When studying a novel it sometimes helps to look at the language used in a specific passage. In the novel In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, this approach is extremely helpful. It will help you better understand the characters and give you a clearer idea of what the author is trying to say. Within the novel, the passage entitled “The Skating Scene,” where Patrick observes the loggers skating late at night, is stylistically interesting. By looking at metaphors, symbolism and diction, we can gain a better understanding of the characters and make connections within the scene and then to the novel as a whole.
In “The Skating Scene” many metaphors are used throughout, making is very poetic. One very powerful metaphor seen in this passage is: “This was against the night” (page 22). This emphasizes the light and dark imagery found in this passage. Ondaatje points out that for Patrick day is work and night is rest, however, he sees the loggers skating and having fun at night. They are going against what Patrick has been taught. In a way they are showing him a new side to life and he is transfixed. This sense of excitement is also shown in the pace of the passage. As the loggers are skating the pace gets faster, and then starts to slow down when he goes back home to his routine life. By going against the night, the loggers are essentially breaking the rules: “Their lanterns replaced them with new rushes which let them go further past boundaries” (page 22). This idea of going past boundaries reminds us of a part later in the novel. Patrick goes past boundaries when he sets fire to the Muskoka Hotel on page 168. Instead of being an observer like he always is, he actually steps in and goes “against the night.” By comparing Patrick in “The Skating Scene” to when he goes to the Muskoka Hotel, we can see how he grows and changes throughout the course of the novel.
Another powerful metaphor in this particular scene is: “And a moon lost in the thickness of clouds so it did not shine a path for him towards the trees” (page 20). This metaphor again emphasizes the light and dark imagery in the scene. Even though there is no path for Patrick to follow, he still finds his way to the skaters by travelling towards the light from their lanterns. He is attracted to the light much like a moth is. He is also like a moth in the way that he likes the darkness and in the way that his character seems to ‘come out’ at night. The fire he sets to the Muskoka Hotel and the attempted bombing of the waterworks both happen at night and are both examples of things that are unlike his character. Metaphorically speaking Patrick is a moth.
Symbolism is also something that is seen quite often in this passage. Skating is a symbol that represents freedom. When you are skating, you are in control of what you do; you are free to do and try whatever you desire. During the day, the immigrants work for Harris, helping to build his dream and getting paid poorly for it. They follow orders all day, and now at night they finally have a chance to be free of the rules. This idea of freedom can be related to Caravaggio who, while in jail, has to follow strict rules and whose freedom is restricted. The only way to get his freedom back is to escape, so that is what he does. For the loggers, the only way to escape and have some feeling of freedom is to skate at night. Specific phrases used to describe the men skating shows that it is like a dance. “One man waltzing with his fire” (page 22), “each step seemed graceless and slow” (page 21), and “they could leap into the air” (page 21), are all characteristics of dancing. Dancing is another example that represents freedom, which is perhaps why Ondaatje makes the parallel between skating and dancing in this scene.
The loggers are also symbolic in this passage. To Patrick the loggers represent a life that he wants. There are ten of them and one of him, which can be seen as a small community. Patrick wants to be a part of this community where he would have friends and feel a sense of belonging: “He longed to hold their hands and skate the length of the creek slowing down through cut rock and under bridges and into town with these men….” (page 21). Patrick decides that after seeing the skaters he wants a change in his life: “To the boy growing in his twelfth year, having lived all his life on that farm where day was work and night was rest, nothing would be the same” (page 22).
Ondaatje uses this quote as a means of foreshadowing to show the reader that Patrick’s life is going to change throughout the novel.
Not only is Patrick jealous of the skaters because they are having fun and going “against the night,” but they seem to possess magical powers too. The diction in this passage supports this idea beautifully. Ondaatje uses words like “haunted house” and “coven” to remind us of witches. The way the loggers are described gives a sense that they have magical powers too, for example, “….they could leap into the air and crash down and it would hold the,” (page 22), “When they collided sparks fell into the ice….” (page 21), and “their lanterns…..let them go further past boundaries” (page 22). Personification is also used to show that the skaters have magical powers: “A tree branch reached out, its hand frozen in the ice, and one of them skating under it” (page 21). The idea of witches and magic reminds us of a quote on page 93. Patrick talks about Clara and says “ Something about her cast a spell on me…I don’t know what is it.” It seems that Patrick is fascinated with people who possess these magical qualities.
It is evident that by doing a stylistic analysis of a passage, we can get a better understanding of characters and make connections within the passage and then to the rest of the novel. This is certainly the case with “The Skating Scene” in Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of Lion. The metaphors, symbols and diction he uses in this particular passage clearly show that he is truly a brilliant writer.