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.
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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 […]