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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

Part One: Chapters 21–36

Part One: Chapters 7–20

Part Two (The Pacific Ocean): Chapters 37–42

Summary

The author sits in a café after a meeting with Pi and thinks about what he has just heard. He considers his own mundane life and writes down some thoughts about Pi’s religious philosophies. We switch back to Pi’s narration. Pi describes the final deathbed moments of an atheist, who he imagines would take a “leap of faith” at the last minute. Then he describes the tiresome rationalizing of an agnostic, who on his deathbed would try to present a reasonable explanation for the white light rather than letting his imagination supply him with a “better story.”

One day, Pi tells us, he and his parents were out enjoying the weather at a seaside esplanade when the priest, imam, and pandit with whom Pi had been practicing his various religions approached them. Each was shocked to discover that Pi was not just a Hindu, Christian, or Muslim, but rather all three simultaneously. Pi’s parents were also surprised to learn Pi’s secret. The religious figures protested that such a thing was not possible and demanded that Pi choose a single religion. Pi responded that he just wanted to love God. Pi says his brother, Ravi, teased him mercilessly for some time afterward. Pi speculates that people who act out in violence or anger in the name of god misunderstand the true nature of religion.

Pi describes asking his father and mother for a prayer mat, a request that flustered both of them. His mother attempted to distract him with books: Robinson Crusoe and a volume by Robert Louis Stevenson. Finally, however, they gave in, and Pi came to treasure his rug. He used to pray in his yard, with his parents and brother watching him like an exotic creature. Not long after he got his rug, he continues, he was baptized in the presence of his parents.

Pi explains that the 1970s were a difficult time in India, though he admits that political troubles did not really affect him. His father, though, became incensed over the government’s actions and decided to move his family to Canada—a place completely foreign to Pi and Ravi.

We return to the author’s first person. The author describes meeting Meena Patel, Pi’s wife, whose existence first comes as a shock to him. Once he knew about her, the author began to see signs of her all over Pi’s house; until that point he had not noticed any because he had not been looking for them. He wonders if Meena is the one who has been cooking spicy food for him, but confirms that the cook is indeed Pi himself.

Pi narrates the one-time meeting of the two Mr. Kumars, the atheist biology teacher and the Muslim baker. One day they joined Pi for an outing at the Pondicherry Zoo, during which Pi introduced them to a Grant’s zebra. Neither had ever seen an exotic zebra before, but both were in awe of the splendid creature. Pi segues into a discussion of zoomorphism: when an animal sees another animal, or even another human, as being of its own kind. Pi says these animals know the truth—the lion cubs know the dog is not their mother, and the lions know the human is a human, not a lion—but they embrace the fiction because they are also in need of stories to get through life.

In preparation for the move to Canada, Pi says, Mr. Patel sold off many zoo creatures and made arrangements to bring some of them across the Pacific in a cargo ship with the family. Pi describes setting sail on June 21, 1977, and being very excited. He mentions his mother’s apprehension about leaving the place she has lived all her life to travel into the unknown.

The author, again in first person, meets Pi’s two children: Nikhil and Usha. Usha, age four, is holding an orange cat in her arms. The author says Pi’s story has a happy ending.

Analysis

This section begins with two of the most important phrases in the entire text: “dry, yeastless factuality” and “the better story.” Both come to the author directly from Pi, and their significance is underscored by the fact that they are repeated within two pages. The two phrases are opposite poles on the spectrum of storytelling. At one end is boring reality, which is as flat as unrisen bread. At the other end is a version of reality that has been enlivened by imagination, improving the story—it becomes a full, hearty, risen loaf of bread, so to speak. When the options are presented in these terms, it is easy to see which is the more tempting. The risen bread is far more appetizing, while the flattened, yeastless option looks about as appealing to eat as cardboard.

The compulsion to invent a better story, to improve one’s reality and make it more livable, is such a deep-seated and natural instinct, Pi says, that even animals do it, whether unconsciously or not. For example, a lion doesn’t think a human is really a lion. But given the right conditions and the appropriate circumstance, a lion may become willing to accept the human as one of its own. Faced either with life as an orphan or life with a foster mother, what lion cub wouldn’t accept a dog as a maternal figure? The fiction improves his life immeasurably.

Pi strongly recognizes the saving grace of a myth or story to enrich “yeastless” factuality, and he knows that believing in a story requires a leap of faith. This is precisely why he is so perturbed by the idea of agnosticism, which in this section comes up for the second time in the novel. Agnostics, as Pi explains it, are rational to a fault. They do not trust anything that they cannot see, taste, or experience. They are wedded to factuality—indeed, they prefer it—and that is the main reason why Pi feels such a strong distaste for them. They are completely unwilling to take an imaginative leap, in either direction.

Pi’s inclination toward spicy, robust cooking is a strong metaphor for his storytelling abilities. The dichotomy between yeastless, dry bread and fluffy, enriched bread is amplified by the fact that, as the author tells us, Pi is a good cook, one who uses abundant spices—so much so that the author sweats and even has digestive trouble when he eats Pi’s food. Pi also seems to take great pleasure in adding condiments (relishes, chutneys, and so on) to the table. Pi’s story, which we are about to get to in Part Two, is one in which he has added yeast, spices, herbs, and anything else he can to make it palatable; apparently the facts alone would be hard to swallow.

That additive quality—of heaping layers on layers, spices on spices—also helps explain why Pi practices multiple religions simultaneously. As we see during the confrontation with the priest, pandit, and imam, normal born-and-raised Hindus do not adopt two additional faiths. However, something in Pi drives him to need more stories, more versions of reality, more options. Each faith brings with it its own unique myths and fables, its own assortment of rituals and customs, and its own take on God. Pi explains that the essence of every religion is love, and by practicing multiple religions at once he is able to surround himself in layers of affection, acceptance, understanding, and affirmation.

The similarities between Pi and Robinson Crusoe, which the Pi’s mother gives him in this section, are also striking. Like Pi, Crusoe is shipwrecked. Both characters keep journals of their daily activities, develop survival skills, and train animals. As time goes on, both fall ill and hallucinate and encounter cannibals on an island. However, though the activities of both men are quite similar, the differences in their characters are great. Whereas Crusoe seems incapable of deep feelings, Pi embraces them, ricocheting from the deepest levels of sorrow at the loss of his family and his difficult situation to great heights of joy at the thoughts of rescue, food, and God. Though Pi tries to train his classmates to pronounce his name correctly, his dominance extends primarily over Richard Parker. Crusoe takes this mastery one step further and enters into a master-slave relationship with Friday, a victim of the cannibals whom he rescues. Pi is ultimately the more appealing protagonist, a product of modern times, connected to and caring about the world and others in a way that Crusoe never does.

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Symbolism of The Algae Island

by davidtoc, December 30, 2012

Quick summary:

Pi's lifeboat = faith
Island = Religion
Sea and Sun = harsh realities of real life, scrutinizing your faith
Trees = clergy/priests/rabbis/imams, etc.
Meerkats = followers of religion

The overall message of the chapter is that although religion (organized faith) can aid us and stabilize us and nourish us spiritually in the short term, it is not a viable long-term answer to our spiritual questions, and will ultimately kill us mentally and spiritually.

Pi discovers the island when "

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The algae island

by abuyi, March 15, 2013

They are two versions of the story. The one with animals which reprsents the humans and the one with out animals, in both versions pi narates his experience symbolising his journey and the events that took place with in. In the version of animal; Pi reprsent himself as the bengal tiger as the animal and his humanity as himself trying to tame the animal. In human version, there are only 4 survivors on the boat but with the animals there were 5. The whole journey in each version are parallel to each other .

The island symbolizes Pi' mot... Read more

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Overview: The Question

by MitziDadford, May 29, 2013

Pi, who is named for an irrational idea that is used to pose and solve scientific whims, presents two parallel stories--he describes as one's perception of the world--to explain his survival on the Pacific for a remarkable 227 days. This is itself a momentous reflection of one's theological beliefs. This novel promises to make one believe in God, and it does. The animal story, with its far-fetched aspects, is much more difficult for the investigators to believe than the human story, as Pi says clearly annoyed, they want a story they already ... Read more

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