Critical Analysis: Life of Pi
By examining the novel Life of Pi, the three part novel by Yann Martel, one can observe the psyche of a man who has gone through a horrendous tragedy that has affected his life dramatically. Martel chose the differing setting of India, Canada, the Pacific Ocean, and briefly in Mexico during the nineteen seventies. From the conflicting cultures of the setting, the protagonist, Pi must deal with many adversities, yet he has survived all of them.
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The novel is narrated in first person with Pi taking on the role of narrator.
This gives an insight into the working of Pi’s mind. A privileged glimpse of how an individual responds to the task of survival makes one wonder how he/she would respond in a similar situation. It also shows what an individual will do to deal with the events that are just too horrible to accept.
The plot is told in flashback and as a framed story. The exposition is established early in the novel. We learn that Pi is a man from India who now resides in Canada. It is obvious that there has been some tragedy in his life, but it is not revealed until later. Pi is married with a son and daughter. The author discovers that he has a passion for cooking with lots of spices.
This could be a way for him to connect with his past in India. He uses so many layers of spices that it is just too intense for the author. His overly spicy food is symbolic of his past. Pi has tolerated his circumstances, but it is just too tragic for others to be able to identify. As part one unfolds, Pi relates the history of his childhood in India. His father had run the Pondicherry Zoo, and that is where he learns about the nature of animals as well as how human nature can parallel animals. Pi is convinced that the animals are better off in the zoo that in the wild because some one must take care of them. He also learns the way a human can achieve dominance over them.
The conflict of the novel is established in the trip to his new home and the completely different culture he will encounter. Pi’s family is killed in a shipwreck and he is the lone survivor. He must now fight the forces of nature to stay alive. Then he must learn how to deal the events that he has endured. Another conflict in the story deals with religion.
Pi was born into a Hindu family and throughout the novel he states that he considers himself primarily a Hindu. Along the way, he discovered Christianity and a priest convinced him that he needed to become a Christian and Pi agrees. His parents attend his baptism even though they do not accept the religion. Finally Pi meets a Muslim and is persuaded to convert to Islam. Again he embraces another religion. Pi decides that he can be all of the religions.
The rising action of the novel quickly becomes evident when Pi begins to relate his voyage to Canada. His father decides that the family must move because of political unrest in their homeland. Most of the animals are sold and the ones that couldn’t be sold are taken of the boat with the family. After an accident, the boat sinks. Pi, however, is the only one from his family to survive the shipwreck. He and a zebra escape on a lifeboat, but the zebra is injured in the fall.
Shortly after the life boat falls into the water, Pi spots his father’s tiger, Richard Parker. The human name of the tiger is symbolic of the animalistic instinct of man. The three survivors are soon joined by a hyena and an Orangutan. At first all of the animals coexist with each other. It is not long before the hyena chews the leg of zebra for a meal. He then basically eats the animal alive. The symbolism of the savagery of survival is evident in this incident.
The hyena soon turns on the Orangutan and kills her as she is looking for her two sons. Pi is amazed how human like she behaves. Pi and Richard Parker become weary and dehydrated. Pi learns how to fish and make drinking water out of sea water. He uses his basic instincts for his survival. The tiger finally kills the hyena, and even though Pi is glad that the hyena is gone, he becomes fearful of the tiger. He realizes that he must gain dominance of the animal.
He resorts back to the knowledge he gained at his father’s zoo. Pi and Richard Parker are joined by another man and while Pi is suffering temporary blindness due to dehydration. After battling hunger, lack of water, and the elements of nature, Pi’s lifeboat comes ashore in Mexico. Richard Parker escapes into a wooded area and Pi is taken to the hospital.
Two Japanese officials come to the hospital to interview Pi to gain information about the sinking of their ship. He recounts the whole story of the sinking and his survival on the lifeboat. After they listen to the story they leave to discuss the information they have just received. They return after a short while and inform Pi that they do not believe his story.
He then relates the story of his survival only substitutes humans for the animals. They are horrified and he then asked them which story they prefer. The men admit that the one with the animals was easier to accept. It is then that the climax becomes evident. The whole story of the animals was made up by Pi so that he could deal with the events that had happened to him. The zebra had been a sailor, the hyena was an insane cook, and the orangutan was Pi’s mother. Richard Parker is symbolic of Pi’s animal instincts. He finally gains dominance over them and it is his animal instincts that can alone help him survive.
The falling action comes about when the two Japanese officials write their report. They realize that Pi has no knowledge that can actually help them understand the wreck of their vessel. They resolve that Pi’s survival with a ferocious tiger was unique story. They, along with Pi, did what they had to do in their mind to be able to accept what had actually happened.
Pi is a character that embodies the whole idea of survival. All people go through adversity, and all have to learn to survive. Many times it is painful. An individual must come to grips in his/her own mind with what they must accept to continue on with daily life. Martel takes this into consideration when writing this story. Not only does he engage the reader by using suspense and the element of surprise, but he teaches mankind that we do what we have to do to cope.
He also makes the point that even though humans have come so far with their scientific knowledge and technology yet they still have animalistic instincts when it comes to survival. He could have set the story in the distant past, but instead he set it in the recent past. There was an immense amount of technological and scientific knowledge in the nineteen seventies. If our society were to lose our modern conveniences in a natural disaster, people would still revert to their instincts for continued existence.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Canada: Random House of Canada, 2001.