Life of Pi

by: Yann Martel

Motifs

Main ideas 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.