Study Guide

Life of Pi Madness

By Yann Martel


Part 1, Chapter 1

Richard Parker has stayed with me. I've never forgotten him. Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. (1.1.14)

Stockholm Syndrome anyone? While it's probably reductive to say Pi has fallen head over heels in love with his captor, Pi's admission does lay bare the "strangeness of the human heart." Is it some type of madness to love the creature who, at any point during your harrowing 227 days together on a lifeboat, might have mauled you to death? Pi could respond: and so it goes with God. We duly note here that Richard Parker did not maul Pi. Nonetheless, "nightmares tinged with love" border on madness.

Part 1, Chapter 8

We commonly say in the trade that the most dangerous animal in a zoo is Man. In a general way we mean how our species' excessive predatoriness has made the entire planet our prey. More specifically, we have in mind the people who feed fishhooks to the otters, razors to the bears, apples with small nails in them to the elephants [...]. And there are indecencies even more bizarre: onanists breaking a sweat on monkeys, ponies, birds; a religious freak who cut a snake's head off; a deranged man who took to urinating in an elk's mouth. (1.8.1-2)

Don't hate us, but we're going to use the literary term foreshadowing here. The zoo atrocities mentioned by Pi foreshadow the later atrocities committed by himself and others on the lifeboat. Of course, Pi and his lifeboat companions will have more of an excuse: they just survived a shipwreck and will most likely starve to death. But notice how Pi equates madness and predatory behavior. And isn't it beautiful – and sane – how Richard Parker and Pi suspend the laws of predator-prey relationship? Isn't that a great and beautiful thing?

Part 1, Chapter 10

But even wild animals that were bred in zoos and have never known the wild, that are perfectly adapted to their enclosures and feel no tension in the presence of humans, will have moments of excitement that push them to seek escape. All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive. (1.10.2)

Sometimes we read in the news about a husband or wife who leaves his or her family without warning to live somewhere else. Yann Martel himself dropped everything and traveled to India to write Life of Pi. This "measure of madness" inexplicably lights a fire underneath happy human beings and animals and sets them wandering (1.10.2). We can also read in these sentences Pi's attempt to explain Richard Parker's sudden departure at the end of the novel.

Part 2, Chapter 46

A foul and pungent smell, an earthy mix of rust and excrement, hung in the air. There was blood everywhere, coagulating to a deep red crust. A single fly buzzed about, sounding to me like an alarm bell of insanity. No ship, nothing at all, had appeared on the horizon that day, and now the day was ending. (2.46.10)

The hyena has ripped open the zebra's flesh. Orange Juice and the hyena have nearly come to blows. Sharks are swimming underneath the lifeboat. Blood is everywhere. Pi is completely alone. No wonder Pi hears an alarm bell in the fly's buzzing. Pi's surroundings have changed drastically within a short amount of time. He's gone from the comforts of his Pondicherry zoo to unchecked bloodletting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Considering all this, we're surprised only one alarm bell of insanity buzzes around the lifeboat.

Part 2, Chapter 77

I tried once to eat Richard Parker's feces. It happened early on, when my system hadn't learned yet to live with hunger and my imagination was still wildly searching for solutions. (2.77.7)

OK. That's gross. At this point, Pi loses his manners. Hunger and thirst often lead the characters of this novel to madness. Martel describes the deranged gleam in Richard Parker's eye when he's hungry. As if, for Martel, madness begins in hunger and thirst. But can we really call acts like this one madness? Isn't it sane to look for food everywhere when you're starving?

Part 2, Chapter 78

To be a castaway is to be a point perpetually at the center of a circle. [...]. When you look up, you sometimes wonder if [...] there isn't another one like you also looking up, also trapped by geometry, also struggling with fear, rage, madness, apathy. (2.78.5)

Pi describes the feeling, at sea, of being the absolute center. No matter where he is, the distance to the horizon remains the same. But the phrase "perpetually at the centre," for Pi, also suggests loneliness and spiritual abandonment. And such utter and extreme isolation, for Pi and anyone else, leads to madness.

Part 2, Chapter 90

I heard the words, "Is someone there?"

It's astonishing what you hear when you're alone in the blackness of your dying mind. A sound without shape or colour sounds strange. To be blind is to hear otherwise.

The words came again, "Is someone there?"

I concluded that I had gone mad. Sad but true. Misery loves company, and madness calls it forth. (2.90.11-14)

At this point, Pi begins talking to Richard Parker. It turns out Pi is really talking to another castaway on the Pacific Ocean who happens to be a blind Frenchman. It's one thing to mumble a few words to yourself, but it's another to imagine talking tigers who morph into French castaways. What do you think causes Pi's madness here? Hunger? Loneliness? Or even guilt?

Part 2, Chapter 92

I was getting used to the mental 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. The fabric of the island seemed to be an intricate, tightly webbed mass of tube-shaped seaweed, in diameter a little thicker than two fingers. What a fanciful island, I thought. (2.92.9)

Yes, what a fanciful island, Pi. Martel really tests the limits of believability here with an island made entirely of seaweed. (Don't forget this island is also carnivorous and eats humans.) Do you believe this part of the story? Has Pi gone totally mad or is this development no stranger than a tiger and a boy trapped together on a lifeboat?

Part 3, Chapter 99

We laid him as comfortably as we could on a mattress of life jackets and kept him warm. I thought it was all for nothing. I couldn't believe a human being could survive so much pain, so much butchery. Throughout the evening and night he moaned, and his breathing was harsh and uneven. He had fits of agitated delirium. I expected him to die during the night. (3.99.248)

Like Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, we at Shmoop think Pi's second story is horrific and gruesome. But it's worth noting that in both Pi's stories extreme pain and suffering lead to madness. In some books, madness sneaks up on a character, or the character was always mad and the reader doesn't realize it until the end. But in Life of Pi madness happens after traumatic events; it's brought on by hunger or thirst. Every animal may have a mischievous, healthy streak of madness (1.10.2), but the heavy-duty delusions show up during or after great suffering. Does Pi learn anything from his worst episodes? Do Pi's delusions still communicate a sort of truth?

Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba

[Mr. Okamoto:] "I'm sorry to say it so bluntly, we don't mean to hurt your feelings, but you don't really expect us to believe you, do you? Carnivorous trees? A fish-eating algae that produces fresh water? Tree-dwelling aquatic rodents? These things don't exist."

[Pi:] "Only because you've never seen them."

[Mr. Okamoto:] "That's right. We believe what we see." (3.99.47-9)

Some define madness as seeing things that don't exist. But Pi slyly questions this definition. Considering, especially, Pi's love for and obsession with God, it's a hop, skip and a jump to a defense of the Big Guy. It's possible Pi is asking Mr. Okamoto a super-secret hidden question: does the fact that most people don't see God mean God doesn't exist?