Life of Pi

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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2008
Novels for Students
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 27. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 27
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Life of Pi



Considered most simply, Yann Martel's acclaimed novel, Life of Pi (2001), can be described as a postcolonial novel, focusing on the culture and stories of a former British colony (in this case, India.) But to see this novel only as a postcolonial story is to limit its possibilities. Set against the backdrop of a period of Indian history known as the Emergency, the novel opens in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry, which was once the capital of French India, and the story explores the tensions facing this tiny city during a time of deep political turmoil. In the midst of this, the protagonist, Piscine Patel (known as Pi) emigrates from India to Canada with his family. They leave India by boat, but the ship sinks on the way. Pi and a Bengal tiger are the only survivors. As Pi struggles to coexist on a lifeboat with a tiger, he comes to understand the human condition. Indeed, Martel's novel quickly changes from a postcolonial novel to a deep meditation on the complex nature of faith, morality, and, ultimately, identity. The story also stands as an argument for the existence of God, or at least for sustaining belief in that existence.

A recent edition of the novel was published by Vintage Canada in 2002.


Yann Martel was born in Salamanca, Spain, on June 25, 1963, to Canadian parents. Soon after the birth of their son, Martel's parents joined the

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Yann Martel Yann Martel (AP Images)

Canadian Foreign Service, and the family traveled often, living in Alaska, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, and a number of Canadian provinces. Martel continued to travel well into his adulthood, spending time in Iran, Turkey, and India before returning to Canada to study philosophy at Trent University in Ontario. After graduating from Trent in 1986, he worked variously as a tree planter, dishwasher, and security guard while developing his writing.

With years of travel and writing behind him, Martel published his first book in 1993, a collection of short fiction titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. The stories focus on such themes as illness, the anguish of youth, grief, and death. The collection was awarded the 1993 Journey Prize in Canada, and was followed in 1996 by his first novel, Self, a story of shifting identities. Martel's first novel was on the short list for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

In 2002, Martel was recognized internationally when his second novel, Life of Pi (2001), was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Boeke Prize (South Africa), and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction (Canada). The novel was also short listed for the prestigious Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (Canada) and The Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book). The accolades continued into 2003, with Life of Pi being selected as the recipient of the Quality Paperback Book Club's annual New Voices Award. The novel has been translated into more than thirty languages, has found readers in more than forty countries, and has been optioned for film adaptation. Notably, the French-Canadian edition of the novel was translated by Martel's own parents, Nicole and Emile.

Martel followed this remarkable success with a collection of short stories, We Ate the Children Last, in 2004. In April, 2007, Martel returned to prominence when he began a very public and much publicized project to mail the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, a new book every two weeks. Martel noted that he hoped to help the political leader expand upon a sense of what the author called "stillness." The three initial mailings, for instance, were Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Page 131  |  Top of Article Ilych, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Martel spends his time between creative projects in Montreal, Quebec, and he also serves as writer-in-residence with the English department at the University of Saskatchewan.


Author's Note

A brief, italicized section establishes some background on the author of the novel, who is also a character in the text of the novel itself. (Each of the author's sections are similarly italicized, setting them off visually as well as thematically from the rest of the novel.) Confiding that he flew to Bombay in order to rejuvenate his mind and his writing following the lukewarm response to his first two books, the author is forced to admit, too, that he is suffering from writer's block. Leaving Bombay for a period of intellectual and spiritual wandering, he ends up in the small southern Indian city of Pondicherry, which had for many years been the centerpiece of "that most modest of colonial empires, French India."

Visiting a local coffee shop, the author has a chance encounter with a small elderly man, Francis Adirubasamy, who promises to tell him "a story that will make you believe in God." Taking notes of the fragmented tale that unfolds during their conversation, the author finds the story magnetic and it continues to fascinate him after he returns to Toronto. Searching for the protagonist of Adirubasamy's story, the author tracks down and speaks at length with Mr. Piscine Patel, whose story is told in the bulk of the novel. The author's conclusion, and his aim in writing the novel, is made very clear: "It seemed natural," he concludes, "that Mr. Patel's story should be told mostly in the first person, in his voice and through his eyes." At the same time, the author is quick to point out, "any inaccuracies or mistakes" that might find their way into the story are the responsibility of the author.

Part One: Toronto and Pondicherry

Chapter 1

The main narrative begins with Piscine (Pi) Patel's declaration that his early life had been one of great suffering, the cause of which is never made clear. Nonetheless, this suffering leaves the youthful Pi oscillating in emotion between sadness and despondency. His mood lifts, and his life takes a turn for the better, when he decides to commit his energies to the study of two different topics: religious studies and zoology. Speaking at length about his research into sloths, Pi uses the discussion to hint at a number of facts that will appear in subsequent chapters: that he misses India; that he misses someone named Richard Parker; and that he has spent an extended period of time in a Mexican hospital suffering variously from anemia and dehydration.

Chapter 2

In a very brief chapter, the author reenters the narrative with details about where Pi currently lives in Toronto, what he looks like, and the way he speaks.

Chapter 3

The chapter discusses the history of Pi's full name, Piscine, which came from the name of the pool where a family friend, Francis Adirubasamy (whom Pi calls Mamaji), taught Pi to swim. Pi is the only member in his family who is not afraid of the water, and he has an almost obsessive love for the ritualistic nature of swimming. Readers learn details, too, about Adirubasamy's own life as a champion swimmer and later as a student in Paris.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • HarperCollins released an audio version of the novel (read by Kerry Shale) in 2003.

Chapter 4

Pi shares a series of reflections upon his childhood in India. Most tellingly, he speaks about growing up as the son of a zookeeper, Santosh Patel. Pi's father ran the famous zoo at Pondicherry. As a child, Pi considered the zoo to be a kind of paradise in which various rituals and an almost clock-like precision combine to create a logical world of balance and coexistence. Pi also offers a lengthy and detailed defense of the practice and philosophy of Page 132  |  Top of Article zoo keeping, which is grounded in a complex balancing of respectful stewardship, authoritative control of territory, and applied theory. Sadly, Pi concludes, zoos have fallen into disrepute in the contemporary world.

Chapter 5

Teased at school because of his name (Piscine became Pissing), Pi gets the teachers and his fellow students to call him by the shortened (and geometrically significant) name of Pi. In his renaming, Pi finds a new beginning: "And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge," he declares.

Chapter 6

In another brief chapter, the author interjects once again to talk about Pi's love of food, his excellent cooking, and his exotic and well-stocked kitchen.

Chapter 7

Returning to Pi's recollections of life in Pondicherry, this chapter opens a series of chapters that catalogue a number of important people, moments, and ideas that shape Pi as he matures. This chapter focuses on the influence of Mr. Satish Kumar, Pi's biology teacher, an avowed atheist, and an active Communist. He visits the zoo often, seeing it as a reassuring embodiment of the powers of reason and logic over the chaos of the natural world.

Chapter 8

After commenting at length on the cruelty that defines the relationships between animals in the natural order of things, Pi notes that the most dangerous animal is the human animal. In one of the more shocking scenes of the novel, Pi is also taught a powerful lesson when his father feeds a live goat to a caged tiger in order to demonstrate the dangers posed by wild animals, and the need for man to position himself as the dominant animal in any inter-species relationship. The keys to securing this balance of power are laid out clearly for Pi: understand how each animal responds to a potential threat or enemy; create a safe distance between yourself and that animal; be sure that each animal has sufficient food and water; and, most importantly, watch and learn the tendencies of each animal.

Chapter 9

Following a chapter on the dangers inherent in the relationship between humans and animals, Pi reflects on what he considers to be the strategy at the heart of zookeeping: nurturing animals so they get used to the presence of humans.

Chapter 10

In this brief chapter, Pi explains that even in the best of zoos there are animals that will try to escape. His point is clear: "animals don't escape to somewhere but from something."

Chapter 11

Continuing from chapter 10, Pi discusses a number of anecdotes about escaped zoo animals.

Chapter 12

Continuing his reflections from chapter 2, the author again speaks of Pi's cooking, with particular attention to the effects that the Indian man's spices have had on his untrained digestive tract. As an aside, the author notes that the mysterious Richard Parker is still often on Pi's mind, even so many years after their adventure together.

Chapter 13

Refocusing to the dynamics of animals and their territory, Pi talks about the example of a circus trainer and how he establishes the circus ring as his territory. By doing so, Pi argues, the trainer establishes himself at the top of the animal hierarchy.

Chapter 14

This chapter continues the discussion of circus trainers and their control of the animals in their ring.

Chapter 15

The author steps forward once again to describe Pi's house in Toronto, which is described in detail as containing a blend of religious icons and art from Hindu, Islamic, and Christian traditions.

Chapter 16

Pi explains his youthful relationship with the three major religions that shaped his ideas about the world. Born into a Hindu family, he describes his almost insatiable hunger for Prasad (an offering to God) and the ways that his hands almost automatically would fall into the prayer position. More importantly, he points out, is the Hindu philosophy of life, which he will always hold, he claims, as the centerpiece of his religious beliefs: "That which sustains the universe beyond thought Page 133  |  Top of Article and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing."

Chapter 17

Pi then goes on to recount the story of his almost casual introduction to Christianity. Stepping into a local church one day, the fourteen-year-old Pi enters into a discussion with Father Martin, who tells the young Hindu the story of the crucifixion of Christ. When pushed to explicate the deepest meaning of the story, Father Martin explains to Pi that the main idea shaping the stories of Christianity is always the same: love. Following some days of reflection, Pi decides that he will become a Christian. To Pi, this does not mean that he will no longer be a Hindu. In fact, he intends to be both.

Chapter 18

As Pi states almost casually, "Islam followed right behind" his decision to accept Christianity. Pi meets a Muslim mystic and baker who also becomes the second person named Satish Kumar to enter Pi's life.

Chapter 19

Through the second Mr. Kumar, the young Hindu/Christian comes to be intrigued by the daily rituals of Islam and by the stories of Mohammed that the baker shares with him.

Chapter 20

In this chapter, Pi comes to understand religious belief as a series of stories developed by humans in order to make their lives more understandable, more readily explainable, and generally more meaningful.

Chapter 21

This chapter opens with the author sitting in a café, reflecting on the story he is being told and, less comfortably, the "glum contentment" that has come to characterize his own life. Significantly, he remembers two phrases that had particularly intrigued him from his most recent conversation with Pi: "dry, yeastless factuality" and "the better story." Both of these phrases echo again and again as the novel unfolds.

Chapter 22

Referring to the previous phrases, Pi imagines the final words of an atheist versus those of an agnostic. Pi indicates that while an atheist would likely undergo a last-minute conversion as he experiences death, the agnostic would likely try to explain the experience in scientific terms.

Chapter 23

Pi recounts an episode where a representative from each of Pi's religions approach his parents. They state that a combination of faiths is not possible and that Pi must choose a single religion and a single mode of worship. His parents are shocked, for this is the first time they have even heard of their son's fascination with religion. Arguing that people who use the name of God to support violence or factionalism do not understand the word of God, Pi answers his challengers with a simple yet profound idea: he just wants to love God.

Chapter 24

In this brief chapter, Pi's brother, Ravi, teases Pi mercilessly upon discovering Pi's religious views.

Chapter 25

In this chapter, Pi recounts how people from the various religious groups react negatively to his complex spiritual quest.

Chapter 26

Now that his parents know about his religious beliefs, Pi asks them to allow him to be baptized and to have a prayer rug of his own. After some attempts to dissuade their son, his parents give in to both requests, marking the end of this early stage of Pi's spiritual journey.

Chapter 27

Pi's parents discuss, with some humor, the spiritual route chosen by their youngest son.

Chapter 28

Upon getting a prayer rug and a baptism, Pi feels that both events combine to give him a rejuvenating cleansing that he compares to a monsoon rain.

Chapter 29

The focal point of the novel shifts dramatically from religion to politics when Pi's father announces that the political situation in India during the time of the Emergency has effectively ruined the business of the Pondicherry zoo. Thus, Pi's father has decided that the zoo animals will be sold and that the family will emigrate to Canada.

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Chapter 30

The author begins this chapter with a declarative statement: "He's married." Upon being introduced to Pi's wife, Meena, the author begins to see the house in a new light, paying attention to items and details that had gone unnoticed during his previous visits. His view has been limited, the author is forced to acknowledge, because he was not looking closely enough for details that might illuminate more clearly the corners and edges of the story he is being told.

It seems that even the author must admit to himself that a story (in this case, the story about Pi) can change drastically depending on the details that one chooses to pay attention to. This is an important revelation in that it anticipates the final section, when two versions of the same story are presented. Each story shares the same basic details (a boat sank, there are a certain number of survivors, the survivors die off in a certain order, etc.). However, each story presents those details through a distinct and often contradictory lens.

Chapter 31

Pi recounts the one-time meeting of the two Misters Kumar (one an atheist, the other a Muslim mystic). Joining Pi for a tour of the zoo, the two men see a zebra for the first time. Both are in awe of the exotic creature, and try to explain its marvelous markings.

Chapter 32

Pi takes this discussion as an opportunity to discuss zoomorphism, which is what happens when an animal takes a human being or any other animal outside of its species to be one of its own. Pi also speculates as to the psychological and emotional causes of this phenomenon.

Chapter 33

The author recalls the time he has spent with Pi exploring Pi's very minimal family memorabilia, including photos of weddings, the Pondicherry zoo, and the (still) mysterious Richard Parker. The chapter closes with Pi lamenting that he has lost so many of his memories, most sadly those of his mother, Gita, of whom he does not even have a picture. "It's very sad not to remember what your mother looks like," Pi says sadly, closing the book that contains images of his past.

Chapter 34

In preparation for the move across the Pacific, Pi's father sells off many of the zoo animals, agreeing to oversee the transport of the remainder in the same cargo ship that will carry his family to their new life in Canada. Pi reflects upon the fact that some animals are in high demand, while others are more or less ignored. He compares the inspections of the animals prior to receiving transport papers to the preparations of his own family to leave Pondicherry.

Chapter 35

Pi describes the mixed emotions with which the family leaves India aboard the Japanese ship Tsimtsum on June 21, 1977. He talks about packing the animals into cargo as well as his philosophy of how a person deals with life when things do not turn out as planned.

Chapter 36

The first part of the book ends as the author remembers his first meeting with Pi's two children, Usha and Nikhil. Now that the author has met Pi's family, but with much of Pi's story yet to be told, the author closes the chapter by stating: "This story has a happy ending."

Part Two: The Pacific Ocean

Chapter 37

Part Two opens with the sinking of the Tsimtsum, which leaves Pi suddenly separated from his family, floating in a lifeboat with an injured zebra. He sees Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger, swimming toward the lifeboat. Rather than share the boat with a huge Bengal tiger, Pi leaps overboard.

Chapter 38

In a flashback to the moments preceding the sinking of the ship, Pi remembers his excitement at the possibilities that await him and his brother in Canada. His optimism turns to confusion when he feels the ship shudder with an explosion, and then to fear as he witnesses the chaos unfolding around him.

Chapter 39

Tossed into a lifeboat, Pi finds himself joined suddenly by an injured zebra.

Chapter 40

Picking up where he left off in chapter 37, Pi recognizes his dilemma: stay in the water with the sharks that are beginning to gather, or climb back aboard the lifeboat, where Richard Parker has taken refuge under a tarpaulin.

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Chapter 41

Having climbed back aboard the lifeboat, Pi watches as the ship sinks. He also realizes that he is sharing his new home with not only a tiger and an injured zebra, but also with a mean-spirited hyena.

Chapter 42

A Borneo orangutan named Orange Juice floats by the boat on a raft of bananas. Pi rescues Orange Juice from the disintegrating raft of fruit, but forgets to bring any of the bananas aboard.

Chapter 43

Pi begins to establish the power structure within the group of animals aboard the lifeboat. His most immediate threat is the hyena, which is racing in circles around the boat.

Chapter 44

During his first night aboard the lifeboat, the hyena kills the injured zebra, as a terrified Pi listens helplessly from his end of the boat.

Chapter 45

The following morning, Pi contemplates the meaning of life and death as it is now presented to him. He also watches Orange Juice's reaction to recent events.

Chapter 46

What Pi sees at first fascinates him, as Orange Juice raises herself to her full height to intimidate the hyena into submission. Violence is averted this time, but Pi is aware that the peace aboard the lifeboat is temporary.

Chapter 47

As sharks circle the lifeboat, Pi watches once again as violence breaks out, this time between the still ravenous hyena and Orange Juice. He is surprised and somewhat appalled as the orangutan attempts to club the hyena to death. In the end, Orange Juice dies, and Pi is left in an almost delirious state of fear that he will be the next victim.

Chapter 48

Pi recalls the clerical error that led to the tiger being named Richard Parker instead of Thirsty, which was the animal's intended name.

Chapter 49

The story resumes with Pi tentatively exploring the boat in search of water and supplies. He must remain aware at all times, he knows, of the location of both the murderous hyena and the quiet, but always dangerous, Richard Parker.

Chapter 50

This relatively brief chapter is dedicated to a detailed description of the physical dimensions of the lifeboat and the equipment discovered in it.

Chapter 51

Discovering the rations in the boat, Pi finds his spirits uplifted. He calculates that he has enough food and water to last for 124 days.

Chapter 52

This chapter is dedicated almost totally to recounting the list of items that Pi discovers aboard the lifeboat.

Chapter 53

Awakening to what he calls "the reality of Richard Parker," Pi prepares himself to battle the animals that share his limited space. When Richard Parker raises his powerful body to attack, Pi is certain that he is the intended victim. He is surprised, relieved, and somewhat horrified when the tiger instead kills the hyena.

Certain that he will be next to die, Pi is saved when a rat scrambles over the tarpaulin and climbs onto Pi's head. Grabbing the rat, Pi throws it to the tiger, who accepts the offering. Pi senses that a balance has been reached between them, for the moment at least.

Chapter 54

Pi contemplates the pros and cons of each of six plans for dealing with Richard Parker, ranging from pushing him off the lifeboat to waging a war of attrition that will end with one of them dying from starvation or dehydration.

Chapter 55

Thinking and thinking again about each of his six plans, Pi settles momentarily on the plan to outwait Richard Parker and hope that he starves to death. Pi immediately recognizes the faulty logic and inevitable failure of this plan.

Chapter 56

In this brief but important chapter, Pi reflects upon the nature of fear, which he classifies as "life's only true opponent."

Chapter 57

Ironically, the presence of Richard Parker calms Pi during their initial days aboard the Page 136  |  Top of Article lifeboat. Watching the tiger rest under his tarpaulin, Pi thinks back on what he has learned about circus trainers and decides to train the tiger rather than compete with him.

Chapter 58

Pi details the wealth of practical information that he discovers in a survival manual he finds in the lifeboat.

Chapter 59

Learning a variety of strategies for marking his territory aboard the lifeboat, Pi begins training Richard Parker. More importantly, he discovers and learns to operate a solar still that can convert salt water into the drinkable water that he will need to survive. He also knows that the ocean around him is literally teeming with fish and turtles, both of which might prove a regular form of sustenance if he can figure out a method of catching them.

Chapter 60

Pi reflects upon the various life lessons learned during his spiritual development.

Chapter 61

Learning to catch fish, Pi also learns that food can be used as a training tool when dealing with Richard Parker. Pi further learns that he can adjust quite readily to killing another living creature in order to keep himself alive (Pi was previously a vegetarian). Upon this discovery Pi begins to deeply question his faith. The longer Pi is left to float upon the Pacific, the more his questioning will continue to deepen.

Chapter 62

The routine of catching food and making fresh water in the solar still occupies Pi's days at sea.

Chapter 63

Comparing himself to other famous survivors of lengthy sea journeys, Pi recounts an average day on the lifeboat. He juxtaposes this new routine with the increasingly fragile condition of his memories of life in India.

Chapter 64

This brief chapter details the physical ailments that begin to affect Pi as the days wear on.

Chapter 65

Believing firmly that knowledge will be crucial to his survival, Pi spends hours trying to decipher the navigational instructions in the survival manual. In the end, he is not successful.

Chapter 66

In this chapter, Pi recounts in detail how he came to master the techniques of hunting and killing fish and turtles. They are the basis of his entire diet, and Richard Parker's, as Pi shares all of his food with the tiger.

Chapter 67

Pi watches the small sea creatures that attach themselves to the lifeboat, recognizing that as he struggles to survive in inhospitable circumstances, he does so just above a complete, self-supporting ecosystem.

Chapter 68

Pi describes his sleeping patterns and Richard Parker's sleeping patterns.

Chapter 69

Pi spends his nights watching for a distant light, shooting flares in the hopes of attracting the attention of what he imagines to be ships passing nearby. As both he and Richard Parker watch the flares sink into the horizon, Pi realizes the futility of his efforts and the overwhelming barrenness of the ocean that surrounds him.

Chapter 70

Pi relates details of butchering a turtle. The chapter closes with Pi's determination to carve out his territory from Richard Parker once and for all.

Chapter 71

Pi makes a list of essentials for survival, which he offers as advice for anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation. The list has nine points.

Chapter 72

Richard Parker's training begins with Pi experimenting with various styles of shields, a piece of equipment that he feels will be necessary for the exercise he is about to undertake.

Chapter 73

Pi wishes for a book other than the survival manual. He also begins keeping a diary, written in tiny letters and detailing his feelings as well as the practical considerations of each day.

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Chapter 74

Pi recounts how he maintains his religious rituals during the early days of his journey.

Chapter 75

In this one-sentence long chapter, Pi believes it is around the time of his mother's birthday, so he sings to celebrate it.

Chapter 76

Pi recalls how he got in the habit of cleaning up the feces left by the tiger, and how his own constipation was a source of great pain.

Chapter 77

As the rations aboard the lifeboat dwindle, Pi begins to deteriorate physically and mentally. He finds himself increasingly obsessed with food and water.

Chapter 78

Pi reflects upon the nature of the sky when seen from the point of view of a castaway. He also reflects on the loneliness of his position.

Chapter 79

This chapter is dedicated to sharks: how to capture them, how to butcher them, how they fight each other, and Pi's general observations of the various species.

Chapter 80

Opening with a discussion of the dorado (the most common fish that Pi catches), this chapter shifts gradually towards a meditation on Pi's interactions with Richard Parker and on the strength of the human mind to endure the most grueling of challenges.

Chapter 81

Pi acknowledges that the story of his survival might appear unbelievable to many people. He counters this disbelief by detailing a number of the key reasons why people should believe him.

Chapter 82

Pi again recounts the routine of gathering rainwater and food. He also shares more on the patterns that sustain both man and tiger in a variety of ways.

Chapter 83

A tremendous storm hits, and the lifeboat is tossed from wave to wave. Both Pi and Richard Parker struggle to remain upright in the boat, which begins to disintegrate in the ferocity of the storm. Terrified, the two passengers survive the storm.

Chapter 84

Following the storm, Pi again takes to recounting the setting in which he finds himself. Here marks on whales and dolphins, as well as how he ingeniously captures and kills a large sea bird for food.

Chapter 85

This brief chapter is dedicated to exploring the different responses of man and tiger to the occasional lightning storms that sweep over the small boat.

Chapter 86

In a brief but futile moment of hope, Pi spots a ship moving towards them. Planning the details of their rescue, Pi is aware suddenly that the huge ship is bearing down on them with no sign of slowing down or stopping. Almost overturned when the ship passes them by, the lifeboat continues to drift. Pi and Richard Parker both seem to give up hope.

Chapter 87

Pi recalls one of his favorite means of mental escape during his time on the lifeboat—choking himself almost to the point of unconsciousness.

Chapter 88

The lifeboat drifts through some trash. Pi snags a bottle, into which he places a note before launching it back into the sea.

Chapter 89

Pi reaches the lowest point of his journey. Without sufficient food or water, he begins to sleep more and more. When he does awaken, he has no energy, and he gives himself over to thoughts of death. He quits writing in his diary.

Chapter 90

Physically broken down to the point of blindness, Pi declines into a state of delirium. Hearing a voice with a French accent that he believes at first to be that of Parker, Pi encounters, or so he believes, another castaway adrift at sea. Indeed, it is not clear if the incident is real or imagined. The castaway is alone, and he is blind like Pi. The two men talk about food, which gradually leads the Frenchman to confess that he killed and cannibalized his shipmates (a man and a woman).When the Frenchman boards Pi's lifeboat with the intention of making Pi his next Page 138  |  Top of Article victim, he is immediately killed and eaten by the starving tiger.

Chapter 91

After rinsing his eyes with seawater, Pi regains his vision, sees the butchered body and, in a moment of extreme desperation, dries small strips of its flesh for his own consumption.

Chapter 92

Making "an exceptional botanical discovery," Pi and Parker come across a low-lying island made of algae that is drifting freely upon the sea. Beaching the lifeboat, Pi finds that the island has plentiful fresh water, fruit, and fish. It is also populated, he discovers, by a massive colony of meerkats who, Pi realizes, have come to understand the intricacies of the strange island's ecosystem.

And it is this ecosystem that is problematic, as Pi soon discovers. Upon realizing that the algae comprising the island floor turns toxic at night, Pi takes to sleeping in the trees with the meerkats. One day, discovering a tree that bears fruit-like objects containing human teeth, Pi concludes that his island paradise is carnivorous, and that eventually he, too, will be absorbed by the toxic algae as food for the island itself.

Chapter 93

Stocking the lifeboat with water and food, Pi and Parker set off once again in the lifeboat. Seeing all of his efforts as pointless and futile, Pi gives himself over to God's will by way of easing his suffering and desperation.

Chapter 94

Drifting for days, the two are finally washed ashore in Mexico. As Pi clambers onto the beach and collapses onto the sand, Parker disappears into the jungle. Pi is haunted by the suddenness of Parker's departure, and the fact that the two voyagers never had a proper farewell.

Discovered by local villagers, Pi is taken to an infirmary where he is nursed back to health.

Part Three: Benito Juárez Infirmary, Tomatlán, Mexico

Chapter 95

After returning to the voice of the author, he recounts the appearance of two officials from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport, Tomohiro Okamoto and Atsuro Chiba. Traveling in California on unrelated business, they are redirected to Mexico to interview the sole survivor of the sinking of the Tsimtsum. After a confused journey to the small village, the men begin to interview Pi as he recuperates. Much of the conversation is presented in the form of interview transcripts.

Chapter 96

Introducing themselves to Pi, the two investigators give him a cookie and invite him to recount the details of the ship's explosion and his journey. Pi is happy to oblige their request.

Chapter 97

This two-word chapter simply says "The story," as Pi presumably recounts what the reader has already been told.

Chapter 98

The investigators take a break to consider the implications of the story.

Chapter 99

Pi is told by the Japanese investigators that his story is entertaining but wholly unbelievable. They push him to tell them what really happened during his 227 days at sea. At first, Pi challenges the men for their doubts, but gradually comes to recognize what they really desire to hear: "I know what you want," he says one day. "You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story," he challenges them. "An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality."

With this understanding, Pi tells the Japanese men another story. In this version, there are three other occupants in the lifeboat with Pi: his mother, a foul-mannered French cook, and a beautiful, young Chinese sailor. When the sailor dies from injuries that are exacerbated by the cook's attacks upon him, he is used for food by the Frenchman, much to the disgust of Pi and his mother, who attempt to intervene. The Frenchman then kills Pi's mother before being killed by Pi himself. Pi survives his journey, he tells the investigators, by eating the flesh and organs of the murdered Frenchman. If one considers the order and manner in which these deaths occur, they largely mirror the deaths of the animals as Pi had earlier described. Looked at this way, the Frenchman is the hyena who kills the sailor (the zebra), and then Pi's mother (the orangutan), before being killed by Pi (the tiger).

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Appalled at the savagery of the second story, but also aware of the parallels connecting the two versions of the tale, Okamoto and Chiba continue to question Pi and to debate over which story they will file in their official report.

Chapter 100

The senior investigator, Okamoto, is charged with filing the report, which comprises the final chapter of the novel. Okamoto settles on the story that includes Richard Parker. He does so because Pi asks the investigators which story is "better," and they respond that the "better story" is the one with the animals. Pi replies: "And so it goes with God." Here, Pi slyly indicates that the story of a world where God exists is better than the story of a world where God does not exist. Like Pi's stories of survival, one version is less believable than the other, but the less believable version is more thrilling than its counterpart. Thus, as Francis Adirubasamy promises the author at the beginning of the book, Pi's story is "a story that will make you believe in God."

Okamota therefore chooses the version of Pi's story that reaffirms belief in the existence of God. He notes, too, that Pi's tale "is an astounding story of courage and endurance" and that it "is unparalleled in the history of shipwrecks."


Francis Adirubasamy

Sitting in a Pondicherry coffee shop, Francis Adirubasamy is the elderly man who promises to tell the author a story that "will make [him] believe in God." He is, in other words, the catalyst for the novel that is about to unfold. At the same time, he is a character involved in Pi's childhood, the man who teaches Pi to swim and who is influential in naming the young protagonist. There is a closeness and a respect connecting Pi with Francis Adirubasamy; throughout the novel Pi refers to him as "Mamaji," which means "respected uncle."

The Author

The voice of the author surfaces at various points throughout the novel, commenting on Pi as he lives in the present-day city of Toronto while serving as the conduit for the story of Pi's journey with Richard Parker. A frustrated writer, the author is himself a student of storytelling who reflects on the tales laid out before him by Pi Patel.

The Blind Frenchman

The blind Frenchman is the castaway that Pi Patel meets in the midst of his most intense delusions at sea. Whether the blind Frenchman actually exists or is a figment of Pi's imagination is not clear. The blind Frenchman is, like Pi, delirious and hungry. He is also a storyteller, who recounts his own tale of murder and cannibalism. After boarding Pi's lifeboat with the intention of killing and eating Pi, he is instead eaten by the now ravenous Richard Parker.

Atsuro Chiba

One of the Japanese investigators from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport sent to gather information about Pi's ordeal and the sinking of the Tsimtsum, Chiba is the junior colleague of Tomohiro Okamoto. He is the not as skeptical of Pi's tale as Okamoto. In the end, though, it is Okamoto who makes the final decision about which of the two stories appears in their official report.

The French Cook

The French cook becomes the human equivalent of the hyena when Pi remodels his version of the tale to suit the Japanese investigators, who do not believe Pi's initial tale. A violent and uncouth cannibal of a man, the cook kills the beautiful young sailor and then Pi's mother before he is killed by Pi in retaliation. As with most characters in the revised version of the story, there is much debate as to whether the cook is real or not.

The Hyena

One of the castaways aboard the lifeboat in Pi's first version of events, the hyena kills the zebra and then the orangutan before being killed in turn by the Royal Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. In the revised version of the story (the version without animals) the characteristics of the hyena are represented in the character of the French cook.

Satish Kumar

Sharing a name with Pi's high-school biology teacher, Satish Kumar is a Sufi, a Muslim mystic who works in a local bakery. An influential figure in Pi's development, Kumar is instrumental in leading Pi towards his lifelong interest in religion. When Satish Kumar visits the Patel family zoo, he sees the zoo animals as proof of the existence of a glorious god. He is a counterpoint Page 140  |  Top of Article to the almost identically named character of Mr. Satish Kumar, who is an atheist.

Mr. Satish Kumar

Pi's high-school biology teacher, Mr. Satish Kumar is an atheist and an active Communist, who was also afflicted with polio in his childhood. He inspires a love for empirical explanations of the world in Pi, and is a key figure in developing Pi's interest in zoology. When Mr. Kumar visits the Patel family zoo, he sees the way in which the animals have been arranged as proof of a scientific and rational logic. His character is a counterpoint to the other Satish Kumar, a devout Muslim.

Father Martin

Father Martin is the central figure in Pi's Christian education during the first part of the novel. His role is to offer comfort and guidance to Pi. His message is clear and well received by Pi; Martin states that the story of the Christian God is love and acceptance.

Tomohiro Okamoto

Tomohiro Okamoto is the lead investigator from the Maritime Department of the Japanese Ministry of Transport. He is in charge of the enquiry into the sinking of the Tsimtsum. Working with his assistant, Atsuro Chiba, he is the more suspicious of the two, as he is highly skeptical of the truthfulness of Pi's original story. He is also the final arbiter as to which version of events is included in his final report, the one with animals or the one without. The decision, Okamoto recalls when talking with the author, was both memorable and difficult. In the end, Okamoto chooses the story with animals, which, as indicated in the Author's Note, is the story that reinforces belief in the existence of God. To base his report on the story without animals would mean, also, that Okamoto readily accepts that the thin veneer of humanity crumbles into animalistic behavior almost immediately when placed outside of society (leading in this case to murder and cannibalism). Okamoto, like the author, prefers the story with animals to the dehumanizing and spiritually void alternative.

Orange Juice

Another of the castaways aboard the lifeboat in Pi's first version of events, Orange Juice is the prized Borneo orangutan whom Pi pulls into the lifeboat as she floats by on a raft of netted bananas. She is the second victim of the hyena, who turns on her after killing the zebra. Pi is particularly attached to Orange Juice, seeing her as a symbol of maternal affection and matriarchal protection (she attempts to protect the injured zebra, reminding him of his own mother who often acted as his protector). At the same time, Pi is taken aback when she lashes out violently at the hyena in the moments leading up to her death. In Pi's second version of events, Orange Juice is transformed to fill the role of Pi's mother.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker is the Royal Bengal tiger who shares the lifeboat with Pi following the sinking of the Tsimtsum. Originally named Thirsty, his name was changed through a clerical error that accidentally listed his captor's name as his own. A symbol of the ferocity of the natural world and of Pi's own unconscious, Parker is both a threat and a companion to Pi during their 227-day journey across the Pacific Ocean. Having already killed the hyena, Parker is an intelligent and brutal force that Pi must learn to control if the two are to coexist in the lifeboat. Whereas Pi is a man of faith and intellect, Parker sees the world as an animal does, guided by instinct and concerned mainly with hunger and thirst. It is he, for instance, who first recognizes the dangers of the algae island, returning to the boat every night to sleep safely away from the carnivorous algae. When the two companions finally arrive safely on a beach in Mexico, Parker disappears into the coastline jungle, leaving a void in Pi's emotional world. In Pi's second version of events, Richard Parker is transformed to represent Pi himself.

Gita Patel

Gita Patel is Pi's protective and loving mother. Raised a Hindu, but educated as a Baptist, she is, in many ways, a woman without formal religion, serving as a kind of counterpoint to Pi's seemingly perpetual quest for one. Through Gita, Pi learns to love reading. In the first version of Pi's story, she dies in the sinking of the Tsimtsum. In the second version, she is killed on the lifeboat by the French cook.

Meena Patel

Meena Patel is Pi's wife, whom the author meets very briefly while speaking with Pi in Toronto.

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Nikhil Patel

Nikhil Patel, also known as Nick, is Pi's son. Defined primarily by his love of baseball, he is introduced to the author in a very brief meeting.

Pi Patel

Pi, born Piscine Molitor Patel, is the protagonist and first-person narrator of much of the novel. His name is derived from the French word for swimming pool (piscine) which rhymes uncomfortably with "pissing," prompting him to shorten it to the mathematical constant Pi.

In the chapters that constitute the first and third parts of the novel, Pi recounts both his upbringing at the Pondicherry zoo, his introduction to the religions of the world, and his later life in Toronto. Part Three also reveals his very open interpretation of reality and truth, as he willingly modifies his tale to appease the Japanese inspectors. But, as Pi reveals to them, the decision between the two stories is a relatively straightforward one: to believe in the story with animals is to believe in a world in which God can exist; but to believe in the story without animals is to be forced to acknowledge that human existence is nasty, brutish, and devoid of morality or spirituality.

In the substantive second part of the novel, Pi recounts his fabulous and often grisly story of survival. Sharing a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger for 227 days, he finds that he is tested physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Pi learns to fend off the natural impulses of fear and anger, as well as to allow those impulses to guide him (as in his hunting for food). He also learns that, in order to retain his sanity, he must achieve a deep personal honesty that allows him to acknowledge the animal within himself while still remaining human.

Piscine Molitor Patel

See Pi Patel

Ravi Patel

Ravi Patel is Pi's older brother. Where Pi is spiritual and intellectual, Ravi is athletic and social. He functions in the novel as a kind of foil to his younger brother. Through his relentless teasing, Ravi also tests Pi's developing religious beliefs.

Santosh Patel

Santosh Patel is Pi's father, who once owned a hotel in Madras before taking over the management of the Pondicherry zoo. Intrigued by animal culture and behavior, he passes his keen interest down to Pi. Due to the political climate in India during the years of the Emergency, Santosh decides to move his family to Canada. He dies when the cargo ship they are traveling on sinks into the Pacific.

Usha Patel

Usha Patel is Pi's shy but adoring daughter. The author meets her briefly.

The Sailor

In Pi's second version of events on the lifeboat, the sailor is the human equivalent of the zebra. The sailor is the French cook's first victim.

The Zebra

The zebra is one of the first animals on the lifeboat, and he is also the first animal that is killed by the hyena. In the revised version of Pi's tale, the zebra is represented by the sailor.


The Possibility of the Existence of God

When the author first meets Francis Adirubasamy in the opening chapter of Life of Pi, the elderly Indian man promises the somewhat skeptical writer that he has "a story that will make you believe in God." When the author later meets the central character in this story, an older Pi Patel now living in Toronto, he comes to understand that this assertion is very much at the crux of Pi's story.

Life of Pi offers readers two versions of the same story. One of these stories, which constitutes the bulk of the novel, includes a collection of wild animals and a floating carnivorous island. In this version, Pi is a man whose belief in God is put to the most profound tests as he is forced each day to try to remain civilized in a world bereft of human contact and in which basic survival is a challenge. In the end, it is his belief that sustains Pi, guiding him to forge an unlikely relationship with a Bengal tiger, to discover a discipline and strength within himself that allows him to survive each day at sea, and to recognize the dangers of an apparently idyllic island despite his deep desire to see it as a refuge.

The other story, considerably shorter than the version with animals, recounts a tale of murder and cannibalism. This story indicates that Page 142  |  Top of Article human goodness is a flimsy and easily removable construct.

Indeed, as both the author and the Japanese investigators conclude after hearing both of Pi's stories, the version with animals is the "better story," and it is also the most meaningful of the two. The "better story" is the story that represents a world where God might exist, but the other story represents a world that is spiritually void.

The Power of Storytelling

Constructed as a series of stories within a story, Life of Pi is a blend of various storytelling forms, from first-person accounts (both by Pi and by the author) that move forward and backward in time, to the emotionally intense internal monologues and the ostensibly factual interview transcripts. Each form of storytelling is revealed within the novel to contain its own version of truth and accuracy, with none of the many stories able to explain exactly all that had happened aboard the lifeboat. With each new story, few answers are provided while more and more questions are raised.

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  • Given that the Patel family leaves Pondicherry during the period of Indian history known as the Emergency, research the history of this period in India. Write an essay in which you comment on the relevance of this period to the journey that Pi is later forced to take following the sinking of the Tsimtsum. In your essay, consider the question: Do you think that Life of Pi can be read, in part, as a political commentary on such issues as political territoriality or the animal nature of human politics? Why? Why not?
  • Life of Pi is a novel that is full of colors: the yellow of bananas; the orange of the orangutan and the Royal Bengal tiger; the blue of the sea and sky. Write an essay in which you discuss the meanings of each of the various colors mentioned in the book, and the importance of what or whom they are attached to.
  • In chapter 58, Pi spends some time reading a survival manual that he discovers on the lifeboat. Written by a British Royal Navy commander, it is an eclectic collection of obvious and not-so-obvious hints for survival. Write a similar manual for surviving life as a student. Include at least twelve items, making some of the points practical and others more abstract. Feel free to include diagrams, calculations, or images if the mood strikes you.
  • In chapter 5, Pi goes to great lengths to have his name translated from the embarrassing Piscine to the more liberating Pi, which is both a Greek letter and almost mythical mathematical constant. Research the visual art and music that has accumulated around this number, and create a timeline of paintings, cartoons, and musical scores (as examples) that have been inspired by this number. What information can you find about the number that indicates its spiritual significance? Present your findings to the class.
  • The novel is a sly argument promoting spiritual belief, specifically belief in God. What other philosophers have also attempted to argue that God exists? Compile a report on your findings and include a brief description of each philosopher's argument.

Rather than collapsing the story into a debate about a solid and knowable set of facts or certainties regarding Pi's adventures (what might be called reality), Life of Pi opens outwards to explore other ways of seeing and knowing the world. When Pi meets his Japanese investigators, for instance, he offers them two very different but intimately related versions of the same tale, one with animals and the other without. Both versions are true in their own way. Page 143  |  Top of Article In the end, the decision as to what version to believe is left to Okamoto and Chida, and, more importantly, to the reader of the novel itself.

Echoing such earlier stories as told in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), Life of Pi is also a novel that explores the human need to tell and believe in stories as a strategy for survival. As Pi explains often during the opening section of the novel, the various stories that shape world religions are necessary for human survival. Each of Pi's three religions has its own distinct set of stories (often shaped as parables) and narrative strategies. What Pi comes to understand about this plethora of stories is very profound: all of the stories, in the end, address a deeply rooted need to love and be loved, and in order to survive in the world every individual needs to put his faith in one or another story of this (divine) love. To remain an agnostic is to live without faith in the power of stories to shape one's very existence in meaningful ways.

The Conditions of Human Nature

The Pondicherry zoo serves as an important reminder of the distinctions separating human beings from wild animals. Yet the zoo also makes Pi aware of some similarities between the two. Just as animals find some solace in the rituals of zoo life, Pi believes that humans find solace in the rituals of daily life. The order and structure of the zoo comes to represent the human ability to bring order and harmony to a primitive world that is always on the cusp of reverting back to a natural, wild state. In its wild state, life is a constant struggle for survival, a perpetual race for food and safety in which death is a constant possibility.

As Pi's journey aboard the lifeboat begins, so, too, does his reeducation in the conditions of wildness and human nature. After witnessing the savagery of the hyena, Pi comes to realize that the world in which he now lives has been stripped of the false comforts and artificial harmonies of society. This new world is one in which his faith will be profoundly tested. As he learns to live peacefully with, rather than in fear of, Richard Parker, for instance, Pi also begins to recognize, much to his disappointment, that his own behaviors are becoming more animal-like. Pi learns to kill fish and turtles without any sort of guilt, for instance. He not only drinks their blood and eats their brains in order to survive, but he does so with an almost bestial gusto. At first, Pi is appalled when he catches himself wolfing down a new catch of food, but he gradually comes to recognize how easy it is for him to slip away from the religion and vegetarianism that had defined his early life, and how easy it is to live a life that is discomfortingly similar to that of the zoo animals he had once tended.

Gradually, the distance separating Pi from Richard Parker is almost erased in the novel. Readers are left with the possibility that Parker and Pi are distinct but connected elements of the same character, with the tiger emerging as a symbol of Pi's primal nature and his instinctive drive for survival at all costs. If readers accept that the second version of Pi's story is true, then the invention of Richard Parker can be understood as a psychological mechanism that allows Pi to disassociate himself from the murder that he has committed. Read in either of these ways, the novel underscores what such writers as Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, 1902) and William Golding (Lord of the Flies, 1954) had explored previously: that humans are not so different from animals as is traditionally believed. Deprived of the zoo-like structures (society) that sustain them in their daily lives, humans return quite naturally to lives guided by basic instincts and animalistic impulses.


Magical Realism

The term was first used by the German art critic Franz Roh to describe paintings that present recognizable objects in an altered form or setting. More specifically, these works of art represented a kind of heightened reality in which elements of the marvelous or the unnatural appear alongside familiar elements of the everyday world.

In literature, including in Life of Pi, magical realism often blurs the familiar line between the internal/emotional world of the characters and the external/physical world through which these characters move. Serving as a literary counterpoint to traditional beliefs in a unified and knowable reality shared by all people and all cultures, magical realism acknowledges that everyday reality is a relative concept, and that what is seen as real or normal by one individual might at the same moment be seen as miraculous or magical by another. Promoting an openness to other ways of seeing the world and

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Symbols of three world religions Symbols of three world religions (© Eyebyte / Alamy)

underscoring the need for tolerance of divergent opinions, magical realism has become increasingly important in a world fractured by territorial and cultural tensions.

The emergence of Richard Parker as an almost-human personality in the novel, for instance, and the floating, carnivorous island (which at first seems to be a paradise), mark Life of Pi as a novel written in the tradition of magical realism. Accordingly, Life of Pi can be read alongside works by such international writers as Isabel Allende (The House of Spirits, 1982) Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities, 1972) and Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children, 1981) to name but a few.


The novel traces the intellectual, spiritual, and physical Maturation of Pi Patel, and thus falls very neatly into the tradition of the Bildungsroman, a novel tracing the formation or education of its (typically male) protagonist. Known alternatively as the coming-of-age novel, the Bildungsroman in its more organized form usually includes a number of elements, most of which appear in whole or in part in Martel's novel. The protagonist grows during the course of the novel from a boy into a man; Pi leaves India as a sixteen-year-old and recounts his story to the author many years later, as an older man living in Toronto with his family. The protagonist must also have an obvious motivation for undertaking his transformative journey, which for Pi can be seen as both the political implications of the Emergency and the more immediate motivation for survival following the sinking of the Tsimtsum.

In a Bildungsroman, once the journey is underway the protagonist must face a long and arduous trial (227 days in a lifeboat) that is punctuated with a conflict between his needs and those of others within his community (Pi versus Richard Parker). As the journey unfolds, the protagonist of the Bildungsroman traditionally grows away from a spirit of conformity towards a more individualized sense of the world and his place in it. Finally, as is apparent throughout Life of Pi, there is a thematic emphasis on the spiritual or the emotional and the practical problems associated with Page 145  |  Top of Article living outside of social norms. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1885) is a classic example of a Bildungsroman.


The Emergency Years in Indian History

When Santosh Patel decides to leave Pondicherry for a better life in Canada, he openly cites the political unrest that was sweeping India in the mid-1970s as his motivation to emigrate. The period known formally as the Emergency was a twenty-one-month period beginning on June 25, 1975, and ending around March 21, 1977. During this period, Indian President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, responding to the advice of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency throughout India. Rooted in long-standing political disagreements and widespread disillusionment with policies of the day, the declaration effectively granted the Government the power to rule by decree and without pressure to recognize civil liberties or the due process of democratic elections.

Also during this time, the Government deployed its police forces to suppress protests and strikes, banned many parties that offered political opposition, and engaged in a sustained attempt to rewrite Indian laws with the sanction of Parliament.

The legacy of this period remains controversial. Although economic recovery was strengthened and the political climate of the country was stabilized through many of the decisions put into place, the Emergency years are also seen as a black mark against India's commitment to the principles of democratic rule.

The Rise of Post-Colonialism

Post-Colonialism refers to a collection of theories and critical approaches that look to explore the culture of countries that were once ruled by foreign governments (India is a former British colony). Although more a collection of ideas than a single, unified theory, post-colonialism does feature a number of common subjects that arise in Life of Pi: the heritage of European influences in local art, philosophy, and religion; racism; political territoriality; and the struggle for cultural identity. The beginnings of post-colonial thinking is mostly considered to have come from two writers: Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952) and Edward Said (Orientalism, 1978). Both men had a powerful influence on the intellectual climate of the 1970s.

One of the key strategies of post-colonial thinkers is to consider how the colonizer's culture has become hybridized in the culture of the colonized. The merging of old with new, colonizing with pre-colonial, is seen as creating something particularly unique to the post-colonial culture, and serves as a foundation for future growth. Pi Patel's bringing together of elements of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam is an excellent example of what post-colonial thinkers would call a hybridized identity. Taking bits and pieces from old and new aspects of his culture, Pi positions himself as both a man of the past and a beacon of the emergence of that past into a new, hopefully progressive future. Indeed, Pi is a post-colonial figure. The fact that he resists traditional pressures to choose one path serves only to underscore both the limitations (territoriality) of the old ways and the necessity for an inclusive view of the world.

Significantly, Life of Pi resists the tendency of most post-colonial writing to settle too easily on a new, hybridized identity as the solution to all problems. What Pi discovers on his journey across the Pacific Ocean is that even his hybridized faith cannot answer all of the questions that confront him.


Somewhat surprisingly, given its meteoric rise as a novel of international standing, Life of Pi was greeted with what a contributor to the Missouri Review characterizes as "wildly disparate reactions." Writing in the New York Review of Books, for instance, Pankaj Mishra gives the novel only the mildest of praise. Mishra celebrates Martel's skill in "stretch[ing] our credulity through some hypnotic storytelling." The critic, however, is troubled by Martel's depictions of religious life generally and his "unpersuasive treatment of God" more specifically. The description of religious practices in India, for instance, "carry the whiff of an encyclopedia entry, or a tourist's scrupulously kept journal," while later in the novel "Martel is unable to reveal adequately … the precise nature, or vacillations, of Pi's faith." In the end, Mishra concludes, Martel's "instincts as a storyteller prove to be keener than his ability to proselytize" in support of a new way of

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Bengal tiger walking in surf Bengal tiger walking in surf (Joseph Van Os / The Image Bank / Getty Images)

making God relevant in an increasingly secular world. As Linda M. Morra concludes in Canadian Literature, Life of Pi is, for many readers, "inconsistently compelling and occasionally contrived."

Reviewing the novel for the Christian Century, Gordon Houser is far less hesitant in his praise of Martel's exploration of questions of a spiritual nature. Noting that the writing is "deceptively simple," Houser celebrates the "aplomb" with which "Martel lets the winsome narrative voice and the intriguing plot carry [readers], all the while winking as he tosses out thoughts on the kinds of metaphysical questions humans have pondered for centuries." Indeed, they are questions, notes Linda Shirato in Library Journal that tend to elicit "strong emotions" from most readers. This point is also made by Charlotte Innes, writing in the Nation. Martel "baits his readers with serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion," she begins, "but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled, that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't help but be captured by his prose." Aligning the novel with such classic castaway tales as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Innes is ebullient in her praise: "above all," she writes, this is "a book about life's absurdities that makes one laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions, comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern games and a sense of fun that reflects the hero's sensual enjoyment of the world."

Comparisons alleging plagiarism have been drawn between Life of Pi and Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats (1981), an earlier book that shows remarkable similarities with Martel's novel. The various accounts about this are somewhat convoluted, but supposedly Martel mentioned that he had been intrigued by the premise of Scliar's novel after reading an unfavorable review of it by American novelist John Updike in the New York Times Book Review. Martel soon came under fire when it was shown that no such review existed and Updike publicly stated that he had no knowledge whatsoever of the Brazilian novel. Martel claims never to have read Scliar's book, despite the fact that the Author's Note in Life of Pi includes thanks to Mr. Moacyr Scliar "for the spark of life." The story has it that Scliar considered a lawsuit but changed his mind after personally speaking with Martel.

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Klay Dyer

Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In the following essay, he discusses the mystical algae island as the ultimate test of Pi's emerging and maturing faith.

Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a novel about belief and faith. More specifically, it is about survival, tracing a journey that takes Pi through both a profound trauma and the resulting challenges to his developing religious faith. Marooned on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, Pi finds his most intense struggle is not to stay alive but to remain hopeful about his prospects for survival (both physical and psychological). Before Pi ends his journey on a Mexican beach, however, he must endure his most profound spiritual test in the form of a mysterious island, which proves to be a symbol of the failure of blind faith as an uncritical framework for understanding the world. Indeed, during his stay on the island, Pi confronts the limits of his still immature philosophy. It is in this test of faith that Pi realizes he has participated in an act of self-deception by believing that the island will provide him with a stable haven for respite and nourishment. Pi's experiences on the island allow him to realize that believing wholeheartedly and unquestionably in anything will ultimately prove to be the path to his own demise. To question and to doubt, Pi learns during his stay on the island, is the key to survival.

In his opening notes to the novel, the author figure first emphasizes the word "bamboozle," leaving readers to expect, or at least to be aware of, some form of trickery that might appear as the story unfolds. This is a novel, the author warns, in which readers might come to expect "the selective transforming of reality." Indeed, Pi's time on the island is an episode in an already fantastic tale, he admits, that might stretch the cord of credulity to the breaking point. "There will be many who disbelieve the following episode," he admits.

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  • Yann Martel's Self (1996), like Life of Pi, raises questions about the nature of faith and whether it is possible to live a spiritual life in a world increasingly given over to secular ideas and sectarian politics.
  • Discussions of magical realism as a literary style often cite Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) as one of the genre's outstanding examples. Considered a contemporary masterpiece, the novel chronicles a family's struggles, and the history of their fictional town, Macondo, for a period of one hundred years.
  • No reading of the traditional Bildungsroman would be complete without Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1850), a carefully structured novel that traces many of the events in Dickens's own life and is arguably the most intensely autobiographical of all his novels.
  • Generally considered a balanced, accessible, and carefully detailed study, David Noss and Blake R. Grangaard's History of the World's Religions (2007) introduces readers to the origins of world religions, shows how they developed across generations, and how they continue to impact the world today.

Significantly, before he begins to recount his time on the island, Pi first reiterates his thoughts on the religions he has accumulated prior to his Page 148  |  Top of Article trials aboard the lifeboat. His uniquely synthetic blending of religious ideals and practices has provided him with a moral and philosophic framework that he uses to make sense of the world around him. Throughout his trials, Pi faithfully applies what he believes from Hinduism, which brings him "Truth, Unity, Absolute, Ultimate Reality"; from Christianity, which provides him with the belief in a saving grace that "exists only at one time: right now;" and from Islam, which Pi describes as "a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion." Together, these ideas help Pi negotiate the many trials of hunger, thirst, and spiritual survival that he faces during his time on the lifeboat with Richard Parker.

Having engaged this blended faith as his primary tool for mental and emotional survival, Pi's faith is tested most of all when he sees what appears to be an island on the horizon. Upon approaching the island, which he hopes will provide respite from the small lifeboat, Pi admits that what he sees in front of him leaves him with a "thrill to be deluded in such a high-quality way." Pi sees a "profusion of leaves" that are "brilliantly green," but even in this moment of thrilling delusion, readers see that critical questions begin to seep into Pi's mind. "Who had ever heard of land with no soil?" he asks himself, only to pass off the question as a "chimera, a play of the mind." At this point, Pi ties his religious faith to his belief in the island as a symbol of hope, noting that the island is "music to [his] eyes," and that the island's vibrant green color is "the colour of Islam."

Pi's first step toward what might be considered a leap of blind faith takes place as he steps onto the island, discovering that it is a somewhat disconcerting blend of stability and instability. It is, as he notes to himself, "flexible but solid." Turning away from his own questioning of the island, Pi experiences an almost religious experience as he becomes intoxicated by the first scent of "vegetable organic matter" that he has encountered since he first set sail from India. At this point, he comes to "believe" in the island, as he "babble[s] incoherent thanks to God and collapse[s]" on the forgiving surface. Exploring the island, Pi describes the trees as "a blessedly good thing to behold." Seeing the trees for the first time, Pi wishes "that [he] could be like" them, "rooted to the ground but with my every hand raised up to God in praise!" Linking the existence of the trees to the threads of Islam that are woven through the fabric of his faith, Pi exults in "Allah's works." This declaration is a self-congratulatory confirmation that "the tree did indeed grow right out of the algae, as [Pi] had seen from the lifeboat."

Most tellingly, as Pi puts his faith in the island, Richard Parker remains guided by his animal instinct and is "afraid" to come ashore. The Bengal tiger "remain[s] tense" and at night in the lifeboat he is "unsettled and noisy." Parker returns to the lifeboat every night, deciding not to sleep on the island. When he awakens in the morning he "hesitate[s] for hours before jumping off the boat" to continue his hunting and his explorations of the island. From the moment the castaways discover the island, Parker's instinct is to approach it critically, to doubt it as a source of their salvation.

Whereas Parker's instinct is to approach the island as something that is not what it appears to be, Pi moves forward with a self-deluding confidence that the island is what he needs it to be. But after some weeks of retrospection and an extended exploration of the contours of this apparent paradise, Pi is forced to rethink his faith in the island. The forgiving ground is not as stable as he once thought it to be, and more specifically it "was Gandhian: it resisted by not resisting." What Pi thought was once a "small landmass rooted to the floor of the ocean," is, he realizes suddenly, a "free-floating organism" that must be perceived and judged from an entirely different perspective. Gradually, Pi begins to understand that what he once considered as truth and stability is exactly the opposite.

Not only does Pi come to acknowledge the unstableness of the island, he also discovers that it is not a complete ecosystem, meaning there are no "butterflies, no bees, no insects of any kind" as well as "no worms, no snakes, … no shrubs, no grasses, … no weeds." There is, he begins to recognize, no "foreign matter on the island, organic or inorganic," with the obvious exception of the omnipresent meerkats. The only other outstanding feature of the island is what attracted Pi to its surface in the first place, notably the "shining green algae and shining green trees." Pi's initial belief in the presence of a structural ecosystem based on a solid island is Page 149  |  Top of Article representative of his need to believe that he has finally found land.

As Pi starts to become skeptical of his belief in the island, he starts to put his trust in the pragmatism exhibited by Richard Parker. As Pi watches the meerkats gathering and "bending down at the same time" to nibble at the pond algae, they remind him "of prayer time in a mosque." While the meerkats appear to worship the island, they also recognize the island's dangers, which they have learned to respect and fear over time. As Pi begins to question what he sees, he also begins to question what he believes in. Pi first wonders about the "botanical strangeness" of the island after dark; the floor of the algae island turns toxic, burning him when he touches it. Discovering what he thinks is fruit on a tree, Pi realizes, after peeling off the "dense accumulation of leaves," that the object in his hand is "not a fruit." Pi then admits that if the so-called "fruit had a seed, it was the seed of my departure."

The peeling of the presumed fruit serves as a kind of stripping away of Pi's fervent, non-critical belief in the island as an ideal paradise. Shocked and disappointed by his discovery, and disappointed in himself for not recognizing his own self-delusion, he states: "Ah, how I wish that moment had never been! But for it I might have lived for years—why, for the rest of my life—on that island." Indeed, for the first time in months, all of Pi's "physical needs" are being met on the island. Because of this, "the thought of leaving the island had not crossed [his] mind"; that is, not until he discovered the secret of the island in the center of the so-called fruit.

Tucked in the center of the leaves that supposedly hid fruit, Pi finds human teeth, precisely "thirty-two teeth, a complete human set [with] not one tooth missing." At this moment "understanding dawned upon" Pi, who realizes, to his "horror," that the island is "carnivorous." Pi ponders the fate of the remains of the "poor lost soul" before him and wonders "how many dreams of a happy life [were] dashed" on the island, and "how much stored-up conversation died unsaid?" When Pi stops believing blindly in the island as a source of sustenance and begins to explore and question it, he sees the island for exactly what it is.

Ultimately, the island proves to be not only unstable but voraciously carnivorous, a self-consuming reminder of the dangers of living in the world through blind faith. Taught early on in the novel that he must always assume that a Bengal tiger could devour him at any moment, Pi survives months aboard a lifeboat with this intense threat. Yet the island is another test, and Pi learns that he must approach the island (and thus the world) in much the same way that he approaches Richard Parker, by thinking critically and trusting his instincts.

Even if the island does not devour him, Pi knows that if he remains with the meerkats he will die a "spiritual death on [the] murderous island." He realizes, too, that he would rather "set off and perish in search of [his] own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort." Thus, Pi could choose to continue living by a false faith, but he would rather choose to seek out a truer faith. The experience of the island and his own self-delusion leaves the young castaway questioning himself and what he believes in. Ironically, this self doubt brings Pi to a greater understanding of himself and of his god. Indeed, left "bereft and desperate" by the ordeal of the island, he finds himself "in the throes of unremitting suffering" and more willing than ever to "turn to God." Pi discovers that maintaining a deep and critical faith means accepting that there is a negation to every assertion (a negative for every positive, and vice versa). Put simply, the world is filled with both good and bad things, Pi realizes, and to deny that there is any bad is, in a sense, to deny the world and, by extension, to deny God. This is the lesson of the island.

Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on Life of Pi, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Stewart Cole

In the following excerpt, Cole claims the book's arguments regarding belief in God hinge upon the suspension of disbelief and the attribution or projection of human characteristics on anything that is not human.

…Despite its essential tenuousness, Martel's analogy does highlight an important similarity between fiction and religion: disbelief is anathema to both. I have already noted how Life of Pi, in claiming to be a story that "will make you believe in God," both presumes and to some extent depends upon the reader's initial disbelief in Him. This readerly disbelief is more explicitly analogized in the initial skepticism of the two Japanese interviewers when faced with the story Page 150  |  Top of Article of Pi's survival for 227 days in a lifeboat with the tiger Richard Parker. In its treatment of the two central motifs of God and animal—Pi's apparently incongruous double majors of religious studies and zoology—the novel dramatizes disbelief in order to suspend it. Central to this tensile movement is the concept of anthropomorphism, often used in both theological and zoological contexts to indicate—as the OED has it—the "ascription of a human attribute or personality" to either God or animals.

Early in the novel, Pi directly addresses the problem of "Animalus Anthropomorphicus, the animal as seen through human eyes," noting that in attributing human characteristics to animals "we look at an animal and see a mirror," and going on to bemoan that "the obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists." But religious scholar Stewart Elliott Guthrie, in his book-length examination of anthropomorphism entitled Faces in the Clouds, claims that rather than being a boon against the adoption of religious faith, anthropomorphism—or, "the obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything"—is the very foundation of religiosity. Guthrie's assertion that "religion may be best understood as systematic anthropomorphism" is bolstered by the fact, widely accepted by psychologists, that human modes of perception arise out of a fundamental perceptual uncertainty which forces us to always be interpreting, rather than simply seeing, the phenomenal world. Beginning from this premise that all perception is interpretive—all seeing is seeing as—Guthrie goes on to claim that the attribution of human characteristics to the non-human is an often unconscious strategy by which humans attempt to gain the benefit of whatever significance the world has to offer. He repeatedly returns to the example of the hiker who spots a large shape just off the trail and immediately jumps to the conclusion that it is a bear, only to discover a few seconds later that it is in fact a boulder (45). Given ambiguity, humans will choose to perceive objects as animate until proven otherwise. This instinctual animism—"attributing life to the lifeless" (39)—finds us not only grasping after every opportunity to engage with our fellow sentient beings, but also performs a survival function: were the hiker to see as a boulder what is in fact a bear, her misperception could prove fatal, while on the other hand, little is lost in briefly hallucinating the bear. Guthrie notes how such a strategy is analogous to Pascal's wager—whether God exists or not, we should believe in Him, for we suffer nothing by our wrong belief if He does not exist, while we gain an infinitude for our faith if He does (Pascal 157)—and claims that anthropomorphism, and thus religion, arise from a similar perceptual bet:

We do find apparent humans, and echoes and copies of humans, both in our immediate environments and in our ultimate conditions. Mailboxes appear as persons, plagues appear as messages, and order appears as design. Anthropomorphism by definition is mistaken, but it also is reasonable and inevitable. Choosing among interpretations of the world, we remain condemned to meaning, and the greatest meaning has a human face. (Guthrie 204)

The jubilation Pi feels upon emerging from the Muslim Mr. Kumar's bakery after an afternoon of prayer nicely exemplifies this link between anthropomorphism and meaning in a religious context. "I suddenly felt I was in heaven," he tells us, marvelling at the richness of his surroundings:

Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbour, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the centre of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.

Pi here invokes "heaven" amidst earthly surroundings, attributes language and kinship to the various elements of those surroundings, and shows a willingness to place himself—prior protestations notwithstanding, and however coincidentally—"at the centre of everything," thus demonstrating that while he may oppose anthropomorphism as it applies to animals, he is willing to indulge in the fallacy as it applies to his surroundings while in the grip of religious exaltation. Page 151  |  Top of Article That this rampantly anthropomorphic passage is one of the book's most convincing evocations of Pi's religious fervour is no accident. The affective power of anthropomorphism in works of literature—as personification or, more cautiously, the pathetic fallacy—has often been noted, from Coleridge's earnest hope to "transfer from our inward nature a human interest" (322) that would lend even the supernatural an emotive relevance and immediacy, to John Ruskin's initial coining and terse dismissal of "the pathetic fallacy" in poetry as "a falseness in our impressions of external things" (qtd. in Hecht 482), to Paul de Man's lukewarm endorsement of anthropomorphism as "the illusionary resuscitation of the natural breath of language (247). But the most important aspect of the anthropomorphic impulse, implicit in all the above accounts, is that it finds expression primarily in response to doubt or disbelief, the perceptual uncertainty into which we are all born and with which, consciously or not, our minds constantly grapple: Is that a ship on the horizon, or a trick of the sunlight? A fierce wind, or the angry breath of God? In the face of the unknowable—whether God, animal, or any other aspect of our surroundings—we will see humanity wherever possible.

Given the prevalence of anthropomorphism as a strategy for combating perceptual uncertainty, disbelief or doubt, Pi's tendency to humanize the animals that surround him—despite the zoological knowledge that affords him insight into the drawbacks of such a tendency—takes on a special significance, especially in light of his apparently incongruous and excessive engagement with religion. Although he attempts to excuse having humanized the pheasants, baboons and other animals of the zoo "till they spoke fluent English" by claiming that "the fancy was always conscious," Pi never entirely loses his youthful tendency to anthropomorphize. This is most obvious in his attitude to Richard Parker, the tiger with a human name, an anthropomorphic trope writ large. Though it might seem strange that a novel whose only direct comments on anthropomorphism are condemnatory should depend so heavily on it—to the extent of granting a tiger an honorary humanity to allow both narrator and reader a more convincing engagement with him—a careful reading reveals a much more fraught and ambiguous narrative relationship with the concept than Pi's vehement positioning suggests.

The first time we hear of Richard Parker, Pi laments: "I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once," an anthropomorphic misunderstanding that jars quite strikingly with Pi's aforementioned oration on the dangers of "Animalus Anthropomorphicus," which occurs only a little further on in the novel. But although Pi presumably sees quite clearly the fallacy in daring to attribute fellow feeling to a tiger, the reader is not explicitly told that Richard Parker is a tiger until much later, … and so would not recognize the contradiction on first reading. Besides, the rhetorical importance of the passage far outweighs the logical contradiction it embodies, as the narrative impact of Richard Parker's appearance in the lifeboat as "a wet, trembling, half-drowned, heaving and coughing three-year-old adult Bengal tiger" entirely depends on the reader having naturally assumed that Richard Parker is human. Or, put another way, given ambiguity, we assume Richard Parker is human because that is the most meaningful thing he could be; because, as Guthrie notes of our anthropomorphic impulse, "we look first for what matters most" (90). This is not to say that the revelation of Richard Parker's tiger-ness strips him of meaning. Not at all. Because by the time his biological status is clarified, he has already been sufficiently humanized for the reader to have placed him on a continuum with the novel's human characters. Although the believability of Pi's story depends on his detailed engagement with Richard Parker's tiger-ness—his account of how he kept him fed, watered, and obedient without getting killed—and although such passages convey a realism only meticulous zoological research can account for, much of Richard Parker's charm as a character subsists in his consistent humanization, a function his name subtly fulfils at every mention. And although Pi resists directly anthropomorphizing Richard Parker for most of the lifeboat journey, qualifying his statements with the verb to seem so as not to claim possession of an inaccessible knowledge—as in "‘Where's my treat?’ his face seemed to inquire"—he cannot avoid using human analogies to imbue Richard Parker with significance: in the space of a few pages, the tiger sports "formidable sideburns" and "a stylish goatee"; reveals his massive canine "coyly"; catches the rat in his maw "like a baseball into a catcher's mitt"; and settles in after feeding "the way you or I would look out from a restaurant table after a good meal, when the time has come for conversation and people-watching." Pi's avoidance of unqualified anthropomorphisms Page 152  |  Top of Article through most of the long lifeboat section might convince us that he has, as he claims, learned from the tiger "the lesson that an animal is an animal, essentially and practically removed from us." But at the end of the novel, while recounting their sad final parting, he takes up once again his anthropomorphic lament: "I was weeping because Richard Parker left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape." Further on, Pi admits that "that bungled goodbye hurts me to this day," an indication that though he may be intellectually resolved to the unbridgeable distance between himself and Richard Parker—a distance so vast that not even 227 days in a lifeboat together could bring them to anything more than spatial closeness—the fact still stings him emotionally. Also worth noting is Pi's shift to the present tense: he "believes in form," and that "we must give things a meaningful shape," thus evincing that however his experiences with Richard Parker may have disabused him of any faith in the truth of anthropomorphism, he still implicitly acknowledges its necessity. Anthropomorphism, as characterized by Guthrie and others, is a perceptual strategy by which we attempt to glean the greatest meaning from the world around us. Though by definition mistaken, it is reasonable and often unavoidable. So Pi's appeal to meaning in the above passage is not surprising; Richard Parker's presence during his lifeboat ordeal provides him with another proximate being to infuse with significance, a fellow mammal with whom to share the months of endless horizon. Like all humans, Pi remains "condemned to meaning," is a meaning generator, so Richard Parker's presence allows Pi to exercise a fundamental aspect of his humanity. Conversely, it is difficult to imagine the animal characters in Life of Pi conveying much of anything if stripped of their imposed humanness.

I have so far noted that while Pi generally avoids directly anthropomorphizing Richard Parker during their lifeboat ordeal, he tends to indulge in the fallacy more openly at places in the narrative set explicitly before or after their odyssey. This is in the interest of realism; the meticulously detailed lifeboat section would suffer in believability were the narrator's more wildly fallacious anthropomorphisms to emerge too often. Gone therefore are such elaborate comparisons as that of three-toed sloths to "upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer"; or that of zoos to hotels with guests "either terribly repressed and subject to explosions of frenzied lasciviousness or openly depraved"; or that of the orangutan Orange Juice to the Virgin Mary, and the spiders that crawl around her to "malevolent worshippers." Except for the comment that Richard Parker's "mix of ease and concentration" while swatting and swallowing flying fish out of the air "would be the envy of the highest yogis," Pi's early proclivity for improbable comparisons is noticeably muted in the novel's long second part, with Richard Parker's name and a slew of indirectly humanizing analogies sufficing to carry the anthropomorphic conceit through to its re-emergence at the coda. That four of the five comparisons cited above have religious overtones also calls to notice how the religious content too is muted in the lifeboat section. Despite regular invocations of "Jesus, Mary, Mohammed and Vishnu," "God," or "Allah," and a single of the lifeboat's 57 chapters devoted to religious rituals on board (chapter 74), references to Pi's well-established religious fervour come mainly in passing. So remarkably slight is Pi's engagement with religion during this section that when he claims, just before striking land, that "it was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God," his piety rings a little false. At this point he has made no reference to God for thirty pages, none at all since first landing on the carnivorous island. James Wood points out that during the lifeboat section "we are not privy to any theological anguish or questioning," and notes that in the "bland closure" of the above-cited passage, "it is not Pi's theological conclusion—his religious fidelity—that puzzles so much as his oddly formulaic, empty method of reaching it." But given Pi's persistent conflation of aesthetic and religious belief, the absence of religious questioning during the lifeboat ordeal seems consistent. Neither Pi nor his author-narrator make any distinction between the temporary suspension of disbelief and firm religious faith, between the acceptance of a believable story and the embrasure of an omniscient God. From such a vantage point, the subjective aesthetic value of the lifeboat section—how it manages an intricate realism within an utterly implausible framework—effectively supplants objective religious truth. According to the worldview embodied in the novel, the religious aspects of the narrative do not simply fade to the background in part two, Page 153  |  Top of Article they are enacted: if we believe the story of Pi's ordeal, we believe in God, however temporarily …

Source: Stewart Cole, "Believing in Tigers: Anthropomorphism and Incredulity in Yann Martel's Life of Pi," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 2004, pp. 22-37.

Randy Boyagoda

In the following review, Boyagoda simultaneously applauds the story in Life of Pi while heavily critiquing its religious arguments as "piecemeal."

Good news came from across the Atlantic late last year. England's most prestigious literary award—the Booker Prize—had been awarded to a work that made the following assertion on its inside cover: "This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?" That sophisticated English literary palettes thought this a reasonable claim—and that Canadian Yann Martel's The Life of Pi has since become a bestseller—may be an indication that growing numbers of people, thirsting for more substance in their lives, are beginning to seek more substance in their reading. Or, alternately, it may be a comment on the brand of popular piety Martel's novel proposes.

The protagonist of The Life of Pi is the precocious son of a pragmatic zookeeper, an Indian boy fascinated by his nation's many faiths but forced by its many political problems to emigrate to Canada along with his family and their animal charges. During the voyage, their ship suddenly sinks, leaving the boy on a lifeboat along with a few furry survivors; ultimately only Pi and a tiger remain. As the duo drift through the Pacific Ocean, struggling to survive the elements, Pi must also struggle to survive his shipmate; he relies on his wits and his faith in, intermittently, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam to do so. After a series of adventures—some wondrous, some gruesome—their boat washes up in Mexico and the two part ways. We never hear from the tiger again, but we do hear from Pi. In fact, he retells his story as an adult living in Toronto, in a house whose décor—a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe rests beside a photo of Kaaba; a brass statue of Shiva stands beneath paintings of Christ; a prayer rug lies near a bedside Bible—inadvertently displays our protagonist's eclectically tacky approach to religion.

The Life of Pi seems to have as many literary predecessors as India has religions. There are traces of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, St. Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, and Aesop's Fables. But The Life of Pi also asks to be the latest in the long line of grand tales about India, novels that seek to capture what Martel himself calls "the rich, noisy, functioning madness" of the place, and a great deal of the novel's flaws rest in that ambition. The encounters of two more famous orphans with India's religions provide a sense of what Pi lacks. Kipling's Kim and Rushdie's Saleem Sinai dash from one end of India to another, experiencing the nation's religious panoply as it must be—as frenzied, vital, occasionally terrifying—rather than as a well-meaning Canadian might imagine it: as polite, passive, frequently meek.

For example, the adult Pi, an Indian orphan-cum-Canadian immigrant, recalls finding a Gideon Bible in a hotel room. He praises the Gideons, then advises: "They should leave not only Bibles, but other sacred writings as well. I cannot think of a better way to spread the faith. No thundering from a pulpit, no condemnation from bad churches, no peer pressure, just a book of scripture quietly waiting to say hello, as gentle and powerful as a girl's kiss on your cheek." The author's patent lack of appreciation for the intensity and particularity of religious devotion explains such myopic idealism and saccharine imagery. In telling us that the Bible (and "other sacred writings") is "just a book" to spread "the faith," Martel reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between God and religious practices. Martel offers a confusing pastiche of devotions brought into unity by the sincerity of individual intention and action, rather than by virtue of the singular truth inherent in any of the religions Pi purports to follow.

Page 154  |  Top of Article

Pi's repeated all-inclusive paeans to his private trinity of faiths detract from an otherwise enjoyable tale, which Martel achieves when he forgets about religion and concentrates on telling his young hero's adventures. Running through the chaos of a sinking ship; watching a tiger wrestle a shark; exploring a mysterious island; devising ways to catch turtles and gather fresh water—these are but some of the novel's small pleasures. In matters not religious, Martel chose the right narrator: Pi's innocent voice allows us to revel in the wide-eyed pleasures of this world as only a young boy on a fantastic voyage can experience them. Consider Pi's description of the fearful symmetry of raw elegance and sublime power occasioned by his tiger companion returning to their boat:

He surged onto the stern, quantities of water pouring off him, making my end of the boat pitch up. He balanced on the gunnel and the stern bench for a moment, assessing me. My heart grew faint. I did not think I would be able to blow into the whistle again. I looked at him blankly. He flowed down to the floor of the lifeboat and disappeared under the tarpaulin. I could see parts of him from the edges of the locker lid. I threw myself upon the tarpaulin, out of his sight—but directly above him. I felt an overwhelming urge to sprout wings and fly off.

Like Pi, we are breathless, a tiger-training whistle dangling from our lips, as much from the beauty as from the terror of a wild animal in close proximity.

However grateful we may be to Martel for such moments, the third and final section of his novel limits our general appreciation by enlisting us in a clumsy postmodern game of narration and belief. The section is comprised of a transcript between two Japanese representatives of the shipping company and Pi, recuperating in a Mexican hospital room. The Japanese have no time for Pi's unbelievable musings and insist upon a factual account of the ship's sinking, so Pi retells his tale, turning his animal shipmates into humans. The new version is more comprehensible but less enjoyable: either way we can never know which version "actually" happened. We likely entered the novel as skeptical as are the Japanese, but having heard the story, we now face a test of faith: Which do we believe? Of course Martel wants us to believe in Pi's original version, with the floating banana island and the man-eating plants and the flying fish. In his view, to do so is a leap of faith, which in turn is a leap towards God: the God brought into existence by the novel itself, a strange mishmash of religious notions and figures that together comprise the deity that Pi creates and celebrates. In short, a God of fiction.

Martel should have stuck to the metaphoric approach he takes to religion at the end of the novel's second section, when Pi finally reaches land. In his darkest moment, Pi perceives: "The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God." The next chapter opens: "When we reached land," a phrase that with simple perfection conveys the foundation given to us when we rely on God's power, rather than on our own. In one of the novel's few instances of coherent religious meaning, Martel echoes St. Paul and Kempis' Imitatio in telling us that if we turn to God in our lowest moments, inevitably we will be raised up on high. A meaningful moment, sadly set adrift amongst so much faith-as-flotsam. If only we could agree with Pi's approach to religion, we could enjoy his Life. Were we to read in a compartmentalized way, taking bits and pieces from here and there that amuse or ennoble us, ignoring the deeper implications of such a piecemeal commitment to a unified whole, we could happily sail along with boy and tiger. But such a way of reading, of professing, indeed of living, while so symptomatic of our contemporary condition, ought not be our course.

T. S. Eliot made the following distinction: "We must believe that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order, though some of it may be written by people with individual notions of a supernatural order which are not ours." Martel falls into the latter camp: unfortunately, his invitation to believe in God through his novel is too individualized to be reasonable. We do not turn to fiction to find the true God, and we should not turn to it to find a recipe for making a God agreeable enough to our personal tastes to believe in. We turn to good novels in part to exercise our imaginations, and The Life of Pi allows for that in some places. Yet Martel goes much further, to imply that we can find God by using our imaginations freely. But we can only hope to find God by using our imaginations wisely. Fiction, on its own, cannot Page 155  |  Top of Article create truth. The finest books can at best sound the depths of the human condition and bring rumors of the highest truths. They help chart our course towards that undiscovered country where we all hope, someday, to land.

Source: Randy Boyagoda, "Faith, Fiction, Flotsam," in First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2003, pp. 69-72.


Houser, Gordon, Review of Life of Pi, in the Christian Century, February 8, 2003, pp. 34-35.

Innes, Charlotte, "Robinson Crusoe, Move Over," in the Nation, August 19-26, 2002, pp. 25-29.

Iyer, Pico, "The Last Refuge," in Harper's magazine, Vol. 304, No. 1825, 2002, pp. 77-80.

Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Vintage Canada, 2002.

Mishra, Pankaj, "The Man or the Tiger?" in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 50, No. 5, March 27, 2003, pp. 43-54.

Morra, Linda M., Review of Life of Pi, in Canadian Literature, Vol. 177, Summer 2003, p. 163.

Review of Life of Pi, in the Missouri Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2004, pp. 179-80.

Shirato, Linda, Review of Life of Pi, in Library Journal, May 15, 2003, p. 164.


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This was the first major theoretical account of a wide range of post-colonial texts and their relation to the larger issues of post-colonial culture, and remains one of the most significant works published in this field.

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This seminal study positions the Bildungsroman as the great cultural mediator of nineteenth-century Europe, arguing that the form explores the many strange compromises between revolution and restoration; economic transition and aesthetic pleasure; and individual autonomy and social normality.

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This book is an invaluable reference companion to the literatures of Canada, and it discusses Canadian authors and their work, related literary and social issues, and the major historical and cultural events that have shaped Canadian literature.

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The Eastern world was first known to the West only through literature and texts that viewed it, for the most part, through a predominantly Western perspective. The crux of this study is a critique of how the academic world has regarded the East and how they have only helped to legitimize and feed this skewed perspective.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3422000017