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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

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Life of Pi | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the significance of Pi comparing his life to the "grinning skull" in a memento mori painting in Part 1, Chapter 1 of Life of Pi?

A "memento mori" is a reminder of death, and since Pi came close to death at a young age he's aware of his mortality. The skull reminds Pi of the "folly of human ambition." His experience as a shipwreck survivor—on a well-engineered ship—has shown him human creations and plans often fail, sometimes fatally. Pi mocks the skull, even though he knows death is real, because he still treasures his life. He knows pain is inevitable but temporary and notes, "gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud." His suffering will always affect him but won't stop him from living a full life, including having a family and traveling to many cities.

Why is Pi troubled when a waiter refers to him as "fresh off the boat" in Part 1, Chapter 1 of Life of Pi?

Pi, like most people, wants to feel welcome in his community. The waiter's comment implies he doesn't belong, even in a restaurant that serves food connected to his heritage. The comment may also have a racist undertone, mocking Pi's immigrant status. Pi is ashamed of his past savagery on an actual boat, "a level of savagery I never imagined possible," and he is self-conscious about eating with his hands. His fingers become "dirty" and "like criminals caught in the act." When he looks at the knife and fork, he's negotiating cultural differences but also figuring out how to exist again in the civilized world after his transformative experiences. He has to relearn many rituals, such as drinking from a water tap.

How do Pi's ideas about the freedom of animals in the wild and in zoos influence Life of Pi's story?

Pi doesn't believe animals in the wild are free, physically or psychologically. People imagine a "large, handsome predator" when they picture free animals, not the many frightened animals lower on the food chain that the predator eats. Most animals, he says, live lives of "compulsion and necessity" in the wild, subject to an "unforgiving social hierarchy." They aren't free to enjoy food and shelter in abundance because they have to struggle to survive. And animals are reactionary in that "the smallest changes can upset them." Human beings wouldn't pick up and leave their community; why would animals? They want to be in a controlled environment with their needs met—territory, food, and water. Pi is confronted with this idea of freedom when his family decides to leave their community after all; they hope for a better life elsewhere. After spending time with Richard Parker, Pi knows the life of a wild animal is "simple, noble and meaningful" but in a different way than people imagine. He knows how survival needs, when they're met and when they're denied, affect peoples' and animals' abilities to have a meaningful and free life. He doesn't take survival or territory for granted.

In Life of Pi why does Pi think religion is plagued with "certain illusions about freedom"?

Mr. Kumar the teacher sees religion as "darkness" and feels religious people who wonder, "Where is God?" will never get an answer. Pi respects his teacher but feels differently. Religious practice gives him freedom to engage with the world in a meaningful way. His teacher finds freedom in knowledge; Pi finds freedom in both faith and knowledge. Pi thinks neither of them is wrong. At the other extreme Pi sees believers so passionate about defending God they forget to take care of others. These believers also see religion incorrectly in that "it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside." One illusion he feels many believers share is that religions are closed groups. Like animals in enclosures, religious believers are territorial. The pandit, the imam, the priest, and Pi's mother all think Pi shouldn't be free to belong to more than one religion. Pi feels the boundaries of religion are larger, extending to anyone who wants to love God.

How is Pi's new, self-given name significant in Life of Pi?

Pi gives examples from religious texts in Part 1, Chapter 5 to show the significance of the act of naming. A name is a profound aspect of identity, and it can change as identity changes. Names also affect others' perceptions. For instance, Richard Parker's human name is given to him by a clerical error, and the name humanizes the tiger for both the reader and Pi. Pi's new name signals a rebirth and "a new beginning." He's saved, in the moment, from the schoolyard taunt of "Pissing." He's also able to begin the process of learning who he wants to be. The name itself, the number pi, is a mathematical constant that relates the circumference to the diameter of a circle. As an irrational number, pi doesn't end or repeat. In theory its digits can go on for eternity. Mathematical pi has been a subject of study for centuries of mathematicians. It represents the unknowable, a number that doesn't immediately make sense. Pi doesn't want to limit his understanding to the rational. In Part 3, Chapter 99 he tells the Japanese officials they're stuck in "dry, yeastless factuality" if they only believe what they can see. His investigations of animal behavior, in the zoo and on the lifeboat, show Pi gathering knowledge and trying to understand the universe like a scientist.

Why does Pi respect atheists, despite his own deep faith, in Life of Pi?

Pi considers atheists his "brothers and sisters of a different faith." The first atheist he knows and respects, Mr. Kumar the teacher, believes reason, science, and medicine carried him through his illness. His words, though bleak, are "loving and brave." And like Pi, Mr. Kumar the teacher believes in "justice on earth," though he has more faith in reason to accomplish justice than Pi does. Based on Mr. Kumar the teacher and on Pi's fellow scientists in higher education, Pi notices atheists appreciate harmony, order, and the natural world. So does he. Also they stay firm in their beliefs and aren't compromised by doubt. Pi says in Part 1, Chapter 22 an atheist could convert in the presence of evidence if they see proof of God; they will have a "deathbed leap of faith."

What is zoomorphism, and how is it important to Life of Pi?

Pi defines zoomorphism in Part 1, Chapter 32 as "where an animal takes a human being, or another animal, to be one of its kind." He uses the example of domesticated dogs who want to mate with humans. Zoomorphism is bizarre, he admits, given the predictably territorial behavior of animals. He believes animals' need for companionship is strong enough for them to treat other species as their own occasionally. Zoomorphism is also a literary technique in which animal qualities are given to nonanimals, such as humans, inanimate objects, or gods. The Hindu gods Pi worships, such as Ganesha in the form of an elephant, show elements of zoomorphism. Martel gives animal qualities to Pi, the "super alpha" on the boat, and emphasizes how the zoomorphism of Richard Parker saved Pi's life. Because Richard Parker saw Pi as a more powerful animal, he didn't attack Pi in the lifeboat. He even makes the prusten sound in Part 2, Chapter 57 as an attempt at conversation. Orange Juice shows compassion toward the zebra on the lifeboat, screaming at the hyena in defense as it attacks the zebra in Part 2, Chapter 46—a compassion brought on by the animals' unusual circumstances. Pi is surprised by her "ferocity" and "savage courage," which he's never seen before. Zoomorphism helps explain the kindness of the meerkats toward Pi when they sleep on him and treat him as one of their own.

How is anthropomorphism important to the plot of Life of Pi?

Anthropomorphism is when animals take on human characteristics. Pi feels the human tendency to anthropomorphize animals, the "obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything," is dangerous. Humans attack animals out of ignorance, and some animals attack humans who mistakenly think they will be docile pets. In Chapter 8 Mr. Patel teaches his sons the dangers of "the animal as seen through human eyes" by letting them see a tiger's true, bloodthirsty nature. On the lifeboat, however, Pi sees human traits in his animal companions. The hyena is selfish, Orange Juice is compassionate, the zebra is wounded and vulnerable, and Richard Parker becomes a friend. Pi describes the animals' personalities, differences, and quirks. He gives the two animals he's closest to, Orange Juice and Richard Parker, gendered pronouns: "he" and "she" rather than "it." Through the mirrors of the animals Pi sees his own compassion and selfishness and vulnerability. He misses Richard Parker in later life the way he might miss a human companion, with "nightmares tinged with love."

Why does Pi emphasize in Life of Pi that man is the most dangerous animal in the zoo?

Pi wants the reader to appreciate both how animals think and how people perceive animals, since this knowledge will prove central to the rest of his story. He believes people can do great damage not only to animals but also to one another. The repeated examples of human-on-animal assaults he gives in Part 1, Chapter 8 show how human feelings of invincibility destroy the natural world. Some humans also believe animals can't feel pain, but Pi will have a chance to disprove this on the lifeboat. Animals will only attack under extreme stress. Pi emphasizes in Part 2, Chapter 72, and later to the Japanese officials, that Richard Parker does not really want to attack him. For animals a clash might cost them their lives. They only want to make their point and defend their territory. But men will attack each other. The blind Frenchman attacks Pi in Part 2, Chapter 90, showing the savagery of humans can be worse than the savagery of animals. Finally Pi's story in Part 3, Chapter 99 of the cook's attacks on the sailor and on Pi's mother also demonstrates a human tendency to abandon morals under strain.

How does the "measure of madness" Pi sees in all living things show in the characters of Life of Pi?

Pi holds onto the oar when the ship wrecks in Part 2, Chapter 40, though he confesses he would have let go "had I considered my prospects in the light of reason." Pi decides, against great odds, to survive by training Richard Parker. When he thinks back on his survival, it seems "pure and miraculous." He can hardly believe it and understands how others might doubt him. He admits the voice inside him that gave him the will may be "life-hungry stupidity." He doesn't think he's better than anyone else, although he thinks only some humans have such a fierce desire for life. Richard Parker, in turn, adapts to his and Pi's unusual living arrangement, though his survival is as unlikely as Pi's.

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