In the Skin of a Lion


Michael Ondaatje

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Community and Immigrant Culture Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Working Class vs. the Rich Theme Icon
Community and Immigrant Culture Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Literature, Imagination, and Creativity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in In the Skin of a Lion, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Community and Immigrant Culture Theme Icon

Patrick Lewis, who grew up with a reclusive father in the harsh countryside of Eastern Ontario, is used to experiencing life on his own. Although moving to Toronto and becoming accustomed to the monotony of urban lower-class life initially reinforces these solitary habits, Patrick soon feels attracted to the vibrant community of European immigrants around him. As he takes part in local Macedonian social life, he realizes that, despite being Canadian, he is the one who must adapt to a new culture. This forces him to reevaluate traditional views about immigration, according to which new immigrants must assimilate into national culture. As Patrick becomes friends with his neighbors, he concludes that everyone can learn from each other’s cultural traditions, and that immigration can lead to mutual exchange instead of one-sided assimilation. He also realizes that his Macedonian friends have brought a positive contribution to society through their hard work on construction projects. The novel thus concludes that immigrant members of the working class should be celebrated for their participation in the development of the city and, in general, of modern society itself.

Patrick and his fellow workers, mostly European immigrants, share lives marked by rootlessness, as they all strive to survive in a city they do not fully belong to. In these conditions, the daily routine of life and work can become a solitary, impersonal exercise, keeping people apart instead of bringing them together. Early on in his life, Patrick feels as though he lives in a world not quite his own, because he feels detached from his own family. His mother is never mentioned and, although his father teaches him important dynamiting skills, the man remains an elusive figure, quiet and detached, taking more pleasure in solitary work than in interacting with his son. Patrick thus fails to develop a strong sense of identity, whether national or family-based.

When Patrick moves to the city at twenty-one, he is faced with a similar sense of estrangement: “Now in the city he was new even to himself, the past locked away.” This new environment severs him from his past, forcing him to build an entirely new life for himself. However, Patrick does not seek company and accepts a monotonous, frugal existence. Although he lives in a diverse neighborhood peopled by many of his fellow workers, men who have recently immigrated from Europe, for a long time Patrick remains on the outskirts of this community. When he chats with local Macedonian store owners who know only that he lives alone and that he always orders peaches on Friday, he feels “ashamed they could discover so little about him. He had reduced himself almost to nothing.” In its potential for anonymity, city life has thus made Patrick disconnected from the people around him, allowing him to live freely on his own but also, as a consequence, condemning him to isolation.

By contrast, even though European immigrants who reach Canada are faced with the difficult tasks of trying to learn English and to integrate into local society, these groups succeed in maintaining cultural cohesion through their many ethnic shops, restaurants, and gatherings. Many immigrants’ weak knowledge of English forces them to live a marginalized life, as the prohibition for immigrants to organize public meetings and even speak a foreign language in the street further keeps them from becoming active participants in politics. However, they remain able to rely on their cultural community for solidarity and support. Their vibrant sense of community allows them to find relief from the harshness of urban working-class life.

Over time, Patrick thus realizes that, in this immigrant neighborhood, he is the one who will need to adjust to his Macedonian neighbors. This reverses traditional views about the necessity for immigrants to assimilate into local culture. It suggests, instead, that members of a diverse, multicultural society might mutually learn from each other’s presence, thus enriching the lives of everyone involved. Patrick soon discovers that, despite being Canadian, he is a cultural minority in his own section of the city. When the Macedonian store-owners become curious about Patrick’s life one day, Patrick, who is used to spending so much time on his own, is surprised by the animation that surrounds him: “And suddenly Patrick, surrounded by friendship, concern, was smiling, feeling the tears on his face falling towards his stern Macedonian-style moustache.” The Macedonians’ friendliness fills a social gap that Patrick had not necessarily realized he needed to fill. In this moment, he realizes that the Macedonians are not necessarily the ones who will need to try to integrate into Canadian society. Rather, Patrick himself must learn to engage with their culture, since, “among these strangers (…) he was their alien.” Patrick thus suggests that inclusion can happen both ways: as integration into Canadian society and as the embrace by Canadians of the recent immigrants’ cultural traditions.

In addition, if the Macedonian community makes Patrick feel integrated into a warm, welcoming group, Patrick also highlights the importance of valuing each person’s individual life, beyond the safety net of the community. Through his concern for individual histories, Patrick plays an important role in making marginalized members of society proud of their contribution to the Canadian nation. When Patrick shows Nicholas Temelcoff an old picture of Nicholas working on an important bridge in Toronto, Nicholas realizes that the work he performed was truly exceptional: “Patrick’s gift, that arrow into the past, shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history. Now he will begin to tell stories.” Therefore, although community organization keeps the Macedonians from feeling lonely or estranged in Canada, Patrick sees beyond community into the lives of individuals. Instead of condemning lower-class immigrants to the margins of history, Patrick—and the entire novel—suggests that these people’s actions have been essential to the construction of modern society. As such, the immigrant working class’s labor should be celebrated as a crucial element in the development of Canada, of modern society, and of history itself.

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Community and Immigrant Culture ThemeTracker

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Community and Immigrant Culture Quotes in In the Skin of a Lion

Below you will find the important quotes in In the Skin of a Lion related to the theme of Community and Immigrant Culture.
Part 1: Chapter 1: Little Seeds Quotes

He sits down at the long table and looks into his school geography book with the maps of the world, the white sweep of currents, testing the names to himself, mouthing out the exotic. Caspian. Nepal. Durango. He closes the book and brushes it with his palms, feeling the texture of the pebbled cover and its colored dyes which create a map of Canada.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

He was born into a region which did not appear on a map until 1910, though his family had worked there for twenty years and the land had been homesteaded since 1815.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Hazen Lewis
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

To the boy growing into his twelfth year, having lived all his life on that farm where day was work and night was rest, nothing would be the same. But on this night he did not trust either himself or these strangers of another language enough to be able to step forward and join them. He turned back through the trees and fields carrying his own lamp. Breaking the crust with each step seemed graceless and slow.

So at this stage in his life his mind raced ahead of his body.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Chapter 2: The Bridge Quotes

So when customers step in at any time, what they are entering is an old courtyard of the Balkans. A violin. Olive trees. Permanent evening. Now the arbor-like wallpaper makes sense to her. Now the parrot has a language.

Related Characters: Alice Gull, Nicholas Temelcoff, Kosta
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Chapter 3: The Searcher Quotes

Now, in the city, he was new even to himself, the past locked away.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Chapter 1: Palace of Purification Quotes

Patrick felt ashamed they could discover so little about him. He had reduced himself almost to nothing. He would walk home at dusk after working in the lake tunnel. His radio was on past midnight. He did nothing else that he could think of. (…) And suddenly Patrick, surrounded by friendship, concern, was smiling, feeling the tears on his face falling towards his stern Macedonian-style moustache.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

He remembers his father once passing the foreign loggers on First Lake Road and saying, “They don’t know where they are.” And now, in this neighborhood intricate with history and ceremony, Patrick smiles to himself at the irony of reversals.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Hazen Lewis
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Alice Gull, Nicholas Temelcoff, Cato, Hana
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis: