Patrick's Quest: Narration and Subjectivity in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion

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Author: Rod Schumacher
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,155 words

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[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Schumacher delineates the relationship between language and subjectivity in In the Skin of a Lion as well as examining the roles of community and narrative in the development of Patrick Lewis, the novel's pivotal character.]

My discussion of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion is intent on seeking a correspondence between narration and the acquisition of subjectivity. To achieve this correspondence I centre my argument specifically on Patrick Lewis in order to illustrate how his incremental movement from private to communal symbolic registers facilitates his quest to subjectify himself within society. This approach is dependent upon understanding the role narration plays in the framing of personal and collective experience, and also how narration functions as a medium for desire. The theoretical foundation of my discussion borrows heavily from Lacanian poststructural theory. Here again, I am attempting to gain a fuller understanding, not only of the relationship between language and subjectivity, but also the important roles that community (or collective discourse) and narrative play in the development of subjectivity.

In addition to my analysis of Patrick, I also intend to situate the reader as a subject who gains knowledge through narration by identifying his/her own position within textual discourse. My reading necessitates viewing Patrick as the pivotal agent through whom the reader is encouraged to enter the fictional realm, seek and discover knowledge, and finally, carry that knowledge into the real world. In this regard my discussion is very much in the service of the social and political aims of Ondaatje's text. However, before dealing directly with the novel it is necessary to present a fairly broad understanding of how I will be employing the term narration in the contexts of reading and framing experience.

Poststructural theorists such as Jacques Lacan and the later Roland Barthes have continually reminded us that we are always involved, consciously and unconsciously, in reading the world and narrating our experience. As Barthes states: "narrative begins with the very history of humanity; there is not, there has never been, any people anywhere without narrative" (Semiotic 95). Reading the world constitutes a narrative act, a continual placing and displacing of signifiers, the goal of which, on a conscious level, is to gather experience into a coherent pattern. Our memories, conclusions, dreams, fantasies, careers and our projected visions of our futures appear most coherent to us when we can consciously situate them within narratives.

According to Lacan, narration is motivated by the unconscious search to reinstate the unity of the self that is imagined to have existed prior to the acquisition of language. For Lacan, our need to speak our experience and to attend to stories is driven by our desire to be (what V. A. Miller calls) sutured to a symbolic representational code, to unite the speaking subject with the "whole structure of language" (Cohen 156). In other words, language is both a representational substitute for the absence of a whole self, and the source of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053092