Life of Pi in a nutshell

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is a coming-of-age story featuring a young man’s—Pi’s—survival for months in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi grows up around animals in his family’s zoo in India. After the family decides to immigrate to Canada and sell the zoo animals, the ship on which they are making the journey meets with catastrophe and sinks. Pi and Richard Parker are ultimately the sole survivors on the lifeboat and must depend on each other in a variety of ways to withstand the many dangers of being lost at sea with few provisions. Within the story are themes of spirituality and religion, self-perception, the definition of family, and the nature of animals. Life of Pi is a rich and dynamic text full of discussion of morality, faith, and the ambivalence of what constitutes truth.

Written by: Yann Martel, born in Spain in 1963 to Canadian parents

Type of Work: Novel

Genre: Fantastical realism

First Published: September 2001

Settings: India, Pacific Ocean, an island, Mexico, Canada

Main Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (aka Pi), The Author, Richard Parker

Major Thematic Topics: Spirituality and religion, self-perception, the definition of family, anthropomorphism

Movie Versions: Life of Pi (2012)

The three most important aspects of Life of Pi: The novel comprises various narrators and narrations. The Author—not to be confused with Yann Martel—is one narrator within the text; he interviews Pi and relates his incredible journey. Pi himself is another narrator—although his narration is really The Author’s since The Author is retelling Pi’s story; Pi’s narration, using the first-person “I,” relates much of the story. The two officials from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport who interview Pi in Mexico provide their own narrative of Pi’s story. The novel’s author, Yann Martel, is not necessarily a narrator himself but rather uses The Author and Pi as his “voice” in the novel.

Names are important in the novel, especially the transformation of them. Pi, whose full name is Piscine Molitor Patel, got his name from a champion swimmer, who named him after a swimming pool in France. At school, he was called “Pissing” because Piscine sounds like that word. He then began using the nickname Pi, which recalls the number beginning with 3.14 and having no end that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Similarly, Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, was captured in the wild and initially named Thirsty; his captor’s name was Richard Parker. When Richard Parker the captor registered Thirsty the tiger cub, authorities mixed up the names, and thereafter the Bengal tiger was named Richard Parker. Also note that the novel includes two men named Mr. Satish Kumar. One Mr. Kumar is Pi’s biology teacher and an atheist. The other Mr. Kumar is Pi’s Muslim mentor. These two Mr. Kumars provide two opposing views of the world—both of which Pi adopts simultaneously.
Anthropomorphism is a major theme in the novel. Essentially, the term means projecting a human trait onto something that is not human. Specifically within the novel, it often means treating an animal as if the animal were human in some way. Pi’s father, as the owner of the Pondicherry Zoo, is adamant that Pi and his brother never forget that the zoo’s animals are wild; they are not pets and should never be thought of as having human characteristics. Pi repeatedly asserts that he would never anthropomorphize any animal—and yet that is what he starts to do with Richard Parker. When the ship sinks and Pi spots Richard Parker in the water, Pi calls out to him, begging him to answer that what is happening is nothing but a dream. Later in the novel, Pi attempts to dispel the fear that is building up in him by anthropomorphizing it, calling his fear a “person” with whom he wants no association. The discussion Pi has with Richard Parker when they are both temporarily blind best demonstrates how Pi eventually considers Richard Parker not as a tiger necessarily but as a companion with human traits—including the ability to carry on a conversation.
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