Study Guide

Life of Pi Suffering

By Yann Martel


Part 1, Chapter 17

This son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don't get it and opponents who don't respect Him – what kind of god is that? It's a god on too human a scale, that's what. (1.17.27)

Pi can't imagine a God who suffers. Isn't suffering something humans do? We're not sure if Pi comes to believe in the absolute dignity of suffering – his ordeal is fairly harrowing. He does, however, experience the simultaneous dignity and degradation of suffering.

Part 2, Chapter 37

[Pi:] "And what of my extended family – birds, beasts, and reptiles? They too have drowned. Every single thing I value in life has been destroyed. And I am allowed no explanation? I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven? In that case, what is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker?" (2.37.11)

Take it easy, Pi. Not only is Pi's brain moving as fast as a Japanese bullet train, he's also talking to Richard Parker who is a tiger. Maybe he has a point, though: is suffering bad because it's suffering or is it really, really bad because we have no explanation for it?

Part 2, Chapter 41

I began to wait. My thoughts swung wildly. I was either fixed on practical details of immediate survival or transfixed by pain, weeping silently, my mouth open and my hands at my head. (2.41.15)

Pi stops weeping only when he's working out the immediate details of survival. He has plenty of reason to cry. Most often, Pi worries about Richard Parker and Richard Parker's claws. Don't forget, though, he's just lost his entire family. Pi doesn't talk about the loss of his family as much as he talks about Richard Parker and the methods of his survival, but that loss is still there.

Part 2, Chapter 46

They were dead; I could no longer deny it. What a thing to acknowledge in your heart! To lose a brother is to lose someone with whom you can share the experience of growing old, who is supposed to bring you a sister-in-law and nieces and nephews, creatures to people the tree of your life and give it new branches. To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches. To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you. [...]. I lay down on the tarpaulin and spent the whole night weeping and grieving, my face buried in my arms. The hyena spent a good part of the night eating. (2.46.10)

Suffering – grief – becomes carnivorous. After enumerating his losses, Pi zooms out to picture the whole lifeboat. Now we know that the hyena, while Pi grieves, is tearing into the zebra. Pi's juxtaposition – grief next to a ravenous devouring – provides a metaphor for bereavement.

It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion. Still, that second night at sea stands in my memory as one of exceptional suffering, different from the frozen anxiety of the first night in being a more conventional sort of suffering, the broken-down kind consisting of weeping and sadness and spiritual pain, and different from later ones in that I still had the strength to appreciate fully what I felt. (2.46.1)

Often we hear protagonists say, "It was the worst night of my life," in order to communicate his or her extreme suffering after a particular event. But Pi says, "I have had so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion." Pi exposes the oddity of awarding one night or the other the prize of "Worst Night." We know he's a real expert on pain, because he describes different types of suffering: "frozen anxiety" versus a more conventional "broken-down kind consisting of weeping."

Part 2, Chapter 47

Orange Juice lay next to it, against the dead zebra. Her arms were spread wide open and her short legs were folded together and slightly turned to one side. She looked like a simian Christ on the Cross. Except for her head. She was beheaded. The neck wound was still bleeding. It was a horrible sight to the eyes and killing to the spirit. (2.47.16)

Pi returns to the mystery of Christ's suffering (see 1.17.27). Now Orange Juice figures into the Christ-as-sufferer equation. That means Pi compares Christ not only to human beings in his suffering but to animals. It's also possible Pi elevates Orange Juice's suffering to divine proportions. We don't have to choose one or the other.

Part 2, Chapter 60

For the first time I noticed – as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next – that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right. (2.60.1)

Pi realizes his suffering is taking place in the middle of an ocean. A vast, seemingly infinite setting. Instead of seeing himself as the absolute center of this setting, Pi believes the setting makes his suffering all the more insignificant. Perhaps as purposeless. Could Pi have believed the opposite? Could he have aggrandized his suffering?

Part 2, Chapter 64

Salt-water boils – red, angry, disfiguring – were a leprosy of the high seas, transmitted by the water that soaked me. Where they burst, my skin was especially sensitive; accidentally rubbing an open sore was so painful I would gasp and cry out. Naturally, these boils developed on the parts of my body that got the most wet and the most wear on the raft; that is, my backside. There were days when I could hardly find a position in which I could rest. Time and sunshine healed a sore, but the process was slow, and new boils appeared if I didn't stay dry. (2.64.2)

Ouch. Take a second to think about these boils. They're caused by the very element in which Pi now lives. It's like saying breathing air gives me leprosy. There's no escape for poor Pi. To add insult to injury, Pi gets these very painful boils on his butt. He can't even sit down to rest without aggravating his sores. What's a fellow to do? Suffer. And suffer some more.

Part 2, Chapter 91

I will further confess that, driven by the extremity of my need and the madness to which it pushed me, I ate some of his flesh. I mean small pieces, little strips that I meant for the gaff's hook that, when dried by the sun, looked like ordinary animal flesh. They slipped into my mouth nearly unnoticed. You must understand, my suffering was unremitting and he was already dead. (2.91.4)

This terrible deed occurs after Pi's encounter with the French castaway. The flesh in question is the Frenchman's. Don't forget that Pi more or less later identifies himself with Richard Parker later. The same Richard Parker who mauls the French castaway. If you're into the second scheme of the story, the French castaway is also the French cook. All said and done, Pi's suffering drives him to do things that would otherwise be inconceivable.

Part 2, Chapter 93

High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God. (2.93.2)

Pi turns to God at one of the lowest points of his Pacific crossing. Because Pi focuses on the low (or suffering) calling to the high (or God), it's easy to overlook the first sentence of this quote: "High calls to low [...]." In the code Pi's speaking that means God also calls to the sufferer.