Study Guide

Life of Pi Man and the Natural World

By Yann Martel

Man and the Natural World

Part 1, Chapter 8

Just beyond the ticket booth Father had painted on a wall in bright red letters the question: DO YOU KNOW WHICH IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL IN THE ZOO? An arrow pointed to a small curtain. There were so many eager, curious hands that pulled at the curtain that we had to replace it regularly. Behind it was a mirror. (1.8.4)

Obviously, the most dangerous animal in the zoo is the human being who's gawking at the animals. Very cute. Think ahead, though, to later events in the book, especially to the savage cannibalism recounted in the final chapter. Does danger have anything to do with unpredictable evil?

Part 1, Chapter 9

Getting animals used to the presence of humans is at the heart of the art and science of zookeeping. (1.9.1)

We're going to venture a guess here: Pi's insight about his father's zoo will be invaluable later when he tries to tame Richard Parker. It's also, on a deeper, more allegorical level, advice on how Pi can tame the savage parts of himself. Which is both art and science. And essential to completing his spiritual journey.

Part 1, Chapter 13

The animal in front of you must know where it stands, whether above you or below you. Social rank is central to how it leads its life. Rank determines whom it can associate with and how; where and when it can eat; where it can rest; where it can drink; and so on. Until it knows its rank for certain, the animal lives a life of unbearable anarchy. It remains nervous, jumpy, dangerous. Luckily for the circus trainer, decisions about social rank among higher animals are not always based on brute force. (1.13.3)

Here, Pi muses on the technique of circus trainers. The trainer must establish himself as the social superior of the lion. Think ahead to the training of Richard Parker. How does Pi accomplish this feat? Throughout his ordeal, Pi comes to value two traits human beings possess in abundance (more so than animals): cleverness and willpower. Do these traits also bring about evil in the book?

Part 1, Chapter 32

There are many examples of animals coming to surprising living arrangements. All are instances of that animal equivalent of anthropomorphism: zoomorphism, where an animal takes a human being, or another animal, to be one of its kind. (1.32.1)

In anthropomorphism, people project human traits onto animals. In zoomorphism (that is one sassy word), animals treat another species like their own. Examples include: a dog who sees its owner's leg as a sexual partner, wolves raising abandoned children, and dolphins swimming with a castaway in the ocean. Certainly Richard Parker living with Pi on the boat counts as a surprising zoomorphic arrangement. But there's also the oddity of Pi's spiritual life: Pi the Hindu, Pi the Muslim, and Pi the Christian all inhabit one spiritual being. These strange bedfellows don't just tolerate one another – they achieve harmony.

Part 2, Chapter 45

The poor dear looked so humanly sick! It is a particularly funny thing to read human traits in animals, especially in apes and monkeys, where it is so easy. (2.45.9)

Here, Pi is describing Orange Juice, the orang-utan who floats up to the lifeboat on a raft of bananas. Later, Pi will tell an alternate story of the shipwreck, one in which he more or less identifies Orange Juice as his mother. Therefore, Pi projects human traits onto an animal who is not really an animal but is actually his mother who has taken on, in Pi's imagination, the guise of an animal. There's enough interaction between man and the natural world to make a fellow dizzy.

Part 2, Chapter 47

It has been left behind. The pet does not understand. It is as unprepared for this jungle as its human siblings are. It waits around for their return, trying to quell the panic rising in it. They do not return. (2.47.8)

Really, this is a heartbreaking moment in the novel. Ostensibly, Pi discusses (as he is prone to do) the stupidity of returning pets to the wild. How can the poor creature survive? But Pi also comments – and this is the heartbreaking part – on his own abandonment and the loss of his brother Ravi.

Part 2, Chapter 57

I had to tame him. It was at that moment that I realized this necessity. It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. [...]. Most likely the worst would happen: the simple passage of time, in which his animal toughness would easily outlast my human frailty. (2.57.8)

We think Pi's epiphany here counts as one of the major epiphanies of the book. Pi realizes he has to live with Richard Parker instead of either: a) in fear of him; or b) with no Richard Parker at all (i.e., he must kill Richard Parker). Pi throws out his plots to kill the tiger. Something like love begins to develop between Pi and Richard Parker. Perhaps, it's also worth noting that love happens only after a rigid social hierarchy has been established between Pi and Richard Parker (see 1.13.3).

Part 2, Chapter 61

Richard Parker was tougher than I was in the face of these fish, and far more efficient. He raised himself and went about blocking, swiping and biting all the fish he could. Many were eaten live and whole, struggling wings beating in his mouth. 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)

A plague of flying fish descends on the lifeboat. Pi envies Richard Parkers absorption in the moment, his animal destruction of time and secondary concerns (See Themes: Spirituality). But notice how savage Richard Parker the Yogi seems. Should Pi imitate Richard Parker? Or are there parts of Richard Parker that Pi should – as a moral being – avoid?

Part 2, Chapter 80

Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind. (2.80.4)

Oh, man. Pi's Jedi mind tricks will work on Richard Parker. Pi comes to an invaluable realization: "Even though Richard Parker is a 450-pound Bengal tiger with teeth like those very sharp knives on QVC, I'm smarter than him. I can manipulate him..." Although Pi turns out to be right, you can imagine this going horribly wrong. Actually, don't imagine it. Spare yourself the details.

Part 2, Chapter 82

It came as an unmistakable indication to me of how low I had sunk the day I noticed, with a pinching of the heart, that I ate like an animal, that this noisy, frantic unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate. (2.82.5)

Pi becomes more beast-like. Much more like, say, Richard Parker. But – in the history of castaway and shipwreck novels – there are probably precious few passages where the slurping of turtle blood seems like spiritual enlightenment. You could translate "[...] this noisy, frantic unchewing wolfing-down of mine" to "I am in the moment and have no thoughts outside the thing I am doing."