Study Guide

Life of Pi Themes

  • Religion

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     Life of Pi's protagonist believes passionately in both zoology and religion. Wait—what? Science and religion, together? What about the fact of multiple faiths? Don't these faiths contradict each other, cause wars, and other problems?

    Not for Pi, who's Muslim, Christian, and Hindu – all at the same time. The book defends not only the common spirit behind these three religions, but the rituals and ceremonies of each. It's as if all three religions find harmonious common ground in this character. Seems unlikely, but then again, the protagonist argues passionately that the miraculous happens in our darkest moments.

    Questions About Religion

    1. One beef atheists have with religious belief is that an all-powerful and benevolent God couldn't possibly allow evil. Wouldn't God stop evil things from happening? Does the fact of evil mean God isn't all-powerful? Or maybe God is not benevolent? How do you think Pi deals with this question? Or does he deal with it?
    2. Pi talks a lot about freedom in Part1, Chapter 4. Do you think religion makes Pi freer?
    3. In Part 1, Chapter 16, Pi discusses atman and Brahman, two aspects of the divine that always try to reach each other. Name some points during Pi's ordeal where you think atman, the divine in humans, meets Brahman saguna, the divine present in the world. Do you think there are points when the divine abandons Pi?
    4. The Catholic ritual of communion could be seen as somewhat cannibalistic. After all, believers do symbolically eat "the body of Christ." In what ways does Martel include cannibalism in this novel? Is it always a horrific, degrading thing? Or is it religious and sacred?
  • Literature and Writing

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    In his essay "How I Wrote Life of Pi," Yann Martel says, "I had neither family nor career to show for my thirty-three years on Earth. [...]. I was in need of a story. More than that, I was in need of a Story." Martel's novel is full of ruminations on writing and the meaning writing and literature give to our lives. In fact, Martel's character, Pi, argues we should choose the most compelling story when we have no confirmation of actual events.

    Suspicious? Intrigued? You've fallen right into Martel's trap.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What do you think actually happened in the lifeboat? What does your answer say about the power of fiction? (Over you, at least.)
    2. Have you ever read a very skillfully written novel that failed to move you? Do you agree with Martel in the "Author's Note" that passion in writing is just as important as skill?
    3. Unravel – and this might be pretty messy – the connections between belief and fiction in the novel. How does Martel intertwine the two? Should they be wound up together in this big, bright ball of yarn?
    4. Should Pi's various and conflicting stories make us question his reliability? Does it really matter, or is the story we get in the end all that all that is important?
  • Man and the Natural World

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    There's an interesting blurring of divisions between man and the natural world in Life of Pi. Human beings become more animalistic; animals become more human. The novel warns against projecting human values onto the animal world.

    However, the novel also admits it's impossible to experience anything without a way-of-being. The trick, therefore, is to make concessions to other species. Animals in the zoo, while essentially retaining their instincts, take on certain domestic, human-like traits. Human beings in the wild, while still retaining a few human traits, become more animalistic. Through this exchange human beings may learn – dare we say it – a spiritual truth or two about themselves and the natural world.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Does Richard Parker seem more savage than Pi? Is Richard Parker more spiritually attuned than Pi?
    2. Think of all the times Pi mentions "the eating of flesh." How does he characterize this act?
    3. Explain how Pi could call the mako and blue sharks swimming below him "beautiful."
    4. Which settings in the book are "man-made"? Which are "natural"?
  • Spirituality

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    This theme often brings to mind more ethereal subjects like the soul or the soul's rebirth. You'd be both right and wrong applying such lofty thoughts to Life of Pi. In this book, spirituality grounds itself in the everyday. The most ordinary activities take on a level of spiritual intensity (granted they happen in an extraordinary setting). Often, the protagonist describes – perhaps with a little jealousy – animals engaging their surroundings with an almost yogic discipline.

    Of course, this is not to say spirituality is always fun and games. Sometimes suffering and duress actually bring about the protagonist's spiritual insights. In fact, except for the protagonist's suffering, spirituality might have a more limited role in the novel.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. Pi seems to have many spiritual teachers in this book. Can you name a few? What does he learn from each teacher? Which of his spiritual teachers impact him the most? Why?
    2. Does Pi's suffering ever become so intense he can't learn anything from it? Does it become so all-enveloping he can't transcend it? Or does Pi continually sidestep despair?
    3. What do you think the author learns from Mamaji? Does the author's relationship with Mamaji mirror Pi's? Why or why not?
    4. Explain the spiritual relevance of the fantastical seaweed island. Does this island have anything to do with faith? Does Pi get too comfortable there?
  • Suffering

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    Suffering brings out the best and the worst in Life of Pi's characters. On the one hand, the characters care for each other when they very well could have killed each other. On the other hand, suffering drives a few characters to murder and cannibalism. There's a moment in the book when the protagonist catches a dorado fish. To subdue it, he beats it with a hatchet. He says, "I felt like I was beating a rainbow to death" (2.60.31).

    Whoever or whatever causes suffering in this novel – God or a bizarre sequence of events – the characters' musings and fortitude through it all recall the sheen and flash of a rainbow.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Does Pi's suffering on the lifeboat have a redemptive quality? Does he come away wiser? Or does his suffering simply scar him?
    2. Do the characters in this novel do evil things because they suffer? Or would they have done evil things anyways?
    3. Why do you think Pi rarely talks about losing his entire family in the shipwreck? (He at least talks about that loss less than Richard Parker and day-to-day survival.) Is it too painful? Does he talk about it by not talking about it?
    4. Certainly Pi's religious backgrounds help him slog through all this suffering. But what about his love for science and zoology? How do those interests come to his aid – if at all?
  • Science

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    Don't get us wrong. The protagonist of Life of Pi loves science. Science, along with reason, helps us control and manipulate the world. It's how we survive in the world. But Pi points out that like religion, science has an element of faith in it. Unlike agnosticism, where the person doesn't commit to either faith or disbelief, the scientist often commits to a worldview of atheism and to the methods of his discipline.

    For the protagonist of Life of Pi, though, this isn't enough. We have to embrace the irrational and miraculous if we're to have a full picture of our universe. Science can explain the world up to a certain point, but its usefulness ends. According to Pi, when things get really hairy, religion has to step in with a good old-fashioned story.

    Questions About Science

    1. What is it about the science of zoology that attracts Pi?
    2. Why might Pi name himself after a number? And an irrational one at that?
    3. Mr. and Mr. Kumar might seem like they have totally different belief systems. But Pi considers both to be "the prophets of his Indian youth" (1.20.2). How is Mr. Kumar the Muslim like a scientist? And, conversely, how is Mr. Kumar the biologist like a holy man?
    4. Fact One: Much of this novel sympathetically extends human consciousness and tries to imagine animal consciousness. Fact Two: Pi attributes spiritual calm and engagement to Richard Parker (see Themes: Spirituality 2.61.19). If spirituality extends to Richard Parker, can reason do the same? Does Richard Parker use a type of reason? Does Pi think that animals use something like science or reason to explain their world?
  • Fear

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    If we have nothing to fear but fear itself, what about the fear of fear itself? Does that count as two fears or is it still one fear? It's this type of mind game our protagonist has to avoid on the lifeboat.

    Pi has to fight against being crippled by fear, as he goes about the everyday business of survival. He definitely has a lot of things to be afraid of – bone-crunching waves, man-eating sharks, and conniving tigers, to name a few. Of course, fear also takes on an existential component in Life of Pi meaning that Pi also has to deal with the terror of isolation, meaninglessness, and boredom. When faced with the latter types of emptiness, maybe fighting off sharks and tigers doesn't sound so bad.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Would Pi have survived without fear? Could fear be seen as a good thing? Should you invite it over for a tea party?
    2. Think long and hard about Richard Parker's fear. How would you characterize it? Can you even imagine it? Is Pi able to imagine it?
    3. How does Part 1 of the novel prepare Pi to deal with the fear he will experience in Part 2? Or does it prepare him? Could anyone adequately prepare for Pi's ordeal?
    4. Towards the end of the novel, Pi tells an alternate version of the story. In the second version, it's possible to identify Pi with Richard Parker the tiger. That means the very thing Pi feared was himself. How does this affect the way you view Pi's fear of the "tiger"?
  • Mortality

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    The protagonist in Life of Pi battles death for so long, his relationship with death becomes very complex. Death is the thing he must push as far away from himself as possible. Death is also part of life, and our protagonist begrudgingly admits this fact. He seeks death. He runs away from death.

    By the end of the novel, our protagonist might as well have dated death. They love each other, but used to hate each other. They've broken up a couple times. They've gotten back together. They're together but seeing other people.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Think about Pi's relationship with death at different points in the novel. How does he view death at the end of his ordeal? During it? What about when lives in Pondicherry?
    2. Agree with us, just for a second, that there are three orders of being in Life of Pi: divine, human, and animal. How does each type experience death? Do these orders of being overlap?
    3. Pi fears despair more than death. Why is this? How can an emotion scare him more than the end of his life?
    4. Upon leaving the carnivorous man-eating island, Pi says, "I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous island." What does Pi mean by "spiritual death"? How could that type of death be seen as worse than physical death?
  • Madness

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    You knew we were going to say this: madness is a little complicated in Life of Pi. Is faith a form of madness? Is the madness that causes animals to leave a warm, secure home the same as the madness of murder and cannibalism? Is the predator-prey relationship, so common in both natural and man-made worlds, a form of madness?

    Of course, like the good novelist he is, Martel leaves most of these questions open. If believing in beautiful stories, and in fictions that guide and explain our lives, counts as madness, then Martel suggests a little madness will do us a lot of good.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Certainly it's possible for humans to go mad in this novel. But what about animals? Does their madness count as the same thing? Or is it merely extreme hunger and thirst without the emotional devastation part?
    2. When did you begin to question the credibility of Pi's story? Do you think Pi goes insane later in his story and the earlier part remains believable?
    3. How does madness relate to spirituality in the novel? How about religious faith?
    4. What is the connection between physical suffering and madness in the novel?