Piscine Molitor Patel is the protagonist and, for most of the novel, the narrator. In the chapters that frame the main story, Pi, as a shy, graying, middle-aged man, tells the author about his early childhood and the shipwreck that changed his life. This narrative device distances the reader from the truth. We don’t know whether Pi’s story is accurate or what pieces to believe. This effect is intentional; throughout Pi emphasizes the importance of choosing the better story, believing that imagination trumps cold, hard facts. As a child, he reads widely and embraces many religions and their rich narratives that provide meaning and dimension to life. In his interviews with the Japanese investigators after his rescue, he offers first the more fanciful version of his time at sea. But, at their behest, he then provides an alternative version that is more realistic but ultimately less appealing to both himself and his questioners. The structure of the novel both illustrates Pi’s defining characteristic, his dependence on and love of stories, and highlights the inherent difficulties in trusting his version of events.
Though the narrative jumps back and forth in time, the novel traces Pi’s development and maturation in a traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. Pi is an eager, outgoing, and excitable child, dependent on his family for protection and guidance. In school, his primary concerns involve preventing his schoolmates from mispronouncing his name and learning as much as he can about religion and zoology. But when the ship sinks, Pi is torn from his family and left alone on a lifeboat with wild animals. The disaster serves as the catalyst in his emotional growth; he must now become self-sufficient. Though he mourns the loss of his family and fears for his life, he rises to the challenge. He finds a survival guide and emergency provisions. Questioning his own values, he decides that his vegetarianism is a luxury under the conditions and learns to fish. He capably protects himself from Richard Parker and even assumes a parental relationship with the tiger, providing him with food and keeping him in line. The devastating shipwreck turns Pi into an adult, able to fend for himself out in the world alone.
Pi’s belief in God inspires him as a child and helps sustain him while at sea. In Pondicherry, his atheistic biology teacher challenges his Hindu faith in God, making him realize the positive power of belief, the need to overcome the otherwise bleakness of the universe. Motivated to learn more, Pi starts practicing Christianity and Islam, realizing these religions all share the same foundation: belief in a loving higher power. His burgeoning need for spiritual connection deepens while at sea. In his first days on the lifeboat, he almost gives up, unable to bear the loss of his family and unwilling to face the difficulties that still await him. At that point, however, he realizes that the fact he is still alive means that God is with him; he has been given a miracle. This thought gives him strength, and he decides to fight to remain alive. Throughout his adventure, he prays regularly, which provides him with solace, a sense of connection to something greater, and a way to pass the time.