In the Skin of a Lion


Michael Ondaatje

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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.
Love and Family Theme Icon

Patrick Lewis’s early experiences of love with the actress Clara Dickens are marked by bitterness and disappointment. Although Patrick dreams of long-term commitment with Clara, Clara is more inclined to pursue pleasure alone and she ultimately decides to return to her former lover, the millionaire Ambrose Small. The failure of his relationship leads Patrick to withdraw into himself, accepting that he will never be able to fully connect with the human beings around him. However, when Patrick begins a new relationship with Clara’s friend Alice Gull, his views of love change radically. By learning more about the individuals in Alice’s past, Patrick begins to feel linked to the people around him and to trust that love can generate solidarity and compassion. In this way, Patrick rejects the conception of love as a form of consumerism, in which individuals can easily be replaced, and embraces Alice’s working-class ideals of solidarity and inclusion. The novel suggests that love can breed unity and interdependence instead of selfishness, interlacing people’s stories in a network of interdependence.

In the Skin of a Lion initially depicts love as an element of consumerist culture, according to which a product (or, in this case, a person) can be bought or substituted. When Patrick meets Clara, Ambrose Small’s lover, Clara warns Patrick that she will leave him one day to return to Ambrose. To reassure Patrick that he will be fine without her, she tells him: “Don’t worry, Patrick. Things fill in. People are replaced.” Clara’s vision of love does not follow ideals of long-term commitment, but obeys the more transient logic of pleasure, which allows relationships to be fleeting and disengaged. In this way, her attitude toward romance follows Ambrose Small’s general vision of life, centered on greed and personal gain, which Alice later describes in negative terms: “[Ambrose] was predatory. He let nothing cling to him, not even Clara.” In upper-class society, Alice denounces, love can thus become part of a consumerist project, in which people are potentially interchangeable goods.

Although Clara’s departure leaves Patrick overwhelmed by grief, unable to understand how Clara could prove so disconnected to him, over time he realizes that relationships can never be fully transparent, since each member of the relationship carries his or her share of mystery. Patrick finds himself forced to accept that he will never fully understand Clara: “He keeps finding and losing parts of her, as if opening a drawer to discover another mask.” During his later relationship with Alice Gull, too, he must accept that parts of Alice’s life will forever remain secret to him, since she takes on so many roles as an actress. However, throughout these experiences, Patrick does not realize that he is just as secretive as the people around him: “There was a wall in him that no one reached. Not even Clara, though she assumed it had deformed him.” Although he appreciates honesty in others, he does not grasp that parts of him will also remain invisible to other beings.

This mysterious “wall” in Patrick’s character—what Alice later describes as Patrick’s appreciation for solitude, his capacity to be emotionally “self-sufficient”—makes him feel detached from other people’s lives. “Patrick has clung like moss to strangers, to the nooks and fissures of their situations. He has always been alien, the third person in the picture.” He understands that his inability to insert himself into the human world around him forces him into the role of an external observer, someone who, in the same way that Ambrose Small and Clara collect relationships, collects people’s stories: “Clara and Ambrose and Alice and Temelcoff and Cato—this cluster made up a drama without him. And he himself was nothing but a prism that refracted their lives. He searched out things, he collected things.”

However, in the second part of the novel, Patrick’s relationship with Alice proves that love can play an important part in connecting individuals to each other, allowing them to expand beyond their own selves. Alice highlights the way in which love can bring psychological healing. After her lover Cato’s death, Alice relies on her friend Clara for mental support: “I love Clara. (…) I miss her. She made me sane for all those years. That was important for what I am now,” she tells Patrick. Alice’s decision to share with Patrick (Clara’s former lover) her personal thoughts about Clara reveals that she does not feel jealousy toward Patrick’s former relationship, but rather she hopes that their common knowledge of Clara might bring them together. Alice thus suggests that love is not a mere addition to a person’s life—an act of collecting and discarding—but, instead, something that can radically alter multiples people’s lives.

As Patrick becomes acquainted with the various characters in Alice’s past, he comes to accept that he belongs to a network of interdependence. He understands that, by maintaining a relationship with Alice, he has now become part of the stories she tells and the characters who have marked her life: “He saw himself gazing at so many stories – knowing of Alice’s lover Cato and Hana’s wanderings in the baker’s world. (…) His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices.” Through love, Patrick thus becomes part of multiple stories, expanding beyond the narrow limits of his individual self. Patrick’s awareness of his integration into a network that links various people together moves him to take responsibility for the people around him. By the end of the novel, after Alice’s death, Patrick declares himself Hana’s father, taking on a role that does not conform to biological fact. This act of love reveals his conviction that he is now part of stories greater than his own, and that it is worth sacrificing part of his individual freedom to care for people he loves—people who, through this love, have become members of his family.

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Love and Family 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 Love and Family.
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:

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.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Clara Dickens
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Clara Dickens, Ambrose Small
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Chapter 1: Palace of Purification Quotes

Nobody else wants the claustrophobic uncertainty of this work, but for Patrick this part is the only ease in this terrible place where he feels banished from the world. He carries out the old skill he learned from his father—although then it had been in sunlight, in rivers, logs tumbling over themselves slowly in the air.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Hazen Lewis
Related Symbols: Dynamite
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

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 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.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Alice Gull
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

I don’t think I’m big enough to put someone in a position where they have to hurt another.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Alice Gull
Related Symbols: Dynamite
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

“The trouble with ideology, Alice, is that it hates the private. You must make it human.”

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Alice Gull
Page Number: 135
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: