Analysis: Life of Pi

Life of Pi: An Analysis of the Psychological Aspects of Survival

In Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, the narrator and protagonist Pi is placed in a life or death situation which tests his faith and morality. In the story, Pi is a young man who believes in three religions: Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. From these religions he has developed a deep sense of morality and a kindness towards all living things. However, when faced with death and starvation, he is forced to abandon his morality in order to survive. When asked by the investigators to describe what events transpired while he was out in the ocean, Pi describes an extraordinary sequence of events in which he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with several escaped zoo animals, including a full grown tiger. Towards the end of the novel, when pressed by the authorities to tell them what really happened, Pi recounts a more realistic and far more morbid story. The animals used in the first story all have human counterparts whose actions closely replicate these of the animals. While interpretation of this story is left open to the reader, one theory interprets the animals as a defense mechanism used by Pi in order to survive the conditions of being lost at sea while preserving his sense of morality.

A strong argument for the defense mechanism theory is the parallel nature of Pi’s stories. Distinct similarities between the story with animals and the story with people are pointed out by the investigators at the end of the novel. For example, the four animals mentioned in the beginning of the story include an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, and a tiger. Each animal has a corresponding human character in the second story. These characters are Pi’s mother, the cook, the Chinese crewman and Pi’s alter ego, respectively. Most of these animals or people do not last long, but even in the original story the animals do not behave normally at all. For example, the hyena eats only the zebra’s broken leg at first. There is no reason for the zebra not to have been killed outright.

In addition to the animals behaving strangely, there is considerable anthropomorphism used heavily throughout the story. This is a strong indicator that Pi is mentally seeing people on the raft as animals. And when you consider the things that were going on between the people on the life boat, Pi’s actions make sense. Given that he has a great deal of experience with zoology it is only natural that he would choose to interpret these terrible actions performed by people as performed by animals.

The tiger provides very strong evidence for this. Despite Pi’s great knowledge of animal behavior it remains incredibly unlikely that he was able to successfully tame a tiger under such dire circumstances. So the tiger must be a projection of Pi’s. The creation of this fierce animal is a major reason Pi was able to survive so long. This alter ego enabled him to commit terrible and horrendous acts, which would be incomprehensible for his own moral persona to perform, but would in fact be natural for a tiger.

Towards the end of the story, Pi poses a question which in many ways explains exactly why the story with animals was told. Pi says, “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” (Martel 295) This question is fascinating because it sums up the deeper allegory of this story and faith in religion. As in religion, simply having faith is enough to preserve morality. But, this question may be interpreted differently. When Pi asks this question, it suggests that he realizes that the story of the animals must be an illusion created by him. However, he also realizes that such an illusion is not bad. In fact, it enabled him to survive an ordeal that could very easily have killed him. This acknowledgement suggests that somewhere deep inside he knows the story with people is true, but that it does not matter. Instead of viewing this illusion as anthropomorphism, he is quite literally interpreting human actions as the actions of animals, and so it is easier for his mind to comprehend the situation. By seeing people as animals, he is able to save his own humanity.

There is little doubt that if Pi had not employed this defense mechanism he would have gone insane and quite possibly died out in the ocean. Or if he did manage to hold on to his sanity and morality, he would have certainly died because he would have been unable to perform some of the more animalistic actions which allowed him to survive. His alter ego, the tiger, was the companion who truly kept him alive. This just goes to show how the mind is able to preserve itself even under terrible circumstances.


19 thoughts on “Analysis: Life of Pi

  1. Well presented interpretation. I’d like to add some thoughts about the ending of Pi’s ordeal, where he was upset with the tiger (Richard Parker) for not looking back at him as it prepared to step into the forest. If Richard Parker and Pi were one and the same, and (as Pi’s father explained you can only see yourself reflected in the tiger), the tiger could not look back at that moment – only forward to salvation. If Pi was upset with the tiger leaving so abruptly, perhaps he was actually mourning the loss of his father (and family). Religion can help explain loss, but – as Pi explains earlier in the story – it also gives him endless reasons to feel guilty.

    Overall, a very thought provoking story.

    1. What seems to be set aside in what I have read here is that the Japanese questioners in fact accept the first story, and put their stamp of approval on it in their report. Rather, the older questioner does so; the younger, less experienced one, takes some details too literally (“Banana don’t float!”), and cannot handle the idea of a young boy training – not taming! — a full grown Bengal tiger. The older insurance investigator has no such problem; he has seen the world, looked deeply into it, and moves to approve the first story, putting a summary of it in the official report (that summary could not have come from the younger man). The mournful eyes of the older orang-utang, who has lost his child, are reflected in the careful eyes o the older Japanese insurance investigator. After all – how could anyone expect a traumatized teenager passenger to know anything whatsoever about the causes of a tramp-passenger ship going down? The insurance company would certainly have accepted the second, savage tale of murder and cannibalism offered by the young lad recuperating in the Mexican hospital, horrified by his investigators’ scepticism, more readily than the preposterous-sounding story of this lad having drifted 6,000 miles across the Pacific ocean, through monsoon and thunder-storms, with a hyena, an orang-utang, a zebra and a Bengal tiger – Sir Richard Parker, forsooth! – all the way to Mexico, with a carnivorous island his only stopping place for refreshment but from which he must flee because of its transmogrification nightly …. Good grief, they would have said – perhaps did say – but that is the story which wound up in their files. Well?

      Which story do you believe? Not only is God like that – it reveals human psyche, human personality and psychology, dramatically, which one you choose to accept. Turn down the first story, if you wish. I personally prefer it to the second one. But that tells you as much about me as it does about the God – or Gods – I believe in. I stand with Pi, then.

      -John McLaughlin, PhD

    1. I agree…We did find it disturbing and my sister ended up in ER for anxiety attack. She says she sat there for the entire movie and she just felt so tired after all 3D commotion. Never in her life had she had an anxiety attack. She is now permenantly on medication after being affected from movie. She says its too intense for too long.

  2. I read in a different article on intermet(sorry I cannot remember its author’s name) that actually the cook, and not Rochard Parker, the tiger is Pi’s alter ego! If that is the case, then it was at Pi’s hands themselves that his mother’s life came to an end! I found this thought so traumatic to myself I decided not to see the movie( which I know is very foolish).
    The author of that article very objectively points out why he/she came to that conclusion. Remember Pi meeting another shipwreck survivor on a life raft just before going to that algae islsnd, who too was blind and spoke with a French accent and they talk about food and finally when that person tries to kill Pi, RP kills him off and saves Pi (yet again?) One of the points in the Internet article about Pi and cook are being and same was this incident. Stating how unrelated and unbelievable ( even more so than the other happenings on the life boat) for Pi to meet another stranded person in the sea : how during that meeting the word “figment” was used the conversation between Pi and the other person was so meaningless and repetitive that the cook was infancy Pi’s figment of imagination.
    Anyway, I find that scenario very very sad to accept, but the more I think on those lines, the more I feel that may be the “true” story, even though the story with animals is as everyone accepts is the “better” story.
    Thank you for your great analysis. And thank you for reading this.

  3. The rabbis of the Talmud approach the idea that we have a dual nature: An “evil” impulse (tiger) and a good impulse (humanity). In the rabbis’ view we would not have children, acquire wealth nor survive without our more animal, “evil” impulses.

    Among the many layers of meaning in Life of Pi that Martel makes is the point that the Tiger (life force) can keep us alive but its not our “friend” and is indeed indifferent to our intellectual and emotional needs to understand the meaning of life, love, good and evil, or anything else. Can we “train” this life force and manage its more destructive impulses is a common philosophical and religious question.

    At the same time our need to rationally understand questions of good and evil can drive us mad and rob of lives of beauty and meaning.

    There are many layers of meaning interwoven in Life of Pi. The blogs and comments available make this clear. The discussions remind me of Saturday morning Torah studies.

  4. DKw it was not at Pi’s hands that his mother died because the hyena killed the orangutan not the tiger. Though Pi did reveal that he did have the power to prevent the killing

  5. I believe he trained the tiger not tamed the tiger. Also, the question still was not answered as to why the boat sank; perhaps this is not significant. It certainly is a story about our aloneness in survival.

  6. What I loved about this book/movie is that you can have many different interpretations of what happened and all of them can be valid.
    I had a different interpretation from what you described. I think both stories happened and are real. That is why Pi asks which is best and not which is true. The one with the people recounts the tangible facts. What occurrences happened. The one with the animals describes an inner battle. Still as real, but shown through symbolism. As you pointed out Pi is in fact Richard Parker. It is a side of himself that he never knew and in these circumstances was brought out to the surface. It is his animalistic survival instinct represented by a tiger. Every scene depicts his inner-battle between the good person he was before the raft and this “tiger” that is vicious and thinks of self-preservation. It is a battle of how to balance both together. He doesn’t use the tiger as a way to escape reality, but instead as a symbol to describe it.
    There are a lot of scenes that suggest that he is in fact the tiger. On the acid island when Pi decides he needs to continue his journey because it is not safe to stay their any longer, he simply calls the tiger and it follows. The tiger is still necessary to fight through reality. When he reaches shore and finally is brought back to civilization the tiger leaves without even looking back. He doesn’t have the power to call him back like before. It was a side of his that was only brought to life under these specific circumstances and when they ended there was no place for the tiger. Still, Pi gets emotional because he said goodbye to a part of himself- a side that allowed him to survive and that made him strong. A side he will probably never see again.

    As far as the spiritual level is concerned he retails a story “that will make you believe in god.” His mother earlier says (don’t remember the exact quote) that religion is something that lives inside you, that you can’t necessarily prove. His father said the exact opposite. So if you interpret both stories as completely true as I described earlier, believing in the story of the tiger is believing in god. It’s a story that you can’t prove, that there are few facts but that is symbolic, happened and lives inside him. It is a spiritual story that is as true as the one with the humans if you believe in it and skip past the fact that there was no real tiger on the raft (but a symbolic one).

    Let me know what you think or if something is not clear!

  7. Having just seen the film for the first time last night, my mind is still processing everything. The tiger may be an alter ego of Pi as he walks off into the jungle, never looking back at the young man on the seashore. Exhausted Pi has nothing more to live for as the life experience has sapped everything from him- his emotions, health, family- yet, for whatever reason (faith?) a part of him must move on toward the future or he will die. As Pi is carried away by the men, he bemoans the loss of Richard Parker, who basically saved him from insanity on that boat. A part of us must find strength in more than our humanness, because human strength goes only so far. Perhaps RP is also reminiscent of faith in something bigger than ourselves. The tiger was certainly bigger and stronger than anything else on that boat and it kept Pi going when everything in his life failed him. Pi saw the power of God in the horrific storm and reminds me that no matter how hard it is to understand an Almighty God, we are not the controllers we think we are. It was the power of God that Pi kept going, he grew up and could share his experience with others- perhaps God’s reason for all he suffered.
    In a day when many movies make no sense at all, this film gives us much to consider about life and our small part in it. Whether we are victors or defeated by life, that is our question to answer.

    1. I think it’s worth noting that “Richard Parker” is a code name and usually synonymous with cannibalism at sea. I only know this because I am huge Edgar Allan Poe fan.

  8. Could it be that Pi “split”as a result of the emotional traumas, his alter ego helping him to survive so Pi could retain his “soul”? The tiger left Pi because he knew he must…the tiger was an aspect of Pi only allowable in extremis. Pi’s sorrow was for the loss of part himself, a savage stranger he had made peace with, his father, and all things taken away from us without farewell or warning. Also, JP was a gift from God to Pi.


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