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.