Skip over navigation

Life of Pi

Yann Martel

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Author’s Note

Themes

The Will to Live

Life of Pi is a story about struggling to survive through seemingly insurmountable odds. The shipwrecked inhabitants of the little lifeboat don’t simply acquiesce to their fate: they actively fight against it. Pi abandons his lifelong vegetarianism and eats fish to sustain himself. Orange Juice, the peaceful orangutan, fights ferociously against the hyena. Even the severely wounded zebra battles to stay alive; his slow, painful struggle vividly illustrates the sheer strength of his life force. As Martel makes clear in his novel, living creatures will often do extraordinary, unexpected, and sometimes heroic things to survive. However, they will also do shameful and barbaric things if pressed. The hyena’s treachery and the blind Frenchman’s turn toward cannibalism show just how far creatures will go when faced with the possibility of extinction. At the end of the novel, when Pi raises the possibility that the fierce tiger, Richard Parker, is actually an aspect of his own personality, and that Pi himself is responsible for some of the horrific events he has narrated, the reader is forced to decide just what kinds of actions are acceptable in a life-or-death situation.

The Importance of Storytelling

Life of Pi is a story within a story within a story. The novel is framed by a (fictional) note from the author, Yann Martel, who describes how he first came to hear the fantastic tale of Piscine Molitor Patel. Within the framework of Martel’s narration is Pi’s fantastical first-person account of life on the open sea, which forms the bulk of the book. At the end of the novel, a transcript taken from an interrogation of Pi reveals the possible “true” story within that story: that there were no animals at all, and that Pi had spent those 227 days with other human survivors who all eventually perished, leaving only himself.

Pi, however, is not a liar: to him, the various versions of his story each contain a different kind of truth. One version may be factually true, but the other has an emotional or thematic truth that the other cannot approach. Throughout the novel, Pi expresses disdain for rationalists who only put their faith in “dry, yeastless factuality,” when stories—which can amaze and inspire listeners, and are bound to linger longer in the imagination—are, to him, infinitely superior.

Storytelling is also a means of survival. The “true” events of Pi’s sea voyage are too horrible to contemplate directly: any young boy would go insane if faced with the kinds of acts Pi (indirectly) tells his integrators he has witnessed. By recasting his account as an incredible tale about humanlike animals, Pi doesn’t have to face the true cruelty human beings are actually capable of. Similarly, by creating the character of Richard Parker, Pi can disavow the ferocious, violent side of his personality that allowed him to survive on the ocean. Even this is not, technically, a lie in Pi’s eyes. He believes that the tiger-like aspect of his nature and the civilized, human aspect stand in tense opposition and occasional partnership with one another, just as the boy Pi and the tiger Richard Parker are both enemies and allies.

The Nature of Religious Belief

Life of Pi begins with an old man in Pondicherry who tells the narrator, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Storytelling and religious belief are two closely linked ideas in the novel. On a literal level, each of Pi’s three religions, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, come with its own set of tales and fables, which are used to spread the teachings and illustrate the beliefs of the faith. Pi enjoys the wealth of stories, but he also senses that, as Father Martin assured him was true of Christianity, each of these stories might simply be aspects of a greater, universal story about love.

Stories and religious beliefs are also linked in Life of Pi because Pi asserts that both require faith on the part of the listener or devotee. Surprisingly for such a religious boy, Pi admires atheists. To him, the important thing is to believe in something, and Pi can appreciate an atheist’s ability to believe in the absence of God with no concrete proof of that absence. Pi has nothing but disdain, however, for agnostics, who claim that it is impossible to know either way, and who therefore refrain from making a definitive statement on the question of God. Pi sees this as evidence of a shameful lack of imagination. To him, agnostics who cannot make a leap of faith in either direction are like listeners who cannot appreciate the non-literal truth a fictional story might provide.

Motifs

Territorial Dominance

Though Martel’s text deals with the seemingly boundless nature of the sea, it also studies the strictness of boundaries, borders, and demarcations. The careful way in which Pi marks off his territory and differentiates it from Richard Parker’s is necessary for Pi’s survival. Animals are territorial creatures, as Pi notes: a family dog, for example, will guard its bed from intruders as if it were a lair. Tigers, as we learn from Richard Parker, are similarly territorial. They mark their space and define its boundaries carefully, establishing absolute dominance over every square inch of their area. To master Richard Parker, Pi must establish his control over certain zones in the lifeboat. He pours his urine over the tarp to designate a portion of the lifeboat as his territory, and he uses his whistle to ensure that Richard Parker stays within his designated space. The small size of the lifeboat and the relatively large size of its inhabitants make for a crowded vessel. In such a confined space, the demarcation of territory ensures a relatively peaceful relationship between man and beast. If Richard Parker is seen as an aspect of Pi’s own personality, the notion that a distinct boundary can be erected between the two represents Pi’s need to disavow the violent, animalistic side of his nature.

Hunger and Thirst

Unsurprisingly in a novel about a shipwrecked castaway, the characters in Life of Pi are continually fixated on food and water. Ironically, the lifeboat is surrounded by food and water; however, the salty water is undrinkable and the food is difficult to catch. Pi constantly struggles to land a fish or pull a turtle up over the side of the craft, just as he must steadily and consistently collect fresh drinking water using the solar stills. The repeated struggles against hunger and thirst illustrate the sharp difference between Pi’s former life and his current one on the boat. In urban towns such as Pondicherry, people are fed like animals in a zoo—they never have to expend much effort to obtain their sustenance. But on the open ocean, it is up to Pi to fend for himself. His transition from modern civilization to the more primitive existence on the open sea is marked by his attitudes toward fish: initially Pi, a vegetarian, is reluctant to kill and eat an animal. Only once the fish is lifeless, looking as it might in a market, does Pi feel better. As time goes on, Pi’s increasing comfort with eating meat signals his embrace of his new life.

Ritual

Throughout the novel, characters achieve comfort through the practice of rituals. Animals are creatures of habit, as Pi establishes early on when he notes that zookeepers can tell if something is wrong with their animals just by noticing changes in their daily routines. People, too, become wedded to their routines, even to the point of predictability, and grow troubled during times of change. While religious traditions are a prime example of ritual in this novel, there are numerous others. For instance, Pi’s mother wants to buy cigarettes before traveling to Canada, for fear that she won’t be able to find her particular brand in Winnipeg. And Pi is able to survive his oceanic ordeal largely because he creates a series of daily rituals to sustain him. Without rituals, routines, and habits, the novel implies, people feel uneasy and unmoored. Rituals give structure to abstract ideas and emotions—in other words, ritual is an alternate form of storytelling.

Symbols

Pi

Piscine Molitor Patel’s preferred moniker is more than just a shortened version of his given name. Indeed, the word Pi carries a host of relevant associations. It is a letter in the Greek alphabet that also contains alpha and omega, terms used in the book to denote dominant and submissive creatures. Pi is also an irrational mathematical number, used to calculate distance in a circle. Often shortened to 3.14, pi has so many decimal places that the human mind can’t accurately comprehend it, just as, the book argues, some realities are too difficult or troubling to face. These associations establish the character Pi as more than just a realistic protagonist; he also is an allegorical figure with multiple layers of meaning.

The Color Orange

In Life of Pi, the color orange symbolizes hope and survival. Just before the scene in which the Tsimtsum sinks, the narrator describes visiting the adult Pi at his home in Canada and meeting his family. Pi’s daughter, Usha, carries an orange cat. This moment assures the reader that the end of the story, if not happy, will not be a complete tragedy, since Pi is guaranteed to survive the catastrophe and father children of his own. The little orange cat recalls the big orange cat, Richard Parker, who helps Pi survive during his 227 days at sea. As the Tsimtsum sinks, Chinese crewmen give Pi a lifejacket with an orange whistle; on the boat, he finds an orange lifebuoy. The whistle, buoy, and tiger all help Pi survive, just as Orange Juice the orangutan provides a measure of emotional support that helps the boy maintain hope in the face of horrific tragedy.

More Help

Previous Next
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 "

0 Comments

267 out of 296 people found this helpful

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

1 Comments

266 out of 387 people found this helpful

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

1 Comments

100 out of 113 people found this helpful

See all 5 readers' notes   →

Follow Us