The novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an intriguing story of a boy, a tiger and their perils of life at the hands of the Pacific Ocean. There are many elements of fiction the characters of Pi Patel and Richard Parker. The setting of the limitless Pacific Ocean, the many different themes like survival and religion, and the symbolism of the color orange are all very important elements in this story that will also be analyzed. Together, the significant elements of characterization, setting, theme and symbolism draw the reader in and will keep the reader on the edge of their seat while reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
Characterization is the first very important element in Life of Pi, especially the characterization of Pi Patel. Piscine Molitor Patel is the protagonist in the novel, lost at sea after the devastating sinking of the Tsimtsum that killed his mother, father and brother. His name comes from the famous swimming pool in Paris called the Piscine Molitor. Pi grows up as the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. He is described as “a small, slim man—no more than five foot five. Dark hair, dark eyes” (Martel, 7). During his childhood, Pi (who is already a Hindu) adopts the Christian and Muslim religions.
Pi is very passionate about religion and states “Since when I could remember, religion had been very close to my heart” (Martel, 27). As a child, everyone always mispronounced his name as “pissing”. The other children would say things like “Where’s Pissing? I’ve got to go. ” Or “You’re facing the wall. Are you Pissing? ” (Martel, 20). This nickname affects him so drastically that the pain stays with him until adulthood. When he starts a new school, Petit Seminaire, he does everything he can to give himself the new nickname of Pi to avoid the mispronunciation of his name.
Pi is the narrator throughout the second section of the book. He is a middle aged man with a wife, kids and a job at this point. He is sixteen years old when the Tsimtsum sinks, leaving him desperate and alone with no family left. On the day he realizes his family is really gone, is when his grief really hit him. He states “I lay down on the tarpaulin and spent the whole night weeping and grieving, my face buried in my arms” (Martel, 128). Pi must now overcome the grief of losing his family and become independent and self-sufficient.
Pi is forced to grow up while he is in the vast Pacific Ocean and his survival instincts start to kick in. He finds a survival guide and learns how to fish, quickly realizing that he does not have the luxury of being a vegetarian anymore. This is an internal struggle that he has to face, but he now realizes how important it is to his survival to eat meat. Pi learns how to protect himself from the dangers of the ocean and the Bengal tiger (Richard Parker) this is inhabiting the lifeboat with him. Pi relies a lot on god to help him through his 227 day journey.
He prays daily and thanks god for everything. Characterization of Richard Parker is another very important element in Life of Pi. Richard Parker is the antagonist in the story, although this depends on which of the two stories the reader choses to believe. Richard Parker is a 450 pound, 9 foot long Bengal tiger who finds his way onto the lifeboat with Pi. Pi spots the panicked tiger in the water right as the ship goes under and encourages him to swim to the lifeboat. He is muscular with a glossy coat of bright orange and black fur.
Martel writes, “Richard Parker was so named because of a clerical error” (Martel, 132). He was found as a cub by a hunter whose name was Richard Parker. He was originally named “Thirsty” by the hunter, but there was a mix-up when he was brought to the Pondicherry Zoo and his name ended up being Richard Parker on all of his paperwork. The name stuck. He spends the majority of his life at the Pondicherry Zoo being taken care of by the zookeepers. Richard Parker keeps to himself on the lifeboat for the first few days due to his tremendous seasickness.
Even Pi does not realize he is there until he spots him under the tarpaulin. “How I had failed to notice for two and a half days a 450-pound Bengal tiger in a lifeboat twenty-six feet long was a conundrum I would have to try to crack later, when I had more energy” states Pi (Martel, 134). After all of the other animals on the lifeboat are eaten, Richard Parker has to be totally dependent on Pi to find food and water for them. Martel does not really give you a look into Richard Parker’s head; the reader does not know what he thinks or how he really feels.
In this way, Martel is able to keep the idea alive that Richard Parker is a wild animal and not a human. The characterization of the relationship between the characters of Pi Patel and Richard Parker is very important and one of a very complex nature. Depending on which story the reader chooses to believe at the end, Richard Parker could actually be a Bengal tiger. But if the reader chooses to believe the second story that Pi tells, Richard Parker and Pi are actually one in the same. At first, the two are drastically different characters.
Pi is a young boy thrown into a lifeboat and Richard Parker is a zoo animal. But as time progresses, Pi and Richard Parker become much more alike; Pi becoming more animalistic as he bites into live fish and Richard Parker becoming more humanlike by showing affection and protection to Pi. An article in SIRS states “Richard Parker becomes more humanlike in his treatment of Pi, even killing the French castaway when he attempts to murder Pi and eat him” (SIRS). Pi is scared witless of Richard Parker when he first discovers that he is on the lifeboat, especially after watching him kill the hyena.
They both begin to depend on one another though. Richard Parker becomes dependent on Pi for fresh water and food. Elsie Cloete puts it nicely in her journal Tigers, Humans and Animots, when she states “Richard Parker, inured to being looked at, accustomed to the smell of humans, used to having its food and water provided, accepts his place as subordinate in the lifeboat” (Cloete, 326). Pi becomes dependent on Richard Parker for protection and also for hope. Pi soon realizes that he will have to choose between being killed by Richard Parker or training him so he will see Pi as the alpha male.
As the staff of SIRS states, “Pi uses his knowledge of zoo animals an experiences with his zookeeper father to establish himself as the master in the lifeboat” (SIRS). Pi and Richard Parker start to become friends. Richard Parker even uses prusten a few times toward Pi, which is basically the equivalent of purring for a house cat. Unfortunately, their relationship ends rather abruptly when they reach Mexico and Richard Parker jumps out of the lifeboat and disappears into the jungle. Pi is somewhat traumatized from this as he doesn’t get to thank him for saving his life or tell him goodbye.
“I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye without looking back even once. That pain is like an axe that chops at my heart” states Pi, many years after the fact (Martel, 6). The setting of the lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean is another very important element to look at in Life of Pi. This element is important because the setting is what really draws the reader in and makes them curious about the story of their survival. Pi gets lost at sea in 1977. Just as Pi thinks he and Richard
Parker are alone in the ocean, he realizes that the ocean is just a giant underwater city. He takes in all the fish and other sea life. He starts to imagine the underwater world like the one he is accustomed to above water with “highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts” and “fish like trucks and buses and cars and bicycles and pedestrians” (Martel, 175). The ocean has a significant effect on both Pi and Richard Parker. After so long at sea, the salt of the Pacific Ocean starts to dry them both out and shrivel them up. The weather at sea has a great impact on Pi’s and Richard Parker’s moods as well.
When it storms badly, they are both terrified and hang onto the lifeboat for dear life. The mood of the story depends a lot on the setting. At first, when the sharks are circling around the lifeboat, Pi gets scared. When it rains and they are both provided with fresh water, there is a great sense of relief. This story definitely would not work in any other setting as the ocean is what brings it to life. The algae island that Pi and Richard Parker happen upon is another very important setting in the book because it serves as such a huge turning point in their journey.
The algae island is nothing but green and lush, the whole island itself being made of algae. There are strange trees that grow on the island, “They were like none I had ever seen before. They had a pale bark, and equally distributed branches that carried an amazing profusion of leaves. These leaves were brilliantly green, a green so bright and emerald that, next to it, vegetation during the monsoons was drab olive” (Martel, 257). The algae island also turns out to be the home of hundreds of thousands of meerkats.
The plot is pushed forward by the island as it is a major aid in their survival. They were both suffering from starvation by the time they reached the island, so stumbling across it turned out to be their saving grace. They find that the island has nearly unlimited amounts of fresh water and food available to them. The algae island has sort of an eerie atmosphere. At first, it is very quiet and serene. As Pi relearns how to walk and is able to get over the ridge to see what is on the rest of the island, the story starts to get exciting.
This is when he discovers the hundreds of thousands of meerkats on the island and also the fresh water ponds that are all about the island. Pi and Richard Parker would surely have died had they not come across the algae island. They were already past the point of starvation and were so weak they could hardly move by the time they reached the shore. As soon as Pi discovered the algae that the island is made of is edible, he knew they were saved. Richard Parker was also saved as he had hundreds of thousands of meerkats to feast upon.
The island brought excitement to the story and also the hope that they would be able to survive. The island provided them enough food and water for them to be able to recover and start feeling good and strong again. The recurring theme of religion is another essential element in the story as it is Pi’s faith in god that helps keep him alive. As put in Florence Stratton’s deconstruction of the novel, “For although, as stated earlier, Pi does not spend much time reflecting on religion, he does make God the object of frequent and heartfelt exhortations and expressions of gratitude” (Stratton, 15).
The theme of religion is strong because it teaches faith, strength, hope and patience in a time when all of these things may have been lost. After all he has been through, Pi does not doubt. Instead, he still sets aside the time every day for prayer and worship. The story also teaches that it is not about which religion you follow specifically, it’s about simply having faith in god. It is important to believe in some greater power other than yourself. Martel wanted to convey that religion is a very important aspect in life as it shapes you into a well-rounded person.
Pi learns that as long as you keep your faith and it is strong, you can make it through any of life’s trials. The reader can also take a little from this as well as they are seeing Pi go through this struggle but never losing his faith in god. The two separate stories that Pi tells are another place that religion shows up in the story. The “bad” story is made to be so horrific and gruesome that the reader will not want to believe it. The “good” story with the animals is made to be barely believable.
The “good” story is meant to represent the goodness of god. In a Q and A with Yann Martel, he states “In other words, Pi makes a parallel between the two stories and religion. His argument (and mine) is that a vision of life that has a transcendental element is better than one that is purely secular and materialistic” (Martel). Another recurring theme in Life of Pi is survival. The theme of survival is not really stated implicitly, but is a very strong and noticeable theme in the book. Life of Pi teaches that survival comes from deep within oneself.
Your animal instincts kick in after so long and you can actually teach yourself how to live. Martel was trying to convey to the reader that deep down within, humans are all still animals, regardless of how civilized they have become. Pi learns that he is much more capable of survival than he thought was possible. Symbolization is another meaningful element the reader should study closely while reading Life of Pi as there are a few things that have hidden meaning in the story. The main symbol of importance is the color orange.
The color orange is a very dominant symbol that represents survival. The color orange also signals hope that they may be able to survive or even be rescued. The color orange first appears with the tarpaulin on the lifeboat. Then again with the life jackets that he ties together to make a raft. The color orange also appears in the whistles Pi found that he uses to train Richard Parker with. Had he not had the whistles with him, he may not have been able to train Richard Parker and may have gotten attacked or eaten alive.
Richard Parker himself is orange, leading the reader to believe that he may be a source of hope. This symbolic interpretation of the color orange makes sense because the whole story is about Pi and Richard Parker’s fight for survival. To conclude, the reader should now understand the importance of characterization, setting, theme, and symbol in the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel. These elements bond together to make the story quite enjoyable and enthralling. Whichever way the reader chooses to interpret the story, they are sure to finish reading it with much admiration for Pi Patel.