Philosophic Review: Life of Pi

This book is a happy, sometimes trippy, ride. I read the book and watched the movie (again), and was impressed with both (again). Life of Pi is a book that does what it says it will: make you believe in God. It gets a 4/5 on characters, a 4/5 on plot and 6/5 on philosophy. I love it for its metaphors and its lack of them, and I’d recommend it to anyone that doesn’t mind a small cast of characters, a lot of symbolic reading and doesn’t get terribly squeamish around blood.

NOTE: the * words means I’m referencing a spoiler, they will be explained at the end of the post.

Themes/Questions: does God exist; what place does faith have in our lives; every part of you can be used for good; what is reality but another dream

Life of Pi book cover via noteworthy

Premise: Pi is a boy whose father owns a zoo. In a traditional Hindi family, Pi decides to convert to Islam and Christianity, as well. All three. They live in India until they decide to move to Canada, loading up their animals and family and setting out on the ocean. The ship sinks, and Pi spends a long time in a life raft with the zoo’s tiger, Richard Parker.

My Thoughts: Yes, that’s a weird plot. It’s a weird book. But there’s a lot to be learned from it, and from all the animals in the zoo. Yann Martel manages to tell the story with humor and incredible tact. He gives you just enough detail to impress the gravity of things but never so much to make you shut down. And his insight to religion and faith is inspiring.

One of my favorite moments of the book is before the adventure ever begins, as Pi discovers his religions. He has a moment of clarity and realizes that really, all any of these people wish to do is worship God*. They all appear to have truth in what they teach and so he decides to join all of the religions. I don’t think I would do the same, but I agree completely with his sentiment: all any of us in a religion wish to do is worship God. Pi realizes that he does not worship religion to give himself comfort in life or a sense of stability (although those things can be found with religion) but because the religion itself was true.

On the raft itself, each of the animals he meets represents a different facet of human nature. The zebra is innocence, the orangutan is nurture, the hyena is selfishness and the tiger… well the tiger has variable meanings*.

The colors, too, take on meaning in the book. It is little wonder to me that both Orange Juice and the raft are orange, as is his whistle and everything else he relates to safety. but so does Richard Parker have orange in his fur. Not totally, but it’s there. The Island is green, commonly associated with wealth and growing, living things–and poison. Which leads me to the metaphor of the Island itself. Many online sources believe the island to represent organized religion… but that would be silly, because he spends several moments early on explaining why he doesn’t like agnostics. Pi would not belong to three organized relgions if he didn’t think they would help his faith. No, the island represents something more of human nature than an institution: stability as it leads to laziness*.

The nature of reality is also called into question later in the book. As Pi’s mind drifts, his reality becomes perhaps mixed with unreality. He must believe himself at points that what happened really did*. And from there we get the ending.

The ending. That’s really what this entire post is about, and really it’s a giant spoiler*. But the ending is what really sealed the deal for me, made me appreciate what a clever, clever man Yann Martel is. He brought to light of the great truths of the universe: everything, at some point, must rely on faith. Everything. No mathematical proof does not at one point make an assumption, no law of physics does not rely on other “proven” facts. That does not make them any less real–you can see the effects of gravity all around you–but at some point it must come down to faith. And when faced with that, I choose the story with the animals. This is not because I don’t know what humanity is capable of–a basic knowledge of the holocaust holocaust takes care of that–but because Pi asked me to trust him. He asked me to have faith, and I do.


Movie still via Youtube trailer

*All we want to do is worship God: my favorite quote of the entire book is his explanation of religion. He says:  “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.” Each of the religions seeks only one thing–to worship God. We are not so different as we seem, really. And working together rather than apart can work miracles.
*Richard Parker: To many, Richard Parker is Pi himself, and represents his true feelings. But I believe Richard Parker is our baser instinct, our first natural reactions. That does not make him evil, although dangerous–rather, he is something to be accepted, respected, harnessed and used. Never forget what it is, but do not let that scare you from interacting with it.
*The Island: Oh my goodness I love the Island. Well, not what it represents, just the brilliance of the metaphor itself. I think of it, really, as the ultimate office building–or some relatable habitat of safety and monotony (sorry for those of you who work in office buildings). The meerkats are your fellow workers, given everything they need to survive. you have stability, safety, normality. You do not need to stretch yourself to get food and water and the necessities of life. But that very stability is what is killing you, slowly, inside. Your lack of challenge is what saps your will to live and leaves you nothing more than teeth in a tree. The movie enhanced that fact, outlining the island as a human at rest, dissolving into the water. The island isn’t religion, but your own stable, boring life. It reminds me of Misaeng (although I haven’t watched it all yet).
*The nature of reality: Everything that happens after Pi admits use of the dream rag must be called into question. Events like the second survivor require increasing faith to accept as true, and Pi himself must trust only his own soul after going temporarily blind. This lack of trust in your narrator leaves a distinct impression: everything that happens is first filtered through our senses. For all we know we are brains in vats, given impulses to create our world. In fact, reality only works because we agree on things–that this frequency is blue and that one is red. Because if you cannot trust your own senses, what can you trust?
*When Pi gets back to land, he is interviewed by some insurance men who want the truth about the sinking of the ship. Pi tells him his story with Richard Parker, the Island and etc. and the men do not believe him. They press him for another story until Pi gives them one: a harsh, gritty tale of him, his mother, the ship’s cook and a sailor. They resort to cannibalism and murder early on in the survival, and Pi spends the rest of the time alone in the boat. The men appear ready to accept this harder (? he killed in the story with the animals, too) tale as truth–until Pi asks them a question. “Neither story changes what you care about–the sinking of the ship. So which one is better?” They reply they like the one with the animals better, and Pi responds “So it goes with God.”

Thanks for reading,


Movie screencap via Screenmusings

One response to “Philosophic Review: Life of Pi

  1. I think one of the most important lines in the book is the last line of the first part, “This story has a happy ending.” I’m not sure if it spoils the ending since both takes on the story seem tragic to me. The line shows Pi’s optimism in any situation but he never shows blind optimism. I still can’t pinpoint what might be the source of Pi’s optimism here.

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