Study Guide

Life of Pi Fear

By Yann Martel


Part 2, Chapter 38

I ran up the stairs. I got to the main deck. The weather wasn't entertaining any more. I was very afraid. Now it was plain and obvious: the ship was listing badly. And it wasn't level the other way either. There was a noticeable incline going from bow to stern. I looked overboard. The water didn't look to be eighty feet away. The ship was sinking. My mind could hardly conceive it. It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire. (2.38.15)

Usually, when the moon catches fire, you're in trouble. Martel gives us a stunningly clear sense of Pi's fear: the inconceivable is happening. The more unbelievable chapters in this novel, of course, depend on the reader's faith in the story. But the events in those chapters also frighten the pants off Pi. Aren't we the most frightened when the usual rules of the world dissolve? Isn't that both beautiful and frightening – sort of like the moon catching fire?

Part 2, Chapter 40

I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging above me. [...]. After a while I made good use of the lifebuoy. I lifted it out of the water and put the oar through its hole. I worked it down until the ring was hugging me. Now it was only with my legs that I had to hold on. If Richard Parker appeared, it would be more awkward to drop from the oar, but one terror at a time, Pacific before tiger. (2.40.4-5)

It can't get any worse for Pi. He's alone in the middle of the Pacific hanging onto an oar extended from the bow of a lifeboat. A Bengal tiger is pacing in the lifeboat. Sharks are swimming below him. But Pi proves here that he's pretty tough. Even though there's a lot of talk in the novel about faith and spirituality, Pi is a remarkably pragmatic boy. If he is to survive, he has to deal with one problem at a time. "One day at a time" is probably the most cliché advice in the world, unless you're trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger.

Part 2, Chapter 41

Several times I had fits of fearful trembling. Precisely where I wanted to be most still – my legs – was where I trembled most. My legs drummed upon the tarpaulin. A more obvious rapping on Richard Parker's door couldn't be imagined. The trembling spread to my arms and it was all I could do to hold on. Each fit passed. (2.41.8)

It's easy to forget how extremely frightened Pi is – he's often humorous and playful during his 227 days at sea. But here an uncontrollable fear takes hold of Pi. He's unable to calm his body and his trembling is so bad he almost incites Richard Parker. Kudos to Pi, though. We at Shmoop would not only be trembling, we'd be dancing the ugly breakdance of terror.

I had a chance so long as he did not sense me. If he did, he would kill me right away. Could he burst through the tarpaulin, I wondered.

Fear and reason fought over the answer. Fear said Yes. He was a fierce, 450-pound carnivore. Each of his claws was as sharp as a knife. Reason said No. The tarpaulin was sturdy canvas, not a Japanese paper wall. I had landed upon it from a height. Richard Parker could shred it with his claws with a little time and effort, but he couldn't pop through like a jack-in-the-box. And he had not seen me. Since he had not seen me, he had no reason to claw his way through. (2.41.5-6)

Did you think Pi the Hindu-Christian-Muslim and eminent spiritualist would renounce the use of reason? Wrong. Pi uses reason to help him manage his fears. If Life of Pi, in addition to being a novel, is also a survival manual for our diverse, contemporary world, then Martel suggests you make use of every tool available. And yes, that means Yann Martel wants you to think.

Part 2, Chapter 44

As evening approached, my anxiety grew. Everything about the end of the day scared me. At night a ship would have difficulty seeing me. At night the hyena might become active again and maybe Orange Juice too.

Darkness came. There was no moon. Clouds hid the stars. The contour of things became hard to distinguish. Everything disappeared, the sea, the lifeboat, my own body. The sea was quiet and there was hardly any wind, so I couldn't even ground myself in sound. I seemed to be floating in pure, abstract blackness. I kept my eyes fixed on where I thought the horizon was, while my ears were on guard for any sign of the animals. I couldn't imagine lasting the night. (2.44.2-3)

Can things get any worse? Yes. Night obscures and hides everything from Pi. If you thought hanging out with a crazed hyena was bad, try hanging out with a crazed hyena at night. Of course Pi fears the night because he can't keep tabs on the hyena, but he also fears it because he can't see "the contour of things." Even the objects of the world, cloaked in darkness, have abandoned him.

Part 2, Chapter 47

Orange Juice hit the hyena on the head with her other arm, but the blow only made the beast snarl viciously. She made to bite, but the hyena moved faster. Alas, Orange Juice's defence lacked precision and coherence. Her fear was something useless that only hampered her. The hyena let go of her wrist and expertly got to her throat.

[...]. To the end she reminded me of us: her eyes expressed fear in such a humanlike way, as did her strained whimpers. (2.47.13-4)

Perhaps Pi learns a lesson from Orange Juice the orang-utan: fear is crippling. Even though he feels like taking the fetal position, crying, listing his troubles to a higher being, he needs to construct a defense of "precision and coherence." That means training Richard Parker, even though Richard Parker is scarier than the scariest thing you can think of.

Part 2, Chapter 56

I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. (2.56.1)

We don't know about you, but we always thought death was life's true opponent. Not so (see 1.1.11). Perhaps Pi sees fear as a more formidable adversary since "[i]t begins in your mind, always." To Pi, our minds and hearts are the true battlegrounds. Real life is kid's stuff.

Part 2, Chapter 78

The worst pair of opposites is boredom and terror. [...]. The sea is without a wrinkle. There is not a whisper in the wind. The hours last forever. You are so bored you sink into a state of apathy close to a coma. [...]. In your boredom there are elements of terror: you break down into tears; you are filled with dread; you scream; you deliberately hurt yourself. And in the grip of terror – the worst storm – you yet feel boredom, a deep weariness with it all. (2.78.7)

Pi ruminates on the life of the castaway. These psychological end points – boredom and terror – sound truly awful to hold in one mind. Even in his boredom Pi feels terror. In his terror, boredom. Perhaps Pi's boredom becomes terror: the way loneliness progresses to isolation and isolation to emptiness and emptiness to a sense of the world's nothingness. And that's pretty terrifying.

Part 2, Chapter 92

I have read that there are two fears that cannot be trained out of us: the startle reaction upon hearing a unexpected noise, and vertigo. I would like to add a third, to wit, the rapid and direct approach of a known killer. (2.92.37)

The "known killer" is Richard Parker. In a dark and irresponsible way, we think this is funny. How can the fear of a rapidly approaching tiger be an essential fear? Who else comes across tigers on a daily basis? Oh Pi, you're so funny.

Part 3, Chapter 99
Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel

[Pi to Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba:] "What you don't realize is that we are a strange and forbidding species to wild animals. We fill them with fear. They avoid as much as possible. It took centuries to still the fear in some pliable animals – domestication it's called – but most cannot get over their fear, and I doubt they ever will. When wild animals fight us, it is out of sheer desperation. They fight when they feel they have no other way out. It's a very last resort. (3.99.105)

Pi considers – not for the first time – the fear he must have inspired in Richard Parker. And the fear human beings must inspire in all animals. And why not? Human beings, in Life of Pi, certainly are "a strange and forbidding species" (3.99.105). Their derangement causes them to needlessly kill each other, kill animals in zoos, eat each other, and demand that Pi settle on a way of worshipping God. Literature itself might be one great attempt to understand our weirdness.