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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

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Life of Pi | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How and why does Pi use psychological tricks to establish authority over Richard Parker in Life of Pi?

Pi knows his only chance of survival is "brain over brawn." He explains in Part 1, Chapter 13 "the nature of the circus trainer's ascendancy is psychological." To protect himself and ensure consistent access to the top of the tarpaulin, Pi provokes border intrusions as a way of teaching Richard Parker the consequences of attacking him. In Part 2, Chapter 76, when he notices Richard Parker trying to hide his feces, Pi fondles the tiger's waste as his "lordly right." By establishing himself as the alpha, Pi gives Richard Parker a clear sense of the tiger's social rank. Pi knows animals need to know their place in order to feel secure. He believes animals don't want to engage in hostile behavior, but they will as "the expression of social insecurity." He is providing for his and Richard Parker's security at the same time, since the two are literally and figuratively in the same boat.

How does Pi's devotion to Hinduism relate to his chosen name, the irrational number pi, in Life of Pi?

Mathematical pi helps scientists understand the universe. Hinduism, similarly, helps Pi see his place in a universe he says "makes sense to me through Hindu eyes." His description of Brahman nirguna, "without qualities," helps Pi accept parts of the universe he cannot understand or describe, like the unknown digits and properties of the pi symbol. Hindu lives go through reincarnation. The Hindu life cycle is cyclical, without a beginning, middle, and end, like the circle the mathematical pi helps calculate. The mathematical constant pi goes on for infinite digits as an irrational number—a reincarnated life cycle.

When and how does the number three, or objects in sets of three, influence Life of Pi?

When Pi's family goes on vacation to Munnar, he finds three hills with three worship houses. The houses represent the three religions Pi will practice. Each religion tells Pi something new about himself and the world. There are three animals in the lifeboat, and three humans in Pi's second story of who survives the shipwreck. Each represents a specific aspect of human character—cowardliness in the hyena and the cook, maternal instincts in Orange Juice and Pi's mother, and fascination with the exotic and unfamiliar in the zebra and the sailor. Pi's book divides into three parts, as does his life. His childhood in Pondicherry, his ordeal in the Pacific Ocean, and his reintegration into human life in Mexico represent three crucial parts of his journey. The digit represented by the mathematical symbol pi begins with the number three, and Pi uses this same number to teach his classmates his new name.

What characters and concepts do the frequently recurring colors of green and orange represent in Life of Pi?

Green is a color Pi associates with Islam. As an adult he has a green prayer rug in his apartment as described in Part 1, Chapter 15. Green is the color of the sea city Pi discovers in Part 2, Chapter 59 where its "evanescent trails of phosphorescent green" mesmerize him, and the harmony of undersea life gives him his first calm and hope in days. Green is also the predominant color of the algae island he discovers in Part 2, Chapter 92, and it's the abundance of color itself that delights him. Green represents growth, life, and sustenance and also freedom from the "blue" sea, which comes to represent death and destruction. Orange is a color Pi associates with Hinduism. He calls it the color of survival. The vests and the whistles that save Pi's life in the lifeboat are orange. The animals who sustain him are also orange; Richard Parker and Orange Juice. Pi's daughter has an orange cat. The powders on adult Pi's statues of the Hindu gods are red and yellow—the colors that combine to make orange.

How does the spiritual awakening Pi experiences in Part 1, Chapter 20 of Life of Pi affect his existence at sea?

In Part 1, Chapter 20, as Pi returns from visiting Mr. Kumar the baker, he sees his place in the universe and notes how "every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbour." At sea Pi looks for signs the universe is still in harmony. He finds a diversity of life underwater, which he sees as "a spectacle wondrous and awe-inspiring" like a large city at rush hour. When he wants to fight despair he describes the sea around him as "GOD'S WIDE ACRES!" and the sky as "GOD'S EAR!" Though he feels deprived and hopeless, he's able to focus on the divine as "a shining point of light in my heart." During Pi's first spiritual awakening, he sees himself as "an immortal," giving him the strength to rise to further challenges. His ways of seeing things change at sea, just as they did after he left the mosque. Necessity illuminates objects he hasn't noticed before as lifesaving when he needs them.

When in Life of Pi does Pi see himself at the center of a circle, and how does this perception affect him each time?

During Pi's first spiritual awakening in Part 1, Chapter 20, he sees himself as part of a greater story as "the centre of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah." He thinks of the world's larger circles as spinning independently of him but including him. In this sense his spirit or Atman associated with Hinduism is in harmony with God or Allah from Islam. In Part 2, Chapter 78 Pi says, "To be a castaway is to be a point perpetually at the centre of a circle." He pictures himself in the middle of multiplying circles in that "the circumference is ever great." This is another reference to the mathematical pi. This time being at the center of a circle reminds him of his solitude and his loneliness. He feels isolated and trapped. But he knows he's not alone in the world, and he wonders if there is someone else like him out there "also trapped by geometry, also struggling with fear, rage, madness, hopelessness, apathy."

How does Life of Pi juxtapose, or present together, opposite concepts to develop its themes?

The two Mr. Kumars are opposites. The baker is deeply religious, and the teacher is deeply atheist. These men are brought together through their shared admiration of a zebra in the Pondicherry Zoo. They also share Pi's respect. He calls them "the prophets of my Indian youth." They share a common name in India, but their name emphasizes how they are more alike than different, and Pi is pleased with the coincidence. The two men are responsible for Pi's decision to study religion and science, two subjects he admits are opposites in the popular imagination. Both require faith to study, and both are subject to misconceptions by the public. Pi learns throughout the book to be comfortable with contrasts and ambiguity. As a castaway he's trapped in "grim and exhausting opposites." He's either burning hot or soaked, full or starving. The wideness of the sea leads to "suffocation in open spaces." He contrasts his poverty at sea with the majesty of higher powers. As Pi's physical condition gets worse, his mind soars higher, "High calls low and low calls high." Opposites, he believes, are drawn together.

What does each faith leader's argument in Part 1, Chapter 23 of Life of Pi demonstrate about the relativity of truth?

Each leader believes in God's universality and that there can only be one. Each leader is also convinced their perception of God is the only correct one. National identity affects the lens of truth. The pandit, a Hindu, points out Islam and Christianity are foreign in India. He believes Christianity is colonial and aggressive and asserts, "Christians kneel before a white man!" The imam, a Muslim and an outsider in India, says the pandit is the "slave-driver of the caste system" that divides Hindus into social classes. Storytelling and legend affect the lens of truth. The imam believes the Christian story is "a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time." The priest rejoins that the Muslim prophet is "an illiterate merchant ... in the middle of the desert." The men also disagree on the definition of miracles. Muslims are content with the "essential miracle of existence" while Christians and Hindus believe in supernatural miracles. Their reality is determined by how they believe divinity intervenes in human affairs.

How and why does Life of Pi employ humor and comedy?

The book owes much of its humor to peculiar and strange situations. Pi finds humor in religion, even though he takes it seriously. He thinks the sacrificial story of Christianity confusing when compared to the might of the Hindu gods, and he observes, "What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology." The Part 1, Chapter 22 example of the atheist and agnostic on their deathbeds has the setup and structure of a joke. The punchline: the agnostic attributes God's appearance to the brain's failing oxygen. Reason, which he trusted, lets him down. Dialogue also provides much of the humor. The faith dialogue in Part 1, Chapter 23 is exaggerated and hyperbolic. Part 2, Chapter 90, when Pi talks to the blind Frenchman, makes dark humor out of Pi's shock when the Frenchman describes eating meat in gory detail. Pi's hazy state of mind convinces him he is talking to Richard Parker. At one point he and the Frenchman speak to one another in rhyme. The unexpected nature of the conversation adds to its comedy. Martel is able to surprise the reader with a dark twist ending when the Frenchman dies. In Part 3, Chapter 99 Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba exchange weary, sarcastic asides about Pi's strange behavior and strange stories. They show how confused an ordinary observer might be by the oddity of Pi's situation. This conversation also accomplishes a tonal shift central to the narrative, which contrasts various tones—light and dark—to imitate the unpredictability of real life.

How and why does Life of Pi explore issues of group identity and group hierarchies?

Pi learns to be comfortable with multiple identities, and he even needs all of them to be fully himself. He's Indian and Canadian, a religious student and a scientist, a Christian and Muslim and Hindu. Others he meets are more loyal to one identity only. Pi's mother is deeply connected to her national identity; in Part 1, Chapter 35 when she leaves "India so familiar to her and loved by her," Pi imagines her wondering if the brands Canadians use will be the same as those common in India. Identity is associated with nationality and location. The animals shipped to America are "future Yankees" and the Patel family "future Canucks." Religious identities are singular, too, and sometimes connected to national identity, like Hinduism to India. Mrs. Patel tries to explain the significance of choosing a group in Part 1, Chapter 26 when she refers to the afterlife as "one nation, one passport." Pi doesn't want to choose a loyalty—he prefers to share. Earlier he offers the example of Krishna giving his attentions to all equally, and Pi says, "We should not be jealous with God." He believes his religions to be in harmony with one another, with the same goals. This belief leads to his confusion in Part 1, Chapter 23 when religious leaders demand he choose. Their obstinacy makes Pi see the evil in religion as well as the good. But he does recognize hierarchies within groups. Pi observes that social rank is central to animal lives, and without knowing where it stands an animal lives a life of "unbearable anarchy." Animals, like humans, need to know where they belong. As a result Pi and Richard Parker learn to respect one another's territory in the lifeboat.

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