted or acknowledged’   *Page 238

Most of the characters live on the fringe of society and strive to be included in it.  Patrick, a refugee from the country finds it difficult to adjust to city life and become accepted.  He finds refuge with the migrants, especially the Macedonians.  

*He had reduced himself almost to nothing. He would walk home at dusk after working in the lake tunnel. His radio was on past midnight. He did nothing else that he could think of. They approved of his Finnish suit. Po modata deganten! Which meant stylish! stylish! He was handed a Macedonian cake. And suddenly Patrick, surrounded by friendship, concern, was smiling, feeling the tears on his face falling towards his stern Macedonian-style moustache. Elena, the great Elena who had sold him vetch for over a year, unpinned the white scarf around her neck and passed it to him. He looked up and saw the men and women who could not know why he wept now among these strangers who in the past had seemed to him like dark blinds on his street, their street, for he was their alien.  Pg.113 *

2. Metafiction – the power of language and Perspectives from the silent majority. #

*A democratic society needs people who have the linguistic abilities which enable them to discuss, evaluate and make sense of what they are told, as well as to take effective action on the basis of their understanding…. Otherwise there can be no genuine participation, but only the imposition of ideas of those who are linguistically capable. *Kingman (1988) #

The puppet show illustrates the impotence of the migrants aptly. On Sunday evenings they meet at an illegal gathering of various nationalities. * “Patrick felt utterly alone in this laughing crowd.” * The migrants lack the language and cultural attributes to give them a voice in society. They are frustrated by their lack of power and influence in mainstream society and their only outlet is to ‘bang on the wooden floor as if to plead for help’.   Indeed the purpose of the whole novel is to give a voice to the disenfranchised, the ones who did the work but missed out on getting the credit in nation building; the vast number of  inarticulate migrants who form the basis of all developing countries.  As the front piece claims:  ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.’  #

Patrick and his migrant friends feel insignificant: As Harris tries to explain:  ‘You’re as much of the fabric as the aldermen and the millionaires.   But you’re among the dwarfs of enterprise who never get accepted or acknowledged’ #

It is Harris’s mastery over language that enables him to overcome Patrick’s arguments. 

*3. A variety of Critical Approaches * #

The most common approaches are** **Feminism, Marxism 

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