Michael Ondaatje Analysis

Discussion Topics

In what ways does Anil demonstrate post colonial “double-consciousness”?

How do each of the main characters in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient—Hana, Kip, Caravaggio, and Almasy—manifest alienation?

Do you judge Kip’s assertion of his Indian identity at the end of The English Patient as an advance toward or a retreat from his personal search for identity and why?

Why is Patrick emotionally isolated? How do the events of In the Skin of a Lion motivate him to overcome isolation and connect with community and family?

Why, at the end of In the Skin of a Lion, does Patrick go to Clara’s rescue after not having had any contact with her for many years?

What political themes found in his novels define Ondaatje as a postcolonial writer?

Ondaatje’s prose has been recognized as being particularly lyrical and emotive. Select several passages and discuss devices he uses to achieve his poetic effects. Is his figurative language successful in his novels, or should it be confined to poetry?

Other literary forms

In addition to novels, Michael Ondaatje (on-DAHT-chee) has published several volumes of poetry, including The Dainty Monsters (1967), There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978 (1979), and Handwriting (1998). He has also published works of nonfiction and has edited collections of short fiction by various Canadian authors.


Michael Ondaatje received Canada’s Governor-General’s Award in 1971 for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, in 1980 for There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, in 1992 for The English Patient, and in 2000 for Anil’s Ghost. In 1973, Billy the Kid was a finalist for the Chalmer’s Award. Coming Through Slaughter received the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1976, and In the Skin of a Lion received the 1988 City of Toronto Book Award and the Trillium Book Award. Ondaatje received the Order of Canada in 1988 and in 1992 became the first Canadian to win the Booker Prize, for The English Patient. For Anil’s Ghost, in addition to the Governor-General’s Award, he received the Giller Prize, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, and the Prix Médicis from France.

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Michael Ondaatje (on-DAHT-chee) has published several novels, a memoir about his childhood in Sri Lanka, and literary criticism. He has also transformed two of his works into plays: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was produced in Stratford, Ontario, in 1973, in New York City in 1974, and in London in 1984; and In the Skin of a Lion was produced as a play in 1987. He is the editor of several anthologies of fiction and poetry as well.

Ondaatje has also exercised his writing talents in cinema, which has always fascinated him. After making Sons of Captain Poetry (1969), a short film about poet B. P. Nichol (Barrie Phillip Nichol), and The Clinton Special (1972), a longer documentary that explores the relationship between living and performing, he was invited by director Norman Jewison to join the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies; there he wrote the script for Love Clinic, a short film.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Michael Ondaatje has been the recipient of numerous literary honors, among them the Ralph Gustafson Award (1965), the Epstein Award (1966), the E. J. Pratt Medal (1966), President’s Medal of the University of Western Ontario (1967), the Governor-General’s Literary Award (awarded by the Canadian Council for the Arts; 1971, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2007), the Books in Canada First Novel Award (1976), the Canada-Australia Prize (1980), the Toronto Book Award (1988), the Trillium Award (1992), and the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize (1992), awarded by the British Book Trust for his novel The English Patient (1992)—the first Canadian to receive this coveted prize for the best literary work in the British Commonwealth. In 2000, he won the Giller Prize, the Kinyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, and the Prix Médicis.

Though his fiction has received the most critical attention, his poetry has won its share of accolades. He received the Chalmers Award for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and the du Maurier Award for poetry.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What use does Michael Ondaatje make of historical events in his fiction? What is the effect of his occasional “rewriting” of history?

What does Ondaatje’s use of shifting points of view suggest about his understanding of “truth” in his stories? What other elements of his writing suggest this attitude?

What does Ondaatje gain by abandoning traditional chronological order for the events of his fiction?

What passages in Anil’s Ghost reveal Ondaatje’s interest in poetry?

Many of Ondaatje’s characters are involved in violence. Does the author condone this? Why does he include it?


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993. An early book-length study of Ondaatje’s work, it provides a careful reading and useful analysis of both the early and later poetry and the prose works through The English Patient. Devoting a chapter to each of the major works, Barbour makes a strong case for Ondaatje as an important postmodern, postcolonial writer based on his keen perception, imaginative intensity, and eloquence.

Clarke, George Elliott. “Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth.” Studies in Canadian Literature 16, no. 1 (1991): 1-21. Clarke offers an interpretation of the idea of myth...

(The entire section is 380 words.)