Sloppy Humans and Uptight Animals:
the Four Parts of Life of Pi
Life of Pi is the incredible story of Pi Patel, the Indian boy who finds himself stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a three-year-old adult Bengal tiger (124). Instead of going straight to the story, Yann Martel writes the book in four parts to support the theme. The novel starts with the Author’s Note, explaining how the Martel-like writer learns about Pi. In the second part, Pi talks about his father’s zoo and his religious pursuit. The third section is where Pi shares his unbelievable experiences after the sinking of the Tsimtsum. The book is concluded with the conversation between Pi and the two Japanese officials, to whom a second story is introduced. The officials agree that the first story is a fabrication of what really happened. Martel fictionalizes Pi’s story by representing human beings with animals, mocking people’s tendency to see themselves as superior to other creatures; in an imaginative way he demonstrates how under harsh circumstances civilized people and wild animals can have no difference.
Martel justifies the fictionalization of Pi’s story with the italicized passages in the novel, assuring the readers that Pi survives his torment. The writer foreshadows the trickery when he tells us that Indians “like words like ‘bamboozle’” (vi). He goes on describing his attempt to seek truth through fabrication, saying, “That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?” (vi). This statement shows that there is a tinge of validity in most fantasies. Incredulity also provides a distancing effect on the readers, preventing them from becoming too emotionally involved in the novel and giving them the mental space to analyze Pi’s philosophies. “This story has a happy ending” (117): the readers are saved from having to worry about Pi’s life and therefore can delve into the messages Martel wishes to convey.
Before bedazzling readers with the main story, Pi introduces his way of thinking by talking about his upbringing as the son of a zookeeper. Pi’s father greatly influences how Pi feels about the relationship between animals and people. The zookeeper expresses what he thinks about zoo visitors by hiding a mirror under the painted words: “DO YOU KNOW WHICH IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL IN THE ZOO?” (39). This joke shows how we distance ourselves from other creatures; when people pull at the curtain that covers the mirror, they expect to see some scary exotic critter, and not the two-legged hairless primates staring back at them. Pi’s father also shows him an animal more dangerous than humans: Animalus anthropomorphicus, “the animal as seen through human eyes” (39). Anthropomorphism, the granting of human qualities to non-human entities, results from “the obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything” (Stewart Cole 23); it also demonstrates people’s habit of seeing themselves as different from everything else.
In addition to the zoo, religion is a big element in Pi’s life; he uses the sameness of religions as a metaphor for the similarity between humans and animals. “. . . Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims” (62); Pi proposes that the essence of all religions is the same, and it is merely the forms that differ. Similarly, the heart of all creatures is the same, and it is only their appearances that differ. With this idea in mind, the quarrel between the three religious figures in Chapter 23 resembles the way humans argue about their superiority to other animals; it is ridiculous and pointless.
In the second part of the novel Martel shows the likeness of humans and animals, yet in the third section he demonstrates how even a religious vegetarian can become animal-like when pressured. After the Tsimtsum sinks, Pi talks about how he spent 227 days on a lifeboat with Richard Parker, the famous tiger. However, numerous details hint that Richard Parker is a symbol for Pi’s animal instincts. First of all, the gigantic Bengal tiger is discovered only after the hyena kills Orange Juice (171). During the interview we learn that the hyena is the French cook, and Orange Juice is Pi’s mother (392). When the cook kills his mother, Pi’s aggressive nature is discovered. Second, when Richard Parker is about to prey on the hyena, Pi says: “The hyena’s end had come, and mine” (189); when he kills the cook, Pi’s civilized self is destroyed. Third, when Pi reaches Mexico and returns to civilization, Richard Parker disappears (360); Pi’s animal-like self vanishes after he is saved because it is not needed anymore.
Another critical point of the third part of the novel is how the French cook is represented two times: first as the bloodthirsty hyena and then as the blind castaway. It can be argued that the French cook resembles Pi’s brutal, immoral self. Many times between the two stories are the identities of Pi and the cook scrambled (Florence Stratton 7). When the blind Pi meets the blind castaway, he initially mistakes the latter man’s voice to be Richard Parker’s (310). This detail symbolizes the fact that Pi cannot tell the difference between his immorality and animal instincts. It is also worthy to note that at first Pi embraces the blind man, calling him “my sweet brother” (320). However, when the man attempts to kill Pi for food, he steps into Richard Parker’s territory and is therefore killed by the tiger. In a symbolic way, Pi describes how he starts to accept his brutal side for survival, yet quickly finds out that it is destroying his religious self, and therefore he gets rid of it.
After mystifying his readers with the bizarre survival story, Martel uses the interview of the Japanese officials to present the second story and to explain the first. It is only after comparing the two stories can readers comprehend the meanings and symbolism in the first story (Stratton 10). The cases of killing on the lifeboat may seem natural in the first story because they are merely animals preying on each other, yet in the second story we learn that they are really people brutally murdering each other; the horrible things that happen on the lifeboat seem animal-like, yet they are all done by humans. Even worse, the animals kill for food and survival, yet the Taiwanese sailor is murdered by the greed of the French cook, Pi’s mother dies of the cook’s resentment, and the cook is killed by Pi’s grief. By analyzing the two stories together, the baseness of human beings can clearly be identified.
Therefore, the four parts of Life of Pi are all essential to the development of Martel’s message, that there is no point in articulating the superiority of humans to other creatures, because anyone can become animal-like when it is necessary. Martel uses an organized procedure to prove this idea. First, in the Author’s Note, he gives reasons why fictionalizing the story is appropriate. Second, he takes a small careful step and uses metaphors to support and explain the idea. Third, he takes a huge, adventurous leap and presents a magical story that is unbelievable yet intriguing. Lastly, he tells us the realistic story and compares it to the first to analyze the symbolism. By twisting reality with imagination, Martel not only creates an astonishing piece of work, he also gives readers an opportunity to compare humans and animals. Animals, with their selfishness and love for life, are sloppy humans, and humans, with their defensiveness of territories, are uptight animals.
Cole, Stewart. “Believing in Tigers: Anthropomorphism and Incredulity in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29.2 (2004):22-36.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi: a Novel. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001.
Stratton, Florence. “Hollow at the Core: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29.2 (2004): 1-14.
-羅寗 Michelle Ning Lo