Allegory in Life of Pi

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Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, is a story that tackles the topics of human nature and necessity. This story demonstrates that when one is faced with conflict and isolation, it forces one to make decisions. Time can help an individual cope with isolation and this coping can lead to self-discovery; often causing aside to come out that is buried deep within, yet essential for survival. Through no fault of his own, Pi is faced with this adversity in an instant, forcing him to face the harsh reality due to his ordeal.

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Pi had never been isolated in his life, if anything, it was the complete opposite for him. His childhood is lively and happening; full of joy. This story starts in Pondicherry, India, where he interacts with people on the regular and is practically living in a zoo. Pi was anything but isolated. Pi is shown as a dynamic person, as well as open-minded due to his vast knowledge of different topics, but more importantly, his willingness to learn even more. He doesn’t just stop at Hinduism, instead, he goes on to follow two more religions. Pi loves social interactions, he is a social creature. His interactions with the priest, pandit, and imam lead him to discover new religions as a way of bringing him closer to God. Therefore, when he was faced with the shipwreck, it was total extreme isolation for him. It is a stark contrast to how his life was earlier. Not only is this a physical isolation, but also emotional and relational isolation as well - his family is dramatically taken away from him. Everything Pi was used to up until that moment is snatched away from him in an instant. This dramatic shift in isolation also brings with it a dramatic shift in self-discovery. Pi was now on his own, all he has on that tiny boat is himself, he doesn’t get to ask anyone anything, he has to figure it out on his own. Hence, the figment of his imagination, Richard Parker, is created. Pi even gives the “tiger” a human name, as a way to cope with his isolation from people. This kind of isolation causes humans to go against their nature for means of necessity. Ordinarily, humans aren’t meant to be isolated. Humans are supposed to be “civilized people”. Humans aren’t meant to be cannibals, and humans definitely are not meant to be in the situation Pi is in. This whole experience for Pi is a journey of self-discovery. As things progress, this isolation is either going to kill him, or he finds a way to discover within himself; what he needed to survive, to make his way through the world, it’s all down to him. He is his help, with no one to resort to for answers but himself.

Human necessity is an intricate topic. It causes humans to change themselves for means of survival, even if it means going against ordinary human nature. On the lifeboat, Pi is stranded alone. Richard Parker, the 'Bengal tiger', though, is an essential part of his survival, “...without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell my story.” This exemplifies how Pi feels towards the newly discovered side of himself. Pi’s self-discovery of his other side is what kept him alive. Pi being himself, would’ve not lasted long enough. He was a strict vegetarian who did not believe in killing and eating the flesh of animals. Though it was his inner self that led him to triumph over his inner conflicts, ultimately bringing himself to going against some of his values. It is his necessity caused by the isolation that led Pi to discover his other side. Therefore, making him fit enough to survive all alone in the ocean. Yann Martel truly captures this internal conflict of the protagonist with such delicacy. The first time when Pi catches a fish and takes its life, Pi 'wept heartedly over the poor deceased soul'. He cried because he then viewed himself as a murderer. Looking through the eyes of Richard Parker though makes it a lot easier for Pi to process this and realize that it is indeed okay, and necessary for survival. Pi had always had his morals which made him who he was but he knew he must abandon some of them if he was going to live. As mentioned earlier, necessity causes one to change and adapt for survival. Pi knew that for survival, he must have a food source. Thus, bringing himself to the idea of being okay with killing animals. He then thought of it as the fish that had come to him in the form of God as a source to feed him. “Now you have saved me by taking the form of a fish. Thank you, Thank you”, here Pi is shown to be thanking God, and this exemplifies how his strong faith helps him cope through this time. Pi’s time in the lifeboat is a trying time for him, with the sudden extreme isolation being his main conflict. Moreover, the internal conflict he deals with is just truly horrific, knowing he has no one to turn to, watching his hopes go away just as the ship sails away. There were also times of insanity, as his only entertainment or interaction with anyone was with himself, thus making him talk to himself as shown in the book on numerous occasions. As the days progress, it doesn’t get any easier either. Ultimately, coming to accept the fact of his imminent death, and the feeling within him that he is in fact, ready for death.

Pi had to make many choices, difficult choices, to ensure his survival up until the point of being rescued; to endure through this incredibly uncomfortable journey of isolation where many things were discovered about himself. Following his rescue and later being interviewed by the two officials from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport, Pi is forced to bring out yet another side and reveal to the readers the true story. The allegory is finally revealed to the readers in Martel's part three of the book, and it is then disclosed what went down in the ocean. The majority of the book is spent in the allegory, the one with the animals. And the one without - is what Pi wanted to keep hidden. Pi had completely transformed from who he was before the Tsimtsum shipwreck, and he knew that. Hence the fake story with the Bengal Tiger, hyena, female orangutan, and the zebra. Pi needed a story that he could live with for the rest of his life, one which would make him feel better about himself. Killing even an animal was going against Pi’s morals, so naturally, killing another human being was too extreme for him to be able to live with it for the rest of his life. Although what he did wasn't wrong, it is what was only necessary to ensure his survival, anyone would’ve done that. This entire journey forces him to do plenty of things that he wouldn’t have done unless given the circumstances he was in. As soon as the incident happens, he immediately starts making a plan, a plan for his survival. He follows the survival manual which was found in the lifeboat, becomes a non-vegetarian, rationalizes food and water supplies, learns to live with his inner “dark” yet essential side, and most importantly, Pi goes out of his comfort zone. All those things he does on that lifeboat weren’t in his comfort zone. Pi had to discover another side of him that allowed him to endure this isolation. He even leaves the “carnivorous island” knowing it has an abundant source of delicious vegetarian food, water, and the comfort of not being in a tiny lifeboat. He does this because he knew the consequences of staying there too long. His faith is what keeps pushing him up until the last moments of what he thought was the end of his life. At each point of his isolating journey, Pi is tested tremendously, but in the end, he does make it. He endures through this complicated journey up until the point of his rescue. He went from living happily in Pondicherry with his family to living in extreme isolation, to now again living happily in Toronto with his wife and kids.

This whole journey of isolation is a journey of self-discovery for Pi. His necessity caused by the isolation forces him to go against 'human nature. It forces him to discover uncomfortable things about himself that humans actively reject on an ongoing basis. Moreover, this story forces the readers even to go out of their comfort zones and embark on this journey with Pi. This is done by Martel's decision to write this novel in a first-person voice as Pi himself, connecting the readers even more with the protagonist and making them a part of this bizarre journey of isolation and self-discovery as well. Since this is a journey that not many have experienced, it is told to the readers in such an exceptional way through allegory by Yann Martel.  

Works cited

  1. Martel, Y. (2001). Life of Pi. Canongate Books.
  2. Marriam, S. (2013). Survival and Disillusionment in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. International Journal of English and Literature, 4(4), 155-162.
  3. Beiraghi, N. (2015). Postmodernist Features in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 5(5), 992-998.
  4. Adhikary, P. (2017). The Power of Storytelling and Survival: A Reading of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies, 8(1), 119-131.
  5. Taylor, J. A. (2017). Truth, Fiction, and Adventure in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. The Explicator, 75(1), 52-55.
  6. Kouti, K. (2018). Life of Pi: Analysis of Narration and Metaphors. Language and Literature, 7(3), 73-78.
  7. Singh, S. (2018). ‘The Life of Pi’ as a Postcolonial Text. Research Journal of English Language and Literature, 6(4), 527-529.
  8. Hsu, Y. (2019). Multiple Religious Beliefs and Adaptation in Life of Pi. Religion & Literature, 51(1), 185-191.
  9. Stolle, A. (2020). Humans and Animals in Yann Martel's Life of Pi. The Explicator, 78(3-4), 108-113.
  10. Arivazhagan, V., & Sudha, T. (2021). Life of Pi: A Study on Isolation, Self-discovery, and Survival. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 10(2), 41-48.

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