I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.
These words are spoken by Pi early in Part One, at the end of chapter 4, after a long discussion of zoo enclosures. Mr. Patel, Pi has recently told us, runs the Pondicherry Zoo, a place that Pi considered paradise as a boy. Pi has heard many people say negative things about zoos—namely that they deprive noble, wild creatures of their freedom and trap them in boring, domesticated lives—but he disagrees. Wild animals in their natural habitat encounter fear, fighting, lack of food, and parasites on a regular basis. Given all these biological facts, animals in the wild are not free at all—rather, they are subject to a stringent set of social and natural laws that they must follow or die. Since animals are creatures of habit, zoo enclosures, with abundant food and water, clean cages, and a constant routine, are heaven for them. Given the chance, Pi says, most zoo animals do not ever try to escape, unless something in their cage frightens them.
We have already learned that Pi studied zoology and religion at the University of Toronto, and the above quote demonstrates just how closely aligned the two subjects are in his mind. He is quick to turn a discussion of animal freedom into a metaphor for people’s religious inclinations. Just as people misunderstand the nature of animals in the wild, they also misunderstand what it means for a person to be “free” of any religious system of belief. The agnostic (someone who is uncertain about the existence of god and does not subscribe to any faith) may think he is at liberty to believe or disbelieve anything he wants, but in reality he does not allow himself to take imaginative leaps. Instead, he endures life’s ups and downs the way an animal in the wild does: because he has to. A person of faith, on the other hand, is like an animal in an enclosure, surrounded on all sides by a version of reality that is far kinder than reality itself. Pi embraces religious doctrine for the same reason he embraces the safety and security of a zoo enclosure: it makes life easier and more pleasurable.
I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.
Spoken by Pi, this quotation—chapter 22 in its entirety—emphasizes the important distinction between facts and imagination, the crux of the entire novel. Previously, in chapter 21, the author used the phrases “dry, yeastless factuality” and “the better story” after a meeting with Pi in a café; the repetition highlights this dichotomy. Religion is aligned with imagination, while lack of faith is linked to accurate observation and rationalism. In short, Pi is giving us a simple, straightforward explanation for the variants of his own story: the one with animals and the one without.
The quote condemns those who lack artistry and imagination, the inability to commit to a story. Pi himself is a consummate artist, a storyteller, and he believes all religions tell wonderful tales, though not literal truths. Pi believes that atheists (who do not believe in God) have the capacity to believe; they choose to believe that God doesn’t exist. At the end of their lives, they could embrace the notion of God and devise a story that will help them die in peace and contentment. Pi despises agnostics for their decision to make uncertainty a way of life. They choose to live a life of doubt, without any sort of narrative to guide them. Without these stories, our existence is “dry” and unpalatable as unrisen or “yeastless” bread.
[W]ithout Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story.
This line is spoken by Pi approximately halfway through the book, in chapter 57. The “you” in this sentence is the author, to whom Pi relates his story over the course of many meetings in Canada many years after the ordeal. Of course, the “you” is also the reader, for Pi is aware that he is telling his story to a writer who has the intent to publish. By this point, we know that Richard Parker is a Royal Bengal tiger, an adult male, who weighs 450 pounds and takes up about one-third of the lifeboat. At first, it might sound ludicrous that such a menacing creature should get credit for keeping alive a slender, adolescent Indian boy, but Pi explains himself compellingly. The presence of Richard Parker, though initially terrifying, eventually soothes him and saves him from utter existential loneliness. Moreover, the necessity of training and taking care of Richard Parker fills up Pi’s long, empty days—staying busy helps time pass.
The quotation can also be considered in the context of Pi’s second story, the one without animals, in which Pi himself is the tiger. Pi has chosen a tiger to represent himself because of its conflicting qualities: nobility and violence, grace and brute force, intelligence and instinct. In a way, these qualities are very human. But on a day-to-day basis—for example, as we go to school, drive to the supermarket, and watch TV at night—the elements of violence, brutality, and instinct are blunted. Instead of catching and killing fish, we purchase plastic-wrapped filets; rather than hunt animals for meat, we buy steaks at the deli counter. Stripped of these conveniences, Pi must return to nature and reassert his animal instincts. He must overcome his squeamishness in order to eat. He must embrace aggression in order to kill the cook who might otherwise have killed him. In crediting Richard Parker’s existence for his own survival, Pi acknowledges that it is animal instinct, not polite convention or modern convenience, that protects him from death.
Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn’t be more simple, nor the stakes higher.
This comment appears about halfway through Part Two, as Pi adjusts to life at sea and philosophizes on the nature of being a castaway. In an endgame in chess, most of the game has been played out and the majority of the chess pieces knocked off the board.
Similarly, after the sinking of the Tsimtsum, only a handful of survivors (Pi, Richard Parker, Orange Juice, the Grant’s zebra, the hyena) remain. The few that are left are forced into a strategic battle of wits to see who will ultimately prevail. The tensions between the lifeboat’s inhabitants immediately after the ship sinks are high; each inhabitant knows that the game is “sudden death” and that each move must be considered with special care. The zebra, the orangutan, and the hyena all make missteps and lose. But Pi painstakingly charts out his plan of action, and his diligence and foresight save his life.
Life on a lifeboat is simple, but, stripped of all else, the stakes become considerable: life or death. Pi’s life in the middle of the Pacific has no luxuries, no complex processes to participate in, and no obscure signals to follow. Faced with numerous physical dangers—Richard Parker, sharks, starvation, the blind castaway—his only real choice is whether to fight to live or to give up and die. Though he considers doing otherwise, Pi chooses to fight.
The distilled quality of Pi’s existence is similar to the kind of bare-bones life lived by many religious mystics, for whom stripping down to the essentials is necessary for communion with God. A full, varied life with many distractions can cloud faith or even make it unnecessary. However, within a spare and even monastic existence, God’s presence becomes palpable. To put it another way, within the confines of a lifeboat, spirituality looms as large as a nearly 10-foot, 450-pound Bengal tiger.
The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar.
Pi narrates these words in chapter 93, toward the end of his ordeal at sea and as he is reaching the depths of his despair. As Pi mentions just before this, his situation seems “as pointless as the weather.” Up to now, Pi’s tedious life at sea has been alleviated somewhat with sporadic new activities: killing fish, taming Richard Parker, creating drinkable water using the solar stills, and so on. More notably, the blind French castaway and the days spent on the floating island gave Pi a change in routine. But now the novelty has worn off. This section, in which nothing is expected to happen, drives Pi into utter hopelessness, yet he must continue living.
At this point Pi turns to God and, Martel implies, invents the story that we have just read. His mind is desperate to escape the physical reality of continued existence on the lifeboat, and so it soars into the realm of fiction. At his lowest point, Pi reaches for the only remaining sources of salvation available to him: faith and imagination. Through the plot’s remaining action, Martel emphasizes that such a strategy for self-preservation can actually be astonishingly effective. Immediately after this moment in the text, Pi lands on a beach in Mexico. Like a deus ex machinasuddenly offering resolution in an ancient Greek play, the religion of storytelling is Pi’s escape hatch, rescuing him from the depths of his misery.
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