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Images, and Metaphors of Lightness and Darkness within Michael Ondaatje's Novel in the Skin of a Lion.
Motifs of lightness vs. darkness, in physical and emotional as well as metaphorical respects, run throughout Canadian emigre author Michael Ondaatje's post-modernist novel set in Toronto, the 1920's, In the Skin of the Lion (1987). The frequent interplay of the motifs of lightness and darkness is intricately woven throughout the structurally fragmented text. Michael Ondaatje's central character within the story is a 21-year-old new arrival to Toronto from rural Ontario named Patrick Lewis, a young man who feels emotionally hollow and who is in search of himself. Simmons (1998) observes that Patrick describes himself, vis-a-vis other characters in the story, as 'nothing but a prism that refracted [the other characters'] lives' (157). Other descriptive uses of lightness and darkness, as motifs, images, or both, abound within the story as well. Later on, for example, when another key character, Caravaggio, watches a woman named Anne through the window of her boathouse, what he sees is described thus: 'In this light, with all the small panes of glass around her, she was inside a diamond, mothlike [sic] on the edge of burning kerosene, caught in the centre of all the facets' (198). In this essay I will analyze descriptive uses of light and darkness within Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, e.g., in terms of physical light vs. physical darkness; emotional light and darkness, and racially-determined "light" and "darkness."
In the Skin of a Lion is perhaps (arguably) a bildundsroman (a coming-of-age story) about the personal development of Patrick, an "immigrant" of sorts (within his own country) to Toronto. Patrick comes from a very different part of Canada, and after his arrival, embarks on a whole new way of life. As the story opens the starkness of Patrick's childhood and adolescence (often described, in flashback, by using descriptive images of either light or darkness) has left him emotionally bereft, and enveloped, now, in a sort of emotional darkness. That darkness dissipates gradually, however, throughout the novel, as Patrick learns and accepts more about his true self, and recognizes his capacities not only to love, but to grieve. Perhaps fittingly, the woman who most inspires Patrick is named Clara, which means "light." IN a similar vein, the character Caravaggio bears the name of an Italian Renaissance painter who was considered a master of chiaroscuro (light and darkness).
Narrative voices within the story combine to help to shed light on events and circumstances, some accurate, others pure fiction. Together, these fragments comprise a compelling composite of Toronto, and of daily life within Toronto. Fragmentation of narrative voice is the "cubist structure" [which could as well be described as prismatic] to which Simmons (1998) refers.
Historical truth, e.g., the real-life construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct and of the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant, and the real life disappearance of the enigmatic millionaire Ambrose Small, combine, with elements of pure fiction, to illuminate, impressionistically at least, snapshots of immigrant (and quasi-immigrant, as in Patrick's case) experience of Toronto. Ondaatje's descriptions of light, darkness (and, by association, of colour, or the lack of it) almost always underscore related themes (and oppositions), e.g., of urban (e.g., well-lighted, busy) versus rural life (stark, dark, deserted).
As Ondaatje tells us early on, for example: "Patrick Lewis arrived in the city of Toronto as if it were land after years at sea . . . he had been drawn out from that small town like a piece of metal dropped under the vast arches of Union Station to begin his life once more . . . He was an immigrant to the city" (In the Skin of a Lion, p. 53). Still, however well-lit and teeming with active life the city might seem to the newly-arrived Patrick, he is nevertheless a stranger here, and, along with all those who hurry around him now, inside Union Station, he realizes he is "in the belly of a whale" (p. 54).
Further, Patrick's memories of his rural childhood, most often are fragmentary recollections of images replete with either light or of darkness, but always vivid and mostly both physically and emotionally gelid. From his bedroom window as a boy, for example, Patrick makes out the shapes of the itinerant Finnish loggers on their way to work, in the icy Canadian winter. As he recalls "Before daybreak the men were working - through the worst storms, in weather far below zero- and they finished at six" (p.16). Early in the morning, they work "wrapped up in the darkness," awaiting the "energy of the sun" (p. 7). Patrick recalls disliking "the whiteness" of familiar Ontario snowstorms, and, conversely, having loved "only things to do with colour" (Ondaatje). Further, his remembrances of summer are filled with images of black (i.e., less pleasant recollections), and of colour (more pleasant ones, often even within the same memory sequence). For example, in summer, Patrick recalls the presence of:
Blackflies and mosquitoes. Leaping not into hay but into the black underwater colour of creek . . . chewing rhubarb . . . you bit the glossy skin of the raw rhubarb and ripped its fibres open . . . You put the smallest pellet of raspberry onto your tongue. (pp. 53-54)
Neither childhood memories of pure white, though, nor of pure darkness, stir recollections toward which he feels very much drawn. What he fondly recalls, instead, are early impressions of vivid colour, mixed with strong sensory impressions, through a child's eyes, e.g., yellowish hay; bright pink rhubarb; reddish-purple raspberries, even brown wooden barns and the cow manure to be found within them. Now, however, upon first arriving in Toronto, alone in Union Station speaking out his name to no one in particular, as throngs of strangers rush by Patrick seated on a bench, he knows that they, and he, are, all of them together, metaphorically, at least, swallowed up in emotional if not physical darkness.
Another important aspect of the recurring motifs of lightness and darkness within Ondaajte's In the Skin of a Lion is that of the story's underlying racial metaphors and implications. As Lowery (September 2004) suggests: "Ondaatje's writing, from In the Skin of a Lion on, represents "race" as a complex problem of representation that not only puts into play the interpolated identities of so-called "racialized" subjects but of "white" subjects as well" ("The Representation of "Race" in Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion"). And, as Lowery further points out, of depictions of race, and interrelationships between racial and ethnic groups within this text:
The city Patrick enters is a space of linguistic and cultural diversity beyond the purview of Franco-Anglo biculturalism or Anglo-imperialism, but coterminous with it. If metaphorically, Patrick "begins his life once more" (53) searching for the lost millionaire, Ambrose Small, a heroic figure of prosperity in this
depressed city, he ultimately establishes himself in the nexus of Toronto's working-class communities. His identity develops in relation to a host of other, not quite "white" subjects -- Greek, Macedonian, Russian, and Italian.
Further, as Lowery also observes:
Ondaatje's exploration of Patrick's working-class experience challenges notions of Canadian identity as a racially neutral basis upon which a "just"
multicultural society is built. Patrick's cultural displacement is negotiated rather than static. At times, his cultural background allows him access to spaces of privilege -- the Muskoka Hotel, Harris's office; however, in general
Patrick moves through a complex social network in which cultural differences between any us (Canadian) and them (foreign) are seen in terms of class us
(the labourers) and them (the rich)
Within this story, Patrick is generally more at ease with those he meets who are ethnically unlike himself. His memories (i.e., roots) have shown him little of the richness of live, as others unlike…[continue]
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