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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

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Life of Pi | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How do the humans in Pi's second story, told in Part 3, Chapter 99 of Life of Pi, compare to the animals originally on the lifeboat?

Pi's mother reflects Orange Juice's calm and maternal instincts. Both mother and orangutan are familiar faces that sustain Pi. In Mrs. Patel's vocal criticism of the cook, she reflects Orange Juice's surprising ability to stand up to a bully. The cook reflects the hyena's willingness to eat anything. His mouth, like the hyena's, has "the discrimination of a garbage heap." In a human this lack of discrimination is expressed as amorality. He's "a brute ... ill-tempered and hypocritical." Faced with a desperate situation he reverts to the worst of his character rather than the best. The sailor, like the zebra, is vulnerable with elegant features like a "Chinese emperor." The sailor also suffers and dies first. Pi can't communicate with the sailor, who "must have felt very lonely," just as he couldn't communicate with the zebra. Pi is like the tiger because he takes matters into his own hands. He's aggressive, but he doesn't want to be aggressive; he's forced to defend himself. "Why do we cling to our evil ways?" he asks, when reflecting on his own actions. Which story really happened? The factual details don't matter since everyone but Pi dies either way, and Pi can prove neither story to the officials' satisfaction. The character traits matter most because they represent the moral lines of the universe.

In Part 3, Chapter 99 of Life of Pi why are details introduced that contradict Pi's version of events, and how does Pi explain them?

Mr. Okamoto doesn't believe bananas can float. Pi asks him to test the theory, and one banana does float but the official still isn't convinced bananas could hold the weight of an orangutan. The algae island's biology contradicts the laws of nature. Pi agrees but says discoveries are constantly changing what science knows is possible. He asks, "Have scientists finished coming upon new plants?" No one can find Richard Parker in the Mexican jungle. Pi isn't surprised by this since animals are skilled at hiding. He offers the example of a polar bear who escaped from the Calcutta Zoo and is still at large. Two blind people in two separate lifeboats meet by an incredible coincidence, and the officials don't buy it. Pi responds that coincidences and unlikely events do happen, although rarely. Someone, for instance, always wins the lottery.

Why is it significant that no one can explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum in Life of Pi?

Pi wonders why the ship sank and caused him to suffer as he did. He mentions in Part 2, Chapter 38 "the answer is a mystery." Eventually, though he still grieves, he stops asking why. Pi is willing to accept mystery, the kind with the capital M that he defends to Mrs. Patel. He brings purpose to his ordeal where he finds none. The officials trust reason more than Pi does, and in Part 3, Chapter 99 they are less willing to accept the mystery. They ask Pi about likely causes—freak waves, mechanical problems, or foreign objects—and investigate causes diligently themselves. Like Pi's story the sinking confounds human thought. As he says to the officials, "normal sank." Finally when Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba realize they'll never know the explanation, they come up against the limits of their expertise. They become willing to accept Pi's story of the tiger without needing proof.

According to Life of Pi how are zoos based on illusions, and how do these illusions compare and contrast with Pi's own experience?

In Part 1, Chapter 4 Pi says animals want a place they can call home. People imagine animals want to escape because they see these animals in an enclosure. This illusion is perpetuated by people's misconceptions about the nature of freedom. Humans wouldn't do well if they walked away from their worlds and friends and family. "Don't we say 'There's no place like home'? That's certainly what animals feel." When Pi loses everything he's ever known he doesn't feel free. He feels even more trapped. For him freedom comes with the safety in community and family. Zoos operate under a "diplomatic peace" with well-organized barriers. Zookeepers, he explains, make the animal's enclosure as close to a natural habitat as possible. The barriers create an illusion for the visitors. They see different animals, predators and prey, that wouldn't be together in the wild, and think the wild must be as peaceful as the zoo. In fact if animals don't have their needs met, they will become afraid and attack. When Pi lives in the lifeboat, the illusion of the zoo is broken. He uses the knowledge of what home, enclosure, and escape mean to animals in order to live peaceably with Richard Parker.

How does Pi act like an animal in Life of Pi, and how does Richard Parker act like a human?

"Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds," says Pi. On the boat he becomes territorial and fiercely protective of what he has because his possessions will save his life. He begins to eat like an animal, savagely and quickly. His animal instincts to eat and drink overcome his moral concerns about killing other life forms, and he gets used to killing beginning in Part 2, Chapter 61. Richard Parker tries to communicate with Pi through a welcoming sound in Part 2, Chapter 57, inviting dialogue. After seeing Pi as the alpha in Part 2, Chapter 76, Richard Parker covers his feces out of humanlike emotions of deference and shame. He bonds to Pi and even saves Pi's life in an act of defense against the blind Frenchman in Part 2, Chapter 90, showing a protection similar to altruism. When Pi gets to the algae island in Part 2, Chapter 92, he realizes the satisfaction it brings won't last long, and his human, forward-thinking side takes over. He moves onward to an uncertain future—and even in Canada many years later, when he has a happy domestic life, he's protective of his family and his home.

Who or what are the opponents Pi fights in Life of Pi, and how does he defeat them?

Pi's main opponent throughout his adventure is fear. He fights fear by articulating what he's afraid of and then working to protect himself: building a lifeboat and a training program for the tiger, sending out signal flares to ships. Pi's other main opponent is despair. He acknowledges "sometimes it was so hard to love" when he knows his family is dead. But he determines to go on loving because he doesn't want despair to win. Through daily routine and religious ritual, he wards off the opponent. He can temporarily defeat these opponents, but not always. He knows fear and despair will always be a part of his life since suffering left him "sad and gloomy" even after he survived his ordeal and went to school in Canada. Pi is also challenged by hunger and thirst. His hoarding food in the Mexican hospital, and even many years later in Toronto, shows he's never forgotten how hunger can be the enemy.

In what ways does thirst play a role in Life of Pi?

Pi is attracted to Christianity at least in part because of the hunger and thirst of Christ, which expresses human vulnerability and love. Pi finds Jesus's humanity compelling, and so he becomes a Christian as described in Part 1, Chapter 17. Thirst is Pi's and Richard Parker's main concern and physical longing on the lifeboat. The tiger's original name was Thirsty, as Pi explains in Part 2, Chapter 48. A need for fresh water drives Pi to the courageous act of descending into Richard Parker's territory for the first time. His risk is rewarded by an almost miraculous restoration to health. The algae island Pi describes in Part 2, Chapter 92 is appealing to him because of its abundance of fresh water. The freshwater pools bring him back to health again. The water is almost tempting enough to make him stay and put his and Richard Parker's lives in danger. Pi knows the island, like a zoo, is an illusion. The ponds of water become nightly "vats of acid that digested the fish." Water can be both lifesaving and deadly.

How does Life of Pi contrast the ancient and the modern?

Men Pi respects, including his father and Mr. Kumar the teacher, are proud, secular modernists. The Pondicherry Zoo is built on modern principles. His parents are looking forward to the technological innovations in the "New India." They are, as his father says, a modern family. Pi, however, is more enamored of ancient disciplines like animal behavior and religious faith. Mr. Patel, confused by his independent zeal, calls his son old-fashioned. The modern cargo ship, "a huge and stable structure, a feat of engineering," sinks against all odds. The huge ship Pi passes fails to notice him. The way Pi lives on the lifeboat is primitive and hand to mouth. Only ancient rituals, like Muslim prayer, comfort him. Pi doesn't dismiss modernity entirely. He studies zoology and respects scientific discoveries. He defends his improbable experience to the Japanese officials by saying that scientists are constantly breaking new ground and human knowledge can't keep up with the natural world; the impossible becomes possible every day. The ancient and the modern both have to contend with wonder and the unknowable.

How does Life of Pi contrast human and animal vulnerability with divine power?

Animals can be understood, while the divine cannot. Pi's explanations of zoology in Part 1 reveal his understanding of the predictability of animal behavior. When he trains Richard Parker in Part 2, he trusts the tiger will learn to associate the sound of the whistle with seasickness and stay out of Pi's territory—he predicts how Richard Parker will behave. Animals sometimes surprise him, like Richard Parker jumping into the water in the algae island, Orange Juice challenging the hyena, and the meerkats gathering dead fish. Pi learns he can't know anything, even animals, completely. Pi, like the animals on the lifeboat, is made vulnerable by thirst, hunger, and need for shelter. On the boat he sees the distinction between his helplessness and the power of larger forces—expressed by lightning, the ocean, the mystery of the algae island, and Pi's love for God and his family. Divine power is a mystery to him. When he calls out to the gods he believes in after the Tsimtsum sinks, he receives no answer. The sinking makes no sense. The visiting writer will describe Pi's idea of God's silence as "an intellect confounded." Pi knows a lot about the stories and histories of the religions he practices. But ultimately his intellect—his reason—can't help him when he's dealing with the divine. He learns to rely on "a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose."

How do the concepts in Part 1, Chapters 21 and 22 of Life of Pi recur at the end of the novel?

"Dry, yeastless factuality" recurs when Pi talks to the Japanese officials in Part 3, Chapter 99. Their commitment to "factuality" means they won't accept anything new about the world they don't already know, like the doubting agnostic in Part 1, Chapter 22. "Yeastless" implies the more factual story will not nourish its listener. "The better story" recurs as Pi asks the officials to select the account they prefer. They know neither story will hold up to reason and evidence since neither can be proven definitively. The officials choose the story with animals as the better one—less believable but more profound in its inspiration. Mr. Okamoto commends Pi in his Part 3, Chapter 100 report for his ability to overcome tremendous obstacles. Pi's belief in love as "the founding principle of existence," as he explains in Part 1, Chapter 21, means he will trust love even without evidence. He mentions in Part 2, Chapter 74 he'll "go on loving" despite his despair and without evidence he'll be saved. In Part 3, Chapter 99 he defends his story by saying, "Isn't love hard to believe?" implying the importance of love to everyone's life—everyone is taking a leap of faith in a sense.

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