An essay written by Alanna Nussbaum
For Prof. Rebecca Million’s Castaway Narrative class
The novel Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is not solely about a boy in a lifeboat with a live Bengal tiger. Rather, Martel cleverly uses this story to discuss the theme that every individual faces a choice: to rely on either fiction or reality. Through allegory, Martel portrays the horrors of the world we live in, the “crude reality” (xiv) that drives man to belief and to G-d. Through narrative, Martel provides the fictionalized account of a story, and allows readers to gradually increase their willing suspension of disbelief, laying the foundation for his later revelation. Using framing, Martel provides the true account, as well as discusses the heart of the matter: which is “‘the better story?’” (457)
By the end of the story, it is clear that Piscine Patel, Pi, has engaged in zoomorphism, the technique of assigning animal characteristics to humans (Collins English Dictionary). The animals on the life raft are all allegories to the human beings who were actually cast away when the Tsimtsum sank (438). The hyena represents the cook, a greedy, “holy terror of hunger” (438) who preys on the weak and vulnerable, in this case, the sailor. The cook, low as he is on the moral scale, turns to cannibalism even before he is truly hungry, even after eating more than his fair share of the food supply (442). The zebra represents the injured sailor, the innocent victim of a vicious, opportunistic and ruthless creature. The orang-utan, with her motherly qualities as well as her moral standards, is the animal version of Pi’s mother, who refuses to budge morally even when her life is at stake (444). Lastly, the tiger is a reference to Pi himself, a being who would not start a fight unless forced to, who is “quick to back down when [he] feel[s] [he] can” (299), and who will forgo moral standards in order to survive, letting others die so that he may live (447).This is not to say that the tiger is not a powerful creature, who will rise to the occasion when need be, as Pi does in turning away from vegetarianism to the point of cannibalism in order to survive.
In Pi’s insistence on the presence of animals, and not humans, on the lifeboat with him, he reveals his unwillingness to commit to reality, and his stubbornness in relying solely on belief. Pi wants to retain his innocence of the evil man is capable of, and can only do so if he sticks to the parallel universe his mind has conjured, a universe where humans are not at all like animals: “an animal is an animal, essentially and practically removed from us” (45), as he believed in India. In this universe, men like the cook do not exist – only hyenas could be so evil and inhumane. As such, it is the cruel world that drives Pi to his imagination, to his belief in the existence of something better.
In the novel Life of Pi, Yann Martel tells the story of a boy in a lifeboat with a tiger, using elements of magical realism. This narrative is used in order to convey the idea that, sometimes, it is necessary to ignore logic and truth, and believe in “‘the better story’” (457), even if it is just that – a story.
At first glance, Martel seems to be simply telling the story of an innocent, G-d loving Indian boy who has the misfortune of being cast away on a lifeboat . . . with a Bengal tiger. Readers are skeptical, but have already been informed of his immense knowledge of animals, and are willing to let the likelihood of this situation fly. As the reading continues, an orang-utan arrives, “floating on an island of bananas” (158) – It is interesting enough that readers are willing to forget the absurdity, and move on. Later, with Pi miraculously still alive, there is a meeting of “Two blind people in two separate lifeboats . . . in the Pacific” Ocean (432). As Mr. Okamoto puts it, “the coincidence seems a little far-fetched” (432). However, readers are willing to continue to ignore the statistics, and forge ahead with the story. The unlikelihood of the events Pi describes only escalates as the story unravels, until Pi lands on an Algae island (370). At this point, the facts can no longer be ignored: it is “botanically impossible” (425). As such, a conscious suspension of disbelief is the only way to keep reading. This conscious and willing act is what lays the groundwork for Martel’s logic behind the belief in G-d.
When Francis Adirubasamy claims to have “a story that will make you believe in G-d” (xii), it is important to note that he is referring to a story that encourages the idea of belief, and not belief itself. As Pi reveals to Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, belief in G-d is not actually about G-d himself, but about belief in “the better story” (91), an idea that is revealed through framing.
The novel is framed by two documents that do not seem to be part of the story, but are. They both help to blur the lines between reality and fiction. The author’s note seems real at first, but reveals itself to be fictionalized. In his note, he warns his readers against relying solely on reality, which for him is a sacrifice of “imagination on the altar of crude reality”, and results in people “believing in nothing and having worthless dreams” (xiv). This fictionalized note starts the novel off with the key theme: which story do you believe?
The report at the end of the story shows the Japanese officers who, despite logic and reason, choose to believe in “‘The story with animals’” (457). This is recorded in their report, in which they write that the castaway, Pi, survived his ordeal “in the company of an adult Bengal tiger” (460), despite their original qualms about the truth of this claim (428). Both officers make the conscious decision to ignore the truth and live with a fictional account, with a story of miracles and survival, rather than with a realistic and truthful story of greed, cruelty and savagery. This choice allows them to live their lives, untainted by the “crude” world they live in (124). This is tied in to religion in two ways. First, it can be compared to Pi’s original acceptance of Christianity: just as the Japanese do, Pi originally doubts the truth behind the story Father Martin tells him (76-82). However, as with the officers, Pi regards fiction as the better alternative, and chooses religion as his “better story” (83, 91). Secondly, Pi makes this connection for the officers, saying, “‘And so it goes with G-d’” (457). In this simple way, he describes the relevance of G-d to humans’ lives, in that G-d is the “‘better story’” that we need in order to survive (457).
Through allegory and the creative use of a story of a boy, a tiger, and the Pacific Ocean, Yann Martel effectively conveys human beings’ need to hide from the harsh realities of this world through belief. The use of magical realism in Martel’s narrative encourages the reader to recognize the unconscious tendency towards suspension of disbelief, an exercise as crucial to survival as breathing. Framing provides the context necessary for understanding the moral of the story, through recognition of the willing suspension of disbelief that we ourselves partake in, that belief, and not truth, is what saves us in this cruel world. As Pi explains, factually, one is no further ahead whether one chooses reality or fiction (487). The choice is essentially to live with an overwhelming and intolerable reality, or to make imaginative leaps and live, as Pi does, in peace. The decision is yours: which is “‘the better story?’” (457)