Patrick Lewis, who enjoys reading, believes that literature can provide comfort in difficult times, bringing order to a confusing present and preserving the past. However, when Patrick realizes that literature does not necessarily alter his life (for example, it fails to give him guidelines on how to renew his relationship with Clara or to bring his beloved Alice back), he realizes that literature belongs to a separate realm from the real world. Therefore, instead of presenting art as something that might impact life directly, the novel suggests that creating art is a comforting process in itself, capable of providing an escape from the chaos and uncertainty of human life. In fact, In the Skin of a Lion applies this logic to its very own story, suggesting that readers should understand literary characters as full human beings who are capable of living beyond the limits of plot. In this way, author Michael Ondaatje encourages everyone—humans and characters alike—to revel in the freedom that art-making can provide, as it brings respite from the harsh reality of human life.
Throughout the novel, Patrick wants to believe that literature can bring order and structure to his chaotic life. However, he soon realizes that life does not follow the same rules as literature, and that he must accept the tumultuous pain and confusion that life brings. After Clara leaves Patrick for Ambrose Small, Patrick finds comfort in the traditional literary structure of love stories. “Patrick believed in archaic words like befall and doomed. The doom of Patrick Lewis. The doom of Ambrose Small. The words suggested spells and visions, a choreography of fate. A long time ago he had been told never to follow her. If Patrick was a hero he could come down on Small like an arrow. He could lead an iguana on a silver leash to its mistress.” Referencing traditional elements of storytelling, such as the concept of “doom,” Patrick tries to understand his life in terms of destiny. Imagining himself as a hero brings him comfort, since it gives him clear guidelines on how he is supposed to act. However, this moment of wishful thinking soon proves incompatible with reality, since Ambrose Small is not actually doomed (he has simply chosen to escape civilization) and Clara is not waiting for Patrick to come rescue her (rather, she has chosen to leave Patrick for Small). For Patrick, literature thus becomes a form of longing—a hope for an ordered life that proves at odds with reality.
In addition to organizing the future, Patrick believes that literature has the potential to preserve the past. After Alice’s death, Patrick searches through his memory as though he were turning the page of a book: “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 go back and forth over.” Although these brief moments of recollection bring Patrick joy and comfort, Patrick admits that he actually longs for a more radical transformation of his life: a return to a time when Alice was still alive. Patrick wants to “be given that gift, to relive those days when Alice was with him and Hana, which in literature is the real gift.” Like Patrick’s desire to plan the future according to literature’s tropes, his hope that he might return to the past as though life were a book also proves irreconcilable with reality. Patrick is thus forced to bear the grief and injustice that ordinary human life brings.
However, if literature and imagination are incapable of actually influencing reality, the act of creating art can serve as an escape from reality. In this way, humans can learn to escape their potentially suffocating environments. Creativity does not need to impact reality in order to be valuable. On the contrary, the very act of creating art or imagining an alternative world can bring comfort to the chaos of everyday life. After telling Patrick that she plays the piano, Clara concludes that having a creative activity is crucial to life. “Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy. And you?” she asks Patrick. She does not believe that playing the piano will influence her everyday life in any way. Rather, she believes that creating art is valuable in itself. Patrick later shows that he, too, believes in artistic performance for its own sake. He takes part in a strange performance: he blindfolds himself and runs around his room, lifting some objects and jumping over others with increasing speed. This behavior is not useful in any way, but it creates a special artistic and physical effect, allowing Patrick the space of a few minutes to create an alternative reality for himself.
Creativity, these characters show, thus allows them to escape their ordinary lives. In fact, author Michael Ondaatje himself suggests that artistic creations—for example, characters like Patrick and Clara—have a life beyond the novel. “In books he had read, (…) Patrick never believed that characters lived only on the page. They altered when the author’s eye was somewhere else. (…) Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp, otherwise they were just men from nowhere.” Through Patrick’s words, Ondaatje argues that his own characters are more complex than the lives he has given them. Through imagination, he suggests, the reader can give a new life to these characters, imagining scenarios beyond the limits of plot. This allows both the characters and the reader to escape their ordinary lives and immerse themselves in worlds as yet unknown. Ondaatje thus enjoins the reader to think of his characters—and, more generally, of art—in a vivid way, reminding readers that art is an integral part of human life. Experiencing literature in as inventive a way as possible, he suggests, only enriches one’s life, making the world seem a little more mysterious and magical.
Literature, Imagination, and Creativity ThemeTracker
Literature, Imagination, and Creativity Quotes in In the Skin of a Lion
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.
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.
I loved the piano. It was something to get lost in. My exit, my privacy. He had his money, gambling, he had his winning elsewhere. I had my radio work and my piano. Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy. And you?
There was a wall in him that no one reached. Not even Clara, though she assumed it had deformed him. A tiny stone swallowed years back that had grown with him and which he carried around because he could not shed it. His motive for hiding it had probably extinguished itself years earlier. . . . Patrick and his small unimportant stone.
Patrick believed in archaic words like befall and doomed. The doom of Patrick Lewis. The doom of Ambrose Small. The words suggested spells and visions, a choreography of fate. A long time ago he had been told never to follow her. If Patrick was a hero he could come down on Small like an arrow. He could lead an iguana on a silver leash to its mistress.
He thought, l am moving like a puppet. He touched an arm in the darkness not fully realizing it was human. A hand came from somewhere and held his wrist. “Hello, Patrick.” He turned on the flashlight. She was waiting for the light, like a good actress, ready to be revealed.
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. (…) Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp, otherwise they were just men from nowhere.