In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion Themes

Language and Lack of Language

This is one of the biggest themes in this novel. Because there are so many immigrants to Canada during the time of the novel (1913-1940), “North America is still without language, gestures and work and bloodlines are the only currency.” The novel explores different forms of language besides words. Patrick comes to live in a Macedonian immigrant community in Toronto; even though he is a native Canadian, he is isolated by language in his own country. But he learns to relate to those around him, and at a moment when he is in the Teck Cinema watching a silent film and laughing out loud, he looks up and catches the eye of someone else laughing, and they “have the same realization – that this mutual laughter is conversation.” And before this, when Patrick first makes friends in the Macedonian community, it is through his drawing of his pet iguana, to inform the shopkeeper and her family why he keeps wanting to buy vetch every week. When the shopkeeper and her family realize that the stranger in their midst has tried to communicate, they hug him, and he cries with the elation of letting people into his private world in friendship. His tears are communication, and bring him closer to the people around him. When Patrick lives with Alice, she “speaks with her friends slipping out of English into Finnish or Macedonian.” She knows she “can be unconcerned with [Patrick’s] lack of language, that he is happy.” Patrick has attained contentment and companionship in a world without language.

Yet, the immigrant workers are a different story. They must learn English. Nicholas realizes that "if he did not learn the language he would be lost." He thinks “language is much more difficult than what he does in space,” hanging from the tiers of the bridge as he practices English phrases. The immigrant workers are given English names: "Charles Johnson, Nick Parker…The names strange in their foreign language were remembered like a number, much like the numbering in prison." The puppet show at the Waterworks enacts the frustration of the immigrants, when an actor dressed as a human-sized puppet plays the role of an immigrant in Toronto. The puppet cannot speak and is buffeted around in the crowd, then accused by the police, then finally, collapses in frustration pounds a fist on the floor over and over because it has no words.

Rich and Poor

The theme of rich and poor is introduced immediately in the novel. It is in the very first scene of Patrick as a boy watching the loggers cross the road in the early morning, where we learn that a landowner owns the cows and Patrick’s father works for the landowner. Later Patrick’s father goes to work in the feldspar mines, which is dangerous work not undertaken by those with other means. The bridge and tunnel builders are shown to be laboring for very little money compared to the rich men who oversee the projects. Nicholas Temelcoff notices, while he works on the bridge, that Commissioner Harris’ "expensive tweed coat cost more that the combined week's salaries of five bridge workers." The men who built the bridge and tunnel are compared to machinery and to animals, while Commissioner Harris is always a man with a name. Harris is the “politician making a speech after [the] bridge is built, a man who does not even cut the grass on his own lawn." The millionaire Ambrose Small is described as "a jackal" who was "buying up every field of wealth.” Small was ruthless in the way he treated men: “he liked to say, the price of a greyhound or hawk was the same as that for a man." Ondaatje uses the metonymy of "rich and starving" instead of “rich and poor.” The word "starving" is more visceral and emotional, as well as creating a bigger contrast of the poor to the wealthy. Caravaggio is a thief who steals only from the rich, and he invades the rich world's ball in order to steal a yacht to help Patrick break into the waterworks. Alice gives several speeches against the rich, saying that "three quarters of the population of America… can't afford your choices!” She also says that the only place to spit in a rich man’s house is in his face. This is the sentence that Patrick repeats to Commissioner Harris when, in the biggest confrontation of poor against rich in the novel, Patrick breaks into the waterworks to confront Harris. Patrick says to Harris: "Think about those who built the intake tunnels. Do you know how many of us died in there?" To which Harris can only reply, "There was no record kept." This illuminates the entirely different perspective and emotional response to these deaths between rich and poor. To Harris, the men who died are replaceable laborers. To Patrick, they were his friends and community. The waterworks is called the "Palace of Purification," but ironically, the workers who built it died from "tuberculosis, and arthritis and rheumatism." Patrick tells that Harris his “goddamn herringbone tiles in the toilets cost more than half of our salaries put together.” Harris can only reply, “Yes, that’s true.” The novel is constantly showing the difference between the poor laborers and the rich men who run the show.

Immigrants, Insider v. Outsider

The entire book is focused on giving the reader the experience of the disenfranchised immigrants who built Toronto, to give voice to their silent stories. The Bloor Street bridge and the tunnel under Lake Ontario are built by several nationalities of immigrant men working long hours, and Patrick is our entry into this world.

Patrick is not an immigrant, yet he chooses to live among immigrants, those who don’t understand him and vice versa, in language and in habit. This tendency to stay on the outside yet to long to be inside recurs in the novel, starting in his boyhood when he watched the immigrant loggers who spoke another language: "He longed to hold their hands and skate the length of the creek…" The moment that tears fall from Patrick’s eyes when the Macedonian shopkeepers understand him, is another instance of his being on the outside and then being let inside. Yet, for the most part, his urge to stay outside prevails, and causes him comfort, just as it did when he was a child: "He passes this strange community most mornings during the winter months, the companionship a silent comfort to him in the dark at five am." He is a watcher who "absorbed everything from a distance…" And even after he is taken in to become part of Alice’s family and community, she knows he is happy being on the outside and not knowing the languages spoken among her friends. The puppet show where the immigrants are shown to be persecuted and frustrated because they are immigrants shows the other perspective: wanting to be on the inside. As well, Nicholas works in a bakery all night and still goes to school with ten-year-olds to learn English so he can be on the inside of his new country.

Dreams vs. Reality

In the first chapter of Patrick’s boyhood we are told his dream while he sleeps with his father after they pull the cow out of the ice. The dream is told in a way that mixes its imagery with reality so we are not sure what is real and what is a dream. This mixture of reality and dream recurs in the novel. We are told of a woman’s dream that led searchers for the missing Ambrose Small to follow it, and through this, we see that the novel is set in a world where people take dreams seriously.

Nicholas, while learning English in school with ten-year-olds when he was twenty-six, “had translation dreams – because of his fast and obsessive studying of English. In the dreams trees changed not just their names but their looks and character. Men started answering in falsettos. God spoke out fast to him as they passed him on the street.” Clara and Alice draw pictures through the night, so that Patrick, sleeping on the couch, is unsure whether he is dreaming it or not. Patrick writes letters to Clara that only describe his dreams at night; he writes of them as if they are real events. Patrick remembers Alice after her death through sequences that meld real event, memories and dream imagery. Commissioner Harris says that he had a dream about the waterworks before he built it. The disempowered in the novel believe in their dreams as images they live inside, while the empowered, like Harris, enact their dreams into reality.


Both women in the novel, Alice and Clara, are actresses. Alice is shown on the actual stage acting as a puppet in the show that causes Patrick to go up onto the stage. Clara is an actress in many senses of the word. She admits that she acted the part of Ambrose’s lover, but then she feels that she must join him and leave Patrick, leaving the reader to question whether she really loved Patrick or was just acting that role too. The theater plays a big part in how the immigrants learn English, by mimicking the lines of the actors on stage.

Storytelling on and off the stage is a theme that recurs. Nicholas Temelcoff becomes a storyteller after Patrick asks him if he saved the nun and if the nun was Alice. It is only after Patrick asks him this question that Nicholas realizes he has a “history” and that he can tell the stories of it. After Patrick pieces together Alice’s life, and when he researches the events of her life in the library, he feels it is like characters in a novel that come alive after the novel is over. He also feels his “own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, a falling together of accomplices,” very much like a play. Patrick compares his heart-break after Clara leaves him to the novels he’s read and then loses himself in novels again to drown his grief. Commissioner Harris is able to defeat Patrick by keeping Patrick up until daylight with stories, like a capitalist Scheherezade, so that Patrick won’t detonate the dynamite he’s rigged. Patrick becomes a storyteller in the end, to Hana. Right before Patrick begins to tell Hana the story of her mother and Clara, he says, “Lights,” indicating that he is an actor on stage, and that is the last word of the novel, all the more emphasizing the stage and storytelling.

Masks and Disguise

The title of the novel is the biggest indication that this novel will deal with disguise and masking. The title is from "The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the first recorded myth. The excerpt of Gilgamesh says that after a beloved has died, “I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.” This happens in the last half of the novel after Alice dies and Patrick transforms into a person who commits crimes against the rich. Even Alice and Patrick’s coming together is fraught with masks and disguise: "He saw something [in Alice] he would never fully reach – the way Clara dissolved and suddenly disappeared from him, or the way Alice came to him it seemed in a series of masks or painted faces..." At the puppet show put on among immigrants, "[e]ach person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story." This is a metaphor for the immigrants as masked or disguised, as being seen and interpreted as something different than they are by the bigger community they are trying to join. Caravaggio says the trick to all theft is “demarcation.” He is referring to when he escapes from prison by being painted blue, a disguise that makes him unable to be demarcated from the dark blue night, so that he can scale down the wall right in front of the guard unnoticed. Then Patrick is “painted” black with grease when he invades the Waterworks.


Meta-fiction is when a novel refers to itself as being a constructed story, an artifice, so that the reader is aware she is reading instead of being lost in the dream of the story. It intentionally brings the reader out of the dream of fiction in order to make a point about the art she is experiencing. Ondaatje emphasizes this theme continually throughout this novel.

In describing Patrick's love for Alice and their experiences together, there is this sentence: "He has come across a love story. This is only a love story. He does not wish for plot and all its consequences. Let me stay in this field with Alice Gull…" This pops us out of the story of Alice and Patrick to tell us it is a love story. He does not wish for story but it is still there, in the fact that we are reading it in a novel. Similarly, when the narrator tells us, "[a]ll his life Patrick Lewis has lived beside novels and their clear stories" reminds us that Patrick is a character within a novel. And again: “In books he had read, even those romances he swallowed during childhood, Patrick never believed that characters lived only on the page. They altered when the author’s eye was somewhere else. Outside the plot there was a great darkness, but there would of course be daylight elsewhere on earth. Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp. . . “ The irony here is that Patrick is a character in a novel thinking this about characters in a novel. The author, Ondaatje, is reminding us that Patrick is a character, but he is also more than that; he lives off the page too. And when Patrick is grieving Alice after her death: “As if he can be given that gift, to relive those days when Alice was with him and Hana, which in literature is the real gift. He turns the page backwards. Once more there is the image of the struggling and tickling. . .” Here, we are actually reading a piece of literature where we can turn the page backward and see the image, and then it’s as if Patrick rises up out of the page to do the same thing with the reader, causing a meta-fiction. The moving out and away from the story to observe the story can give us moments of beauty, which as a poet, Ondaatje is intentionally creating: "All these fragments of memory ... so we can retreat from the grand story and stumble accidentally upon a luxury, one of those underground pools where we can sit still. Those moments, those few pages in a book we can go back and forth over." This describes the beauty of finding a passage in a book that you love, and because it is a book in your hands, you can go back to it, and re-read it and thus make time stand still. The irony, and the meta-fiction, is that this happens here at the same time that the novel tells you it is happening.


This theme recurs in the novel, first with Patrick observing the loggers in the night where they are barely visible, then Patrick’s game of blindfolding and running around the room, where he accidentally kicks Clara. The iguana Clara leaves for Patrick is blind, and this is the thing that brings Patrick close to the Macedonian community. Additionally, Patrick has to pretend he doesn’t know that Clara goes to Ambrose and turn a blind eye to the knowledge that he is alive even though Small's family is searching for the moguls. The tunnel workers work in the blinding dark, workers on the bridge work in the fog and dark. Alice says to Patrick, “You could blindfold me now, Patrick, and I would be able to take you there. . .” As well, Patrick ends up in the Garden of the Blind after he bombs the hotel; it is there that he reconnects with life.