An Individual's Escape From Exploitation Essay, Research An Individual's Escape From Exploitation 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 the century. It is a seemingly pro-working class novel that portrays exploitation and unfairness by the upper class. The novel, then, would 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 novel offers two answers for the individual within the working class– through 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' (39). 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's al aries of five bridge workers' (43). This example shows the huge gap between the working class and the capitalist class. In addition, Ondaatje portrays companies as not caring for their workers. Clara talks about her father as having been "killed setting charges in a feldspar mine [because the] company had tried to go too deep and the section above him collapsed' (74).
Ondaatje thinks that there is a lack of concern in corporations for workers in that the companies treat workers as expendable. The workers who are constructing the waterworks are forced to operate 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 digging incorrectly– just one degree up [it will result in] the water heaving in, shouldering them aside in a fast death' (106). Some of the other 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 dyeing section, left the men invisibly with tuberculoses and arthritis and 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 would seem (especially to someone writing in 1987) the most logical solution– formal unions. If the work were purely a pro-working class novel, there would be some solution, or at least some ray of hope, 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 terrorism 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 viable 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. Caravaggio is depicted as a nice person who turns the tables of poverty by stealing from and exploiting the wealthy.
The other entrepreneur in the novel is Temelcoff, who used to have the most dangerous position on the bridge. Temelcoff leaves the working class, begins attending school, and starts his own bakery. It is the bakery job, being able to work for himself, which truly makes Temelcoff happy. The second solution that Ondaatje offers is found in the family. 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 and 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 happiness and belonging– first to a family, then to a community. When Patrick feels this happiness, he is content. When Alice dies, Patrick becomes angry.
Since he blames the upper class for her death, he tries to burn down a hotel. When that attempt is unsuccessful, he plans to explode the waterworks. This leads to the scene in the Commissioner's office with Patrick and Harris. During this scene, Patrick is forced to deal with his emotions of anger against the capitalist class. Patrick vents his anger, telling Harris 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 opposed to the working class as a whole. Although Ondaatje writes about the 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. 358.