In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion Quotes and Analysis

Then the new men arrive, the “electricals,” laying grids of wire acrosse the five arches, carrying the exotic three-bowl lights, and on October 18, 1918 it is completed. Lounging in mid-air.

The bridge. The bridge. Christened “Prince Edward.” The Bloor Street Viaduct.


The repetition of “the bridge” has the effect of incantation, of seeing something unique, magical and even personally meaningful. Indeed, the “five arches” are the first indication after the previous description of the building of the bridge, that the bridge is completed. The bridge is “lounging” like a human, and then the repetition of “the bridge,” gives it an almost holy wonder. The formal name is told to the reader, “Prince Edward,” but then immediately the nickname of the bridge comes right after the formal name, like one would do with a familiar or beloved child. Ondaatje describes the bridge with affection and the effect is to open the reader to the intricacies of the bridge.

The young man gets up off his knees and looks back into the sun. He walks to the foreman, lets go of the two wooden blocks he is holding so they hang by the leather thongs from his belt, bouncing against his knees as he walks. Each man carries the necessities of his trade with him. When Caravaggio quits a year later, he will cut the thongs with a fish knife and fling the blocks in the half-dry tar. Now he walks back in a temper and gets down on his knees again. Another fight with the foreman.


The sentence telling us what will become of Caravaggio a year from now is a technique called a “flash forward,” which reveals the future of a character in a quick snapshot of one sentence and then puts us back into the present unfolding of story. This one is used to create suspense, so that when we are told the future fate of Caravaggio, we can read for it and be on the lookout for clues of it – we know Caravaggio will quit the job of tar layer and that he has a temper. Yet Ondaatje surrounds this future information with present action and revelation of character so that it is barely noticeable, further characterizing Caravaggio as well as as creating his story arc that we will learn as the plot advances.

He lies supine on the end of his tether looking up towards the struts of the bridge, pivoting slowly. He knows the panorama of the valley better than any engineer. Like a bird. Better than Edmund Burke, the bridge's architect, or Harris, better than the surveyors of 1912 the they worked blind through the bush. The panorama revolves with him and he hangs in this long silent courtship, her absence making him look everywhere. In a year he will open up a bakery with the money he has saved. He releases the catch on the pulley and slides free of the bridge.


The second to last sentence uses a technique called a “flash forward,” which reveals the future of a character in a quick snapshot of one sentence and then puts us back into the present unfolding of story. This flash forward is used to release tension, and Ondaatje literally guides the reader here with the use of the word "releases" in the next sentence. Nicholas Temelcoff is doing back-breaking work on the bridge while he wants to be a baker. The quick flash forward nestled into the present-time lets us know that the present-time life he is enduring will not last forever, that there is hope for his passion, that it will, in time, come true.

He stands in the air banging the crown pin into the upper cord and then shepherds the lower cord’s slip-joint into position. Even in archive photographs it is difficult to find him


The voice in the second sentence, that points out photographs, is outside the narrative of Nicholas building the bridge. Suddenly the narrative voice seems to have moved outside the scene, to a future time, to observe photographs. The purpose of such a shift in narrative perspective has the effect of making us realize that Nicholas is part of history, that there is a much larger perspective and panorama to the work he is doing. As well, the fact that he is “difficult to find” shows that this man, who is completely human to us so far, is inhuman in the scope of all the men that built the bridge, who are, in the scope of history and time, specks in the larger picture.

Patrick’s gift [to Nicholas], the arrow into the past, shows [Nicholas] the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history. Now he will begin to tell stories. He is a tentative man, even with his family. That night in bed shyly he tells his wife the story of the nun.


Patrick had asked Nicholas whether Alice is the nun who disappeared off the bridge, and if he is the one who saved her. Nicholas finally reflects on his life and all that he has accomplished and those he has helped. He realizes that now he has a “history,” as an immigrant who came to this country with no history of his own here. The passage is saying that only when you have a history can you “begin to tell stories.” He practices telling stories on his wife, and it is almost shocking to the reader at this point in the novel to learn that he has never told his wife who Alice is, how he caught her in mid-air and saved her from death. It is a beautiful moment of change and redemption for Nicholas.

He wants everything of Alice to be here in this room as if she is not dead. 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 them struggling and tickling Alice until she releases her grip on the shirt and it comes off with a flourish, and Hana jumps up, waving it like a rebel’s flag. . .


This is the first time we are told of Alice’s death. The sense of time and reality is mixed here so that the death of Alice becomes a part of Patrick’s present-time reality. As well, Ondaatje plays with our sense of this story being part of a written story, part of “literature” where we can “turn the page backwards.” We have to literally turn the page back to find out where and how this sentence of Alice’s death came about in the story – she is at once with the characters wrestling on the bed and dead, but still living in memory and story. Then Ondaatje continues the wrestling scene just as it would have continued in Patrick’s mind if he were able to “turn the page backwards” in life.

All she can see as she enters the dark hall is the whiteness of the milk, a sacred stone in his hands, disappearing into his body. He lifts his wife onto his shoulders so her arms ascend into the chandelier.


This quote is the homecoming of Caravaggio to Gianetta after he has been in prison. It is told only in images: The milk becomes sacred and holy, and Caravaggio is only a dark body, like the image of Christ, whose body becomes all bodies. Gianetta is not named, but "his wife," and the formality of this wording serves to further make the meeting sacred. His action of lifting her on his shoulders is an act of celebration. The chandelier is a touch of the formal again, something beautiful, gem-laden, and ornate. These images helps release the emtional power of their reunion.

She takes the first step out of the Ohrida Lake Restaurant into the blue corridor – the narrow blue lane of light that leads to the street. What she will become she becomes in that minute before she is outside, before she steps into the six-A.M. morning.


This is the moment before the nun steps outside from the bar after Nicholas has saved her. It is a moment of transformation, and it foreshadows that she will change, that she will not go back to her old life. Her fall of the bridge, her time with Nicholas, her brush against death, have all changed her irrevocably.

He climbs into the black water. A temperature of blood. He sees and feels no horizon, no edge to the liquid he is in. The night air is forensic. An animal slips into the water.


Ondaatje is deliberately altering the pacing and structure of the sentences here to provoke imagery and heighten sensory perception. Writing “a” temperature of blood, instead of “It is the temperature of blood” separates the temperature into its own experience instead of making it follow a narrative linearity after Caravaggio gets into the water. The use of the word forensic, meaning “before a form” in this context, sets up the feeling of primordial animalism.

When [the horses and mules] were lowered down the shaft by rope they had brayed madly, thinking they were being buried alive. Patrick and the others walk silently, remembering the teeth of the animals distinct, that screaming, the feet bound so they wouldn’t slash out and break themselves, lowered forty feet down and remaining there until they died or the tunnel reached the selected mark under the lake. And when would that be? The brain of the mule no more and no less knowledgeable than the body of a man who dug into a clay wall in front of him.


The point of view here is inside the horses and mules in this first sentence (the horses were “thinking they were being buried alive”), then the point of view moves into the mind of Patrick and the other men (who are all remembering the teeth of the animals). However, the question, “And when would that be?” is asked by an unknown person. It is the omniscient narrator interjecting this question, outside of any character’s point of view, but at the same time, it is the question that all the men and all the animals are asking. The next sentence melds the animals and the men. Their lack of knowledge is the same, and thus the narrative point of view inside all of them is merged.