In the Skin of a Lion


Michael Ondaatje

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The Working Class vs. the Rich Theme Analysis

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In the Skin of a Lion depicts the cultural and political context of early 20th-century Canada, a period in which European immigrants played an important role in the Canadian economy. Protagonist Patrick Lewis and his fellow working-class colleagues, such as Macedonian immigrant Nicholas Temelcoff, put their lives and health at risk every day as they take part in arduous manual labor on dangerous bridges, underground tunnels, and tanneries. By contrast, the rich—people such as Commissioner Harris, an indifferent man in charge of large construction works, and Ambrose Small, a millionaire who only cares about accumulating wealth—live a seemingly carefree life, centered on consumerism and luxury. The novel highlights the cruelty of this class-based inequality, showing that the rich keep workers poor and disenfranchised in order to exploit them for their own interests. Although Patrick is initially drawn to violence to protest against these conditions, he ultimately accepts that no ideology can justify the destruction of human lives. Like Patrick, through its focus on individual struggles, the novel itself suggests that no grand plan or dream, however noble it may seem, should ignore everyone’s right to dignity and respect.

In Canada, while the rich enjoy sheltered lives, the working class toils in extreme conditions to earn low wages. In this context, society’s greatest projects—such as the building of bridges and waterworks—depend on the exploitation of vulnerable groups of people. Throughout the novel, workers are described as anonymous groups taking part in dangerous physical work. In Eastern Ontario, during Patrick’s childhood, nameless loggers come and go with the winter, working in unsafe temperatures to cut and transport wood. In the waterworks tunnels, workers’ tasks are compared to those of mules. During the construction of the Prince Edward Bridge, workers are so numerous and impersonal—as well as easily breakable and substitutable—that they are associated with tools: “A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame.” In these manual tasks, workers are exposed to great dangers and many of them die on the job (succumbing to pneumonia in the cold winter, falling off the bridge, etc.) or as a consequence of the hardships and toxic environments they are exposed to (e.g., sulphur in factories, salts and acids in the tannery).

Although Commissioner Harris justifies his building projects by explaining that he creates jobs for people, he actually cares very little about his workers’ health or well-being. When Patrick confronts Harris about the number of men who have died while building the tunnels, Harris only says: “There was no record kept.” By using the lack of records as a justification to ignore people’s deaths, Harris reveals that he does not care enough about his workers to keep track of their lives. His reply also suggests that having no record is convenient for him, since it keeps him from being publicly accused of killing men. Paying workers low wages, regardless of the life-and-death risks that such labor involves, thus allows him to build expensive projects and become rich. As various characters note, Harris’s clothing and the materials he chooses for his construction projects cost more than the sum of many workers’ salaries, proving that he is living a luxurious life the workers could never dream of.

Instead of protecting this weak population, the state reinforces the exploitation of workers, most of whom are recent immigrants. When the police chief proposes a new law prohibiting foreigners from organizing public meetings, for instance, he intends to stifle any effort for the working class to organize collectively to defend their rights. Therefore, this new law reinforces working-class immigrants’ status as disenfranchised citizens, unable to protect their own lives. This blatant injustice leads some members of the working class to hope for the possibility of revolution. However, as the novel ultimately shows, even progressive ideologies can fail to take into account the value of individual human lives. True progress, the novel suggests, must always involve compassion and respect for people’s dignity. Although a violently exploitative system might justify the use of violence to oppose it, violence can prove cruel and inhumane on either side of the political spectrum. When Cato, a political activist, is killed by businessmen who want to keep him from organizing workers politically, he becomes a martyr for the working class’s cause. However, ironically, Cato’s former lover (and Patrick’s current partner) Alice Gull dies in an equally violent way after she mistakenly carries a bomb likely designed by working-class activists. Although less systematic, working-class violence thus proves just as capable of killing innocent victims as violence perpetrated by the rich.

Patrick recognizes the danger of allowing ideology or any grand project to disregard the value of individual lives. “The trouble with ideology, Alice, is that it hates the private. You must make it human,” he says. Despite Alice’s belief in the validity of revolution, Alice herself recognizes this danger when she admits that she would never be capable of ordering someone to kill: “I don’t think I’m big enough to put someone in a position where they have to hurt another,” she humbly explains. Despite their anger toward the rich, both characters thus recognize the importance of respecting other people’s lives and agency. After Alice’s death, Patrick is so angry at this injustice that he sets fire to a fancy hotel and plans to blow up Harris’s waterworks, but he ultimately proves less interested in inflicting human damage than in venting his rage against the upper class.

Patrick’s injunction to make ideology more “private” and “human” can be seen as a plea to recognize the inherent humanity and equality of all beings, regardless of their social status, nationality, or wealth. When Patrick confronts Commissioner Harris about the workers who have died, he is pursuing this very idea: he is encouraging Harris to remember that the lives over which the Commissioner presides are just as valuable as his own. Through its focus on the intimate lives of the working class, In the Skin of a Lion upholds this goal, as it strives to bring depth and complexity to traditionally voiceless members of society: the working class. Even though the novel does not bring any clear indication of political progress, it suggests that empathy, solidarity, and respect for other humans’ dignity are the most important vehicles of individual growth and, through this—since the private should not be separate from the public—of social progress.

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The Working Class vs. the Rich 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 The Working Class vs. the Rich.
Part 1: Chapter 1: Little Seeds Quotes

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:
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 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:

- Compassion forgives too much. You could forgive the worst man. You forgive him and nothing changes.

- You can teach him, make him aware . . .

- Why leave the power in his hands?

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis (speaker), Alice Gull (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dynamite
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Come on, Patrick, of course some make it. They do it by becoming just like the ones they want to overtake. Like Ambrose. Look at what he became before he disappeared. He was predatory. He let nothing cling to him, not even Clara.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis, Alice Gull, Clara Dickens, Ambrose Small
Page Number: 123
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:
Part 3: Chapter 2: Maritime Theatre Quotes

- You watch, in fifty years they’re going to come here and gape at the herringbone and the copper roofs. We need excess, something to live up to. I fought tooth and nail for that herringbone.

- You fought. You fought. Think about those who built the intake tunnels. Do you know how many of us died in there?

- There was no record kept.

Related Characters: Patrick Lewis (speaker), Rowland Harris (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dynamite
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:

You must realize you are like these places, Patrick. You’re as much of the fabric as the aldermen and the millionaires. But you’re among the dwarfs of enterprise who never get accepted or acknowledged. Mongrel company. You’re a lost heir. So you stay in the woods. You reject power. And this is how the bland fools – the politicians and press and mayors and their advisers – become the spokesmen for the age.

Related Characters: Rowland Harris (speaker), Patrick Lewis
Related Symbols: Dynamite
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis: