Existentialist Nature of Life of Pi Novel

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Existentialist Nature Of Life Of Pi Novel

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An existentialist believes that every individual, thrust into the world with no pre-determined values or nature to guide his actions, is entirely responsible for who he becomes. His existence precedes his essence, and thus, he is no more than the sum of his actions. In Life of Pi, author Yann Martel brings this existential philosophy to life by creating a character who is forced to choose between waiting indolently for death or taking absolute responsibility for his survival. Throughout his novel, Martel challenges the common perceptions of hope, factuality, and reason through the character of Pi Patel, who uses his optimism and faith in the unbelievable to gain strength. Pi ultimately finds the will to live through his subjective, uninhibited, and entirely independent view of reality, thus contradicting the positivist view of objectivity.

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In Life of Pi, Martel discredits the assumption that truth is synonymous with fact and that they are superior to fiction. He argues that the objectivity of facts and reason should not define reality or the way in which an individual views the world and his existence. Rather than creating a character who adheres to a reasonable, factual interpretation of his unlikely circumstances, Martel highlights the way in which Pi defines the truth of his reality independently of its believability. And by illustrating the way in which Pi finds his will to live—the hope necessary for his survival—Martel exemplifies the power of subjectivity and imaginative thinking.

Similarly, in his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argues that the inherence of subjectivity is what enables an individual to define the world as he chooses and to make choices based on that interpretation. Because every individual has a subjective view of reality, every individual is responsible for the actions he takes within that reality. In other words, his decisions and the steps he takes to attain the existence he desires are dependent on how he views his circumstances and how he interacts with them.

In Martel’s novel, Pi does not decide to be tossed into a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger after a shipwreck that kills his family. But he does decide how he reacts to the aftermath of the event. At first, he is fervently hopeful that others will come to his rescue. He believes that “to think that [he will be saved]…[is] itself a source of hope [and] hope [feeds] on hope” (Martel 119). But in holding strongly to his faith in circumstances and people out of his control, he is preventing himself from taking action to remedy the situation.

However, Pi soon recognizes that he must escape his state of inaction. He will not be saved unless he acts to save himself. Regardless of his situation, he decides what to make of it and how he wants to change it. Pi recognizes that he must “stop hoping so much that a ship [will] rescue [him.] [He] should not count on outside help. Survival [must] start with [him]…To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one’s life away” (Martel 169). And by comprehending the way in which his hope has been a hindrance, Pi is entering the state of despair that Sartre describes as the realization that he is “limit[ed] to a reliance upon that which is within [his] wills” (Sartre 357). Furthermore, Sartre asserts that the relinquishment of hope is a precondition to overcoming life’s obstacles, and by relinquishing his faith in being rescued, Pi finds his “situation [to be] patently hopeless” (Martel 169). The hopelessness that Pi experiences is what pushes him to take action and to make the attempt to save himself, so, in this way, Martel’s view of despair as a condition of action seems to mirror that of Sartre’s philosophy.

On the other hand, Martel portrays Pi’s lack of hope as causing him to question the necessity of his survival, thus contradicting Sartre’s positive, optimistic view of despair. Pi likens despair to that of “a heavy blackness that let[s] no light in or out…a hell beyond expression” (Martel 209), and when he goes blind and loses his last bit of hope, he “resolve[s] to die” (Martel 241). Moreover, Martel illustrates that there is a certain sense of hopefulness—that which contrasts with the type of hope Sartre denounces as causing a state of inaction—that persuades Pi to act in such a way that furthers his chance of survival. For example, when Pi devises a plan to eliminate the threat of Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger aboard the lifeboat, “a modest glow of hope flicker[s] to life within [Pi], like a candle in the night [because he has] a plan and it [is] a good one” (Martel 159). Though this hopefulness seems to parallel Sartre’s assertion that an individual “ought to commit [oneself] and then act [one’s] commitment,” it is Pi’s hopefulness that induces his action, which contradicts Sartre’s reasoning that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work” (Sartre 358).

Though Martel depicts Pi’s hopefulness as somewhat divergent from Sartre’s existential view of hope, the way in which Pi conserves his optimism—through his rejection of objective reason—converges with the existential tenet of subjectivity. In his essay, “Existentialism and Human Emotions,” Sartre explains how “pure subjectivity, the Cartesian I think, [is the] starting point [and] the moment in which man becomes fully aware of what it means to him to be an isolated being,” and thus, “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” In Life of Pi, Martel expounds this philosophy through Pi’s utilization of a subjective reality as a means of survival. For instance, in the face of fear, Pi finds that objective reason offers no reprieve. He recognizes that “fear can defeat life” and when “reason comes to do battle…[one is] reassured [but] despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low” (Martel 161). So, rather than confining himself to the “dry, yeastless factuality” of an objective world, Pi holds onto the seemingly implausible reality of being on a lifeboat with Richard Parker (Martel 302). And in doing so, he finds the will to live.

At the end of the novel, the men from the Japanese Ministry of Transport regard Pi’s story as false simply because a tiger being onboard seems “a bit hard to believe” (Martel 296). But there is no way to prove what is fact and what is fiction because the lens through which Pi views his experience is not universal. No one else is forced to interpret Pi’s situation in the same way he does because no reality is objective. Therefore, Pi has the freedom to believe in the allegedly implausible reality of surviving at sea with a tiger because to him, it “is the better story” (Martel 316). Therefore, Martel illustrates the power of interpreting the world as one chooses rather than confining oneself to the indisputability of objective reason. Thus, this aspect of Martel’s novel parallels the existential attitude that each individual freely defines and interprets his existence as he chooses.

Nevertheless, there is an aspect of Martel’s argument regarding subjectivity that contradicts Sartre’s position: theism. Sartre, an atheistic existentialist, reasons that if man’s existence truly precedes his essence, then there is no God—no “supernal artisan” with a conception of each individual prior to the individual’s creation (Sartre 348). In contrast, Pi’s character holds firmly to his belief in God throughout the novel, and his faith is what perpetuates the creation of his essence, his individual existence. Despite a lack of reasonableness and scientific substantiation, Pi believes in God because it offers him hope and motivates him to live. Pi believes that he “would have given up…if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in [his] heart [a] voice [saying], ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare [and] beat the odds, as great as they are” (Martel 148). This voice, which Pi interprets to be that of a higher being, is what drives him to “put in all the hard work necessary [to live because] so long as God is with [him], [he] will not die” (Martel 148). In this way, Pi’s character remains “something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so” despite his theistic beliefs (Sartre 349). Thus, the piety of Pi’s character seems to contradict Sartre’s Godless existentialist philosophy.

However, though his belief in God pushes Pi to further develop his essence, Pi has chosen to interpret the voice he hears as that of God. In other words, the decision to have faith in God is Pi’s decision, which coincides with Sartre’s claim that “if a voice speaks to [an individual], it is still [the individual himself] who must decide whether the voice is or is not that of [a supernatural being]” (Sartre 351). Therefore, Martel illustrates how subjectivity can offer the reassurance necessary to survive in even the most life-threatening circumstances. Thus, Life of Pi affirms Sartre’s view of existence as inherently subjective despite the theism of Pi’s character.

Lastly, Martel introduces several different religions throughout his novel, and rather than adhering to the conventionality of one faith, Pi chooses to practice aspects of three different religions: Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. By following various religions, Pi is choosing his faith entirely independently instead of letting the values of one religion dictate his outlook on life. Pi recognizes that he has the freedom of choice—the “freedom of practice” (Martel 68)—and through his exploration of faith rather than blind devotion to a single religion, he is operating under the existential principle that Sartre phrases as “every man in possession of himself as he is” (Sartre 349). In other words, Pi does not confine himself to a set of obligatory a priori values set by a single religion. Rather, he chooses for himself the values by which he lives. Through Pi’s unconventional approach to religion, Martel illustrates how an individual can believe in God while still recognizing he is without a “luminous realm of values [or] means of justification” (Sartre 353). Pi understands that he is “condemned to be free [and] responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 353), and thus, his character remains in the territory of existentialism as Sartre describes it.

Overall, neither Sartre nor Martel argue that an individual is entirely in control of his reality, nor do they claim that God exists or the story of Pi aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is factual. Instead, Life of Pi and “Existentialism is a Humanism” exemplify the power of subjectivity and an individual’s freedom to interpret his circumstances as he chooses. There is not a single lens through which every individual views the world, and thus, there is no single reality, no single truth. Reason and fact do not save Pi; Pi saves himself. And he does so by viewing the world as he chooses rather than confining himself to the inflexibility of a rational, indisputable, objective world.

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