How does the idea of survival play out in this text?
Of central importance to this novel is the theme of survival, even in seemingly impossible and adverse conditions. For Pi, the challenge of surviving operates on several levels. First, there is the necessity of physical survival: he must keep his body alive. This requires food and water, both in short supply, as well as protection from the elements. Pi knows he must defend himself from the immediate threat, Richard Parker, but he is also aware that there is a whole host of dangers waiting to do him in. Ocean storms, huge waves, sharks, sunstroke, dehydration, drowning—any and all of these things pose a risk to his life. Pi’s inventiveness and resourcefulness (he covers himself with wet clothes to protect his skin from the sun and builds a raft from oars and lifejackets to keep him at a safe distance from both the tiger and sharks) enable him to remain physically safe.
Second, and more difficult, is the necessity of emotional or spiritual survival—the fact that Pi must keep his spirits up or else succumb to despair. Pi says at several points that Richard Parker helped him endure; the presence of a companion (even an imagined one, in the non-animal version of the story) gives Pi mental strength, and the requirements of caring for a tiger keep him occupied, preventing him from thinking too much about his fate.
Biological survival—living a long life, raising a family, and passing ones genes down through the generations—represents the third level. Pi is the sole member of his family to survive the sinking of the Tsimtsum, and he is able to do so largely because he has inherited (from Mamaji) strong swimming skills and an affinity for water. Now Pi must propagate the Patel line. When we learn that Pi is a father, the author tells us, “This story has a happy ending.” Ultimately, Pi achieves survival in every sense.
What does Pi try to communicate through his choice of the animals, other than the tiger, with whom he shares the lifeboat?
The animals in the lifeboat embody qualities that represent their human counterparts. Orange Juice, the orangutan, is a motherly figure that represents Pi’s own mother. Pi remembers how the gentle orangutan used to hold him when he was a boy, picking at his hair to hone her maternal skills. When she defends herself against the hyena, Pi realizes that she has reservoirs of courage and fierceness. This surprisingly revelation about her character parallels Pi’s shock in seeing his mother stand up courageously to the cook.
The hyena, with its ugly appearance and disgusting personal habits, represents the cook, whose greed, savagery, and cannibalism mark him as a truly evil figure in the text. Finally, the Grant’s zebra is an exotic creature, lovely to look at but foreign to Indian culture. The two Mr. Kumars who join Pi at the zoo have never seen a zebra before and marvel at it. A zebra, therefore, serves as an ideal stand-in for the young Chinese sailor who, although he does not speak Pi’s language, exudes decency and natural beauty. It is particularly appalling for the cook/hyena to desecrate such an innocent, stunning creature.
Discuss the importance of believability in this novel.
Pi is a believer in the fullest sense of the word: he uses his rational intellect to take him as far as he can go and then he takes imaginative leaps. As Pi himself tells the two Japanese officials who interview him in Mexico, many things are difficult to believe, but we convince ourselves to do so nonetheless: “Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer.” We give ourselves to these fictions, these variants on reality, because they give us a reason to keep going. Where is the joy in a life deprived of romance and passion? Where is the self-awareness in a life that is merely a biological accident? Where is the comfort in an existence that has no rhyme or reason? A life that is entirely rational or fact based is almost not worth living. To Pi, and to anyone who believes in things that he cannot necessarily see nor prove, faith is a bridge between the coldness of fact and the warmth of emotion. The ability to believe is a hallmark of consciousness and awareness, one reason religions are so fiercely protected and so widely practiced. To believe in something makes us feel more alive, more connected to the world around us, giving structure to our understanding of the universe and our place in it in a way that pure science, based solely on observation, never can.
Beyond serving as a foundational theme for the text, believability is integral to the very structure of the novel. Even as Pi asks us to believe his animal story, Martel asks us to believe the story he tells, of meeting Francis Adirubasamy and looking up Pi Patel in his Toronto phone book. We, the reader, know that these things did not really happen to Martel, yet we suspend our disbelief so as to become more wholly absorbed in the text. Martel’s fictional story far rivals the truth, which is likely that he had an idea, did his research, and then worked very hard for months and months to write his novel. That the novel begins with a supposedly nonfictional Author’s Note and ends with the transcript of an interview and the text of an official report establishes the larger message that all storytellers—both Pi and Martel included—require the audience’s trust, or belief.