Life of Pi: Theme and Character

“Life of Pi,” by Yann Martel is a story about the journey of a young boy called Pi, across unfathomable seas in a desperate attempt to find land. It is during the surprising detour that Pi is forced to take when the ship carrying him and his family unexpectedly sinks, that he develops an independent perspective and a strong character. Martel uses surrealism to express how Pi overcomes the terrible circumstances that he is thrown into with premature valor, which eventually refine his character and turn him into a strong individual.

At its base, “Life of Pi,” is about the literal journey of Pi who becomes stranded in the middle of an ocean while migrating from India to Canada. Being alone in a mere wooden boat with little food and water and in the company of one of the most dangerous animals on earth: a tiger (Richard Parker), it would not have been surprising if Pi had succumbed to grief and become mad because of prolonged isolation. But his continuous faith in God and resolve in religion helped him to grapple onto the last thread of humanity for the entirety of his ordeal. In fact, it is because of the problems that he had to endure that his faith in religion and connection to God grew stronger. After losing his parents and his elder brother, God became his only form of salvation from his miserable reality.

Moreover, the essence of spirituality has many thematic implications in “Life of Pi.” Pi had always been a disciple and believer of all religions; rendering his faith equally to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. But after his journey across the Pacific, his faith grew stronger. Pi goes on to preach that all religions are equal. He explains that atheism is also a form of belief and he considers atheists as his brothers; but he discards agnosticism, saying that it is a phase of doubt and only a vehicle to get to a point where one can acquire actual faith. Through Pi’s strengthening of religious beliefs, Martel expresses that while bravery is an important aspect in overcoming a difficult situation, faith and religion are equally important facets in a character.

An important element that Martel uses to develop both theme and character is surrealism. This is evident in Pi’s encounter with the mystical algae island. At first, the island appears to be a haven to Pi, a safe place from the endless atrocities of the sea. The island provides him with abundant algae that he can eat and water that he can drink. But this island soon turns out to be more ominous than the sea during the worst of storms. The algae island was carnivorous and devoured life. Pi only came to realize this when found human teeth bundled up in what he thought was a fruit that was growing from the tree. It was at this point that he questioned his faith in the materialistic world but strengthened his faith in the spiritual world.

During one incident, when Pi becomes temporarily blind because of an unknown disease, he comes across another young boy who too, like him, is blind and stranded on the sea. What follows is also expressed through surrealism by Martel. The blind stranger, after having a rather odd conversation with Pi, leaps out from his own boat and onto Pi’s and attempts to take Pi’s life and eat him. Pi is surprisingly saved by Richard Parker who kills the stranger; but even the subtlest joy that he would have felt after being able to survive a gruesome attack is destroyed by Pi’s innocent misery which he feels after witnessing the murder. He says about this incident, “Something in me died then that has never come back to life.” This underscores Pi’s sensitive character. This incident also serves to depicts Pi’s internal conflict between retaining his humanity or submitting to the animalistic instincts that begin to push inside of him due to his desperate circumstances.

Pi’s relationship with his only companion – the tiger, Richard Parker – deepens as the journey continues, and this relationship also serves to develop Pi’s character. It is provided as a backdrop in the story that Pi had always been particularly afraid of Tigers. His father, who was a passionate zookeeper in Pondicherry, India, had made him witness a tiger devouring a young, defenseless fowl. Pi’s father had done this so that Pi and his elder brother wouldn’t foolishly attempt to enter a tiger’s cage. But this had created a fear of tigers in Pi’s mind. But during the ordeal that Pi endures, he is forced to overcome his fear of tigers and establish dominance over Richard Parker in order to ensure his own survival. He does this by regularly feeding Richard Parker fish and perpetuating in the tiger’s mind that he (Pi) was the tiger’s only source of survival.

This compelling journey that Pi takes across the Pacific transforms his character. He graduates from a sensitive vegetarian to a skilled survivalist. In the starting Pi deals with his devastation of having to kill a dorado to feed himself, but by the end of his journey he becomes strong enough to establish control over his surroundings.  The journey has a profound effect on him, as he culminates the values of religion and friendship and also develops an interest in botany and theology, which are the two subjects that he later takes up in his university. The experiences that he encounters during his journey leave him scarred but emotionally stronger than ever.

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