Pi’s companion throughout his ordeal at sea is Richard Parker, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. Unlike many novels in which animals speak or act like humans, Richard Parker is portrayed as a real animal that acts in ways true to his species. It can be difficult to accept that a tiger and a boy could exist on a lifeboat alone, however, in the context of the novel, it seems plausible. Captured as a cub, Parker grew up in the zoo and is accustomed to a life in captivity. He is used to zookeepers training and providing for him, so he is able to respond to cues from Pi and submit to his dominance. However, he is no docile house cat. He has been tamed, but he still acts instinctually, swimming for the lifeboat in search of shelter and killing the hyena and the blind castaway for food. When the two wash up on the shore of Mexico, Richard Parker doesn’t draw out his parting with Pi, he simply runs off into the jungle, never to be seen again.
Though Richard Parker is quite fearsome, ironically his presence helps Pi stay alive. Alone on the lifeboat, Pi has many issues to face in addition to the tiger onboard: lack of food and water, predatory marine life, treacherous sea currents, and exposure to the elements. Overwhelmed by the circumstances and terrified of dying, Pi becomes distraught and unable to take action. However, he soon realizes that his most immediate threat is Richard Parker. His other problems now temporarily forgotten, Pi manages, through several training exercises, to dominate Parker. This success gives him confidence, making his other obstacles seem less insurmountable. Renewed, Pi is able to take concrete steps toward ensuring his continued existence: searching for food and keeping himself motivated. Caring and providing for Richard Parker keeps Pi busy and passes the time. Without Richard Parker to challenge and distract him, Pi might have given up on life. After he washes up on land in Mexico, he thanks the tiger for keeping him alive.
Richard Parker symbolizes Pi’s most animalistic instincts. Out on the lifeboat, Pi must perform many actions to stay alive that he would have found unimaginable in his normal life. An avowed vegetarian, he must kill fish and eat their flesh. As time progresses, he becomes more brutish about it, tearing apart birds and greedily stuffing them in his mouth, the way Richard Parker does. After Richard Parker mauls the blind Frenchman, Pi uses the man’s flesh for bait and even eats some of it, becoming cannibalistic in his unrelenting hunger. In his second story to the Japanese investigators, Pi is Richard Parker. He kills his mother’s murderer. Parker is the version of himself that Pi has invented to make his story more palatable, both to himself and to his audience. The brutality of his mother’s death and his own shocking act of revenge are too much for Pi to deal with, and he finds it easier to imagine a tiger as the killer, rather than himself in that role.