Study Guide

Life of Pi Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

By Yann Martel

Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

Everything and Nothing is Allegorical

The greatest temptation in the history of mankind is to read Life of Pi as an allegory. It's so easy, right? Each surviving animal matches up with a human survivor. (Martel offers us the blueprint in the second-to-last chapter.) You could also see Richard Parker as God. Pi's ordeal on the Pacific could be viewed as a spiritual journey. And what about the algae island with human teeth hidden in sacs of leaves? Doesn't that have to symbolize something? Isn't this book one big allegory? Don't hate us, but we're going to say, "Well, yes and no."

Animals = Humans

Pi tells the Japanese investigators a horrific, factual version of his ordeal in Chapter 99. It takes about seven pages. As Martel has stated in one interview, he pushes his readers to make a leap of faith as the novel's events get more and more unlikely. (Check out the interview here.) We have to make a leap of faith – meaning, we have to take Pi for his word – in order to finish the novel without saying, "Oh, this must be Pi's imagination now," or "Martel's using allegory now." Martel and Pi test our latent incredulity with the blind Frenchman and the algae island. When the Japanese investigators question Pi and he tells an alternate version of the story, we're being given The Ultimate Test. We at Shmoop didn't pass the test the first time we read the novel. But now that we know it's a test, we could pass it. No problem.

Pi could have come up with whole Richard Parker story, right? He's a sixteen-year-old boy who experiences some very traumatic events. This is his way of coping. So he invents animals for each survivor of the Tsimtsum. Here's the crucial exchange between Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba:

[Mr. Okamoto:] "The blind Frenchman they met in the other lifeboat – didn't he admit to killing a man and a woman?"

[Mr. Chiba:] "Yes, he did."

[Mr. Okamoto:] "The cook killed the sailor and his mother."

[Mr. Chiba:] "Very impressive."

[Mr. Okamoto:] "His stories match."

[Mr. Chiba:] "So the Taiwanese sailor is the zebra, his mother is the orang-utan, the cook is...the hyena – which means he's the tiger!"

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Yes. The tiger killed the hyena – and the blind Frenchman – just as he killed the cook"
(3.99.299-305).

Through Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba we get a very clear explanation of the possible allegory. Pi, because he kills the cook, imagines himself as a terrible and violent tiger. It makes his viciousness, his instinct for survival, at a safe distance. And the viciousness of the cook inhabits the hyena. Perhaps Pi can deal better with both the suffering of the Taiwanese sailor and the murder of his mother if he transforms these people into animals with human qualities. It makes so much sense.

However, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba are by no means heroes in this novel. In fact, they're a little ridiculous. They're a bumbling Abbot and Costello who can't see the beauty and importance of Pi's original story and have to be led to faith. Or, if not faith, at least to a point where they admit that the story with the animals makes a better story.

There's a sense in which the first story is the truer story. For one, Martel spends 150 pages on it, throws in some outlandishly beautiful details, and survival methods from real castaways. It's not a summary. It's the real deal fleshed out and made whole. Which is sort of what faith does for a wafer of bread in the Catholic religion. Secondly, Martel more or less actually cautions against reading the book as an allegory in a number of interviews (like this Radio Praha interview, and this interview on YouTube). Granted, he also says in one interview, "You decide which story is real," but you can probably guess which story that is (Guardian Interview). So you can believe the second story without animals. But then Yann Martel won't be your friend.

The Algae Island

OK. The algae island might be the second weirdest part of the book. (Second only to Pi's conversation with the blind Frenchman.) It's an island made entirely of seaweed, full of meerkats and freshwater ponds. It gets even stranger: dead fish rise to the surface of the ponds at night and disappear by morning. Initially Pi thinks the island is a delusion: I was getting used to my delusion. To make it last I refrained from putting a strain on it; when the lifeboat nudged the island, I did not move, only continued to dream. (2.92.9)

But Martel spends too long with the island for it to just be a delusion. Pi describes the island very precisely. It just doesn't have the hazy feel of delusion: those gaps and blurred edges. It has edges. One possibility is that the island represents some type of comfortable faith. When Pi first steps onto it he says as much:

My foot sank into the clear water and met the rubbery resistance of something flexible but solid. I put more weight down. The illusion would not give. I put the full weight of my foot. Still I did not sink. Still I did not believe. (2.92.12)

Doesn't that sound like "Doubting" Thomas from the New Testament touching Christ's wounds in order to believe that he was resurrected from the dead? Or Saint Peter trying to walk on water after he sees Jesus do it?

But maybe the island doesn't represent the type of faith Martel thinks we should have. Because, of course, the algae turns out to be man-eating algae. It's an island that can consume you if you're not careful. Meaning, if you appease yourself with physical comfort – all the food and drink you want – it turns into a type of spiritual death. If your faith is too easy and you no longer brave the stormy seas, then you're no longer experiencing real faith.

Notice too that Pi really tames Richard Parker on the island. He has him jumping through hoops. Literally. Richard Parker, like the ocean, is part of Pi's spiritual trial. What do you do when your spiritual test (a.k.a. Richard Parker) follows your every command? You leave:

By the time morning came, my grim decision was taken. I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous island. (2.92.143)

Like all of Martel's symbols and allegories in Life of Pi, the island ends up being more elusive than one might think. What about the South African meerkats? Didn't Mohandas Gandhi (not the prime minister) pioneer civil disobedience in South Africa as an expatriate lawyer? Pi loves Gandhi. He quotes him a couple times and even calls him "Bapu Gandhi."

Then there's Randall Mark, from Vancouver's The Standard, who asks Martel directly in an interview if the island represents religions thriving together in some sort of mutually beneficial environment. While Martel basically says no, he admits "it is puzzling that religions think so poorly of one another." The latter theories probably aren't viable explanations of the island's symbolism, but they at least unsettle our faith hypothesis.

The Spiritual Journey; the Religious Stuff

We've already bombarded you with the idea that nothing in Life of Pi is straightforward allegory. Same goes for Pi's ordeal on the Pacific. There's a lot of religious symbolism, and the whole deal sometimes seems like an allegory for the soul's spiritual journey. If it is such a thing, however, it's much more complex than your average everyday religious allegory.

That said, here's some of the religious stuff:

  • Orange Juice floats up to the lifeboat looking like the Virgin Mary.
  • Pi spends three days and three nights on the extended oar. Christ figure, anyone? In the New Testament Jesus is dead for three days and three nights before being resurrected. Heck, Jonah was in a whale's belly for three day and three nights too.
  • Pi smears fish scales on himself like Hindu tilaks.
  • He slaughters and eats fish, turtles, etc. in semi-ritualistic ways.
  • He suffers like the mystics (check out St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul – Pi's got nothing on this guy).

However the minute specific details complicate the allegory, much of Pi's Pacific ordeal strikes us as very real. Sure, you can interpret Pi's journey as implicitly spiritual, but you can't forget he's also a castaway, with all the tools and problems of a castaway. Somehow, Martel inhabits this middle ground.