In the Skin of a Lion

In the novel, In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, the main character, Patrick Lewis, searches for identity and light. Without these elements, he lacks love and cannot survive the world. A passage in chapter three describes him as a lonely man that is isolated from the world around him. Clara and Ambrose and Alice and Temelcoff and Cato- this cluster made up a drama without him. And he himself was noting but a prism that refracted their lives. He searched out things, he collected things. He was an abashed man, an inheritance from his father. Born in Abashed, Ontario. What did the word mean? Something that suggested there was a terrible horizon in him beyond which he couldnt leap. Something hollow, so when alone, when not aligned with another- whether it was Ambrose or Clara or Alice- he could hear the rattle within that suggested a space between him and community. A gap of love, (Ondaatje, pg.157) suggests his feelings of separation from his close companions. It also reveals Patricks thoughts and characteristic qualities.

Patrick Lewis is a lost soul and a searcher on a constant journey. In chapter three, ironically titled, “The Searcher”, Patrick is searching for Ambrose Small but that is merely a metaphor for his vocation. “He searched out things, he collected things” (157) indicates that he is always searching for something. The title, In the Skin of a Lion, can also be used to illustrate Patrick’s perpetual search. In the preface, Ondaatje states, “(T)he joyful will stoop… I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.” Patrick is wandering through the wilderness, searching and hunting. He has no purpose in life; he just searches. The thing that he is looking for is light. This ambiguous concept of light Ondaatje presents throughout the novel is not ordinary light, but one that illuminates the void of darkness. Just like the moths that Patrick is intrigued by that only tend toward light at night, Patrick only seeks light when there is none around him. Patrick continues his eternal search for light because he has none of his own to emit. Without this element, he cannot find his true identity and survive the world he is living in.

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The central theme behind many stories is the loss and regaining of identity. Patrick has no identity of his own, and his only way of gaining a temporary one is through light. “And he himself was nothing but a prism that refracted their lives,” (Ondaatje, pg.157) is a well-written metaphor that describes his relationship with his friends. A prism, by definition, refracts light into a spectrum of colors. Correspondingly, Patrick contorts other characters identities as his own. The readers are introduced to this concept of reflecting light even before the novel begins. This is indicated by, “(D)riving the four hours to Marmora under six stars and a moon.” Patrick is the moon; he can only reflect a stars light. When reflecting light from the six stars, the main characters in the novel, Patrick is able to gain a temporary identity. This is what Patrick is searching for his true identity. Throughout the novel, Patrick becomes like the people he associates with, and he gains a temporary identity and purpose. He takes on Alice’s quest to dissolve the power of the rich by blowing up the Muskoka Hotel. He becomes a criminal like Caravaggio by breaking into the Waterworks. When Patrick is without light to reflect, he is without identity. When Clara leaves Patrick, he is thrust into a world of darkness. Only when Alice re-enters his life can he begin to have an identity again. Just like Alice’s story of several actresses sharing the animal pelt to tell the story, the characters in Patrick’s life become the focus of his life.
When Patrick is without an identity and the light of other characters, he is also lacking love. “Something hollow, so when alone, when not aligned with another- whether is was Ambrose or Clara or Alice – he could hear the rattle within that suggested a space between him and community. A gap of love.” (Ondaatje, pg.157). Only with love can anyone be expected to have identity and fit into a community. Hazin Lewis neglected this aspect in Patrick’s life. Without a motherly influence he never received the nurturing and encouragement he needed. This lack of love from his father, created Patrick to become an abashed man. When Patrick came to Toronto he tried to forget about his past, and tried to make a new beginning: “Now, in the city, he was new even to himself, the past locked away.” (Ondaatje, pg.157). As much as Patrick was trying to get away from his past, it engulfed his future. His past became him. He could not escape his lack of love as a child, and continually searched for it. Patrick’s life is like a bus ride. He is confined to the bus, meeting new and unique people as they get on and off. He talks with them and befriends them. But there is something essentially different from Patrick and the people whom he befriends. They all have purpose for riding the bus, a destination they want to reach and eventually they get off and leave Patrick behind. Sometimes Patrick would like to go with them to their destination, but he cannot. Patrick stays on the bus ride, which is a reflection of his life, and looks for his stop and unknown destination.

One of many themes in this novel is the search for identity and light. One must possess these elements to survive the world. Patrick is constantly searching and looking for his true identity. Throughout his journey, he meets many people who help play an important role in his life. They also help build up his identity and true self. He feels a separation between him and the community he lives in. He also feels isolation and the lack of love. This passage states his inner feelings and thoughts and provides the readers some of his characteristic qualities. It states that he is an abashed man who searches and collects things, and who is isolated from everyone who is close to him. This passage also provides emotional endearment for the readers, since it illustrates Patricks compassion and perception. It reveals Patricks true character. In the beginning of the story, it does not mention how he felt about the society he is living in. It talks about the people he meets and how they change his life. As the story progresses, his true character divulges and the readers learn more about him. This causes the passage to be one of the most important ones in the story, since it informs the readers of Patricks inner thoughts and feelings.