Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi follows the life and catastrophes that occur to Piscine Molitor Patel. Piscine notes that his parents did not like water, but he liked water and swimming, and he was actually named after a family friend’s favorite pool, the Piscine Molitor in Paris. Piscine, or Pi for short, grew up in India, where his father owned a zoo. As he grew up, he learned about the habits and behavior of animals and came to love them.
He also came to the belief that animals in the wild are in far worse shape than the animals his family had in captivity. Pi is a person of many beliefs, though. Although he was born Hindu, he also took up Christianity and Islam in his teenage years. At fourteen, he entered a Church and the Priest in the church told him the story of Jesus Christ and he decided he would become a Christian as well. At fifteen Pi met a Muslim baker that paused a conversation between the two of them to pray.
When Mr. Kumar–the baker–returned, Pi asked him about the prayer and they spoke about Islam. Pi soon enough began to pray with him and visit the Mosque with Mr. Kumar as well. Pi also had a relationship with favorite teacher, who was also an Atheist. Despite Pi’s dedication to religion and God, atheism did not bother nor offend him, because they still had some faith, unlike agnostics. Pi explains how he cannot stand agnostics because they are do not hold any strong belief or faith, just doubt.
On one occasion he was approached by the religious figures with which he practiced Hindu, Christianity and Islam. They were confused and surprised to learn that he practices all three religions, but Pi explained that he does not believe religions are mutually exclusive and he just wants to love God. He recalls the getting a prayer mat to conduct his Muslim prayer on and getting baptized in a Church in his time in India.
Due to the poor political situation in India, at this time, Pi’s father believed it best to shut down his zoo and move to Canada. Pi’s family sold some of their animals in India and brought the rest of the animals with them to sell to North American zoos and went to Japan to cross the Pacific on a freighter ship headed to Canada. One night, Pi is awoken by a loud noise. He wakes up his brother Ravi to come check it out with him, but Ravi goes back to sleep. Pi travels up to the ship’s deck and realizes that the ship is starting to sink. He attempts to return to get his family, but water has filled up the lower decks and is flooding the staircase, so he runs back outside, where he is tossed on a lifeboat. Shortly thereafter, he is joined by a zebra, then a tiger named Richard Parker, then a Hyena, then an orangutan named Orange Juice. The Hyena eventually eats the zebra and Orange Juice but was then eaten by the tiger. Pi builds a raft attached to the lifeboat for his safety and begins to adapt to his situation.
Pi spends 227 days at sea, in which he gives up vegetarianism, learns to fish, and both tend to and trains Richard Parker (using knowledge he picked up from his father), whom with him eventually coinhabits the lifeboat with. He lands on a small, desolate island, which he and Richard Parker temporarily inhabit, and then set sail again. Eventually, Pi lands in Mexico, where Richard Parker immediately leaves him, and he receives help. There, Pi is interviewed by two Japanese Maritime Department men who do not initially believe his story. He retells the story, but instead of animals, he replaces them with people, and they prefer the animal story. Martell leaves the reader the choice of deciding which story is the truth.
In most of Martell’s novel, Pi is stranded in the largest ocean in the world, surrounded by water at almost all times. In his 227 days as a castaway, Pi experienced many struggles and overcame his adversity, despite being in a hopeless situation. Pi did so with his zoology skills, his faith, and his determination. While literally representing a clear threat, the expansive waters play multiple metaphorical roles in Pi’s story, ranging from religion, to human nature, to life, to hope and lack thereof.
Even before Pi is stranded at sea, the situation on the Japanese cargo ship is reminiscent of a particular biblical story. A large boat sets sail with many animals aboard? Noah’s Arc. When the cargo ship sinks and Pi is the only person left in the lifeboat with some animals, even more parallels can be drawn between the two tales. Like Noah, Pi is the only human left on a ship with various animals. In Noah’s scenario, the stakes were more drastic, as the whole world was flooded, but to Pi, he may as well be the last human alive. At sea for 227 days, he only sees another human once, very late in his journey, and that human is killed by Richard Parker. The vast Pacific Ocean is empty and seemingly endless, and Pi cannot communicate with any other people, so he is essentially alone. Not only did Pi’s circumstances reflect the Arc of Noah, but the Ocean came to metaphorically represent God.
Pi has always been a very religious person, and his faith in God does not stray even when faced with impending doom. Pi prays daily while at sea, and the ocean hears he prays and seems to respond. Whenever Pi is very thirsty, it rains over the ocean and he is capable of capturing fresh drinking water, and whenever he is on the verge of starving, he is able to catch some fish with his bare hands. Once, fish even flew out of the water directly into the lifeboat, like a blessing and direct answer to Pi’s prayers.
Just as God tests his disciples’ faith, the ocean tested Pi’s faith as he and Richard Parker drifted to the carnivorous island that they landed. The island included fresh water reserves, fresh fruit, and basically anything else that he needed to survive. At a point, Pi even asked himself what reason he had to leave the island. Relative to his life on the lifeboat, he had found a Garden of Eden. Pi considered staying and falling prey to temptation, but decided against it and left with Richard Parker. Pi recognized that a life like that is no life at all and put all of his faith in God to save him as he departed ensured living necessities into the ocean. Evident through his eventual washing up on Mexican shores, his faith was rewarded by the ocean as metaphorical God.
The ocean also represents Pi’s nature and the location in which he works through his moral conflict. Pi has always been fond of water and swimming, and he was named after a beautiful pool, while his parents and brother never took too kindly to water. Along with the foreshadowing of the tragedy that occurs to Pi’s family, this also implies a connection between Pi and water that is deeper than coincidence. When Pi is stranded in the Pacific, his faith is tested. While he remains faithful to God, he also diverges from some of the strongest beliefs, he held before the trip to Canada. Pi was a vegetarian when he left India, but in the empty ocean, void of feasibly edible vegetation, he is left with the option of fish or death. When Pi and Richard Parker run into the Frenchman lost at sea and Richard Parker kills him, Pi even eats some of the human meat. While stating as a small detail in Martel’s writing, this event holds significance. The act of fishing with his bare hands and eating fish directly out of the sea already animalizes Pi, but when he admits to eating human meat, it indicates the pure survival mode.
This takeover of animalistic instincts while on the water is representative of the Pi’s mind state at sea. The lifeboat above water represents Pi’s id, as he relies on animalistic instincts to survive. At the same time, Pi is constantly preoccupied with a million things in the back of his mind. At all times he is subconsciously about his family, his faith, and his identity. In the same way the lifeboat above the ocean represents his id, the ocean beneath him represents Pi’s superego. Pi’s subconscious mind is chaotic, swarming with rattles thoughts that could cause him to lose it mentally, hindering his survival, if he allowed them to surface. This is just like the ocean beneath him, swarming with sharks and other predatory creatures that could easily end it all for Pi. On multiple occasions, Pi even remarks on the sharks swimming beneath him and the chaos of the ocean. The ocean is not only dangerous and chaotic because of its wildlife, it is also just an inherent threat to a non-aquatic animal such as a human. If Pi left his boat, or his id, and sunk into the ocean, or his superego, he would die. Meaning, if he focuses too much on his concerns about his changing identity, such as eating meat (and human meat), and lets it distract him from his survival mode instincts, he will starve to death or die of dehydration.
The ocean gives, and it takes. While giving Pi and Richard Parker just enough nutrition to survive throughout the trip, it also saps at Pi’s humanity each time it helps him. The ocean plays both the role of life and death on Pi’s adventure. The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest ocean in the world, so it poses the obvious threat of death at all times, especially to an underprepared 16-year-old that must cohabit a lifeboat with a tiger. The ocean first takes lives in this book when the Japanese Cargo ship sinks and all the other members aboard, including Pi’s family are killed. The less obvious and less likely role of the ocean in this situation is the role of life. The ocean seems as if it is endless to Pi, as all he can see outside of his lifeboat is 360 of water until the horizon. As the ocean did not seem to possibly end there, Pi’s life could not possibly end at the ocean. This is clear early on in Martel’s novel, given the fact that Pi is the one telling the story in the past tense, but at the same time, the ocean provides Pi with the necessary physical strength and resilience to survive.
After Pi finishes his emergency rations, he can only rely on the ocean to prolong his life, yet he does not take the outlook of being doomed by the unlikely possibility of the ocean providing him with food every day until he survives. He, instead, once he has thrown out his former reality of vegetarianism, engages the ocean as his source of life resiliently. Even when Pi has his stay on the island with fresh water and fruits, he turns back to the ocean as his only chance at life. Had the ocean not given Pi life and resilience before he had gotten to the island, he almost certainly would not have left. The ocean is a place of uncertainty and as previously stated, death. The island on the other hand, could have sustained life indefinitely for Pi, but thanks to his resilience–and faith–he went back to the Ocean, which eventually led him to safety.
As far as the interactions between the ocean and the other characters of the book besides Pi, the ocean and water mainly serve the role of doom. As mentioned before, Pi’s parents and brother do not have a good relationship with water, and that relationship is worsened relatively early in the book when the water kills them all. The only characters that survive the shipwreck initially are Pi and the animals. Starting with the zebra, the first animal to join the lifeboat, the ocean indirectly broke its leg and left it immobile in an impossible situation. The orangutan named Orange Juice; however, had a far worse interaction with the ocean. Orange Juice was a popular attraction back in India at Mr. Patel’s zoo, and the gave birth to two sons. Both she and her sons were traveling on the cargo ship to be sold in Canada. At some point after the shipwreck, Orange Juice floats up to the lifeboat on a bundle of bananas, alone. She gets on the lifeboat, but they lose the bananas.
When Pi looks at her face, he initially thinks it is kind of a funny facial expression. Shortly thereafter, Pi realizes that the look in Orange Juice’s eyes was despair. Although it is unclear whether it was by drowning or by predators, the takes the lives of Orange Juice’s two sons, and gives Orange Juice a sense of nonstop pain and despair until the moment she dies. The last animal to arrive on the lifeboat is the unnamed hyena. The hyena’s relationship with the ocean is less significant than the other animals. The hyena is at some point thrown off the sinking ship and swims around until it finds the lifeboat, where it lives to kill and eat the zebra and the orangutan until it dies at the paws of Richard Parker.
Finally, Richard Parker the tiger has a somewhat similar relationship with water as Pi; or Richard Parker, the water gives life and can give death–but does not. Richard Parker is clearly not very fond of the ocean, as he does not at any point after arriving in the lifeboat, jump back into the water. On top of this, he seems to have some sort of seasickness. When Pi is training Richard Parker, he rocks the boat while staring down Richard Parker in order to assert his dominance, and the rocking of the boat appears to make Richard Parker queasy and docile. In the same way that the ocean feeds Pi, it feeds Richard Parker. While Richard Parker does eat the Hyena and the Frenchman, that is nowhere near enough food to last 227 days. Pi is able to catch enough fish for Richard Parker and himself for survival, and fish even jump up onto the lifeboat in front of Richard Parker at one point.
Also, like Pi, the ocean changes Richard Parker’s identity. For Pi, the ocean changed him from being a vegetarian, but for Richard Parker, he gains a literally unbelievable new identity as a friend of man. Richard Parker, a tiger, learns to be docile and friendly in the presence of Pi. It is not the most farfetched concept that Richard Parker is capable of cooperating with humans because he was a former zoo animal. Nevertheless, he is still a tiger that learns to not only cooperate peacefully with Pi, but also learns to rely on Pi for his survival, and even protects him when the Frenchman approaches the lifeboat. Richard Parker makes it to the island with Pi where he would surely be the apex predator, but he has become so close to Pi, that he trusts him enough to get back on the lifeboat with him and makes it to potential safety in Mexico.
Although Martel’s The Life of Pi does not focus on any scientific or conservationist aspects of the ocean, it plays a many very important symbolical roles for the characters of the novel, specifically Pi. Although it caused almost every character in the novel some form of pain, whether it be despair or death, it also served as home for both Richard Parker and Pi. Just like the reality of the ocean, its metaphorical roles are deep, various, unknown, and sometimes unpredictable. From general representations as life and death, to spiritual representations as God, to a personal metaphor for Pi’s psyche, the ocean’s various roles work to build character within the novel, and provoke though with its audience.