An Individual


An Individual’s Escape From Exploitation Essay, Research Paper

An Individual’s Escape From Exploitation

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, In the Skin of a Lion, depicts

some of

the hardships faced by the working class in the early part of


century. It is a seemingly pro-working class novel that portrays

exploitation and unfairness by the upper class. The novel, then,


be expected to offer some resolution for the working class, but

it does

not. Instead of giving a solution for the class as a whole, the


offers two answers for the individual within the working


entrepuenership and the family.

Throughout the novel, Ondaatje portrays the exploitation

of the

working class. When they are building the bridge at the

beginning of the

novel, the workers would huddle together, walking “in groups of

three or

four. Many [had] already died during the building of the bridge”


However, while these men were risking their lives for very

little pay,

Harris, the Commissioner, wears an “expensive tweed coat that

cost more

than the combined weeks’ salaries of five bridge workers” (43).


example shows the huge gap between the working class and the



In addition, Ondaatje portrays companies as not caring

for their

workers. Clara talks about her father as having been “killed


charges in a feldspar mine [because the] company had tried to go


deep and the section above him collapsed” (74). Ondaatje thinks


there is a lack of concern in corporations for workers in that


companies treat workers as expendable.

The workers who are constructing the waterworks are forced to


under conditions which the are depicted as disgusting. “All

morning they

slip in the wet clay unable to stand properly, pissing where

they work,

eating where someone else left shit” (106).

Moreover, the situation is extremely dangerous, for “if they are


incorrectly–just one degree up [it will result in] the water


in, shouldering them aside in a fast death” (106). Some of the


jobs that are portrayed as particularly dangerous are those of

the dyers

and the hide-room laborers. In these jobs, “there was never

enough ventilation, and the coarse salt, like the acids in the


section, left the men invisibly with tuberculoses and arthritis


rheumatism” (131).

But given all of the examples of mistreatment of workers

by the

upper class, Ondaatje does not make a single reference to what


seem (especially to someone writing in 1987) the most logical

solution–formal unions. If the work were purely a pro-working


novel, there would be some solution, or at least some ray of


offered to the people as a class. But Ondaatje gives none of

this in the

novel. In fact, the only person labeled as a “union man” (156)

was Cato,

who is killed.

Another obvious answer that Ondaatje refuses to support

is that

of terrorism. Ondaatje argues that terrorism is not a way to

deal with

the problems of the working class. Alice had argued against


from the start, arguing that protesting is acceptable, as long

as no one

is hurt. Ultimately, it is terrorism, in the form of a planned

attack that causes Alice’s death-showing that terrorism is not a


solution for the working class. Ondaatje gives no solution for

the class

as a whole; however, he does give two possible solutions to the

individual trapped in that situation.

The first of these solutions is entrepuenership.

Caravaggio, who

was a tar-layer, goes into business for himself as a thief.


is depicted as a nice person who turns the tables of poverty by


from and exploiting the wealthy. The other entrepreneur in the

novel is

Temelcoff, who used to have the most dangerous position on the


Temelcoff leaves the working class, begins attending school, and


his own bakery. It is the bakery job, being able to work for


which truly makes Temelcoff happy.

The second solution that Ondaatje offers is found in the


Once Patrick finds himself in the company of Alice and Hanna,

“he is

happy” (133). He is the happiest when it is “Patrick and Alice


Hanna” (136). Once he had integrated himself into that family,

he began

also to be integrated into the community. The local people

“knew who

he was now” (138). Ondaatje is making the connection between


and belonging–first to a family, then to a community. When


feels this happiness, he is content.

When Alice dies, Patrick becomes angry. Since he blames


upper class for her death, he tries to burn down a hotel. When


attempt is unsuccessful, he plans to explode the waterworks.

This leads

to the scene in the Commissioner’s office with Patrick and


During this scene, Patrick is forced to deal with his emotions

of anger

against the capitalist class. Patrick vents his anger, telling


about the death of Alice. Instead of blowing up the waterworks,

as he

had planned, Patrick-incredulously-falls asleep. This shows

that he has

decided not to commit this act; rather, he values the sanctity

of the

family over terrorism as a way to achieve happiness.

All of the escapes from the imposition of the upper

class on the

working class in the novel show the focus on the individual as


to the working class as a whole. Although Ondaatje writes about


exploitation of the workers, the escape he advocates lies in the

individual-through entrepuenership or through the family.

Work Cited

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. New York: Random

House, 1987.


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