In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje - Hsc Module B Critical Study

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In The Skin of a Lion Essay
Vanessa Kidson
English Advanced
Mark: 18/20

In your view, how have narrative techniques been used to reveal memorable ideas in Michael Ondaatje’s novel In The Skin of a Lion?

“The Bridge goes up in a dream.” Ondaatje’s fictionalised re-telling of the historical events circling the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct reveal themes of Authority & Power, Rebellion & Freedom, and Love & Loss that continues to illuminate throughout his novel In The Skin of a Lion. Ondaatje’s use of 3rd-person omniscient narration, verbal cinema, and leitmotif of light & dark have allowed him to make these themes the most memorable for me personally.

Power & Authority is a resonating theme throughout the entire text for it is continuously present in the lives of every character mentioned. Ondaatje explores different situations of power & authority by introducing new characters. A rather obvious example is the character Rowland Harris – the Commissioner of Public Works. He is a figure of authority and power. Although the bridge was his dream, it is the migrants’ hard labour that gave birth to it. But it is worded clearly that the bridge is his “baby” – not the migrants’ – demonstrating the power his voice has over the immigrants. In the chapter The Bridge Ondaatje invites us into the lives of the migrant workers. Throughout the entire novel he denies the collective migrants a voice, and by doing so he reveals how those who were in power had kept their stories silent. “Soon there are twenty. Crowded and silent.”

At this point of the novel, Ondaatje has not yet introduced any particular immigrant. But the fact that he has introduced them collectively – like as they are one person – has created an image far stronger than just that of twenty crowded men sitting silently in a truck. This scene is a vignette, contributing to the bigger picture – the truth. That truth is that all the immigrants are trapped in the same stark world, forced to keep silent. The puppet show, performed by Alice in Palace of Purification, is a dramatic metaphor of migrant life. The migrants are the puppets and the authorities are pulling the strings. “The audience around him was silent. The only sounds on stage were grunts of authority. They were all waiting for the large puppet to speak, but it could say nothing.” Again, the migrants sit in silence. The contrast of silence and sound of the puppets and the authorities (respectively) amplifies the idea of the authorities having considerable power over them. Images of light & dark recur throughout the novel, acting as a leitmotif, contributing to the idea of the migrant workers being the inferior class. In The Bridge, the workers were awake in the darkness, on their way to the waterworks. “The truck carries fire at five a.m.” and they “stare into the passing darkness” Ondaatje’s use of language also contributes to the sense of power. The language is so exceptionally sophisticated in its description that we too, the reader, struggle to keep up with the flow of the story. Ondaatje consistently inter-cuts and juxtaposes scenes within scenes that leave us confused and powerless as the story progresses – much like how the migrants seem powerless. I am specifically referring to the surrealism of the novel, created by the verbal cinema that takes us away from the present world and into a different time altogether. We are continuously drifting in and out of times and places. These time-lapses introduce new characters, which in turn show us new perspectives on power and authority.

This novel is about so many things, but a very significant idea that really stands out for me is the numerous acts of rebellion for a moment of freedom. Ondaatje uses light & dark to signify the small victories of the workers. Example, “Inside the building they moved in noise and light.”

In Palace of Purification, the workers spend their nights in an illegal nightclub...
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