When Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto, he feels as though he is entering a new land that is vastly different from the one he has known until now. In the city, he realizes that the intensely natural world of his childhood, with its various sensorial stimuli—such as the freezing cold and overwhelmingly white snow in the winter, the smell of animals, and the pleasure of walking around naked in the summer heat—makes him feel like an immigrant in the city, as though he were abandoning his past entirely.
Although Patrick is Canadian, his impressions of Toronto make him feel like a foreigner in his own country, since the rural lifestyle is so different from urban life. As Patrick will need to reinvent a new existence for himself, the intensely individual quality of his life in the country will be transformed into a new social and collective existence, as he belongs to a group of people in a similar situation as him: the foreign working class.
At the train station, Patrick notices a man with three suitcases screaming in a foreign language for two days in a row, seemingly lost and confused. In the large station, Patrick says his name out loud but no one notices him, and he concludes that they are all stuck in the belly of a whale.
The mystery surrounding this man’s actions creates an atmosphere of confusion typical of city life, as the high density of inhabitants means that people’s motives often remain cryptic to outsiders. In this atmosphere, Patrick realizes that he can easily lead an anonymous life.
In 1919, millionaire Ambrose Small disappeared. The Bertillon identification system, according to which people could be correctly identified according to the precise measurements of certain parts of the body, was used to search for him, although so many people were attracted by the monetary reward that thousands of people claimed to be or to have seen Ambrose Small. The press fueled people’s frenzy and published even the most improbable signs of Small’s existence or death.
Small’s death highlights the extent to which society is driven by profit and personal gain, as people prove desperate to receive the reward for finding him, even if the chances of actually doing so are slim. It also shows that the value of people’s lives is based on their wealth, as Small’s disappearance is widely publicized whereas that of other members of society would likely remain unknown.
Between 1910 and 1919, Ambrose Small dominated Toronto’s business life by buying theaters. Although his wife Theresa Kormann lived a life of moral righteousness and abstinence, Ambrose Small organized extravagant parties and had various lovers. One of them, actress Clara Dickens, was only twenty-one when Small was thirty-five.
Small’s life contrasts starkly with the workers’ routine, which is centered exclusively around work, family, and brief moments of respite. Small, by contrast, is used to centering his life around the alternation of pleasures, romantic and otherwise.
Although Small was tyrannical and callous in business, either owning people or making them his enemies, he was generous with Clara. She encouraged him to stop taking part in wild parties and, instead, to go on excursions in the countryside. On such expeditions, Small would continue to buy property, explaining that he is a thief planning an “escape route.” In December 1919, Small disappeared after one million dollars was withdrawn from his bank account, and was never found, whether alive or dead.
Small’s attitude toward work highlights some of the more negative aspects of business-making in a consumerist society. As Alice will later criticize harshly, Small needs to be heartless in order to succeed. This explains why people like Commissioner Harris can profit from exploiting vulnerable populations of workers, since the goal is not to create a cooperative society but to make as much money as possible.
The Ambrose Small case so excited people’s curiosity, as everyone followed the police’s investigations, that companies paid people to become “searchers,” in the hope that they might find Small and reap the $80,000 reward that Small’s family offered for information about Small’s location. After one year in Toronto, Patrick Lewis decides to take up a job as a searcher. He becomes interested in the various letters the police have received about Small. When he meets with Small’s two sisters, who appreciate his interest in these letters, they tell him that Clara knew Small best, because Theresa was too morally upright.
The amount of money spent on the Small case demonstrates how desperate people across the country can become to make a lot of money in a short time. The fact that Clara would know more about Small than his wife also suggests that Small lived a life of contradictions, full of mysterious deals and activities, and might not be easily understandable, since he shrouds his life in secrecy. Strong moral principles—as symbolized by Theresa—are at odds with this kind of life, so focused on luxury and ephemeral pleasures.
When Patrick first meets Clara, she tells him she does not want to talk about Small and asks him to leave. However, as Clara attaches an earring in front of a mirror, Patrick finds her beautiful and fascinating, in part because she is connected to a world of wealth. He becomes passionately curious about her. When he returns the next morning, he spends all day trying to seduce her with charm and humor. The two of them spend the evening debating and arguing, and Patrick tries to prolong their conversation to stay with her as long as possible.
Patrick’s attraction to Clara is in part superficial, as he is captivated by her environment and her appearance more than her actual personality, which he does not yet know. These first impressions thus foreshadow the mix of frustration and fascination that Patrick will feel as his relationship with Clara evolves and he realizes that part of her life remains hidden to him, and that she still wants to be with her millionaire lover Ambrose Small.
The next evening, late at night, Clara too takes part in this process of seduction. She comes to pick Patrick up at the library, where he is looking through old files to find information about Small, and drives him back to the Arlington hotel.
Clara’s seductive attitude does not necessarily translate into true romantic commitment, as it remains ambiguous whether she actually has feelings for Patrick or only wants a temporary romantic adventure.
Another day, Clara helps Patrick carry boxes of files to his apartment. Exhausted, they fall asleep holding hands and, later, make love, although when Patrick wakes up Clara is no longer there. Clara then calls him some time later, telling him that she is taking him to her friend Alice’s house in the countryside. Patrick and Clara reach the farmhouse, where Alice would arrive in a couple of days.
Clara’s unpredictable appearances and disappearances sets the tone of their relationship, foreshadowing her ultimate decision to leave Patrick for Ambrose. At the same time, her desire to spend time with Patrick suggests that she does enjoy his presence.
One day, as they lounge naked in the bed, Patrick tells Clara he loves her and asks her about her past lovers, which prompts Clara to tell him she once fell in love with a man called Stump Jones when she was sixteen. As Patrick watches Clara sleep, he wonders about her love life, trying to find answers for his questions in the shape of Clara’s sleeping body.
It remains ambiguous whether Patrick and Clara’s relationship is purely one-sided, which Patrick’s seemingly unanswered declaration of love would indicate. Patrick’s silent, solitary interrogations serve as a prelude to his later loneliness, after Clara’s departure.
Later, at three in the morning, behaving like a child, since love makes him feel free and unconstrained, Patrick wakes Clara up to show her a tree frog against the window—a rare sight at night. Patrick says that the frog is Ambrose and Clara gives the frog on the other side of the window a kiss, calling Ambrose her beloved. Patrick asks Clara to marry him but she says she will soon leave Patrick to join Ambrose, because she is convinced he is alive, which leads Patrick to conclude that he will probably never see her again. That night, Patrick dreams of Ambrose and Clara notices that he is twitching in his sleep.
Patrick’s association of love with childhood suggests that love brings him fascination in the same way that observing insects in his father’s house did. Patrick shrouds the presence of this frog in similar mystery as his early interrogations about insects’ lives. At the same time, Patrick’s joke about the frog being Ambrose suggests discomfort, a breach of intimacy, as the thought of Ambrose actually disturbs Patrick beyond his attitude of nonchalance and humor.
Patrick and Clara spend the next day making love, driving around the country, and talking about their lives. Patrick asks her about Ambrose and learns some anecdotes from her. When Clara mentions that Ambrose gave her a piano, she comments that everyone needs a creative outlet to avoid going crazy: Ambrose, for example, enjoyed gambling, and she enjoyed playing the piano. She asks Patrick what he does but he doesn’t know. Clara also mentions that she considered becoming Ambrose’s friend Briffa’s lover, because he was clear-headed and had a strong creative vision, which Clara finds unique.
The presence of Ambrose in Patrick and Clara’s conversation means that they are never truly alone, since Ambrose is always there as a haunting presence in the back of both Patrick and Clara’s minds. Clara’s comments about creativity suggest that she is not necessarily as easily satisfied with her life as it may seem, since she fears becoming too bored or going insane. Her appreciation for art and creativity gives her a sensitive, non-consumerist quality that Ambrose lacks.
Although Patrick learns about some of Clara’s most intimate, erotic experiences, he does not feel comfortable talking about his own past, preferring to resort to vagueness. Clara finds that there is a wall in him that no one can move past. She asks him about his friends but Patrick says she is his only friend. When he expresses dismay at the thought of losing her, since Clara insists that she will leave him for Ambrose, Clara tries to reassure him by telling him that everyone is replaceable.
Patrick’s dependence on Clara is an expression of his love for her, which she does not reciprocate to the same extent, but also of his difficulty in forming close relationships with other people. This might in part be due to his appreciation of solitary life or by what Clara identifies as his fear of truly opening up to others. Clara, by contrast, is happy enough to compare people to consumer goods, as interchangeable additions to life.
Reflecting on his feelings for Clara, Patrick wonders if he was attracted to her because she was so unreachable, living a life of wealth and extravagance as Ambrose Small’s lover, understanding the subtle exchanges implied in rich people’s gifts. As Patrick holds her after making love, he realizes that he does not know who she truly is.
Patrick is lucid enough to realize that part of what he enjoys in Clara is the contrast of her life with his, as it is defined not only by greater wealth but by more complex social interactions. Patrick thus becomes incapable of determining what constitutes Clara’s social façade and what might define her inner personality.
When Alice finally arrives, Patrick watches Clara as the two women walk together. Clara recounts a childhood anecdote in which her father and she shaved their hunting dogs, using paint to number and mark the animals with their family name, Dickens. She recalls fond conversations with her father about a variety of topics, lamenting that her father died when she was fifteen. Patrick explains that his father also died, killed while setting charges in a feldspar mine, because the company made him go too deep. That is how Patrick learned that feldspar is used in a variety of everyday life materials, from tiles to artificial teeth.
The difference between Patrick and Clara’s social environments is visible from their earliest memories. While Clara shares an intimate relationship with her father, Patrick’s relationship with his father was marked by silence and external observation. They also both grew up in contrasting social environments, as Clara’s hunting dogs indicate that she was probably wealthy. These divergences help explain their individual attitudes toward people, money, and society.
While Patrick and Clara share episodes from their childhood, Alice prefers to talk about the present, revealing little about herself. Over the course of the night, Patrick soon becomes overwhelmed by the two actresses’ mode of talking, as they imitate people’s behaviors and laugh, making Patrick feel like their audience. Exhausted, Patrick decides to go to bed, while the two women are still chatting. Then, they decide to go “get him.”
Alice’s reluctance to talk about the past will remain constant in the novel, even after she becomes romantically involved with Patrick. It makes her appear mysterious, suggesting that she might have a hidden life—which her past as a nun would indeed show—but also that she is centered on the present and the future, as her interest in politics and justice indicates.
At night, in the dark, Clara and Alice approach the bed where Patrick is sleeping. They place candles on a chair and, placing paper on the floor, begin to sketch Patrick feverishly, curious to see what he might reveal while sleeping. They are used to taking part in spirit paintings, which seek to extract hidden emotions from a person’s face, using everything they know about him in the process. Alice asks if they are witches and both of them laugh, before running outside and making wild animal-like noises under the rain and the moonlight.
The two women’s nighttime activity reveals their belief in spiritual forces beyond ordinary human existence, suggesting that everyone might have a hidden life. This gives the potential to every character to prove more complex and interesting than appearances might indicate. In fact, Alice herself later proves more interesting than her role as Clara’s friend initially suggests, since she will become a fascinating protagonist in her own right.
Early the next day, Patrick walks around the house, looking out at the field and inside at the sleeping women, whom he discovered at dawn throwing rhubarb at each other across the kitchen, Alice laughing wholeheartedly and Clara a little shy at seeing him enter the room. He touches Alice’s elbow and tells her he needs to leave to catch a train. Alice tells him that they left him a present from the night before and that Clara will explain later.
The friendship between the two women excludes Patrick and shows that, unlike him, they benefit from pleasant, fulfilling relationships outside of the narrow circle of their romantic life. The women’s childlike attitude mirrors Patrick’s own behavior with Clara, suggesting that friendship can be just as strong and intense as romantic relationships.
Alice accompanies Patrick to the kitchen, where he eats a grapefruit and Alice watches him move efficiently in the kitchen, as though he were trying to make himself as invisible as possible. Patrick then leaves, telling Alice to tell Clara that he will see her at the hotel. While Alice goes back to sleep by Clara’s side, Patrick thinks about Alice, feeling as though the woman’s proximity to Clara has made her suddenly noticeable to him.
Even though Alice does not yet know Patrick, she can recognize central aspects of his personality, such as his appreciation of anonymity. By contrast, Patrick can only see Alice through the lens of Clara’s life. It is only later in his life, once Clara has left, that he will be able to discover the complexity of Alice’s life, as separated from Clara’s personality.
That night, at the Arlington hotel, Patrick looks at the sketched portraits that Clara shows him but does not believe her when she says his soul is flexible, because he feels as though his character is made of irreconcilable elements. However, he appreciates their gift and feels that he can learn from it. In general, Patrick admires Clara and Alice’s close friendship and, when Clara asks him about Alice, he says he liked her. Clara says that Alice, who is a stage actress (whereas Clara only acts on the radio), is much better than her. Patrick then recalls the moments before falling sleep when he saw the women enter his room with candles, and feels a deep sense of community.
Patrick’s confusion at his own personality contrasts with the women’s vision of him, as they seem to understand him more clearly than he understands himself. This sense of detachment from his own self expands into a feeling of detachment from human community, as he remains fascinated by the women’s friendship precisely because he sees it as an outsider. It is only once he integrates into the Macedonian immigrant community that he will finally gain trust in his own capacity to connect with other people.
Sometimes, Patrick takes part in a private activity: he blindfolds himself and moves around his room faster and faster, avoiding objects carefully. That night, after Patrick and Clara talk extensively about Clara’s intention to leave the next day to follow Small, Clara asks Patrick not to follow her. Patrick feels lost and alienated from Clara’s life.
Despite Patrick’s privacy about his inner life, he, too—like Clara with her piano and Clara and Alice with their spirit drawings—takes part in fanciful activities meant to distract him from the routine of ordinary life. These moments allow him to assert his creativity and his capacity for self-expression.
After trying to convince Clara not to leave, Patrick blindfolds himself, telling her not to move, and begins to leap around the room, avoiding objects perfectly and impressing Clara with his agility. However, when Patrick begins to whirl around her and scream his love for her, Clara becomes overwhelmed and moves off the bed to a rug with her hands over her ears. Suddenly, Patrick hits Clara violently, knocking her over. Patrick’s nose is bleeding and, disappointed in the breaching of his trust, he tells her that she moved when he had warned her not to.
Patrick’s decision to show Clara his private activity reveals how much he wants her to take part in every aspect of his life, even the most extravagant. However, it is precisely the intensity of his love that alienates Clara. Her decision to move demonstrates that their communication and trust might be superficial. It is also a prelude to the deep disappointment and grief that Clara will provoke in Patrick when she leaves him for Ambrose, “moving” away from him once and for all.
Reflecting on the novels he has read throughout his life, Patrick realizes that the stories in books always have clear endings—two lovers always have clear motives and are both capable of accepting the end of a relationship. Patrick, by contrast, recalls only feeling resentful and bitter when Clara left him at the train station. She gave him her blind iguana, whom she did not want to have to carry, and told him how to feed it, before climbing onto the train. Patrick realizes that he believes in romantic tales in which fate is predestined. He imagines himself as a hero, destroying Small and rescuing Clara with her own iguana.
Patrick highlights the contrast between literary worlds and the more insecure nature of real life, where stories might not have a clear, happy ending. This idea lies behind In the Skin of a Lion’s structure: an alternation of stories that follow the chaotic path of memory instead of a clear narrative structure. This suggests that the novel is trying to represent the unfinished, uncertain nature of reality as accurately as possible instead of depicting ideal models of behavior.
Obsessed with Clara’s absence, Patrick imagines writing letters to her, sharing his reflections about her relationship with Ambrose, his dreams, and his notes about hearing lovers fight at night in the street. He recalls memories, such as the moment when he refused to let her go at the train station but she angrily got away from him. One night, he has a dream in which he approaches Clara at a dance but the man she is with and his friends beat Patrick.
Patrick’s grief makes him lead a double life, focused on imaginary conversations as much as on his ordinary life. The vivid nature of his dreams reveals that he is trying, in his conscious and unconscious life, to make sense of what has happened to him and to find the way to return to Clara. These descriptions highlight the way in which love can blend the real with the imaginary: Patrick’s dreams merge his memories and his hopes with the reality of Clara’s absence.
One day, Patrick opens the door and is shocked to see Alice standing in the doorway. As she enters the apartment, she sees that Patrick is trying to repair the objects he broke in anger after Clara left. Alice asks him about these objects and Patrick explains that he is trying to put order in his life. Alice then asks him how long Clara has been gone, but Patrick gives no clear answer to Alice’s hypothesis that it has been about two years.
The fact that Patrick has been overwhelmed by Clara’s absence for two years reveals how lonely he is. The broken objects in his apartment are a symbolic representation of the fact that his entire life is broken: in the same way that he had to reinvent himself when he first arrived in Toronto, he must now reinvent his life without Clara—which he has not yet figured out how to do.
Alice asks Patrick for some coffee and he notes that she looks strong and confident. She says that he, on the other hand, looks tired and Patrick explains that he is mentally exhausted but that his body is fine. He realizes that he has not spoken this much in months, and also that he is avoiding looking at Alice. Patrick then looks at her and suddenly hugs her, seeking comfort in this human contact, which he has not enjoyed in so long. He feels as though Alice must have come to bring him back to reality, and reflects that she must know where Clara is.
Patrick’s initial wariness toward Alice highlights how lonely he has become, and how difficult it is for him to connect with other people. His emotional outburst reveals this fragility, suggesting that his apparent self-sufficiency is nothing but a façade, hiding his more vulnerable, sensitive side. However, he still finds himself unable to see Alice for who she truly is, since he only focuses on her possible connection to Clara.
Patrick ran into Alice the day before, as she was exiting a theater. He told her he was currently working at a lumber yard and would see her play that evening, but all he wanted was to walk away, feeling as though Alice has taken part in Clara’s departure.
Patrick’s anger about the situation Clara has left him in extends toward innocent individuals such as Alice. This attitude, though, keeps him from sharing his feelings with anyone, which only augments his unhappiness.
In Patrick’s apartment, after Alice and Patrick make love, Alice mentions that Clara’s mother probably knows where she is. She encourages him to look for her so that he might get rid of Clara’s dark influence on him. Despite Patrick’s seemingly noncommittal reply, he goes to sees Clara’s mother in Paris, Ontario. They have dinner and chat about Clara’s brief marriage with Stump Jones—a piece of information that shocks Patrick, who did not know Clara had gotten married.
Patrick’s sexual relations with Alice suggest that he appreciates the comfort she gives him, but has not forgotten his obsession with Clara, which Alice is aware of. Patrick’s ignorance that Clara had been married to Stump Jones highlights, once again, that Patrick actually knows very little about Clara’s private life beyond the anecdotes she chose to tell him.
Clara’s mother mentions that Clara said she had seduced Patrick. She enjoins Patrick to forget her, since it has been over two years since she left, but Patrick only laughs. He looks at old pictures of Clara with Stump and, when Clara’s mother says that Clara is somewhere Small knows Patrick will never go back to, Patrick becomes convinced that they must be at a place that is so familiar to him that he has forgotten about it: the place where he lived his childhood. At the Paris hotel and then their old room in the Arlington hotel, Patrick relives memories of the time he spent there with Clara and searches for traces of their frantic love-making.
Clara’s comment about seducing Patrick is ironic, since Patrick was initially so desperate to seduce her. However, it emphasizes that Clara has always maintained more power and emotional distance in the relationship, whereas Patrick was too immersed in his love to realize that he would probably end up abandoned and miserable. Now, Patrick is not only trying to find Clara again, but to regain control over his own memories, which might give him a sense of comfort, convincing him that what they experienced was real.
When Patrick finds Ambrose Small in the early hours of the morning, both men seem excited by each other’s presence as though they were reflecting each other like a mirror. As Small prepares to talk about his own life, Patrick says he is only interested in Clara because she has cast a spell on him. After Small realizes that Patrick has told no one about Small’s whereabouts, he goes inside, supposedly to wake Clara.
The ease with which Patrick finds Ambrose makes this scene surrealistic, given the number of people who have spent years searching for this man across the entire country. Patrick’s disinterest in using this piece of information to receive a financial reward suggests that he has concluded that love is more important than money in life.
In the meantime, Patrick sits outside, enjoying the various sounds and sensations of this countryside, in which he grew up. However, when he feels some water dripping on him even though there is no rain, he realizes that Small has poured kerosene on him from the roof and is about to throw a match at him. Patrick immediately begins to run toward the river, slicing his coat off of him with his knife, and finally reaches the water, where he turns on his back to drown the fire.
Ambrose’s actions highlight his violent nature. In his private life, as well as in his business activities, he proves capable of wanting to eliminate his enemies cruelly, without consideration for the ethical or human consequences of his acts. This represents an extreme illustration of the cutthroat world Ambrose is used to taking part in.
Although Patrick does not feel any pain from being on fire, he has cut his hands with his knife. When he looks up, he sees Ambrose throw a burning bottle at him and, when it explodes against the water, Patrick feels as though his left eye might be blind. Patrick then steps out of the water and attacks Ambrose on the shoulder with his knife before running toward his hotel, a mile away. He runs past his old house and other places he remembers from childhood before finally reaching the hotel.
This episode can be seen as an imitation of typical literary scenes of duels between two rival men, fighting for the love of a woman. However, the disjunction and seeming irrationality of Ambrose’s actions, which conclude in Patrick running away instead of a clear resolution between the two men, makes this scene stray away from ideals of nobility and courage.
When Patrick wakes up, he cannot see well out of one eye. He looks out the window at the river and then hears Clara call him outside the door. Patrick pushes back the bolt but cannot turn the handle because of his wounded hands. When the door opens, Clara is shocked to see that it is actually Patrick, and Patrick feels his wounded eye crying uncontrollably. While Patrick does not know what to do with his hands, Clara touches his face, offering to clean him up and call a doctor for him.
Although Clara has left Patrick for Ambrose, she still shows concern and affection for him. Patrick’s wounds serve as a physical representation of everything he has suffered for her, and the extreme situations he has put himself in—physically and mentally—to try to find her again. Although Clara offers to help him, it remains clear that she will probably not be able to give Patrick what he truly wants: a return to their past relationship.
As Clara washes Patrick’s cuts, she asks him how he is and Patrick laughs nervously. Clara finds that Patrick looks older and realizes that he is more fragile than she thought. When she shaves him, she writes “Dickens 5” on Patrick’s forehead and says that she doesn’t want him “lost,” even though she cannot stay with him. She then stands up to look at the landscape outside, while Patrick keeps on staring at the space in the wallpaper where Clara had leaned back.
Clara’s attitude toward Patrick is one of possession. She knows that she has power over him, as she underlines by writing her last name on Patrick’s skin in the same way that her father had painted their hunting dogs. Patrick’s obsession with the past reveals itself when he proves more interested in signs of her absence, such as the wallpaper, than in her current life and motives.
After the doctor comes, Clara tells Patrick that Small is not actually interested in him, but only wants to protect himself and remain anonymous. Under the effect of the medication, Patrick falls asleep. Clara and he make love during the night, careful to avoid his wounds.
Small’s lack of interest in Patrick—in stark contrast with Patrick’s earlier fascination with Small’s presence in Clara’s life—reveals Small’s apparent indifference to emotions, as he is more interested in self-protection than in the intricacies of his lover’s life.
As she had said she would, Clara leaves at dawn without waking Patrick and goes to the beach by Ambrose’s house, watching the river and thinking. In the meantime, Patrick has woken up and discovered blood all over the sheets, from how they moved during the night, as well as the shape of Clara’s bloody hand on the wallpaper. Ambrose then exits the house with bandages around his shoulder and sees Clara looking out at Patrick’s river.
Although the reader never gains access to Clara’s thoughts, her meditative attitude shows that she is not unaffected by seeing Patrick again. The blood in the hotel room represents their passion and also suggests that all Patrick will have to remember Clara are the visual memories she leaves behind, and not her actual presence.