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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

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Life of Pi | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What role does reason play in Pi's life, and how does his concept of it develop during the events in Life of Pi?

Pi, as a young man in India, learns the value of reason from his teacher Mr. Kumar. As a believer Pi realizes that, like himself, atheists such as Mr. Kumar go "as far as the legs of reason will carry them." He admires his teacher's view that the zoo animals are each "a triumph of logic and mechanics." Reason is important to Pi in his scientific career and in his observations of animal behavior. But Pi knows the limits of reason, which he calls "fool's gold for the bright." When the boat sinks Pi can't get any answer from reason. He doesn't know why the well-constructed boat sank or why he's the only human survivor. When he's "allowed no explanation" for why he lost everyone and everything he loved, he asks, "What is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker?" He has to decide how far reason will take him. Reason defeats Pi's fear in Part 2, Chapter 41 when he's first contending with Richard Parker on the boat. He knows reason is often useless in the face of fear, though reason tries to defeat fear—though strong, previously victorious, and "fully equipped with the latest weapons technology," reason will lose. The visiting writer comes to believe, as influenced by Pi who prefers the "better story" over "dry, yeastless factuality," that the universe is aligned "along moral lines, not intellectual ones." Pi tells Mr. Okamoto reason saved his life, and he used reason constantly as "the very best tool kit." Pi figures out how to make reason work for him while still opening his mind to the irrational.

How does Richard Parker function as Life of Pi's deuteragonist, or secondary protagonist, and how does having an animal as a main character affect the story?

Richard Parker's journey parallels Pi's, and the tiger perhaps has the fullest understanding of what Pi endured. A deuteragonist can have goals that help or hurt the protagonist, depending on the story. Richard Parker alternates between working with Pi and working against him. Richard Parker is significant to Pi's understanding of the world and his place in it; the tiger inspires awe in him and brings out his courage. The tiger brings him "peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness." And even many years afterward Pi describes Richard Parker's departure "like an axe that chops at my heart," showing his deep connection to someone with whom he shared a unique experience unique in its suffering. The visiting writer says "Richard Parker still preys on his mind," and the wording recalls an animal. As an animal the character isn't given a voice, although he's given many familiar traits like deference, curiosity, and desire for a space of his own. Pi, and Martel, have to impose a voice onto him through his motives and actions. When Pi explains the tiger attack he saw as a young child, he shows how the presence of a tiger amplifies danger and risk. However, in the second story Pi tells the Japanese officials, when the humans in the boat turn on each other they display human weakness and frailty, which is a more familiar castaway story. Animals can't be evil or malevolent or altruistic; they simply operate on instinct. This adds moral complications to the plot. For instance, when Richard Parker kills the Frenchman, Pi can't blame the tiger.

In Part 2, Chapter 57 of Life of Pi why does Pi decide to keep Richard Parker alive, and how does this decision affect Pi?

Although Pi is afraid of the tiger, he's more afraid of the despair that might come with being left alone. He rejects the idea of a "war of attrition" for supplies because he realizes his own limitations. Richard Parker is the stronger animal physically and will overpower him. If he wants to survive, Pi has to work together with the tiger. Training Richard Parker gives Pi a purpose and a way to fill the time. He has a place in the social hierarchy: he is Richard Parker's keeper. As his days stretch into monotony, this purpose becomes a gift. The "terrible cost of Richard Parker" is his killer instinct, however. In Part 2, Chapter 90 this costs the Frenchman his life at the same time it saves Pi's own.

What does the character of the visiting writer contribute to Life of Pi's story?

As an outside observer, the visiting writer can tell the reader about Pi's adult life, paying attention to what Pi is too modest to reveal, such as his wife and children. Through the writer's lens the reader sees Pi has achieved an ordinary domestic and tranquil life, which puts the story of his complicated past into perspective with a "happy ending." He can comment on Pi's character and mannerisms in a way Pi himself cannot. The writer also authenticates the narrative by making it appear to be a reported story. He provides the pseudo "Author's Note." He gives his impressions of Pi in Part 1, Chapter 2. He also lists details of the setting, like the gods on Pi's shrines and the religious symbols in his house described in Part 1, Chapter 15. Finally the writer provides an entryway for the reader into the story. He echoes Pi's belief in the importance of imagination as a survival tool, and in truth's relativity, by emphasizing the importance of citizens supporting their artists so the citizens don't "sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality."

How is fear important to Life of Pi, and what beliefs does Pi hold about it?

A healthy fear, and also respect, for what can harm you keeps Pi alive. He learns as a young boy that humans need to show fear in dealing with animals. In Part 1, Chapter 8 his father explains the danger of each animal to him so Pi will know how to defend himself when the time comes. He tells Pi, "Life will defend itself no matter how small it is." Fear can also mean awe and reverence, which Pi employs in his worship of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian gods and in his respect for the natural world. Pi explains fear's function in Part 2, Chapter 56 as he gives the reader context for his relationship with the fear-inspiring Richard Parker. He believes fear is "life's only true opponent," a merciless physiological reaction. Pi doesn't believe in doubt as a philosophy of life, hence his disdain for agnostics. And he thinks fear often comes disguised as doubt. On the boat Pi deals with his fears by naming them and analyzing their threat to him: thirst, hunger, despair, the tiger, the hyena. He can then analyze ways to defeat these specific foes.

What does the name of the Tsimtsum symbolize in Life of Pi?

Tsimtsum is a Hebrew Kabbalist term meaning "presence through absence," "reduction," or "concealment." According to legend God created the world by allowing a space in which the finite and infinite could coexist. God's concealment, or "Tsimtsum," allows the divine world to exist along with the mortal world and allows God to show his presence. The sinking of the Tsimtsum symbolizes "God's silence" to Pi. The visiting writer considers God's silence as an important aspect of understanding Pi's story. When the ship sinks, taking his family with it, Pi asks, "I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven?" The name represents Pi's struggle to be faithful after terrible events, when God is "concealed." The concealment or absence is also evident in the lack of an explanation for the shipwreck.

In Life of Pi how do the Hindu gods influence Pi's beliefs about the universe?

Brahman, the "world soul," helps Pi see his connection to the world, as he describes in Part 1, Chapter 16. His individual soul, he says, reaches for Brahman "like a well reaches for the water table." This feeling of sustenance, like the sustenance of drinking water, will aid him in the lifeboat. His devotion to Hindu gods such as Ganesha, the "lord overcomer of obstacles," encourages Pi to continue fighting for life. Hinduism gives him a wide perspective. At sea Pi considers the vastness around him and feels like the god who fell out of Vishnu's mouth and saw the entire universe. Pi notices in Part 2, Chapter 60 "my suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this." Pi sees the Hindu gods at work more concretely in the boat when he kills a dorado in Part 2, Chapter 61. He thanks Lord Vishnu for taking the form of a fish to save him.

Where in Life of Pi does Pi make allusions to Christianity, and how do these allusions affect the story?

In Part 1, Chapter 5 Pi mentions he gave his name as "I am who I am" as a college prank over the phone. "I am who I am" is a biblical reference to God, adding a twist to the comedy. He references early Christians who changed their names after they met someone or had a certain experience, such as, "Simon who is called Peter, Matthew also known as Levi." Christianity helps him realize the significance of naming as a spiritual ritual, including rebirth. He also walks into school wearing a "crown of thorns" as he's made fun of for being called Piscine, a name that sounds to his classmates like "Pissing." Christian martyrs, like Hindu gods, help him put his physical pain in a larger context. Pi feels he's living "the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian" when he's hit by a school of flying fish in Part 2, Chapter 61.

How do Islamic traditions and beliefs enrich Pi's life, and what items does Life of Pi associate with Islam?

The main item Pi associates with Islam is the prayer rug. He appreciates the physical act of Muslim prayer, especially in a mosque community. Bringing his forehead to the ground feels like "a deeply religious contact." The meerkats on the algae island, which all bow down to nibble the pond algae at once, remind Pi of prayer time in a mosque. When Pi prays alone, he feels "at home anywhere upon this vast earth." The rug is a way of marking his territory, or his spiritual home, especially when he's cast out of religious communities for practicing too many faiths. Islam is the religion of "outsiders" in India, and Pi's universal sense of belonging allows him to identify with outsiders.

How is both the lack of food and its abundance, especially in light of hunger, significant in Life of Pi?

As an adult Pi appreciates hosting and feeding visitors dishes from his homeland; he feeds the visiting writer constantly. He's "an excellent cook" who hoards food in Part 1, Chapter 6 because he once lacked it. When Pi lacks food he abandons his humanity. Hunger makes him kill and eat animals for the first time. Hunger also helps him stand up to Richard Parker over a fish in Part 2, Chapter 61, in an act of dominance that will save Pi's life. Pi's conversation with the blind Frenchman in Part 3, Chapter 90 focuses on food, defining each character by his food preferences. Each man's food fantasies inform the reader about their cultural history and views of the sanctity of life. The visiting writer expresses a different kind of hunger. His opening statement in the Author's Note, "This book was born as I was hungry," refers to hungering for a story and a purpose. He felt an "aching hunger" when his novel didn't work, and he desperately wanted a story that would give him meaning. Pi needs his soul fulfilled, too. Although he has as much to eat on the algae island as he wants, he sees the island as "a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death."

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