In the Skin of a Lion
Setting and the Communication of Ideas: Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion
Setting is an important part of Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, symbolically underpinning the novel’s conceptual concerns. This narrative can be understood as a sweeping contemporary myth in which the setting works ironically and movingly, humorously and poignantly, to mirror and enhance the ideas the text presents. Throughout the novel, setting forms an essential backdrop to the development and exploration of Ondaatje’s complex ideas, and the vast web of interconnectivity linking every character in the plot.
The Canadian setting at its broadest is a powerful and important aspect of the novel. The ‘new world’ of North America is a notable aspect of Ondaatje’s exploration of the migrants’ stories. “The vista was Upper America, a New World.” The ‘New World’ is symbolic of the American dream, suggestive of a hopeful future, a setting that lures the migrants to its light. The migrants are repeatedly associated with the motif of insects, and moths in particular, illustrating the power the setting holds over them. “Emerging from darkness, mothlike.” As with the moths’ attraction to light, however, the lure of the ‘New World’ is a dangerous illusion. Ondaatje uses the setting ironically, contrasting the ideal sought by the new arrivals and the grim reality of their lives. “Feet tested the air before each step was taken on this dangerous new country of the stage.” The stage setting is symbolic of the wider setting, Canadian society in microcosm, as the puppet play illustrates the harsh repression of the migrants. This ‘dangerous’ landscape is a far more accurate depiction of North America, than the illusory but hopeful ‘vista’ perceived from a distance. Their stories are set in tunnel and abattoir, grim settings that illustrate the flaws in an official history focusing on the grand ‘vista.’ Ondaatje brings Patrick into this harsher setting, making him a migrant entering a ‘new world’ not only for Patrick Lewis, but also for the reader. He “arrived in the city of Toronto as if it were land after years at sea.” Patrick’s characterisation emphasises the importance of setting, and the perspective of setting, as Ondaatje establishes through his main character the migrant’s outlook, and thus explores a story denied by official history. Through the narrative device of his story teller, Ondaatje illuminates the plight of the migrants, themselves ‘colonised’ by the setting they enter. “They had leapt into different colours as if into different countries.” Ondaatje’s image explicitly recalls setting, the harsh reality of the new world running as a constant undercurrent to his exposure of official history’s partiality.
Ondaatje employs setting to challenge conventional notions of demarcation and compartmentalisation. The quotation from Lucretius, “Let me now emphasise the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects,” is of fundamental importance to Ondaatje’s novel, reflected in the interactions of every character, and the underlying settings of the novel. Patrick Lewis is “a searcher gazing into the darkness of his own country,” an image of setting that forms a striking contrast to the ‘light’ that draws the migrants. Looking beneath this illusory ‘vista,’ Patrick’s characterisation charts his move to true light, an understanding of the complex web of connections that form society. This web is reflected in the settings of his life, charting a progressive disillusionment with official demarcation. On “that farm where day was work and night was rest,” Patrick’s conventional Anglo-Canadian upbringing becomes part of the very setting, but in inverting this setting, Ondaatje begins his journey through the novel to reject this narrow perspective. “Skating the river at night… moving like a wedge into the blackness magically revealing the grey bushes of the shore, his shore, his river.” The transformation of setting challenges the compartmentalisation of his upbringing, and throughout the novel Ondaatje employs setting in this fashion. Caravaggio’s encounter with Al illustrates this use of setting. “I just like it here. All the doors propped outside, where they don’t belong – things where they shouldn’t be.” As with “the other place, where the engines hung off the trees,” the inversion of normality adds greatly to the appeal of the setting. The unconventional settings demonstrate the difficulty in the artificiality of compartmentalisation, the anomalies that defy classification. Ondaatje creates these specific settings throughout the novel to demonstrate the need to escape conventional demarcation.
Settings in Ondaatje’s novel illustrate the fluidity of boundaries, again challenging official delineation. The stories of the migrants in particular unfold in settings that remove boundaries and certainties. The migrants are repeatedly associated with motifs of fire, and the ability to transcend limitations, “their lanterns replaced by new rushes which let them go further past boundaries.” The fire motif reflects the role of the migrants as agents of change in society, as Ondaatje challenges their place in official history as downtrodden labourers. Instead, he raises them to the role of heroes in his novel, and their stories unfold against settings symbolic of this position. The bridge is a very important setting in the novel, with the second part of Book One entitled ‘The Bridge.’ It is a setting at once beautiful and dangerous, symbolic of the looseness of the structures of even the most solid human constructions. “On winter mornings men fan out nervous over the whiteness. Where does the earth end?” The rhetorical question subverts the certainties of official compartmentalisation, rendering the very earth itself immaterial and uncertain. The bridge setting is used repeatedly to emphasise the untold stories of the migrants. Official history “depicted every detail about the soil, the wood, the weight of concrete, everything but information on those who actually built the bridge.” In Ondaatje’s novel, the workers are as much a part of the setting as the materials it is built from, and the setting is equally important to their stories. Temelcoff “is a spinner. He links everyone.” In his role on the bridge, Temelcoff creates and moves within the “wondrous night web” connecting every character and moment of Ondaatje’s novel. This metaphorical setting is reflected in the physical settings throughout the novel, from the bridge to the prison roof painted blue. “They could not move without thinking twice where a surface stopped.” As with the bridge, the setting ironically subverts the notions of demarcation, as the physical embodiment of society’s most deliberate effort at delineation and separation loses even the certainties of physical boundaries.
The settings of Patrick’s quasi mythical journey are of great symbolic importance to the development of his character. The imagery of light and dark illustrates his journey towards an understanding of his full role as storyteller, able to observe Ondaatje’s metaphorical setting. “Patrick saw a wondrous night web.” The settings of farm and tunnel and puppet theatre are important stages in his development, driving towards the final stage in his realisation. The waterworks form a setting as important as the bridge, the “Palace of Purification,” that underpins Patrick’s time in the tunnels with the migrants, and houses his final confrontation with Harris. The opulent setting serves, as with the mutability of bridge and prison, to challenge assumptions and preconceived convictions. “We need excess, something to live up to.” Harris ‘palace,’ like Harris himself, does not conform to narrow dichotomies of powerful and powerless, and it is here that Patrick learns the true nature of power. “You don’t understand power. You don’t like power, you don’t respect it, you don’t want it to exist, but you move around it all the time.” Harris outlines a Foucauldian notion of power, fluid and changeable, easily transferred but impossible to destroy. This notion of power underpins the entire progress of Patrick’s characterisation, as he approaches this understanding and is able to put on the ‘skin of a lion,’ truly becoming a storyteller and spreading power further. This notion is woven into every setting of the novel, into the very structure of the novel itself. Water is a powerful motif through the novel, representing the fluidity of power from the “molecular and grey” water that becomes the thick ice for the Finnish skaters, to the dark waters of the Lake that form his last mythic barrier. “My god he swam here… What vision, what dream was that?” The setting of Patrick’s final confrontation with Harris not only illustrates the loose connectivity of all settings in the novel, it provides the last symbolic barrier to Patrick’s understanding, his passage through it his final heroic achievement and the culmination of his characterisation.
The concepts explored in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion are closely interwoven with the novel’s settings. Form the broad, sweeping vista of North America, to the specific locations of farm and door factory, every setting is drawn into the powerful narrative. Ondaatje’s settings reflect his fundamental concepts, illustrating the loose connectivity of all objects, and entirely subverting any attempts at demarcation or compartmentalisation. The settings of Patrick’s mythic journey symbolically represent his movement to a full understanding of Foucauldian power, as Ondaatje’s physical settings mirror the metaphorical setting beneath, an intricate mesh of connections and affiliations, uniting every setting, event, and location in the story. Ondaatje’s novel is essentially concerned with the broad interconnectivity of all humanity, and his settings are instrumental in his representation of this truth.
Marxist and Post-Colonial Readings of In the Skin of a Lion
The postmodernist novel In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, is a convincing exploration of the complex nature of power and the impact of ethnocentric domination on different cultural groups. Though lending itself to a wide variety of readings, the obvious Marxist and post-colonial themes consistently portrayed throughout the novel signify a strong relationship between those concepts and Ondaatje’s personal beliefs and values. Thus, these particular interpretations can be perceived as a mechanism by which Ondaatje’s intentions are revealed: capitalist exploitation of the working class, class struggle and the plight of the marginalised groups, and the resulting effect on the telling of history. Ondaatje’s purpose as the composer is effectively captured within three key scenes which both express and highlight the significance of the issues being explored.The first of these scenes, detailing the (real life) official opening of the Bloor Street Viaduct, illustrates the dismissive attitude of the capitalist rich toward the contribution of the working class in building Toronto. “Christened ‘Prince Edward,’” the bridge was to be opened by a “show car containing officials,” supposedly representing those responsible for its construction. However, the procession is interrupted by someone “anonymous and cycling like hell…a blur of intent” crossing the bridge, a faction technique that Ondaatje has included to symbolise acts of resistance by ‘common people’ against those in power. The depiction of “the string of onions that he carries on his shoulder splaying out” strongly suggests that the individual is a migrant, possibly one who had worked on the bridge, strengthening the significance of his subverting the ceremonial role of the officials. The Marxist overtones of this event is supported by the reference of “thunderous applause [that] greeted him at the far end,” a celebratory gesture for undermining the capitalist class, exemplifying Ondaatje’s view on the class struggle and the value he places on the perceived powerless over the powerful. This passage also discusses the impact of ethnocentric domination on the migrant working class, specifically the effect this has on the telling of history. Announcing (in an epigraph) that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one,” Ondaatje foregrounds within this scene those historically considered anonymous, despite their integral contribution to the physical and social infrastructure of Toronto. He conveys his intentions through a flashback to the eve of the official ceremony, in which “workers had arrived and brushed away officials…moved with their own flickering lights – their candles for the bridge dead.” There is no official ceremony to mourn, or even acknowledge the dead, and so the workers must conduct their own private vigil in an effort to provide at least some recognition. The evocative imagery of “their candles…like a wave of civilisation, a net of summer insects over the valley” communicates the emotional aspect of cultural disempowerment and dissatisfaction with historical anonymity. The event challenges the ethnocentric assumption of ‘official’ accounts by addressing the role of the marginalised groups who were historically silenced. In this way Ondaatje embraces the post-colonial stance of disregarding the dominant version of history “as though it were the only one,” instead providing a counter history that gives power to the unacknowledged masses. In the next passage Ondaatje explores elements of the complexity of power in relation to storytelling and history through the characterisation of Alice and the influence of metaphor. This extract follows Alice’s puppet show, a theatrical interpretation of the migrant and working class experience demonstrating the frustration of those who are limited by their cultural dimension to give them a voice in society. During the scene she instructs Patrick, a member of the working class, that “you reach people through metaphor. It’s what I reached you with earlier tonight in the performance.” The metaphor in question, donning “the skin of a lion,” is the means by which Alice encourages the minorities to use their voice by dramatically communicating the issues of the lower class herself. The importance is then placed on the power of story-telling, which connects to the post-colonialist defiance of ethnocentricity; by having the marginalised given the opportunity to tell their own histories, they are empowered to subvert their traditional position of historical anonymity. Ondaatje is reinforcing that there is no such thing as “a single story” since ‘definitive’ history is constructed by, and only includes, those in power. As such, Alice’s characterisation as an initiator of storytelling and activist for the migrant workers reflects Ondaatje’s purpose in acknowledging the significance of ‘untold’ stories over dominant records. Further on in this scene, power is discussed within the context of wealth and the ideals of capitalism. Patrick laments having only “about ten bucks to my name” until Alice points out the negative consequences of capitalist ambition. She claims people only succeed in becoming rich by “becoming just like the ones they want to overtake,” citing Ambrose Small as an example. The character of Small has been utilised as a symbol for “bare-knuckled capitalism” and its adverse effects on society, a typical Marxist perception of wealth and financial power. Alice, as the counterpoint to the world of the rich, describes him as “predatory,” an isolated individual who “let nothing cling to him, not even Clara.” She says she liked Patrick “because you knew that. Because you hated that in him,” emphasising her belief in the corruption of those that represent power and its damaging ability to divide society into the powerful and the powerless. This scene thus encapsulates Ondaatje’s intention in relating differing forms of power, be it communicative or financial, and the significant effect it can have on the lives of individuals and groups. The final scene, a confrontation between Commissioner Harris (yet another symbol of authority) and Patrick, exhibits the response to the capitalist exploitation of the working class and the plight of the marginalised groups. Patrick (while holding a blasting box under his arm) demands that Harris understand the true nature of the class structure, verbally attacking him for the “goddamn herringbone tiles in the toilets [that] cost more than half our salaries put together.” Patrick, on behalf of the historically silenced minorities, forces Harris to “think about those who built the intake tunnels. Do you know how many of us died in there?” As well as connecting to the anonymity of the “bridge dead,” Harris’ curt reply, “there were no records kept,” substantiates the workers’ lack of recognition and absence of value in the eyes of the ethnocentric class system. However, Harris is already aware of this to an extent; he quickly realises that “what you [Patrick] are looking for is a villain,” a face for the oppressive dominant culture. This incident encapsulates the degree to which cultural groups have been affected by the ‘forces of power’ and explains Ondaatje’s belief in the need to re-evaluate history with a focus on the extensive contribution of the migrant workers.In addition, Patrick’s view of Harris as a “villain” demonstrates his need for something tangible to hold responsible for the disempowerment and frustration of the workers. However, Patrick fails to realise that acts of aggression (in this case threatening to blow up the waterworks) will not eliminate the “systems of exploitation” because power is a metaphysical entity, underlining the nature of its complexity. Harris, perhaps because of his deep involvement with it, is conscious of this, pointing out to Patrick that “You don’t understand power…you don’t want it to exist but you move around it all the time.” Terrorism is ineffective because power cannot be located in a single individual or building, but emanates from the dominant culture in a way that is constantly shifting and changing. Ultimately Patrick decides against detonating the dynamite, as Harris recognises Patrick’s (and by extension the workers’) contribution to the development of Toronto and society as a whole. He also encourages Patrick to accept Alice’s death, to abandon her metaphorical idea that “you name the enemy and destroy the power” so as to be able to move beyond the concept that one is the enemy and the other is the victim. In this way, Ondaatje provides the notion of the resolution of class differences and his belief in the future of the working class.Throughout the novel Ondaatje’s exploration of the nature of power and ethnocentric domination evolves as the complexity of these subjects is revealed. The importance placed on the ability to tell stories, the portrayal of capitalist corruption and exploitation, and the assertion that authoritarian power is not a physical manifestation that can be destroyed by acts of terrorism demonstrates the multifaceted way in which power can be perceived and the impact it can have on individuals. Furthermore, the portrayal of class struggles and the historical silence of marginalised groups displays Ondaatje’s view on the plight of ‘anonymous’ migrant workers. In essence, Ondaatje’s purpose in writing In the Skin of a Lion was to communicate the value he holds for the non-dominant cultural groups and his personal beliefs in regards to the effects of power, in all its forms, on society, as captured in the post-colonial and Marxist readings of three key scenes.
Finding the Way to Individuation: Comparing Patrick Lewis and Mr. Watts
Someone who is individuated displays signs of maturity and responsibility, in addition to also having a good understanding about the different aspects of themselves and the inner workings of the universe which bestows a holistic healing effect on one’s self. Furthermore, one who is individuated also promotes freedom and justice by helping others find the path to individuation. Patrick Lewis from In the Skin of a Lion and Mr. Watts from Mister Pip were both straying towards having a neurosis due to an imbalanced psyche. Patrick lost his sense of reasoning when his lover, Alice, was killed by a misplaced suitcase bomb. His life was already full of sorrow, and he worked dangerous jobs in the city of Toronto for an unsustainable wage; making it is easy to understand why he risked his life to try to blow up the central centrifugal pumps on an island just outside the city. On the other hand, Mr. Watts was living his everyday life like it was a drama play at a theatre, walking around the village with a bright red clown nose while pulling his fat wife on a trolley behind him. Although by the end of each novel, the characters in In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje and Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones became individuated through achieving a balanced psyche. Once the two protagonists developed a strong healthy anima and were able to mediate their ego along with the outside world using the proper personas, individuation was attained.
To begin, a positive anima is necessary for one to have a fully balanced psyche. Patrick Lewis’s life before and after his lover’s death demonstrates why having a positive anima is critical to reaching individuation. Before Alice Gull died due to a misplaced suitcase bomb, Patrick’s outlook on life was noticeably improving. For example, he was being more open towards others, when he usually keeps to himself and was also happier throughout his day because he looked forward to seeing Alice when he got off of work. Once he got off work and back home to her, he treated her and her daughter, Hana, with care and respect even though he just went through a day of hard labour under harsh environments, such as building a tunnel under Lake Ontario. Patrick even said: “if [they] cannot be lovers [he would] come each afternoon, come as if courting, and over lunch [they would] share [their] thoughts, laughing, so this talk will be love” (Ondaatje 164). Evidently, he clearly had a strong soul force because he had a healthy relationship with his lover, therefore allowing him to take a step towards being more individuated. Furthermore, he stated that even if they were not official girlfriend and boyfriend, he would have still treated her the same as he would now, enjoying their time spent in each other’s company. Although after she died, Patrick lost all sanity of his and even ended up in jail for quite a while. Visvis’ work “suggests that the trauma or a loved one’s death cannot be faced immediately, but only tentatively and indirectly” (Visvis). Hence explaining why Patrick did unlawful things such as setting fire to a beautiful garden and almost having the means to press the plunger on the fuse box down, blowing up the centrifugal pumps. Though other close friends who were practically family to him tried to talk him out of it, he still went along with trying to set things right for Alice; proving how it is necessary to have a healthy soul force. But after the whole ordeal was over with at the end of the novel, “Patrick journeys towards his previous lover, Clara, who left him for the millionaire Ambrose Small years earlier. Small has been removed as an obstacle, dying a lonely and deranged death, leaving Clara and Patrick free to unite and re-establish a family unit for Hana, Alice’s orphaned child” (Visvis). When Patrick recovered his past relationship with Clara, he also rediscovered his anima and his soul force, which allowed him to be closer to finding full individuation. Hence, Patrick becomes more mature and responsible once his anima is re-established by getting back together with Clara. He began to take care of Hana like he promised Alice he would, and gave up on his revengeful schemes.
Even though Patrick has been through very tough times, he has now found peace with the world. Below is a conversation with Hana after being released from jail many years later: -“Are you healthy?” -“Oh yes. As a horse.” -“Good.” -“I’ll have to get used to things, though.” -“That’s okay, Patrick . . . and being in jail’s okay too. Don’t let it go to your head though.” -“No” (Ondaatje 212). Patrick did not hold any grudges, or have regrets about what he has done, demonstrating that there is a holistic healing effect bestowed onto him. He even had support from Hana to help him get through this transition from solitude in jail to living back at home with Alice’s daughter he agreed to take care of. To further prove how having a healthy anima leads to one’s individuation, Toye explains how Michael Ondaatje’s “own near-breakdown, and, finally, after what one section call[ed] ‘Rock bottom’, his recovery and return through the love of another woman” (Toye, 882). Toye’s written work depicts how Ondaatje applies his own life experiences into his novels through the use of his characters. He proves how needed a healthy anima and soul force is in order for one to reach the path to individuation; as without it, developing a form of neurosis is prevalent. Therefore, without a healthy anima, a man would not be able to handle the difficulties of life and will continually be in conflict with his different aspects of self.
Furthermore, Mr. Watts also demonstrates how having a healthy anima is necessary to obtain individuation. Grace, Mr. Watts’ wife, fell greatly ill; and with no access to medicine due to the rebellion against the Redskins, there was nothing to help cure the disease that was infecting her body. Also, all of their furniture from their house was stolen from the villagers and burned in a great big bonfire because they were resentful of Mr. Watts’ possessions he had while they had nothing. So Grace did not even have a bed or a couch to lie on while ill, but nonetheless, Mr. Watts “knelt beside his sick wife, strok[ed] her hair and dabb[ed] her forehead with a damp-looking rag” (Jones 134). He displayed his kind and caring affection towards his wife, which depicts that there was a healthy relationship between the two of them and that he had a strong soul force. To further prove that Mr. Watts had a strong anima, he also worked side by side with his wife without a single dispute about how the spare room should look and feel like for the soon to be born child. Although Mr. Watts is of a different decent and background than Grace “they [still] wanted their vision of some unrealised place to inhabit the room…They agreed to gather their worlds side by side, and leave it to their daughter to pick and choose what she wanted” (Butter). He treated her with respect and took into consideration of what she wanted in the spare room. Throughout the whole novel, they never gotten into an argument, and always worked through problems together. Since Mr. Watts had a strong soul force, it allowed him to become more individuated; meaning that he had a better understanding of the different aspects of himself and human nature. So when his wife unfortunately passed away, Matilda: Wasn’t sure how long Mr. Watts’ mourning would last. Some of [them] worried that he would not come out of his house again—that, like Miss Havisham, he would become stuck. So it was a surprise, three days later, when Mr. Watts sent Gilbert to find me and ask why I wasn’t in school. In class…his smile was firm, as if to say he was no longer a grieving man (Jones 146). Mr. Watts only spent three days mourning his dead wife, which is considerably a short period of time. The reason for his short mourning period is because he understood the inner workings of the universe, so he was able to accept the fate of his wife and the way life is. Hence obtaining a healthy anima is essential to reaching individuation.
However, one would also need a balanced persona as it helps mediate what one’s self wants, and what the outside world requires them to be. For example, Patrick had an authoritative persona when confronting Commissioner Harris at his office. It was the middle of the night when Patrick swam through all the intake tunnels and broke into the centrifugal pumps. He set explosives ready to be detonated with one press of the plunger, but he decided to go and give a surprise visit to the man in charge of all of the unfair treatment to the immigrant workers. Although he was just some poor immigrant, he portrayed his assertiveness and his authority right away when confronting him. Commissioner Harris had no choice but to follow every single command from Patrick once he said: “Everything is wired. I just press the plunger on this blasting-box” (Ondaatje 235). From that moment on, Patrick had turned the tables of the situation and now he was the one giving the commands, instead of receiving them. He would not be able to get Mr. Harris to do as he pleases, and listen to his story, which is exactly what Patrick came in there to do. Putting on his authoritative persona makes manipulating Mr. Harris possible. Patrick tells him about all the struggles his people have been through because of the way Mr. Harris has run his business, and about his personal struggles of Alice dying. The author Michael “Ondaatje evokes a relationship between self and mask in this respect…” (New 846). A persona mediates between self and the outside world, and that is what Patrick is doing. Initially, he needed to put on an authoritative in order to force Mr. Harris to listen; but after hours go by, he becomes less assertive and more open for conversation since he feels as if Mr. Harris is not a potential threat to stopping him from pressing down the plunger on the blasting-box. In the end, his goal was completed, which was to make Mr. Harris understand the hardships he had put him, and others like him through. Interestingly, Patrick had found that a holistic healing effect has occurred when he poured all his emotions out while talking to Mr. Harris in the dark office; but more-so that he was able to spread this holistic healing and justice towards Mr. Harris. As Patrick passed out from exhaustion, and a guard came in when the sun rose, Mr. Harris told the guard to take away the blasting-box, and bring in a nurse with some medical supplies to care for Patrick who is bleeding on the ground (Jones 242). Mr. Harris did not arrest Patrick, which he could have easily done considering the state Patrick was in, but instead brought him the medical attention he needed and let him go free. Patrick changed Mr. Harris, made him see his wrong-doings; and hopefully changed him to understanding that humans are not to be treated like animals. The both of them “engag[ed] in a form of the ‘talking cure’ (Visvis), finding individuation through properly expressing themselves with the right personas. Therefore, the two examples above prove how having multifaceted personas is necessary to achieving a balanced psyche, which in turn leads to discovering the path to individuation.
n addition, Mr. Watts portrayed a fatherly persona to the students on the island after all of the other teachers fled onto the last boat off the island. When there was a lack of parental guidance, he took the initiative to fulfill the role of a parent for the students; in particular, a student named Matilda. Since her mother, Dolores, was not promoting desirable character traits, Mr. Watts was there instead to help guide Matilda through life and to teach her important lessons: “I only know the man who took us kids by the hand and taught us how to reimagine the world, and to see the possibility of change, to welcome it into our lives” (Jones 245). While her mother was busy trying to persuade others that Mr. Watts is a horrible person, he was busy teaching his students how to live life better by seeing the world as a place full of opportunities; something that a parent should be doing for their kid. Although he was only supposed to be their teacher, he went above and beyond the expectations that were laid out for his role as he took his teachings outside the classroom and became more like a father to them instead. Before the blockade commenced, he was an outsider that no one truly knew about; but then after the civil war began, “the foreigner becomes familiar, accepted, and integrated. Fatherless Matilda… and the other children now have a father figure” (Latham). Since he portrayed a fatherly persona towards the students, his goal was to protect them from all the violence that occurred in the village just like how a father would. Thus to prove Mr. Watts’ individuation, Matilda stated that: He was what-ever he needed to be, what we asked him to be. Perhaps there are lives like that—they pour into whatever space we have made ready for them to fill. We needed a teacher, Mr. Watts became that teacher. We needed a magician to conjure up other worlds, and Mr. Watts had become that magician. When we needed a saviour, Mr. Watts had filled that role. When the redskins required a life, Mr. Watts had given himself (Jones 245). Consequently, Mr. Watts displayed his individuation through demonstrated signs of maturity and responsibility towards the residents of the village. All of the students looked up to him for guidance of what to do, or how to behave, and never has he once faltered and became a bad role model to them.
When the redskins came to inflict punishment on the already abused village, Mr. Watts gave up his own life in order to save everyone else from suffering too. He handled the situation with maturity, and took responsibility for the crime the redskins accused the people of the village of doing, which was concealing a man by the name of Mister Pip; who was just a made up character from a novel he read to his students in class. In addition, he used the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens because “he believ[ed] that the story will again deflate the children’s attention from the fear, violence and anxiety around them” (Latham). However, “as fears escalate and conditions worsen, Great Expectations offer[ed] Matilda a stay against chaos…And that save[d] [their] sanity” (Taylor). Taylor expressed that a major reason why most of the students on the island had not already lost their sanity yet due to all the brutal violence around them is because Mr. Watts, who is already individuated, had the ability to help others find some form of inner peace. With his fatherly persona, he guides Matilda towards the path to individuation as he “gives Matilda [the] skills that enable her to interpret her own world better” (Taylor). In other words, he himself had a good understanding about the workings of the universe, and was able to teach others the same; which satisfy one of the conditions of individuation. By spreading his knowledge about the workings of the universe to the students, it further encourages them to stray from developing a neurosis and promotes individuation instead. After constant abuse from the redskins, a few of the students choose to leave the village and join the rebel army instead, which leads to poor behaviour traits; but most of the students still went back to the school to learn more from Mr. Watts. It is evident that he is individuated, and with his fatherly persona he is able to keep most of the students safe from harm and from negative influence.
Patrick Lewis and Mr. Watts in the novels In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje and Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones both discover how to strengthen their soul force and develop the ability to portray multifaceted personas towards others in the right situations. Thus individuation is only made possible through balancing the different aspects of the psyche. If the characters did not find the path to individuation at the crucial points in life, a neurosis would have definitely developed, which would have meant increased suffering to all other individuals around them as they would not have been able to also grasp the feel of individuation.
Comparison of the Treatment of Childhood in Shadowboxing and In the Skin of a Lion
Shadowboxing, a series of short stories by Tony Birch follows the life of Michael Burn as he grows up in the inner suburbs of Melbourne in the 1960s. Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion narrates the life of Canadian Patrick Lewis throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. While the majority of Ondaatje’s novel focuses on Patrick’s adult life, the first chapter “Little Seeds” recounts his childhood in rural Canada. Both texts focus on the observant nature of children and the keenness with which they see and feel the events and people around them. Both works examine the ways in which events and people experienced during childhood can affect a child, and the lasting impact these factors can have on an individual. Birch depicts childhood as a time in which certain details are both keenly noticed and keenly remembered.
Although young, in the chapter “The Butcher’s Wife”, Michael shows himself to be highly aware of the violence around him. He says “I caught only a glimpse of [the butcher’s wife’s] face as we passed each other, but I noticed [her cuts and bruises] immediately” (Birch 41). Furthermore, when describing the “heavy foundation of powder” (41) this woman uses to cover the bruises caused by her husband, Michael comments “it was probably the same one mum used” (41), showing that he is aware of the abusive situation at home. In fact, the profound and vivid memory of the traumatic events that take place in Michael’s home during his childhood can be seen when he describes the night his father physically abused his mother during her fourth pregnancy, after which “the baby was gone” (43). Michael says “I have not forgotten running into the kitchen, with Katie…and seeing her pinned to the floor beneath him” (42). Ondaatje also emphasizes the ability of children to notice things, through the observant Patrick Lewis, during his isolated childhood living with his emotionally distant father. The first two lines of In the Skin of a Lion depict Patrick as an outside spectator: “the boy sees the men walk past the farmhouse…he stands at the bedroom window and watches” (Ondaatje 7). As he spends a lot of time alone, he becomes an observant, non-judgmental spectator. When watching the loggers outside his window, the boy is fascinated by them and “witnesses this procession and even dreams about it” (8). Furthermore, Patrick also seems very aware of the intricate workings of human relationships, noticing that the loggers must give way to the farmer because they do not “own this land, as the owner of the cows does” (7). Importantly, Patrick does not seem to judge the happenings which he notices, giving no opinion on the fact that the foreigners are seen as lesser than the farmer. Additionally, Patrick does not seek to be associated with “the men”, portraying himself as an outside observer. Patrick’s father is described, presumably from Patrick’s observant perspective, as someone who is “withdrawn from the world around him” (15), and who often behaves “as if flesh and blood did not exist” (15). The use of the phrase “flesh and blood” (15) draws attention the family connection between Hazen and Patrick, suggesting that, as Hazen’s “flesh and blood” (15), Hazen may treat Patrick as though he “did not exist”. This draws attention to how potentially upsetting and problematic it may be for Patrick to have a father who is so withdrawn (15). Consequently, this reluctance to interact with others could most likely stem from having a silent, distant father, who did not seem very interested in interacting with him, suggesting the importance of the observations that individuals make as children.
In Shadowboxing, Birch suggests the lasting impact that the people and situations which children observe around them can have on these individuals as they grow up. However, rather than simply copying what they observe the adults around them doing, Birch focuses on the way children observe the actions of parent figures, observe the consequences, and often choose opposite responses to their parents. Consequently, in Michael’s later life we see that he has made seemingly conscious decisions to be different from his violent and abusive father. During his childhood, there are many times that his father actively tries to forget the past. After Michael’s younger sister, May died, Michael’s mother “tried to talk to [Michael’s father] about May several times, but he either responded with silence, or swore and yelled at her uncontrollably” (Birch, 7) eventually “he would not have [May’s] name spoken in the house” (9). Michael sees the grief that repressing the past causes his mother – “she was desperate”(7) to talk about May. Years later when they are living at the commission flats, his younger sister Katie, asks him “Michael, can you take me down by our old house, and the old street? Show me where it all used to be… You think you’d remember?” and we can see his conscious decision to be different from his father when he replies “Of course I can, Katie. That’s what I’m here for. That’s my job – to remember” (104). Consequently, while Birch depicts childhood as an important and formative time, he also suggests that it is not the situation of one’s childhood that defines the person, but the choices that that person makes, using what they have observed in their childhood.
In the Skin of the Lion focuses on the impact of childhood, while also acknowledging the ability of events in adulthood to alter the traits acquired in childhood. In keeping with the personality formed in his in childhood, Patrick takes with him to the city, a non-judgmental, observant, outsider attitude. In one of his earlier conversations with Alice, he disagrees with her passionate allegiance to her political cause which was, as she phrased it, to “name the enemy [the rich] and destroy their power” (130 Ondaatje). His reluctance to become overly involved and his non-judgmental nature can be seen in his reply that rather than violence, one should “teach him, make him aware”(128). However, when Alice is accidentally killed by a detonator in her bag, Patrick attempts to avenge her death by pursuing her cause, suggesting that this event has awakened in him the ability to harshly judge others, to the point of revenge. Consequently, Ondaatje depicts childhood as a background that affects us, and will always have some influence, but emphasizes the way later events can equally change these predetermined attitudes.
Both Shadowboxing and In the Skin of a Lion examine the time of childhood and its lasting impact upon the individual. Both texts emphasise the ability of children to notice both small and large details and feel and remember these things keenly. However, while Shadowboxing focuses on childhood as a time that stays with you forever, emphasizing the conscious way it can affect a person’s decisions, In the Skin of a Lion has a slightly different focus. Ondaatje seems to contend that while one’s childhood can have a strong effect on an individual, and shape much of one’s character, a person can still be changed later on, by stronger influences than those experienced in childhood.