The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The role of the imagination in Pi’s epic journey by Dr Jennifer Minter

 “I was alone and orphaned in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me.” (Life of Pi, 107)

Without his imagination, Yann Martel suggests, it is unlikely that Pi would have survived his ordeal at sea. It feeds his will to live, nurtures his determination and props up his faith all of which prevent him from succumbing to the surrounding dangers.  Furthermore, his imagination helps him overcome his fear and tame adversity. It is, therefore, this “inability to let go” or rather his “life-hungry stupidity” that ensures Pi triumphs against the odds.

Pi’s precarious relationship with the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, is critical to his ability to imagine his survival and to maintain hope.  This relationship also lies at the core of the “better story” that, irrespective of how bleak and depressing his circumstances, ensures his emotional and psychological wellbeing. It is the “better story” rather than the “dry yeastless factuality” that, according to the author,  leads to “moral exaltation”. (63).

Throughout his journey, Pi becomes aware of the difference between practical imagination and futile dreaming. “Idle hope” is “tantamount to dreaming one’s life away”. (169). “Idle” hope also means that he is depending upon other people and this can lead to disappointment which can be psychologically crushing in his circumstances. Pi comes to realise, especially as the ship sails past,  that he must rely on himself to survive. His imagination is thereby geared towards his immediate survival needs.

As the “mother of invention”, necessity becomes an important teacher and encourages him to focus on the small, but important details that help him find solutions and that eventually contribute to his survival.  Pi learns to improvise and uses the tools on the raft and the lifeboat to the best of his ability, always paying attention to “what is close at hand and immediate”. (168)  Intuitively he realises that the lifeboat must have a survival kit which helps him find freshwater (135). Intuition, thus, leads him to the golden pale that solves his incredible thirst . The further problem of the can opener is again solved typically through his imagination whereby he realises that he needs something “short, blunt solid” and he seizes upon the tarpaulin hooks for a solution. Finally, he has freshwater. Likewise when he kills the turtle he turns to the “survival manual as to a cookbook” and improvises on the instructions.

Imagination: love and faith

Pi constantly explores his faith and imagination to ‘normalize’ this provocative and extreme landscape.

Even as a young boy, Pi shows an ability to understand the various religions in great depth and has faith in the gods. (72). He cannot choose which Gods are superior among the Muslim, Christian and Hindu religions owing to their similarities. He notes that they all have similar prophets; both the Christians, the Hebrews and the Muslims claim Abraham as their prophet as well as David, Moses and Jesus. Perhaps, according to Pi, all are allegories of the myth of the origin of humanities and all help to give us hope and provide shelter, comfort and love.  Whilst there are many alternative narratives focusing on existence and the origins of our world, it is necessary to believe in something. The vision of the Virgin Mary is the “vision of a vision” that is based on the founding principle of “love” that lies at the core of all these narratives.

Such faith sustains Pi during the journey. Pi clings to his love for God even as he recognizes his life is threatened and even when he notices that his “sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival”. He constantly hears the “voice” urging him to turn “miracle into routine”. He comments that “the amazing will be seen every day” (148). He places amazing faith in God, “so long as God is with me I will not die”. (148)

Also integral to his faith, comes a need to question and to doubt. At times, he wonders why he has been abandoned on the life-raft. Martel suggests that such doubts and questions are part of a person’s belief system.

Journey on the water: psychological and emotional state

Identity and adaptation: Pi has to adapt emotionally and psychologically to a life of deprivation and of constant fear. He is getting used to killing and comments on his mixed emotions: “You may be astonished that in such a short period of time I could go from weeping over the muffled killing of a flying fish to gleefully bludgeoning to death a Dorado.” (185)

  • He appreciates the importance of keeping busy: “I kept myself busy. That was one key to my survival.” On a lifeboat, even on a raft, there’s always something that needs doing.” (190)
  • He is always looking for distractions, and Richard Parker provides the necessary distraction from despair. (164)
  • He must not dwell on the negatives: “I survived because I made a point of forgetting.” (191) “I even forgot the very notion of time.” (192). “Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out.” It was a hell beyond expression.” I thank God it always passed.” (209)
  • Pi realises that he must rely on himself for survival: he cannot depend upon being rescued by another: this forces him to be resilient and resourceful. Especially after the tanker passes, Pi realises that cannot depend upon others. The whole gamut of emotions spreads through him. (236)
  • He has an in-built and amazing capacity to fight; he simply cannot let go. He simply refused to give in and die. (148)
  • His greatest wish was to have a book (207)
  • Writing in the diary: discipline and routine: the diary becomes a necessary tool of reflection; it is a necessary discipline . In his last diary entry, he writes, “I will die today. I die.”

Interaction with Richard Parker: an ambivalent relationship

The role of Richard Parker lies at the heart of the story of the imagination, which ensures his survival and the priority of the far-fetched story over the more mundane one.

On the physical level, the tiger keeps him occupied as he tries to find fish and water. Psychologically, the tiger provides a healthy level of fear, necessary distractions and the recognition of mutual dependence.

Martel describes Richard Parker as a very aggressive, intimidating, imposing tiger who is an unequal rival to Pi because of his physical advantage. Richard Parker was a 450-pound carnivore and each of his claws “was as sharp as a knife” (108) (A sense of healthy fear had been instilled in Pi since the time that his father starved a tiger for four days and then fed him a goat. The tiger’s ferocity had been overwhelming and was very impressionable.)

It would be too easy to kill him, starve him to death or abandon him on the island.   Rather, Pi has to learn to accommodate Richard Parker and devise ways to co-habit with him. He recognises that they are interdependent. Richard Parker provides a necessary distraction from his problems; it distracts him from thinking about his loss of family and his grief; it distracts him from his physical deprivation and trials and tribulations. (164). “If he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.”

Pi attributes the will to live to Richard Parker – fear is integral to his survival; he must harness fear and channel it towards love. He comes to realise that he “loves” Richard Parker . He owes his survival to their ambiguous relationship born of fear, hatred and love. At no stage does it occur to him to kill Richard Parker. By protecting Richard Parker he protects himself.

Love/hate relationship: he learns to fear and accept his dependency upon his enemy. It keeps him alert and anxious which helps to protect him from disintegration and defeat.

Richard Parker represents the civilising power of the beast and the message at the heart of religion – to learn to love one’s enemies. It is a relationship of mutual dependency; do not kill the enemy but use the enemy for one’s own mutual advantage.

Allegory of faith: Martel suggests we must maintain our faith, which protects us from despair, loneliness and disintegration. Richard Parker is integral to the alternative imaginative narrative that provides a better myth about creation, survival and man’s story on earth.. ./ religions … in common is the ability to imagine love, imagine a better future, imagine our survival

Taming Richard Parker also becomes a metaphorical representation of the need to tame the tiger within. Pi constructs their relationship so that he, as man, is always in the alpha position. To do this he uses circus symbolism to maintain his authority over Richard Parker. To feed the Richard Parker is also advantageous as it builds dependency and reinforces the alpha-omega relationship. (298)

Psychological (1) Circus symbolism: Power struggle: he must overcome his fear of superior forces and deal with adversity. He needs to become assertive and establish his authority even though the enemy is possibly superior. Martel suggests that we will master our problems through moral superiority. Pi’s survival is dependent upon his ability to tame and master Richard Parker, which is to tame his fear and sublimate the savagery within.

Pi knows that because of, or despite, their physical disadvantage he needs to maintain psychological superiority. He needs to instil in Richard Parker a certain sense of fear. Richard Parker must be aware of his dependency which is easier for Pi because Richard Parker had been a zoo animal. “I was the source of food and water.”

Master of the lion: (Circus symbolism)

  • It has come to the stage where he needs to be forthright and stake his territory. He needs to assert his authority as the top tiger or establish the “alpha-omega relationship” (168) “It was time to impose myself and carve out my territory.” (202)
  • He needs to ensure that the animal is cowed, but not provoked in a dangerous way. He must become “green about the gills with seasickness” (204)
    The whistle becomes the symbol of the circus master’s dominance. (205)
  • Figuratively, he trained him to jump through the hoop.
  • He has to overcome his fear and persevere. He is terrified while trying to tame him and was cuffed overboard four times.
  • He learns to read his body language (207)
  • Eyesight: the tigers rely on their sight; their eyesight is very keen (108). Importantly, he learns to win the wide-eyed stare. (222)
  • He gets him to back off by staring at him. He finally wins the battle because “I held my stare” (222)
    This is a battle that Pi has to win and that he eventually wins. “I had won” and he throws him a fair chunk of the fish as reward. “From that day onwards I felt my mastery was no longer in question” (222)

When the tanker passes and fails to see him, he realises just how much he depends upon Richard Parker. (236). “If I didn’t have you now, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t think I would make it.” (236) At one stage, he feels more affected by Richard Parker’s demise than his own. He laments the fact that he can no longer take care of him. (242)

Soon he will acknowledge his debt: “Thank you for saving my life.”

The hardest test of all

As Pi becomes exposed to extreme physical deprivation, he also loses his grip on reality. This is his most dangerous time. He goes blind. He first notices that Richard Parker has lost his sight, and then he can no longer see the sun. “This physical suffering was nothing compared to the moral torture I was about to endure. I would rate the day I went blind as the day my extreme suffering began.” Sometime between the 100th and 200th day. (241) ; descends into insanity and he becomes at his most vulnerable. (Losing reason is the worst that can hope; lose faith and lose hope and lose will to survive.)

His physical deprivation is severe, slipping to its worst level whereby he loses all fear of death. He realises that exposure to extreme hunger provides invaluable life lessons and is the ultimate test. ”There are only so many days you can go without eating.” (222) He begins talking to himself and realises that he must be going insane.

Martel’s narrative style changes and he shows Pi’s hallucinations through irrational short dialogue; he becomes involved in a long conversation with the “voice”. This style impresses upon readers just how dangerous is his state of mind and his slipping away from the world of the sane. (245) He hallucinates about his brother, and how saving Richard Parker cost him his brother’s life. “Something in me died then that has never come back to life.” (255)
He sees a vision of his brother as eaten by Richard Parker (256) and finds himself “getting used to the mental delusion”. (257)

The carnivorous island

The carnivorous tree is a symbol that Pi will be devoured if he stays on the island and he has the foresight to act on his intuition and leave this land of paradise. He resumes his terrifying sea struggle on the raft with Richard Parker. The island is described as pure bliss after his torture at sea.  “I passed the day eating, resting, attempting to stand and … bathing in bliss” but soon remembers Richard Parker. Richard Parker took possession of the island while I “crawled onto the tarpaulin “ and slept, weary from too much food. (261) He envisages staying on the land for the rest of his time – there is plenty of water and food. He feels comfortable – he has no thought of leaving the island at all.  “Leaving the island had not crossed my mind once since I had arrived.” (280). However, uncovering the molar, a “complete human set” (281) makes him doubt this utopia and he gains a vision of himself with “nothing but teeth left”. He soon realises that the meat-eating island is life-giving during the day, but death-devouring during the night. Because of its transformation into an island of death, Richard Parker slept in the boat, and the meerkats in the trees.

Pi realises that he cannot abandon Richard Parker and together they leave the island.  He is disappointed when Richard Parker eventually flees into the jungle upon landing in Mexico. Pi would like to believe that there was always more than just his reflection peering back at him from the tiger, as his father had warned him. Pi realises though, that this healthy fear of the tiger saves his life.

The investigators

The investigators shed light on the nature of storytelling. Martel asks: what makes a good story? What can we believe? Every time something is retold it is an invention. Are there facts that we can believe for certain?

Pi tells the long story and then the short one of his mother and cook on the raft. The cook kills his mother and lives with his guilty conscience. There are parallels between the two stories, so we can choose which one is better to believe. Every time we tell what happened it becomes a story or an invention. Every story is retold in words, in language so it is already someone’s invention or interpretation.

The fact theory; big bang and “yeastless”

The purpose of the investigation is to discover the cause of the sinking of the Tsintsum. However, their report states that there is no conclusive evidence to determine the cause of the disaster.

The investigators find Pi’s story “hard to believe” because of the bananas (they don’t sink) and the story of the island with the carnivorous trees simply does not exist. They want “facts” and “reality” ; however, Martel suggests that the stories offer similar conclusions (or lack of conclusions) about existence. Much depends upon a person’s system of beliefs. Martel suggests that there are different ways to interpret our existence. They are different stories pertaining to religion and the origin of life, and the existence of God.

It is significant that the ship sunk after a Big Bang. The author uses this as a parallel to the big bang theory and concludes that despite evidence, investigations and the eye-witness of a sole survivor, scientifically there is still doubt as to the cause . Some just want stories that “confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.” (302) Those who prefer experience, and the evidence of their senses, often rely on “narrow limited experience”. “The straight facts”.

  • Such people do not challenge their system of beliefs and do not see that tigers, lifeboats and oceans that do exist separately, might also exist and co-exist together. (298)
  • Such people with limited imaginations are unlikely to survive the tragedy at sea. They lack the perspicacity, insight and imagination to cope with the harsh reality and the life-and-death struggle.

The allegory – the alternative story

When compared with the alternative story, it becomes even clearer just how significant Pi’s imagination is to his survival. Although in the parallel story he states bluntly that “I turned to God. I survived” he is nevertheless not as focused on the positive aspects of his journey. Rather, without his inventiveness and superior ability to imagine and hope for recovery/survival, the cook, the mother and Pi become focussed on greed, envy, ruthlessness and cruelty. Perhaps Martel seems to suggest that imagination also prevents the degeneration into selfishness and barbarity; it sustains his dignity, moral strength and ability to care and love for another.

The investigators find that the “second” story is more credible; it has similar features and involves the cook, the mother and the son. The cook eats the sailor – an act of cannibalism – and thereby has a guilty conscience. He also kills the mother in a moment of revenge, resentment and anger – again a guilty conscience.

The son and the cook remain dependent upon each other much the same way as Pi is dependent upon the tiger.  As the investigators point out, there are many parallels, but the second story seems more straightforward and credible than the story with the tiger. Despite this, it is just human, to hanker after stories that are more sensational and surprising.

The “hard to believe” stories

Some stories appear more credible than others; however those stories that are hardest to believe are often preferred because they are more  entertaining and inspiring.  The author presents the story of Pi as preferable to the colourless, yeastless dry stories, because they capture the courage and desperation and tenacity of people who are surviving in difficult circumstances. He suggests that this is a parable of existence, perhaps of Noah’s ark.

Imagination provides a shelter; it is a survival tool and one that Martel suggests is also necessary for the survival of man. Hence, we have religion to help interpret for us our existence, our origins and our relationship with god(s).

He also believes that it is dangerous to be too reasonable. Whilst reason provides another shelter and protects Pi on the ship, “nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away” at the same time we should not be “excessively reasonable” because then it is difficult to imagine that our life might be different or better. (“You risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater”..)

“Since it makes no difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?” “There is no firm truth in Life of Pi.” To what extent do you agree?

While the tale of Pi’s survival on the lifeboat is extraordinary and hard to believe, the author Yann Martel tells an extraordinary tale of a young boy at sea, trapped on a lifeboat with a 450 pound Bengal tiger. During their journey, the unlikely castaways face an epic adventure of survival, crossing paths with characters such as a homicidal hyena, a motherly orang-utan,a dead on arrival zebra, and a French blind cannibal. The network of characters is weaved through a series of events which are interspersed with facts, imagination and fantasy and this requires readers to place their belief in the unbelievable and take a leap of faith. In turn, this provides an opening for the reader, to not only believe in Pi’s version but to recognise that there may be corresponding views, values and also parallels within the novel. Martel takes readers on an artificial, yet inspirational and conceivable journey.

Throughout the course of the investigation two parallel stories compete for priority and although the investigators prefer the “dry factual version” Martel privileges Pi’s story of survival with Richard Parker. The investigator’s report states that there is no conclusive evidence to determine the cause of the Tsintsum disaster, which then suggests that there is no firm truth although the investigators prefer the shorter version, which is “dry” and “factual”. This version involves a triangular relationship between the cook, the mother and the son, an act of cannibalism, a murder fuelled by revenge and spite, and the guilt that arises from one’s sinful actions. The investigators seek proof and believe that there are too many unsubstantiated aspects of Pi’s story such as the bananas (they don’t sink) and the carnivorous trees. They want “facts” and “reality”.

Martel suggests that in the absence of definitive reasons that people need to make choices based on their system of beliefs and their ability to devise a meaning to their lives. As Martel, shows, all the ingredients and elements are the same. It’s just that the tiger and Pi make for a much more sensational, interesting and surprising interpretation. This is the one we prefer. Contrastingly, Martel suggests that those who want confirmation and conclusive evidence are often those who lack the imagination to lead better lives. … tells them that such a “flat” and “immobile” story “won’t make you see higher or further or differently. (302) Those who prefer experience, and the evidence of their senses, often rely on “narrow limited experience”. Martel would suggest that such people who do not challenge their system of beliefs and do not see that tigers, lifeboats and oceans that do exist separately, might also exist and co-exist together. (298) are unlikely to survive the tragedy at sea. For this reason, the author firmly discredits the investigators because they are “excessively reasonable” and this, he suggests prevents … the ability to imagine that our life might be different or better… (“you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater”..) It’s just that it seems more “straightforward than the story with the tiger..

When compared with the alternative “factual” story, it becomes clear just how significant Pi’s imagination is to his survival. The author presents the story of Pi as preferable to the colourless, yeastless dry stories, because they capture the courage and desperation and tenacity of people who are surviving in difficult circumstances. Although in the parallel story he states bluntly that “I turned to God. I survived” he is nevertheless not as focused on the positive aspects of his survival journey. Rather, without his inventiveness and superior ability to imagine and hope for recovery/survival, the cook, the mother and Pi as a protagonists, are all dominated more by greed, envy, ruthlessness and cruelty. Indeed, Martel seems to prioritise the longer and more fanciful version, perhaps because imagination and consequently faith sustain Pi throughout his ordeal. Also it appears that Pi’s faith protects his humanity and his imagination prevents his degeneration into selfishness and barbarity; it sustains his dignity, moral strength and ability to care and love for another.

The investigators particularly reject Pi’s story because of the incredible focus on the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, which they believe lacks truth and is not sufficiently “straightforward”. However, Martel would suggest that Pi’s survival and the protection of his humanity and decency is particularly dependent upon his relationship with Richard Parker, whose presence on the boat can be interpreted from both a literal and a metaphoric perspective. Metaphorically, it is about the need to tame the wild beast, but also to find a way to hope and believe These ingredients are critical to survival. In the first version, the son and the cook remain dependent upon each other much the same way as Pi is dependent upon the tiger. On an allegorical level, Pi’s journey also suggests the need to overcome one’s fear and love one’s enemy, and recognise one’s interdependency. The existence of the tiger, which is far-fetched and removed from the truth, is ironically… what becomes the focal point of this parallel story.

Furthermore, two parallel stories can also be read as an allegory of creation and to this extent, Martel suggests that although there are different ways of interpreting our existence, often the story with the greatest imagination affords the greatest hope. Coincidentally, the ship disaster is set up as a parallel Big Bang explosion. Thereafter, the origin of mankind can be extrapolated from Pi’s survival journey. While neither the big bang, factual version nor the Richard Parker story consists of the “truth” and neither offer definitive reasons about mankind’s origin, Martel suggests that one needs to take a leap of faith. Imagination provides a shelter; it is a survival tool and one that Martel suggests is also necessary for the survival of man. Hence, we have religion to help interpret for us our existence, our origins and our relationships with god.

The author concludes that despite evidence, investigations and the eye-witness of a sole survivor, scientifically there is still doubt as to the cause. It is this absence of certainty that gives rise to multiple interpretations about existence and survival. Much depends upon our value system and our capacity to imagine and believe. Whilst some prefer a more realistic and practical version, others may opt for something more fanciful. Certainly, Martel suggests that it is the more fanciful that has the ingredients that are critical to Pi’s survival.