In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion Summary and Analysis of Book One, Chapter 3, "The Searcher"

The Searcher

This chapter re-introduces our protagonist, Patrick Lewis, who is now twenty-two years old, and has just moved from his small town to the city of Toronto after the death of his father in 1930. It is the same year the millionaire Ambrose Small has disappeared and there are big rewards for finding him. Desperate for work, Patrick takes a job as a “searcher.” This is a profession offered by the family of the recently vanished millionaire, and entails searching for leads as to his whereabouts.

Small’s family directs Patrick to speak with Small’s mistress, the actress Clara Dickens, to whom Patrick is immediately attracted. Clara barely pays him any attention the first time they meet, and tells him she won’t speak of Ambrose Small. Patrick returns the next day. She lets him in this time and helps him find documents in the library on Small. She lets him sit in her house and read the documents. Patrick spends a long day reading documents and then falls asleep late at night at Clara’s house while reading. At this point, Patrick has given up hope of seducing her. She drives him back to his hotel, and then she comes back the next day and seduces him.

Patrick quickly falls in love with Clara, and the two develop a relationship. She tells him of her past, and she comes often to his hotel. She invites him to spend a weekend with her at the country house of her friend, Alice. First, Clara and Patrick have time alone in the house, and then Alice comes and the two women ignore Patrick and seem to live in a world of their own where they draw large pictures of themselves and of Patrick while he is sleeping on the sofa. The two women tell stories and stay up all night talking and laughing, finally falling asleep together while Patrick remains sleeping on the sofa. Patrick leaves to go back to Toronto by train while Clara is still asleep, telling Alice to have Clara come to his hotel when she returns.

Clara comes to his hotel and they resume their love affair for a short time before Clara informs Patrick that she is leaving on the train to go live with Ambrose. She insists that he must not follow her. She leaves her pet iguana with Patrick to mind. Patrick does not follow her, but he is immensely broken-hearted.

We learn only from context that Patrick has been living alone in despair over Clara. He takes up work in a lumber-yard and the years pass while he remains broken-hearted. There is a section here that consists only of Patrick’s letters to Clara, but he doesn’t know where she is, so he can’t send them. Almost three years later, Clara's friend Alice appears at his door and, after they make love, tells him that he should go see Clara’s mother, that she knows where Clara and Ambrose are living. He goes to see Clara's mother, who tells him Clara and Ambrose are living in the last place they would think Patrick would go. Patrick knows this is his own hometown of Depot Lake, Ontario, where he told Clara he would never go again.

Patrick finds them living in the large home of a former lumber baron, and Patrick breaks into the house at night and sits waiting to be discovered in the living room. Upon finding Patrick in the dark with only a naphtha light, Ambrose pulls up a chair and asks Patrick if he wants to know about his childhood. Patrick tells him that he's not there to see him, that he's only there to see Clara. Ambrose says he’ll wake Clara, and that Patrick should wait outside for her.

While Patrick waits outside, he notices drops falling on him like rain, but they have an odor. He looks up and just as he realizes it is kerosene falling on him, he sees Ambrose throw a lit match on him. Patrick’s jacket catches on fire, and he runs for the lake while he attempts to cut his jacket off using his pocketknife. He jumps into the lake, his jacket still in fire, but looks up to see Ambrose has followed him. Ambrose throws a bottle of alcohol covered in a burning cloth at him. The explosion barely misses him, and Patrick runs back to a hotel in town, his hands burned and injured, as well as his chest cut and burned from where he tried to cut off the jacket. Clara comes to visit him in the hotel, and treats his wounds. They make love. He is content to be with her again and holds her hand in his sleep. She leaves him while he sleeps.


This is the chapter where we get to know Patrick’s adult character and the forces that shape him for the remainder of the novel. First is his love affair with Clara, which will reveal and shape his character, as well as become the seminal force that will change the course of his life, emotionally and by who enters and stays in his life from now on, specifically Alice. Second is his entry into Toronto city life, where he takes up a working class job among immigrants who don’t speak his language.

Through his actions and choices, we learn that Patrick is not the ambitious type of man who is after money or fame. He values love over those two things. As a Searcher, he had gained the trust of Clara, and he could have followed her when she went to live with Ambrose and received the $80,000 reward, as well as fame. But he obeys her and does not follow her, instead living broken-hearted by himself in a dismal one-room apartment, doing hard labor in a lumber yard, isolated with no friends or community.

During these years, he dreams of Clara and writes his dreams to her in letters that he doesn’t know where to send. Not only does an entire section of this chapter consist of the actual unsent letters, the letters themselves contain dreams and dream-like imagery, such as, “Dear Clara. All these strange half-lit lives. Rosedale like an aquarium at night. Underwater trees.” This is Ondaatje’s fractured post-modern method of interweaving dreams with reality to create dream-like segments that stand without explanation in the novel.

The only person Patrick interacts with substantially during almost three years of broken-hearted life in isolation is Alice, who is Clara’s friend. He is hesitant to let her into his apartment, less out of any feelings for Alice, but more because he is out of practice talking to people. After he and Alice make love, she leaves saying, “You must remove her shadow from you.” He replies that he knows that, but the reader gets the sense that he does not know how – his heart has taken over all of his other faculties.

What we learn of Clara in this chapter is the most we will get in the novel, and after this chapter, she remains a specter that haunts the rest of the novel. When she speaks of her past and her past lovers to Patrick, it is with flippancy. Her first lover was a man named “Stump Jones” who she said she left because she couldn’t stand his name, and he wouldn’t change it. She says she stayed with Ambrose because he “gave [her] a piano.” It is not materialistic; it is because Ambrose intuited the one thing that would be dear to her heart. So it is that underneath her flippancy, Patrick sees, and the reader senses, a great sadness and sensitivity in Clara.

Patrick’s character is revealed through the larger incidents of his heartbreak and how he reacts to it, but also by smaller metaphorical actions. He has a game of blindfolding himself and trying to memorize everything in the room so that he can run and jump around the room without hitting anything. He tries to perform this trick for Clara and tells her not to move after he blindfolds himself. At first she laughs and is enthralled by his running and jumping blindfolded, then she moves to the floor in fear. Because he hasn’t seen that she has moved, and he had memorized her location before he blindfolded himself, he accidentally kicks her so hard that she is bleeding. The next day she decides to leave to live with Ambrose. The blindfolding is a metaphor of Patrick being blind to his surroundings, which works fine with everything in his life, except Clara. His deliberate blinding of himself will make him lose Clara.