A Marxist Approach - In the Skin of a Lion #
Marxism is concerned with the conflict between the haves and the have-nots - the weak and the strong - the powerful and the powerless.
A Marxist reading takes into account the class struggles, between the lower, working classes, the Proletariat, and the middle-class capitalists known as the bourgeoisie. For Patrick, and other migrants, this power disparity between them and the people higher-up, which includes Commissioner Harris, also includes a need to be included in the society. These class struggles are highlighted throughout the book in different ways, such as the working conditions of the workers, and the fact that “there was no record kept of the workers who died”.
Power comes from many sources, such as muscle, money, the barrel of a gun or from institutions, however in political terms, language, is the most powerful tool available to participants of a society. Articulate people have more influence than those who lack a good vocabulary.
As Kingman said in 1988,
* “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 nderstanding…………Otherwise there can be no genuine participation, - only the imposition of the ideas of those who are linguistically capable.*
The Bloor Street Viaduct, known as the Bridge, and the Waterworks, are two places where the Proletariat were exploited with poor working conditions and wages while the Bourgeoisie take the credit and reap the rewards. “They were paid one dollar a day.” This quote refers to the dyers who took animal skins and dyed them. This is juxtaposed at the end of the book where Patrick goes to the waterworks and confronts Harris about the workers and he says that the tiles “cost more than half our salaries put together”. Thus the difference between the lowliest and the higher order members of society is shown as the incongruity and disparity of the distribution of wealth.
Power and authority are another way in which the rich are separated from the powerless. Ambrose Small, who represents “bare-knuckled capitalism”, has power because he has the money. This means that he has the ability to control the workers by giving middlemen, such as Harris, the power to control the workers. As Ambrose works through other people, Patrick never suspects that Harris is not the one with the real power and Patrick attempts to attack the upper class through Harris, as Harris says: “You don’t understand Power”.
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. 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’
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.’
It is from a flawed concept of power that causes many people to misdirect their attacks. Patrick believes that Harris and his Waterworks represent the epicentre of power and so he schemes to blow it up to achieve a sense of power, recognition and revenge. He doesn’t realise that Harris is merely the face of power; the real power lies higher up, invisible, invincible and inviolate.
“Earlier Harris had understood why the man had chosen him; he was one of the few in power who had something tangible around him. But those with real power had nothing to show for themselves. They had paper. They didn’t carry a cent. Harris was an amateur in their midst. He had to sell himself every time.” Pg. 241-2
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’ So much of the dispossessed’s energy is misguided in striking out at the façade of power rather than the heart of it; public awareness – our consciousness. The book is an attempt to remedy this perception by giving a voice to the numberless masses. Whoever controls the narrative controls history.
The faceless rulers gauge the amount of public discontent carefully to maintain control. They know when to placate, appease or compromise so that public anger does not erupt and threaten their power.
A Marxist reading of the novel is relevant because complex societies are generally built up by the exploitation of cheap labour – sometimes slave, other times factory fodder from helpless migrants, but any single reading is restricted because you need to take a more objective approach to the story, focusing on the elements of power and its distribution through the characters while remaining distant from the characters themselves.
For a general survey of the Marxist Approach click here