An Individual’s Escape From Exploitation
Michael Ondaatje’s novel, In the Skin of a Lion, depicts
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
not. Instead of giving a solution for the class as a whole, the
entrepuenership and the family.
Throughout the novel, Ondaatje portrays the exploitation
beginning of the
four. Many [had] already died during the building of the bridge”
However, while these men were risking their lives for very
Harris, the Commissioner, wears an “expensive tweed coat that
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
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
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
enough ventilation, and the coarse salt, like the acids in the
section, left the men invisibly with tuberculoses and arthritis
But given all of the examples of mistreatment of workers
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
this in the
novel. In fact, the only person labeled as a “union man” (156)
who is killed.
Another obvious answer that Ondaatje refuses to support
of terrorism. Ondaatje argues that terrorism is not a way to
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
as a whole; however, he does give two possible solutions to the
individual trapped in that situation.
The first of these solutions is entrepuenership.
from and exploiting the wealthy. The other entrepreneur in the
Temelcoff, who used to have the most dangerous position on the
Temelcoff leaves the working class, begins attending school, and
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,
happy” (133). He is the happiest when it is “Patrick and Alice
Hanna” (136). Once he had integrated himself into that family,
also to be integrated into the community. The local people
he was now” (138). Ondaatje is making the connection between
and belonging–first to a family, then to a community. When
When Alice dies, Patrick becomes angry. Since he blames
attempt is unsuccessful, he plans to explode the waterworks.
to the scene in the Commissioner’s office with Patrick and
During this scene, Patrick is forced to deal with his emotions
about the death of Alice. Instead of blowing up the waterworks,
had planned, Patrick-incredulously-falls asleep. This shows
that he has
decided not to commit this act; rather, he values the sanctity
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.
Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. New York: Random