In the Skin of a Lion


Michael Ondaatje

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In the Skin of a Lion Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Michael Ondaatje

Born in Sri Lanka in 1943, at a time when the country was still called Ceylon and remained under British rule, Michael Ondaatje left the country at the age of eleven to study in England. He then left England for Canada at the age of nineteen. There, he developed his literary craft, which has allowed him to be considered one of Canada’s most important contemporary writers. He initially focused on poetry, publishing various collections of poems to critical acclaim. Later, he became more famous for his prose, in particular his novel The English Patient for which he won the Booker Prize in 1992. Whether they are set in Canada, Europe, or Sri Lanka, his works are often concerned with delving deep into historical events. In his poetic works as well as his novels, he frequently uses collage-like, fragmented narratives to evoke different mind states and to stimulate the reader’s imagination.
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Historical Context of In the Skin of a Lion

After experiencing a steady inflow of British immigrants throughout the 19th century, Canada experienced a second wave of immigration in the early 1900s, characterized by immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, many of whom were from Italy or Portugal. In the 1930s, the Great Depression, a worldwide economic recession, left many Canadians unemployed and homeless. During this period, foreign immigrants often lived in insalubrious conditions and were denied basic workplace rights. Fearing anarchist or communist revolutionary violence, police units known as “Red Squads” began targeting people involved in labor organizations, in particular foreign immigrants who wanted to fight for their rights. In Toronto, Police Chief Dennis Draper was responsible for much of the violent repression against immigrants and left-wing political units. In brutal ways, Draper disrupted strikes as well as protests by the unemployed, thus earning support from the business community who did not want its workers to fight for better wages.

Other Books Related to In the Skin of a Lion

Characters from In the Skin of a Lion, such as Hana and Caravaggio, will later become protagonists in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, set a decade later in Italy during World War II. In the Skin of a Lion also makes direct reference to Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad’s work. Conrad’s most famous novel, In the Heart of Darkness, shares some similar themes to In the Skin of a Lion. Set in Congo during the period of colonization, the novel denounces the way in which an entire population—here, African natives—can be made powerless and subordinate to white colonizers. However, unlike Ondaatje’s novel, Conrad’s story does not directly give voice to the marginalized population, as its narrator is an English seaman who profits from colonization. In North America, the tradition of giving voice to members of the working class can be seen to date back to the second half of the 19th century. In the United States, Rebecca Harding Davis’s short story Life in the Iron Mills, published in 1861, revolutionized literature by giving voice to the working class. Other American authors, such as Mark Twain and Stephen Crane, aimed to depict in a realistic way the lives of poor, marginalized characters traditionally left out of canonical literature. In the Skin of a Lion also takes its title from a line from The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the novel echoes that ancient text in a variety of ways.
Key Facts about In the Skin of a Lion
  • Full Title: In the Skin of a Lion
  • When Written: 1979-1987
  • Where Written: Canada
  • When Published: 1987
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Canada in the early 20th century
  • Climax: Alice’s death, which leads Patrick to take part in actions of political protest
  • Antagonist: The rich and powerful—represented by people such as Commissioner Harris and millionaire Ambrose Small—are the main oppressors in this novel, as they are concerned only with personal gain and keeping the working-class poor and vulnerable
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for In the Skin of a Lion

Ambrose Small. Although millionaire Ambrose Small actually existed and disappeared in 1919, what In the Skin of a Lion recounts after this is fictitious. Small’s body was never recovered and the case was officially closed in 1960.

Brick. In addition to being a writer, Ondaatje is also an acclaimed critic and editor. He currently edits the Canadian literary magazine Brick with his wife, Linda Spalding, a writer.