By Michelle Lee
for the course The Castaway Narrative
Instructor: Rebecca Million
Belief in Life of Pi
The novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is, on the surface, the story of a boy named Pi Patel, who gets shipwrecked on a voyage from India to Canada and is left on a lifeboat with only the company of an adult Bengal tiger for 227 days. On a deeper level, the story displays the idea of belief in an interesting way. We learn that Pi openly practices three separate religions and has a peculiar but compelling view of belief in God. Life of Pi also carries elements of the Magical Realism genre, which causes the readers’ suspension of disbelief to weaken throughout the story. At the end of the novel, Pi tells us the real and even more horrific story of what actually happened after the sinking of the Tsimtsum. The reader can then relate this second story to the idea of zoomorphism in order to understand why Pi would like us to believe the first story. Martel uses Pi’s view of belief in religion, the Magical Realism genre, and the idea of zoomorphism in order to convey ideas about belief.
While in India, and throughout his journey, Pi expresses his view that belief in religion is belief in a story. Pi was raised Hindu, then at fourteen years old “met Jesus Christ” (Martel 56). Less than a year later, Pi also became a Muslim. To the confusion of most people, he is a loyal and devoted practitioner of all three religions. When his family, priest, imam and pandit try to convince him that what he believes in is not possible, he gives an answer that might make anyone see the logic in his faith: “I just want to love God” (76). Pi believes that God is unlimited; humans do not have the power to define him. He believes the belief in religion is simply belief in a story much more exciting than “dry, yeastless factuality” (70). For example, he believes that belief in anything, even an atheist’s belief that there is no higher power and nothing after death, requires an imaginative leap of faith; however, if one chooses not to believe, they have “[missed] the better story” (70). Pi believes that religious belief is belief in a better story, even though what you believe may not be true, it’s sure to be more exciting. Concerning Christianity, Pi states that “the first thing that drew [him] in was disbelief” (58). This could be related to what pushes the reader to believe in Pi’s story, even as it becomes increasingly unbelievable.
Martel’s use of Magical Realism becomes more and more apparent during Pi’s time on the Pacific. Magical Realism is the union of two conflicting perspectives: the rational view and the supernatural. The story is set in the normal, modern world and contains authentic descriptions of society and humans, but has supernatural aspects that we accept to be real, everyday life. Martel keeps the reader paying close attention to their suspension of disbelief, which increasingly weakens as the novel progresses and Pi goes deeper into his story. The reader truly realizes that Pi may be lying when he and Richard Parker go blind and then encounter the Frenchman; “He wailed again. I was struck dumb. I had met another blind man on another lifeboat in the Pacific!” (227). It is simply unbelievable to us that Pi would happen to run into another lifeboat carrying another blind man in the vast ocean. Even the way that this passage is written and the diction used (repetition of ‘another’) conveys a sense of disbelief in Pi himself. Pi pre-emptively tries to convince us to believe in his tale even prior to this strange occurrence: “I know my survival is hard to believe. When I think back, I can hardly believe it myself” (247). He then gives us his proof that he is telling the truth. Pi tries extremely hard to make us believe in his first story and this is apparent in these passages. The Algae Island seems to be the final straw that breaks the readers’ suspension of disbelief, if it hasn’t already been broken. The idea of a cannibalistic island is too extreme for our rational mind. Pi even warns us that many do not believe the episode, but he gives it to us anyway, because “it’s part of the story” (284). The fact that Pi uses this reason makes us see that it is only told to complete a fictional story that he has invented, not because it is a factual occurrence. By this point in the novel, we begin to wonder what the Frenchman and the island could have represented in Pi’s mind. Perhaps the account of the Frenchman is a way for him to relieve some guilt that he had for committing murder and cannibalism. Perhaps the Algae Island symbolically represented Pi’s guilt that would eventually eat him up. These instances of Magical Realism allow the reader to question his belief in Pi’s story.
Martel uses the idea of zoomorphism as a metaphor for what Pi believes, and wants the reader to believe, in order to make reality better. Zoomorphism is when an animal takes another species as one of their own; for example, a dog taken as a foster mother by lion cubs. Zoomorphism is a way to fictionalize reality in order to make it better. The lion cubs would be horrified if they were without a mother, “the absolute worst condition imaginable for any young, warm-blooded life” (95). It is a survival tactic that makes their reality easier to live with. The second story Pi tells us that four people made it on to the lifeboat: his mother, a sailor, the cook and himself. The cook was an awful man, who killed and ate both the sailor and Pi’s mother in horrific ways. Pi, in turn, eventually killed the cook. Pi felt guilty for all of their deaths, and for him, the story with the animals was a way to make reality less painful. Pi asks the Japanese officials at very end, given that neither story provides any evidence to how the Tsimtsum sank, “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” (352). The officials both respond that the better story is in fact the one with the animals. We now understand that the first story was told by Pi in order to make the reality of his situation more bearable, and is much like what occurs within the process of zoomorphism. Pi urges us to believe the first story because it is much better than the second story’s “dry, yeastless factuality” (70).
The idea of belief in Life of Pi is apparent throughout the novel. Pi’s unique view of belief in religion, as being belief in a better story, is directly related to why Pi would like us to believe in his first story, rather than the second. The use of Magical Realism in the novel keeps the reader engaged in the story and extremely aware of their suspension of disbelief. The use of this genre is effective in guiding the reader towards capturing the meaning behind the first story. The idea of zoomorphism is one that the reader may refer to at the end of the novel when we find out what really happened during Pi’s time on the Pacific. We learn that Pi wants us to believe in the first story in order to make reality easier for him to live with. Life of Pi’s concept of belief is captivating; it allows the viewer to believe in a world where the line between reality and imagination is constantly blurred.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi: A Novel. New York: Harcourt, 2001. Print.