In The Skin Of A Lion Summary

Michael Ondaatje

In The Skin Of A Lion

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

In The Skin Of A Lion Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.

In the Skin of a Lion, a 1987 novel by Michael Ondaatje, is the story of the migrant condition. Ondaatje uses the anonymous workers who built parts of Toronto in the early 1900s to tell his fictionalized story.

Patrick Lewis was born in rural Depot Creek just outside of Toronto. He lives an isolated life with his father who is a cattle herder. Patrick learns to appreciate insects and other tiny pieces of nature as he entertains himself. To get a better job, his father teaches himself dynamite and gets a job blasting logs for a logging company. When he dies, Patrick leaves for Toronto.

The story moves to the building of a bridge in Toronto. One night, five nuns wander onto the unfinished bridge, and one falls off. A migrant worker saves her, catching her in midair and dislocating his arm. She tears her skirt to make him a sling, and eventually he is treated by the doctor. He finds her later and offers her a drink.

The first job Patrick finds in the city is a “seeker” for a missing millionaire, Ambrose. Ambrose’s mistress, Clara, falls in love with Patrick during the search for Ambrose, and she and Patrick begin an affair. Eventually, however, she returns to Ambrose. She knows where he is hiding, but asks Patrick not to follow her, and he complies. Heartbroken, he gives up his finder’s fee and tries to find work elsewhere.

Alice, the nun from years earlier, shows up at his door one day. He is still heartbroken over Clara, but she tells him that he needs to move on. He takes up work dynamiting and moves to a Macedonian neighborhood. One day, he has to buy a vetch for his iguana, the only thing Clara left him, and when his neighbors finally understand him, he is overcome by the emotion of letting someone into his life.

The Macedonians take him in as one of their own. They invite him to their gathering, and they watch a play about the helplessness of immigrants. He is so moved and terrified by the play that he goes to save the girl, who turns out to be Alice.

He and Alice begin an affair. He becomes a surrogate father to Alice’s child, and they live happily for two years. Then, Alice is killed when she picks up a suitcase of explosives during a dynamite demonstration. Patrick is enraged by her death because he feels that the rich exploit the poor for their gain. He tries to avenge her death by blowing up the building but is caught and sentenced to five years in prison.

In prison, he meets the thief Caravaggio, and he and his wife, Gianetta, plot to help him bomb the Waterworks building as revenge on the wealthy commissioner. Commissioner Harris envisioned the extravagant building without thinking of the human toll on the workers. Patrick sneaks into the building but hurts himself badly when he has to blow up a barricade because he forgot his wire cutters.

Patrick confronts Harris with the detonator. Harris knows that he must keep Patrick talking until sunrise when the guard comes in, and he does so. Patrick falls asleep, and the guard takes away the detonator, but Harris does not press charges.

Patrick wakes up at home where he is recuperating. Alice’s daughter, Hana, tells him that a woman named Clara had called and she forgot to tell him. She is calling again and has been waiting outside for Patrick to call back.

Clara tells him that Ambrose has died and asks him to come back with her. Patrick sleeps for one more hour, and then he and Hana drive in the cold to find Clara. On the way, he tells Hana the story of Clara, and all the other stories of her mother while they are driving, revealing that Hana is the young girl in the prologue that launched the story.

Ondaatje fictionalizes characters who took part in the real expansion of Toronto to create a compelling story of the troubles the immigrant communities faced, and the ways that history has erased their contributions to the modernization of the city. At the time, the world was sharply divided by class, and many workers who toiled and lost their lives in the building of new parts of the city were forgotten.

Language is an important element of the novel. Many of the communities of Toronto did not speak English, isolating them from the rest of the city. In a touching scene, Patrick draws a picture of his iguana to communicate, and this act makes everyone emotional as they all realize a connection is taking place. They adopt Patrick is one of their own after he makes this effort. In another scene, they take him to a play in which an actor plays a puppet to symbolize the immigrant plight. The puppet does not speak and is buffeted around by the crowd before being arrested and falling to the floor, being pounding on because it cannot speak any words. This is another form of isolation as many of the immigrants were unable to defend themselves adequately because of the class and language barriers.

The fictionalized accounts of the struggles of the working class and immigrant communities help to put a human face on the rapid modernization of cities in North America in the early part of the 20th century. We are left with the feeling that we might have known the workers and looked on them as family and as friends instead of faceless commodities.