The Will to Live
Life of Pi is a story about struggling to survive through seemingly insurmountable odds. The shipwrecked inhabitants of the little lifeboat don’t simply acquiesce to their fate: they actively fight against it. Pi abandons his lifelong vegetarianism and eats fish to sustain himself. Orange Juice, the peaceful orangutan, fights ferociously against the hyena. Even the severely wounded zebra battles to stay alive; his slow, painful struggle vividly illustrates the sheer strength of his life force. As Martel makes clear in his novel, living creatures will often do extraordinary, unexpected, and sometimes heroic things to survive. However, they will also do shameful and barbaric things if pressed. The hyena’s treachery and the blind Frenchman’s turn toward cannibalism show just how far creatures will go when faced with the possibility of extinction. At the end of the novel, when Pi raises the possibility that the fierce tiger, Richard Parker, is actually an aspect of his own personality, and that Pi himself is responsible for some of the horrific events he has narrated, the reader is forced to decide just what kinds of actions are acceptable in a life-or-death situation.
The Importance of Storytelling
Life of Pi is a story within a story within a story. The novel is framed by a (fictional) note from the author, Yann Martel, who describes how he first came to hear the fantastic tale of Piscine Molitor Patel. Within the framework of Martel’s narration is Pi’s fantastical first-person account of life on the open sea, which forms the bulk of the book. At the end of the novel, a transcript taken from an interrogation of Pi reveals the possible “true” story within that story: that there were no animals at all, and that Pi had spent those 227 days with other human survivors who all eventually perished, leaving only himself.
Pi, however, is not a liar: to him, the various versions of his story each contain a different kind of truth. One version may be factually true, but the other has an emotional or thematic truth that the other cannot approach. Throughout the novel, Pi expresses disdain for rationalists who only put their faith in “dry, yeastless factuality,” when stories—which can amaze and inspire listeners, and are bound to linger longer in the imagination—are, to him, infinitely superior.
Storytelling is also a means of survival. The “true” events of Pi’s sea voyage are too horrible to contemplate directly: any young boy would go insane if faced with the kinds of acts Pi (indirectly) tells his integrators he has witnessed. By recasting his account as an incredible tale about humanlike animals, Pi doesn’t have to face the true cruelty human beings are actually capable of. Similarly, by creating the character of Richard Parker, Pi can disavow the ferocious, violent side of his personality that allowed him to survive on the ocean. Even this is not, technically, a lie in Pi’s eyes. He believes that the tiger-like aspect of his nature and the civilized, human aspect stand in tense opposition and occasional partnership with one another, just as the boy Pi and the tiger Richard Parker are both enemies and allies.
The Nature of Religious Belief
Life of Pi begins with an old man in Pondicherry who tells the narrator, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Storytelling and religious belief are two closely linked ideas in the novel. On a literal level, each of Pi’s three religions, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, come with its own set of tales and fables, which are used to spread the teachings and illustrate the beliefs of the faith. Pi enjoys the wealth of stories, but he also senses that, as Father Martin assured him was true of Christianity, each of these stories might simply be aspects of a greater, universal story about love.
Stories and religious beliefs are also linked in Life of Pi because Pi asserts that both require faith on the part of the listener or devotee. Surprisingly for such a religious boy, Pi admires atheists. To him, the important thing is to believe in something, and Pi can appreciate an atheist’s ability to believe in the absence of God with no concrete proof of that absence. Pi has nothing but disdain, however, for agnostics, who claim that it is impossible to know either way, and who therefore refrain from making a definitive statement on the question of God. Pi sees this as evidence of a shameful lack of imagination. To him, agnostics who cannot make a leap of faith in either direction are like listeners who cannot appreciate the non-literal truth a fictional story might provide.
More main ideas from Life of Pi
The central theme of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi concerns religion and human faith in God. However, the novel pointedly refrains from advocating any single religious faith over another. Instead, the novel investigates the nature of religious faith itself. This theme is embodied most clearly in the novel’s protagonist, Pi Patel, who is a devout follower of three very different religions. Pi has studied and memorized the stories of all the various incarnations of the Hindu gods, maintaining shrines in his home to many of them. He also possesses a crucifix and a rosary, going to church on Sundays and praying to Jesus. Lastly, he owns and proudly uses a prayer rug, observing the call to prayer several times a day as a devoted Muslim. By comfortably following three of the world’s major religions, Pi represents not just the possibility of peaceful coexistence between different faiths but also the belief that different religions are merely alternative paths to the same destination.
The specific doctrines of Pi’s three faiths make very little difference to him. When comparing these religions to one another, Pi seems to conclude in his innocence that there need not be conflict between them. For him, each religion simply emphasizes what is most powerful and true in the others according to its own strengths. The religions resemble different chapters of one very long book, each chapter setting up and feeding into the next. The novel contrasts Pi’s easy acceptance of his three faiths with the competition and arguments between the leaders of those faiths. In Munnar, while Pi is walking in a busy marketplace with his parents, they happen upon the pandit, imam, and priest who are the leaders of Pi’s Hindu, Muslim, and Christian faiths, respectively. When the leaders discover that Pi has been following three different religions, each attempts to claim Pi for himself. They reason that one boy cannot follow three different paths, and they begin to debate which religion would be best for Pi. When the leaders demand that Pi choose one faith to the exclusion of all others, he blurts out, “I just want to love God,” embarrassing the hot-headed religious leaders and putting a stop to their debate.
This tension between reason, logic, and argument, on one hand, and simple religious faith and the desire to love God, on the other hand, lies at the novel’s core. The human capacity for reason is contrasted to religious faith repeatedly, nowhere more poignantly than in the chapters showing Pi adrift on the Pacific Ocean, where his faith, not his reason, enables Pi to survive: I was alone and orphaned in the middle of the Pacific hanging onto an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten.
Pi’s refusal to consider his predicament “in the light of reason” opens up space for his faith in God to flourish, and this faith sustains him even through the darkest, most fearful moments. Fear, Pi realizes, is “life’s only true opponent,” and he holds back the fear with his faith, no matter what religion embodies that faith.
The novel also explores another meaning of faith—the human capacity to believe what is unbelievable. Pi’s story challenges readers with plot twists that sound impossible. That Pi survives 227 days adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean is remarkable enough; that he survives this time in the company of a Bengal tiger or that he happens to run into a floating island of carnivorous algae strains readers’ ability to suspend their disbelief. A skeptical attitude toward the narrative is embodied by Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, who at first refuse to believe Pi’s stories about a Bengal tiger and carnivorous algae. They insist that his story contradicts reality, to which Pi replies, “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.”
When Pi gives them the flat story they want, a story that fails to contradict what they are prepared to believe, the men become excited by the prospect that this second version is the truth. However, Pi is not finished with them or their skepticism. He demonstrates that the facts of both stories are irrelevant to the men’s purpose of finding out what caused the Tsimtsum to sink, and he points out that the men are in a position to verify neither of the two versions. Then, he asks, “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” The men agree that the story with animals is superior, which prompts Pi to add, “And so it goes with God.” This is faith, Pi seems to say. Since it is the nature of religious faith that it can never be proven, just as the facts of Pi’s journey across the Pacific can never be verified, the question is not a matter of reason but of belief. Pi seems to argue that what should compel one to believe a story is whether the story is a good one—whether it helps readers “see higher or further or differently.”