Study Guide

Life of Pi Mortality

By Yann Martel


Part 1, Chapter 1
Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel

My life is like a memento mori painting from European art: there is always a grinning skull at my side to remind me of the folly of human ambition. I mock this skull. I look at it and I say, "You've got the wrong fellow. You may not believe in life, but I don't believe in death. Move on!" (1.1.11)

A "memento mori" is an object – such as a skull – used to remind us of death. We know, we know: European art can be so gloomy. Here Pi says his own life has become a memento mori painting. Meaning, the events of his life only seem to remind him of death. But Pi doesn't stop there. True to form, Pi mocks his memento mori and says he doesn't "believe in death." Can you blame him? He survived for 227 days on the ocean. Death be not proud and all that.

Part 1, Chapter 17

But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in his mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? (1.17.21)

Pi struggles with the tenets of the Christian faith. How could its God suffer and die? Isn't that what God gets to avoid? Don't humans suffer and die while pining for the white light and glory of heaven? Pi's acceptance of Christianity, in some ways, prepares him for his own suffering and near-death experience on the Pacific. Christ elevates what Pi thought were solely human events: death and the suffering leading up to death.

Part 2, Chapter 56

The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene; it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. [...]. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. (2.56.4)

This could have easily gone under "Themes: Fear." However, Pi struggles here with a particular type of fear: the fear of death. He realizes he must confront this particular fear – embodied, perhaps, by Richard Parker – or it will "nestle in [his] [...] memory like gangrene." Translated: Pi must become Richard Parker's master. Which he does in the very next chapter. Pi starts THE PI PATEL INDO-CANADIAN TRANS-PACIFIC FLOATING CIRCUS, whose sole goal is to train and subdue the deadly Richard Parker.

Part 2, Chapter 61

You may be astonished that in such a short period of time I could go from weeping over the muffled killing of a flying fish to gleefully bludgeoning to death a dorado. I could explain it by arguing that profiting from a pitiful flying fish's navigational mistake made me shy and sorrowful, while the excitement of actively capturing a great dorado made me sanguinary and self-assured. But in point of fact the explanation lies elsewhere. It is simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything, even killing. (2.61.32)

We think it's cute and heartbreaking how much trouble Pi has killing his first flying fish. He cries. He compares himself to Cain. He wraps the fish in a blanket so he doesn't have to see it. But Pi changes drastically. In later chapters he drinks hawksbill blood, eats human flesh, and throws a shark to Richard Parker. The kid gets tough. However, Pi returns to a strict vegetarian diet once his ordeal ends. Do you think Pi still carries guilt over the fish and animals he had to slaughter? Or does he see his actions as simply necessary for his and Richard Parker's survival?

Part 2, Chapter 66

Lord, to think that I'm a strict vegetarian. To think that when I was a child I always shuddered when I snapped open a banana because it sounded to me like the breaking of an animal's neck. I descended to a level of savagery I never imagined possible. (2.66.9)

Pi must have been a sensitive child. Or a morbid one. Think for a moment about the contradictory attitudes Pi takes toward living creatures. On the one hand, he cares for Richard Parker like Richard Parker is family. On the other hand, he bludgeons fish and snaps the necks of birds. So are these attitudes really contradictory? Can you care deeply for one living creature while killing others?

Part 2, Chapter 78

When rough weather abates, and it becomes clear that you have survived the sky's attack and the sea's treachery, your jubilation is tempered by the rage that so much fresh water should fall directly into the sea and by the worry that it is the last rain you will ever see, that you will die of thirst before the next drop falls. (2.78.6)

It's easy to forget how precious Pi's supplies of food and water are to him. At times he has stores and stores of rainwater and biscuits and turtles from the sea. At any moment, however, things can take a turn for the worse. It doesn't rain for weeks. He can't catch any fish. Then Pi sees, between half-empty bags of rainwater and biscuit packages, his own death staring back at him.

Only death consistently excites your emotions, whether contemplating it when life is safe and stale, or fleeing it when life is threatened and precious. (2.78.8)

Pi thinks this little thought right after he discusses the twin emotions of boredom and terror (see Themes: Fear 2.78.7). Death becomes an escape when the ocean is calm; when catastrophe occurs, it's something Pi can flee. Why does Pi have such a complicated relationship with death? Is death – almost – the third resident on the lifeboat?

Part 2, Chapter 87

One of my favorite methods of escape was what amounts to gentle asphyxiation. I used a piece of cloth that I cut from the remnants of a blanket. I called it my dream rag. I wet it with sea water so that it was soaked but not dripping. [...]. I would fall into a daze, not difficult for someone in such an advanced state of lethargy to begin with. But the dream rag gave a special quality to my daze. It must have been the way it restricted my air intake. I would be visited by the most extraordinary dreams, trances, visions, thoughts, sensations, remembrances. And time would be gobbled up. (2.87.1)

Oh, this is weird. By gently asphyxiating himself, does Pi experiences multiple small deaths? Or is the dream rag part of a peculiar religious ceremony? (As in: Pi the priest induces a hallucinogenic state so he can experience the divine.) Could it be a little bit of both? In either case, Pi really, really wants to escape from the tedium of the lifeboat.

Part 2, Chapter 89

We perished away. It happened slowly, so that I didn't notice it all the time. But I noticed it regularly. We were two emaciated mammals, parched and starving. Richard Parker's fur lost its luster, and some of it even fell away from his shoulders and haunches. He lost a lot of weight, became a skeleton in an oversized bag of faded fur. I, too, withered away, the moistness sucked out of me, my bones showing plainly through my thin flesh. (2.89.2)

Sometimes we think of death as instantaneous. One minute the dorado is alive and flapping around and the next it's not. But Pi and Richard Parker slowly morph into reminders of death. They become walking, breathing skeletons who remind each other of death's slow deterioration. When you and your best pal both have "bones showing plainly," it's hard not to think of death. OK. It's impossible not to think of death.

Part 2, Chapter 90

But this physical suffering was nothing compared to the moral torture I was about to endure. I would rate the day I went blind as the day my extreme suffering began. I could not tell you when exactly in the journey it happened. Time, as I said before, became irrelevant. It must have been sometime between the hundredth and the two-hundredth day. I was certain I would not last another one.

By the next morning I had lost all fear of death, and I resolved to die. (2.90.7-8)

Pi has not triumphed over his fear of death. He's simply lost all hope. Can you blame him? Not only are he and Richard Parker severely malnourished, both have also gone blind. We don't think it's a coincidence that after his admission of despair Pi begins to talk to Richard Parker in an episode of madness. Pi certainly battles it out with death, hunger, and thirst. He often conquers those pesky foes. Pi names fear and despair as his most formidable enemies –more dangerous than any other type of suffering.