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Re-Constructing the Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works

Jean-Michel Lacroix

Gendering and Disordering: The (Dis) Solution of The Oedipus Complex in Ondaatje's In The Skin of A Lion

Jennifer Murray


Structuré par la théorie freudienne et lacanienne, ce texte a pour objet de dessiner les contours de la construction de l'identité sexuelle du personnage Patrick. Par une analyse des signifiants du texte, et en utilisant principalement la théorie du Complexe d'Oedipe, nous soutiendrons que le roman décrit un chemin de développement sexuel qui est plutôt complexe. Elevé sans mère, dans un monde exclusivement masculin, la sexualité de Patrick, à l'âge adulte, est construite en dehors des normes de la société patriarcale. Cependant, la fin de la narration indique le besoin idéologique dont le texte est empreint, de'résoudre ce problème'.

Texte intégral

1A psychoanalytical reading of a text is, of course, always considered suspect and perhaps some of the readers of this paper may feel to have reserves as to the validity of the approach. Indeed, the use of psychoanalytic theory in literary studies has too often reduced itself to a cataloguing of symptoms, phallic images or simplistically rendered oedipal conflicts. Furthermore, despite the radical potential of its theory, psychoanalytic readings can too often seem to replace the conventional readings with another interpretation which attempts to resolve the text into a unity. Yet, if it is worthwhile to approach the text from the perspective of the psychology of the subject, it must be in order to question the text's moments of incoherence, to reveal something of its discourse which it does not wish to surrender, something that it cannot overtly say. The theory must engage with the text, with the resistance it encounters, and must constantly call into question its own internal organisation and precepts.

2The first question, most often in the form of a criticism, which is directed at psychoanalytic readings of text is that the object being analysed is not clearly defined. Is it the character, is it the text, or worse, is it the author? What we would hope to put forward here is that none of the above is being psychoanalysed, as that is a term which belongs to a different domain of investigation. What is being analysed through a literary critical approach which uses the concepts of psychoanalysis, is the way in which the text offers certain positions to the reader. In the case of ISL, these positions cluster largely around the development of the character Patrick, and this paper will deal essentially with the psychological aspects of this development. What we will attempt to show is the way in which the text opens up a complex construction of the subject which emphasizes conflicting feminine and masculine attitudes in the male character, although it never clearly brings this conflict out into the open. The tension created by the unacknowledged sexual indeterminacy finally undermines the text, collapsing the character Patrick into a model of patriarchy, to the detriment of his credibility as well as that of the narrative.

The outline of the body

  • 1 Juliet, Mitchell, and Jacqueline Rose, Feminine Sexuality, London, MacMillan Press, 1982, (16).

3We know that Patrick is constructed as a character whose childhood lacked any form of mother figure, whereas, in the first chapter, his father is omnipresent. Beyond the play of recognition offered through the parental role, the father comes to stand for the Law; for the child, he is both the representative of social order and the incarnation of a punitive force, as outlined by Freud in his writings on the Castration Complex.1 Patrick's father, Hazen Lewis embodies an extreme example of the threat of castration. We read:

In the drive-shed Hazen Lewis outlined the boy's body onto the plank walls with green chalk. Then he tacked wires back and forth across the outline as if realigning the veins in his son's frame...This is how the boy remembers his father, studying the outline which the boy has just stepped away from as the lit fuse smoulders up and blows out a section of plank where the head had been. (14-15)

4This passage enacts the father's symbolic destruction of the child's self-image. We witness this annihilation-of-the-self from the point of view of the child. No moral commentary is given, or to put it another way, the child’s description of his loss of self mirrors the lack of emotional content attributed to the father's gesture.

5How can this violent lack of emotion, (which is to characterize other moments of violence in the text) be accounted for? One possibility is that the threat of castration has no meaning, no symbolic content, outside of the Oedipus Complex. Elisabeth Grosz writes a very compact résumé of the resolution of this complex:

  • 2 Elizabeth, Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, London, Routledge, 1990, (68).

The father regulates the child's demands and its access to the mother by prohibiting (sexual) access to her. The boy perceives his father as a potential castrator, an (unbeatable) rival for the mother's affections and attentions. He construes the father's...prohibitions as castration threats, and these eventually lead him to renounce his desire of the mother because of his fear of the organ's loss, i.e., because of the father's authority and power as 'possessor' of the phallus 2 .

6In the context described, the threat of castration is understood as the promised punishment for the transgression of the incest taboo. Yet in the case of Patrick, there is no mother, no object for the boy's oedipal love, or rather, there is only the father available as a mother to him.

7The ambiguous role carried out by the father is suggested in the following lines:

The boy shivers during dinner and the father tells the boy he can sleep with him. In bed later on, they do not acknowledge each other apart from sharing the warmth under the blanket. His father lies so still Patrick doesn't know if he is asleep or awake. The boy looks towards the kitchen and its dying fire. (14)

  • 3 "But the circle of ideas centring round...the kitchen may just as readily be chosen to conceal sex (...)

8Patrick is allowed the privilege of sleeping with the father, but the father's motionlessness could be seen as a fear of affection, a need to suppress the risk of desire. At the same time, this lack of affection seems to signal the father's function as guardian of the incest taboo and by extension as the potential castrator. In this way, the father is both the oedipal love-object for the child and the sign which forbids access to that object. The dying kitchen fire in the last line of the passage inscribes the idea of frustration related to the child's desire.3

9Although the negotiation of the sexuality of the individual must be seen as a process constantly renewed, the elements presented in the beginning of ISL in so far as they are the material elements available for analysis, must be taken into an account of the coherence of the character Patrick. What we have access to, at the end of the first section, is a child formed in a world of men, men with whom he seeks to identify, but also men who are seen to embody an extraordinary potential for violence. Patrick's position in relation to that latent threat of violence will be one of deference and passivity, as we shall see.

Smooth Pink Pillars

10The adult life of Patrick begins with the affirmation of the feminine side of his self. He arrives in Toronto under the arches of Union Station (53), a train station which is described alternately as a palace, (54) a cathedral-like space, and the nexus of [Patrick's] life (209-210). Both Freud and Lacan see the image of the building as a symbol of the self. For Patrick, the location of the self, this domed palace, is an ambiguous one; with its "niches and caverns" and the "smooth pink pillars that reached up into the rotunda," its imagery is largely female. This is reinforced when Patrick declares, "They were in the belly of a whale". (54)

11What we can affirm at this point is that Patrick is still negotiating a possible self-image, an ideal-ego which would provide a position for the speaking subject. To touch briefly on one of Lacan's major theories, the process of the development of the imago is described by Lacan as the mirror stage, a phase in early childhood whereby the child identifies with outside objects, recognizing, but of course, also (mis)recognizing himself in them. With the acquisition of language, the child comes to recognize that s/he is part of a System, a society, and that to attain a position from which to speak, s/he must take on/be given the Name-of-the-Father. This name both fixes identity and contains the laws which govern intersubjectivity.

12As a speaking subject, Patrick is fundamentally alienated. He cannot speak his own name and be heard: "He spoke out his name and it struggled up in a hollow echo and was lost in the high air of Union Station. No one turned." (54) While the full name of his father, Hazen Lewis, is spelled out at least seven times in the first section, Patrick is rarely identified other than by his first name. This inability to take on the Name-of-the-Father denies Patrick access to the dominant male position in patriarchy, a position which will finally have to be negotiated on his behalf at the end of the narrative. Yet, in the interval, Patrick's decentred identity allows for the exploration of a shifting, unstable sexual identity which reveals itself in some of the most intense, poetic and confusing moments of the text.

  • 4 Malcolm, Bowie, Lacan, London, Fontana Press, 1991, (32-33).

13To return to our theoretical framework, both Lacan and Freud see the ego-forming moments of identification as a crucial element in psychical development.4 The nature of identification is that the self becomes split between its position as subject and its position as object of its own contemplation and desire.

14The split subject is expressed in the instability of the text. This becomes apparent in the construction of one of Patrick's dreams. Here, the elements of misrecognition, sexual rivalry, feelings of inferiority, anxiety, castration, and death are all present in this passage which constructs multiple possibilities of meaning.

He met Ambrose in a dream. At the door he said, there is this grey figure attached to my body, Patrick, I want you to cut it off me. They were old friends...A grey peacock had been sewn onto his friend. Patrick began to eut it away...[He] got down to the ankles and with a final saw from the knife the surplus figure curled off. It lay there like excess undercarpeting that had not been cleared away. (68)

  • 5 Freud, op.cit., (607).

15What is constructed here as a dream follows certain patterns clearly identified in Freud's The Interprtation of Dreams. We know that Ambrose is Patrick's sexual rival since Clara is on the point of leaving Patrick to go back to him. The dream-statement "they were old friends" therefore functions in the mode of what Freud describes as a hypocritical dream, where the dream-work can turn feelings, for example of aggression, into their opposite.5 Having concealed the aggressive affect in the dream, Patrick, at Ambrose's request, assists him in cutting off a "grey figure" from his body. The expression of a desire to castrate Ambrose is quite clear here, and indeed the grey figure becomes a peacock, a signifier which in each of its syllables refers to the dual function of the male sexual organ.

16Yet the dream seems to include both the castration desire and its turning back on Patrick. When Patrick cuts the "surplus figure" off Ambrose, he goes "down to the ankles". At this point he is situated at Ambrose's feet, taking up a position which could be seen as one of deference. Moreover, in the love triangle which the dream engages with, Patrick is the unnecessary element, or "surplus figure". In this sense, the "grey peacock" which he removes from Ambrose, may be a displaced symbol of himself. In effect, a "grey peacock" is a contradiction in terms, one which suggests that what was taken for a male is in fact the female element, the peahen. The dream, therefore, may be a textual manifestation of Patrick's sense of inferiority in terms of male sexuality.

  • 6 Ibid., (523).

17Freud affirms that dreams of sexual rivalry belong to "the constellation of the Oedipus dream."6 We may therefore relate this passage to the oedipal patterns, and it becomes interesting to note that where Patrick attempts an act of aggression against his rival, it turns against himself, reinforcing the belief that transgression will ultimately be punished. The dream ends with the lines:

They walked back to Small's door, shook hands, and parted. As he was falling through the final buildings of his dream he heard the news of Small's murder-he had been vertically sliced in two.(68).

18Dreams of falling are well-documented anxiety dreams, and in Patrick's dream, it seems that the anxiety is related to death. Again, the manifest content of the text suggests that it is Ambrose who is killed, but having established that Patrick is the "surplus figure", the 'peahen' discovered at Ambrose's feet, the effects of displacement and condensation at work allow us to infer that it is also Patrick's own destruction which preoccupies him. When Patrick leaves Ambrose, they are joined by the act of shaking hands, and immediately after, they "parted." This parting becomes the model for the vertical split which follows, enacting Small's murder, but, within the logic of our analysis, it is also the death of Patrick.

19Self-destructive violence is equally present in Patrick's most exuberant attempt at seduction. To begin with, he blindfolds himself, stripping himself of his visual powers, (blinding being the oedipal symbol of castration) and offering himself up as a specular object. Sightless, he leaps about the room in an effort to impress Clara with his ability to move around in the dark. For this to be effective, Clara must accept the position of 'the one who watches', she must offer Patrick the phallus in the form of her own desire. Yet, since Clara's interest has already been redirected towards a different object of desire, Ambrose Small, the text constructs her refusal of this position. The gap between the two subjects in relation to the dialectics of desire leads to catastrophe.

[Patrick] positions Clara on the bed and tells her not to move...
She refuses all this and moves off the bed, positioning herself on the northeast corner of the rug. She puts her palms against her ears to stop hearing his endearments and stands there with her elbows sticking out. He is moving, almost frantic now, yelling his love. (80)

20In the working of this passage we witness the male character Patrick attempting both to position and to control the female character Clara. Clara refuses the passive position offered to her, leaves the bed, or the site of sexuality, and with the text's reference to "the northeast", a point on the compass, we are given the impression that Clara is trying to get her emotional bearings in the face of the violence, both verbal and ritual, which is surrounding her.

21The scene continues:

She... closes her eyes...Suddenly she is hit hard and her left hand jars against her skull, knocking her over. She gets to her knees, dazed and looks around. Patrick is grabbing a part of the sheet towards his face. He is snuffling, blood begins to come out of his nose onto the sheet... He looks up at her and, as if he can't see her, turns back to the sheet as he continues to bleed. -You moved. I told you not to. You moved. (80-81)

22It is interesting to note here that, although the two characters collide, it is Patrick, the man who has not been able to control the woman in the way he wanted to, who bleeds. He seems to bleed profusely, as he needs a sheet to mop it up, and from an orifice in his face, the nose, which is very often considered as the displaced site of phallic representation, but which, here, taking on a menstrual aspect, also becomes the location of female sexuality. Such an image is not isolated in Ondaatje’s writing; in Coming Through Slaughter there is also a scene of sexual confrontation between two characters; Buddy Bolden, the cornet player, and a woman dancing in the Street. Music becomes a sexual battleground and when Buddy is defeated by the woman's endurance, he feels

  • 7 Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter, Toronto, General Publishing Co. Limited, 1976, (130).

the blood that is is coming through my teeth, it is into the cornet, god can't stop god can't stop it the air the red force coming up can't remove it from my mouth...can't see I CAN'T SEE. 7

23The elements of blood in a facial orifice, its uncontrollable flow, the proximity of female and male genital imagery, (here, the mouth and the cornet), as well as the loss of vision in a context of violent loss of self-control make this passage very close in psychic terms to the collision between Patrick and Clara. In both cases, a male character, the principal figure in the respective works, is figuratively emasculated by his desire for a female character. The refusal of the woman in each case to acknowledge the male's desire through passivity leads to a violent, metaphorically rendered crisis of sexual identity for the male character. If we return to the final line of the passage concerning Patrick and Clara where we read "-You moved. I told you not to. You moved.", it seems that the signifiers are giving form to Patrick's enforced passivity and his contained resentment at not being able to pin down the 'other'. His "I told you not to." is rendered ineffective sandwiched between the twice-uttered "You moved."

24It is clear at this point in our argument that Patrick is constructed outside the male norms of patriarchy. Indeed, his self-effacement extends itself to his questioning his very right to be in relationships with women, as there is always a previous man, a father-figure in short, whose territory he feels to be infringing on. In his relationship with Alice, it is her dead lover Cato who he feels inferior to for he asks himself: "And who is he to touch the lover of this man...?" (156). With Clara, the man to be measured against is Ambrose Small. He is the enemy, and Clara is his possession. "[Patrick] wondered if at first she had been something he wanted to steal, not because she was Clara but because she belonged to the enemy." (72) Here, Ambrose is the 'bad' father who Patrick must confront in an attempt to win Clara. His attempt to do so is not successful: Ambrose proves the more cunning of the two in carrying out a preemptive strike.

[Patrick] smells and feels kerosene pour across his shoulders, hears the rasp of the match that will kill him in the hand of Small who crouches on the roof. Patrick sees it fall like a knighthood towards his shoulders. (94)

25This image of the possible destruction of the self clearly expressed here through the signifiers "that will kill him", at the hands of Ambrose, whose hierarchical position above Patrick is indicated by his situation on the roof, is a form of repetition of the destructive power of the father evoked earlier. However, this potential for violence also carries a form of compensation within it. The fire falls "like a knighthood" towards Patrick. The metaphor of knighting conveys the threat of castration in the downward movement of the sword and thereby reaffirms the position and authority of the king, while offering a form of compensation for the deference manifested towards that authority.

26This is of course, the same pattern elucidated by Freud in his theory of the Oedipus Complex; the child is offered a form of compensation for the renouncement of his/her desire. For the male child, it is the deferred satisfaction of later taking up the dominant place in patriarchy. What taking on the attributes of the father or becoming 'masculine' might mean in late twentieth century patriarchal society, would require some debate. Nonetheless, characteristics such as being able to make decisions, carry them out or enforce them, and accept the consequences would seem to be a part of this framework. Yet, Patrick is constructed as a character who refuses to make decisions, who cannot decide, who "does not wish for plot and its consequences." (160)

27The context of the narrative, therefore, constructs a character whose position in relation to his own sexuality is one in which desire is either thwarted, or returns as a violent attack on the self. His inability to occupy the paternal position leaves open a space in the character which allows for the exploration of a certain sensitivity, a self-questioning which avoids the certainty of the centred male subject in patriarchy. It is in this context that the resolution of the novel seems both ideologically interesting and fundamentally dissatisfying.

Patrick's Last Stand

28As we said earlier, the construction of sexual identity is always in process, and its terms are always available for renegotiation. With Patrick, the narrative seems to be working most of the time to avoid his resolution of the Oedipus Complex. The threat of symbolic castration is overwhelming for him, as the numerous instances of mutilation have shown, to the extent that it seems indistinguishable from desire itself. It is the promise of deferred satisfaction that never seems to adequately take form, in his dealing with father figures. His storming of the Water Filtration plant appears to be a last ditch attempt to resolve this problem.

29In some sense, the entire sexual history of Patrick Lewis is repeated in this last section, which, interestingly enough, is recounted almost in the form of a dream, since Patrick goes to sleep just before it, and is wakened by Hana just after. He swims through a tunnel in a mock-birthing movement, but this action also metaphorically represents the act of sexual penetration. Indeed, if we apply Freud's dream symbolism to the passage in question, and even allowing for problems of 'over-interpretation', it is a striking example of a disguised oedipal dream. Patrick prepares his dynamite sticks and

walks up the staircase trailing the live wires behind him, around the mezzanine gallery and into Harris' room...He walks towards Harris, the blasting box carried like a chicken under his right arm. (234)

  • 8 Freud, op.cit. (472).
  • 9 Ibid.

30Freud is quite clear "that staircases [are] unquestionably symbols of copulation."8 Similarly, we know of course that long objects and weapons in general, that they stand for the male genital organ, while boxes stand for the female genitals. He further adds, "Rooms in dreams are usually women,"9 the woman, in this case being associated with Harris. In the context of Patrick being on his way to confront the visionary father, the oedipal forces are clearly shaping the writing here.

31Harris' role as the emblematic patriarch is clearly indicated in the following description: "Then a column of sunlight would fall directly onto [Harris'] large desk, the pad of grid paper, the fountain pen. His gun was by the bed." (237) Phallic presence, authority and the geometry of order are present in nearly all the signifiers of this sentence. The essential difference between Harris and Patrick in their respective power positions is that, in blowing up Harris, Patrick would also destroy himself, whereas in shooting Patrick, Harris would remain intact. Again, Patrick's attempt to "kill the father" cannot be conceived of outside the concept of self-destruction.

32What occurs differently here though, is that Harris, in the form of a pseudo-psychiatrist, initiates Patrick into language. When Patrick says, "I don't want to talk of this anymore" Harris replies, "Then it will always be a nightmare...Patrick, talk to me." (239) Through talking, Patrick pronounces his full name for the first time, symbolically taking on the Name-of-the Father, gives up his blasting box, and falls asleep. Patrick has confronted the father, and has managed, this time, to avoid self-mutilation. His falling asleep may be see as the renunciation, the dissolution of his oedipal desire. He is now ready to assume his place in patriarchy.

Conclusion: Clara's problem

33If the analysis of the last section may seem to be pulling the text in uncomfortable or dissatisfying ways, it may be because the resolution of Patrick's sexuality is dissatisfying. By providing a stereotypically authoritarian, yet protecting father figure, the text deviates from the indeterminacy of character which it had developed up to this point out. From an uns table world of shifting possibilities of joy, of violence, of pain, of loneliness, of warmth and of loss, it closes down to become the stable world of clearly defined roles and territorially-defined relationships offered by Harris.

34Patrick steps into this role as the new, albeit uncertain patriarch. Ambrose conveniently dies, so that Patrick may now claim Clara as his wife; he also declares that he is Hana's father (218), and the ending of the novel sees him positioned as the head of a newly formed family, gathering around him all of the remaining women in the narrative. The consequences of this are of course to the detriment of the female characters, notably Clara. From the independent woman with a car (63) capable of making her way by train when she left Patrick, she becomes the woman who can but sit and wait. After having called once and her message not being transmitted, she is on the phone, and tells Patrick, "I'm in Marmora. Will you come and get me? Ambrose is dead." (217) She has already been waiting four hours at this point, and Patrick says she must wait longer yet, as he needs to sleep. Within the narrative, Clara has been demoted from a woman of will to a passive representative of the female position in patriarchy.

35The final image of the novel is an attempt to accommodate both an open-ended feminine ending, and the finality of a masculine ending. In the closing word, "Lights", the metonymic associations move forward to the expression 'Lights, camera, action', suggesting the beginning of artistic endeavour. Yet, the image of Patrick and Hana setting off on a journey brings us back to the start of the novel where the young girl and the man are travelling in the darkness. What appears to be an open ending is also a closed circuit, initiating the trap of repetition. If the literary work is a construct which succeeds only to the extent and quality of its failure, In The Skin of a Lion is a novel which fails with beauty and intensity. Indeed, this failure resides within the text’s need to resolve its own contradictions by turning back and in on itself and has the ideological effect of reinforcing the notions of order, repression and tidiness, the conditions under which patriarchy, or civilization as we know it, dominates and endures.


Works Cited

Bowie, Malcolm, Lacan, London, Fontana Press, 1991.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey, Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1976.

Grosz, Elizabeth, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, London, Routledge, 1990.

Mitchell, Juliet, and Jacqueline Rose, Feminine Sexuality, London, MacMillan Press, 1982.

Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion, Toronto, Penguin, 1987.

— — —,Coming Through Slaughter, Toronto, General Publishing Co. Limited, 1976.


1 Juliet, Mitchell, and Jacqueline Rose, Feminine Sexuality, London, MacMillan Press, 1982, (16).

2 Elizabeth, Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, London, Routledge, 1990, (68).

3 "But the circle of ideas centring round...the kitchen may just as readily be chosen to conceal sexual images... The ugliest as well as the most intimate details of sexual life may be thought and dreamt of in seemingly innocent allusions to activities in the kitchen" Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey, Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1976, (462-463).

4 Malcolm, Bowie, Lacan, London, Fontana Press, 1991, (32-33).

5 Freud, op.cit., (607).

6 Ibid., (523).

7 Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter, Toronto, General Publishing Co. Limited, 1976, (130).

8 Freud, op.cit. (472).

9 Ibid.


Agrégée d'Anglais, Doctorante, est ATER à l'Université de Franche-Comté à Besançon.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1999

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