Depending on which of Pi's stories you believe, Richard Parker is either a real tiger or he's simply a very developed figment of Pi's imagination. But whichever one you choose – the story with animals, the story without, or even both at the same time – we think it's illuminating to read about these characters side by side. And to at least entertain the possibility that Richard Parker is nothing more than an imaginative extension of Pi. And if your brain melts trying to believe in both stories at the same time, we apologize.
Pi and Richard Parker are mashed together in more than one way in Life of Pi. Certainly the investigators say Pi is Richard Parker in Part 3, Chapter 99. Even before that, though, the two characters share something we'd like to call "the anxiety of naming." Martel opens Part 2, Chapter 48 with the sentence: "Richard Parker was so named because of a clerical error." Didn't Pi also spend a long time discussing his own name? And his renaming through the nickname "Pi"? It's probably no coincidence that Richard Parker was named and renamed as well.
Originally, a hunter named Richard Parker baptized the tiger with the name "Thirsty" (creative, right?). But in a paperwork mix-up, the tiger ends up with the name Richard Parker and the hunter with the name Thirsty. So there's a lot of renaming, discussion of names, switching of the hunter with the hunted. Coincidence? Maybe so. All this is to say you can interpret Richard Parker as an extension of Pi's character or as a separate but related character. We have our opinion. But you should have one, too.
Richard Parker sulks a lot. Early on in the lifeboat, Pi doesn't even see Richard Parker since he's hiding under the tarpaulin. Other times, Richard Parker hides from the wind and sun in his lair. We're not sure if we would consider Richard Parker, when he does come out to play, a very good conversationalist. But isn't God silent – in the writings of the mystics – for long stretches? (Martel researched these writings for the book.) Also, wasn't God silent during Christ's time on the cross? Perhaps Richard Parker, like a personal god in any number of religions, receives some characteristics from the very care Pi lavishes on him.
Richard Parker's silence also gives him an air of distance – a nobility and independence he might not have otherwise. He is, admittedly, totally dependent on Pi for food and water. Granted, Richard Parker does communicate through action: his violence and the simple grace of his body. He does purr once and growl occasionally, but for the most he's what we call "the silent type."
Which brings up a few questions, of course: How does Pi react to Richard Parker's silence? What traits does he project onto Richard Parker? Does Richard Parker really have any of those traits? When Pi begins talking to the blind Frenchman, and at first thinks it's Richard Parker, is this an attempt to break Richard Parker's silence? Why is it so traumatic for Pi when Richard Parker leaves without a word in Mexico?
There are a few times when we're unavoidably reminded of the fact that Richard Parker is an animal. Late in the book, he kills all those cute little meerkats. Clubs them, slashes them. Kills them by the scores. At times, Pi catches Richard Parker sizing him up. Not only is this cat mean, he's cunning. He swallows a rat whole. He also swallows flying fish and kills a shark:
Richard Parker turned and started clawing the shark's head with his free front paw and biting it with his jaws, while his rear legs began tearing at its stomach and back. [...]. Richard Parker's snarling was simply terrifying. (2.79.6)
At times, we see Richard Parker bloodied from his feasts. Pi cleans out the bones from Richard Parker's lair and the excrement. At an early point on the algae island, after significant hardship endured together, Richard Parker runs at Pi with "the rapid and direct approach of a known killer" (2.92.37). Savage indeed.
Notice, too, how Pi becomes more and more like Richard Parker in his eating habits at sea. Pi even admits as much. Also, notice how Pi attributes moods and motivations to Richard Parker, complicating the tiger's savageness.
A key moments in the book happens during the flying fish "plague." Pi watches fish jump aboard the lifeboat. As he unsuccessfully tries to collect them, he looks up to see Richard Parker eating with ease or even grace:
"Actually, it was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment. Such a mix of ease and concentration, such a being-in-the-present, would be the envy of the highest yogis" (2.61.19)
If Pi learns anything from Richard Parker, it's how to engage with the actual, physical world. The flip side to Richard Parker's savageness is Richard Parker's comfort with his body and eating and being-in-the-world. Richard Parker's example, along with the necessities of survival, complicate Pi's religious beliefs. How does he connect the human with the divine? Through the rituals of survival: the fish scales that rub off on him are "symbols of the divine" (2.66.6). Enlightenment is getting beyond our world, Pi discovers, but it's also about getting entrenched in our world. He learns this through Richard Parker.