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.

The Carnivorous Algae Island

In one of the most surrealist moments in the novel, Pi comes upon an island solely made up of algae and finds himself drawn to the limitless supply of food and fresh water that it seems to offer. This island, which Pi discovers later is carnivorous, is an important symbol of temptation and has significant parallels to the struggles he experiences during his spiritual journey. The seemingly impossible details of Pi’s time on the island also lead it to represent a challenge to the reader’s faith in the truth of his story. Given the algae island’s lush appearance, promise of comfort, and disguised darkness, it seems to allude to two classical narratives: the Lotus Eaters from Homer’s The Odyssey and the Garden of Eden from the Bible. 

Understanding the role of the algae island as a reference to the Lotus Eaters illuminates its symbolism on a more literal level. In the same way that those who eat the lotus plant lose their memories and their desire to journey home, Pi’s overwhelming urge to feast on algae causes him to feel that he could live the rest of his life on the island. This lens establishes the island as a symbol of mortal temptation, one which would allow Pi physical comfort at the expense of returning to civilization. Alluding to The Odyssey also emphasizes the epic-ness of this part of Pi’s story and tests the reader’s ability to maintain their faith in the narrative.

The allusion to the Garden of Eden takes the algae island’s symbolism to a thematic level as it represents the temptation to lose faith during times of suffering or, at the very least, to settle for a simplified sense of spirituality. The island appears to Pi as a kind of paradise, much like Eden, until he witnesses suspicious behaviors from its animals at nighttime and discovers a singular tree bearing a mysterious fruit. This tree and fruit, a parallel to the Garden of Eden’s forbidden fruit, alerts Pi to the island’s carnivorous nature when he peels away the leaves to find human teeth inside. The religious nature of this allusion allows the island to represent the possibility of spiritual darkness that Pi faces during his time as a castaway. He could lose his faith, succumb to the darkness, and stay on the island forever, but instead of taking the easy way out, he rejects temptation and continues on his spiritual journey knowing that his ever-changing relationship with God will fulfill him more than something stagnant.