Life Of Pi Philosophy Essay Contest

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Truth, Faith and Hope in Life of Pi � A Philosophical Review

The Life of Pi – as both a novel and a recent Oscar winning 3D film – opens up the fascinating dialogue between the worldviews of Secular Humanists, Hindus and Christians. This article compares and contrasts how these three worldviews deal with the inter-related concepts of truth, faith and hope.


When it comes to defining 'truth', Christians have generally endorsed the classical philosophical tradition of the Greco-Roman word, in which 'truth' has two meanings. One refers to the accurate saying of things about reality. The other refers to the reality about which things may be accurately or inaccurately said.

That is, Christians distinguish between: a) true beliefs about reality and b) the truth of reality that true beliefs accurately represent. For example, if the cat's on the mat, this is a truth of reality. That's one sense of the 'truth': what reality is. If the cat's on the mat and I believe that the cat's on the mat, then the truth of my belief is another sense of the term 'truth'. My belief is true to the truth of reality (it accurately represents the way things are). As Thomas Aquinas observed: "it is from the fact that a thing is or is not, that our thought or word is true or false, as [Aristotle] teaches."[1]

Aristotle's definition of the primary meaning of truth can be given in words of one syllable: "If one says of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, he speaks the truth; but if one says of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, he does not speak the truth."[2] This 'correspondence' meaning of truth refers to a quality of beliefs. It's not a quality of all beliefs, but only of those that correspond to the truth of reality: "truth in the mind ... isn't determined by how the mind sees things but by how things are: for statements – and the understanding they embody – are called true or false inasmuch as things are or are not so..."[3] As Aristotle wrote: "it is by the facts of the case, by their being or not being so, that a statement is called true or false."[4]

The facts of the case (like the cat either being or not being on the mat) are the truth of reality, and it's the truth of reality that determines whether or not our beliefsabout reality are true to reality. Reality calls the shots: "We may be entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts. Believing a statement is one thing; that statement being true is another."[5]

We may be entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts

- Douglas Groothuis

Many Secular Humanists accept the correspondence theory of truth, whilst often restricting the means of access to truth to empirical and / or 'scientific' ways of knowing. They would hold with Mr. Kumar from Life of Pi that: "There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience." (Life of Pi, p.27.) Some Secular Humanists have advocated alternative definitions of truth, such as the pragmatist idea that truth is whatever works (a claim that contradicts itself if it claims to be more than 'a working definition').

For Hinduism, there is One Ultimate Truth of Reality:

The ultimate reality is 'Brahman', the one infinite impersonal existence. Brahman is all that exists, and anything else that appears to exist is maya, and does not truly exist at all. Ultimate reality is beyond distinction, it merely is. There is therefore a unity of all things.[6]

However, if there's "a unity of all things" the conceptual distinction between 'true' and 'false' must itself be maya, which means that statements such as "there is a unity of all things" and "Brahman is all that exists"cannot be advanced as being true rather than false. When Pi defines Brahman as "That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language" (Life of Pi, pp.48-49.) he uses both thought and language to make a specific truth-claim concerning the nature of something he claims to neither know the nature of nor to be able to communicate the nature of. No wonder he also says that "language founders in such seas" (Life of Pi, p.15). As James W. Sire observes:

Knowledge … demands duality – a knower and a known. But the One is beyond duality; it is sheer unity … as the Mandukya Upanishad says, "He is Atman, the Spirit himself … above all distinction, beyond thought and ineffable." … reality is one; language requires duality; several dualities in fact (speaker and listener, subject and predicate); ergo, language cannot convey truth about reality.[7]

And yet this claim is made using language. Again, according to the Hindu definition of Brahman: "The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond knowledge."[8] But if something is 'beyond knowledge' it is by definition impossible to know of it that it is beyond knowledge. As philosopher Norman L. Geisler argues:

The very claim that 'God is unknowable in an intellectual way' seems to be either meaningless or self-defeating. For if the claim itself cannot be understood in an intellectual way, then it is a meaningless claim. If the claim can be understood in an intellectual way, then it is self-defeating, since it affirms that nothing can be understood about God in an intellectual way. In other words, the pantheist expects us to know intellectually that God cannot be understood intellectually.[9]

"Now we see … why Eastern pantheistic monism is non-doctrinal", writes Sire, "No doctrine can be true. Perhaps some can be more useful than others in getting a subject to achieve unity with the cosmos, but that is different. In fact, a lie or a myth might even be more useful."[10] On the subject of truth Hinduism bears a similarity to those Secular Humanists who reject the correspondence theory of truth for a pragmatic definition. Of course, the pragmatist can't coherently claim that one doctrine truly is more useful than another, or to make any claims about what it is useful for truly achieving.

It is precisely because Hinduism rejects the classical distinction between truth and falsehood that Pi believes he can think of himself as "a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim" (Life of Pi, p.64.) despite the fact that all three religions contradict each other. Pi can report: "Bapu Ghandi said, 'All religions are true.'" (Life of Pi, p.69), but Ghandi's claim is self-contradictory because every religion contradicts all the others. Indeed, the idea of jettisoning truth as an important category is the key to understanding Life of Pi: "if we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams." (Life of Pi, p.xii.)

On the other hand, if we don't support the classical concept of truth, we necessarily end up believing that nothing it true and being unable to differentiate between fact and fantasy, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness. Isn't truth essential for imagination? Christians and the majority of Secular Humanists thus find themselves in mutual opposition to the Hindu obfuscation of truth. As Pi's father says: "Believing in everything, is the same as not believing in anything."


The authorial voice within Life of Pi recognizes the importance of trust: "Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transport." (Life of Pi, p.28.) When the New Testament talks positively about trust, or 'faith': "it only uses words derived from the Greek root [pistis] which means 'to be persuaded.'"[11]

To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transport

- Life of Pi

As Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland affirm: "the modern view of faith as something unrelated or even hostile to reason is a departure from traditional Christianity and not a genuine expression of it."[12] In other words, the Christian understanding of 'faith' is of placing personal trust in someone that one is rationally convinced is trustworthy. Moreland thus defines faith as "a trust in and commitment to what we have reason to believe is true",[13] and explains:

The essence of faith – biblical or otherwise – is confidence or trust, and one can have faith in a thing (such as a chair) or a person (such as a parent, the president, or God), and one can have faith in the truth of a proposition... When trust is directed toward a person / thing, it is called 'faith in'; when it is directed toward the truth of a proposition, it is called 'faith that'.... It is a great misunderstanding of faith to oppose it to reason or knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, faith – confidence, trust – is rooted in knowledge.[14]

C.S. Lewis defined faith as: "the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods."[15] For moods change whatever view your reason takes:

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable ... unless you teach your moods 'where to get off,' you can never be a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion… When we exhort people to Faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason... If we wish to be rational, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth.[16]

According to Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami (writing in Hinduism Today), faith (astikya in Sanskrit) is a process of moving from "blind faith to conviction bolstered by philosophy, and finally to certainty forged in the fires of personal experience."[17] He writes:

The cultivation of faith can be compared to the growth of a tree. As a young sapling, it can easily be uprooted, just as faith based solely on belief can easily be shaken or destroyed. Faith bolstered with philosophical knowledge is like a medium-size tree, strong and not easily disturbed. Faith matured by personal experience of God and the Gods is like a full-grown tree which can withstand external forces.[18]

Some Secular Humanists (e.g. those of a 'neo-atheist' persuasion) equate faith with 'blind faith' in order to portray all religious believers as anti-intellectual. According to A.C. Grayling: "Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason..."[19] Likewise, Richard Dawkins definesreligiousfaith as: "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence."[20] However, Secular Humanist Richard Norman cautions that "faith means different things to different religious believers, and from the fact that they claim to have faith you can't infer that they are all irrationalists who believe things on 'blind faith' without any evidence..."[21] On the meaning of 'faith', then, it would seem that there's a degree of commonality between Christians, Hindus and many Secular Humanists; a commonality upset primarily by the blind rhetorical stance of certain 'new atheist' writers.


Secular Humanism has an ambiguous relationship with the concept of hope. On the one hand Richard Norman explains that:"Humanism is more than atheism, it is about putting humanist beliefs and values into practice and trying to make the world a better place."[22] According to the Humanist Manifesto III: "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."[23]

On the other hand, the naturalistic worldview that undergirds Secular Humanism provides no foundation for hope in the long term, as Peter Atkins acknowledges: "We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe."[24] Peter Cave muses: "We humanists know we shall cease to exist, yet we believe the world goes on. We build monuments, preserve libraries and save whales, when all will be lost. Vanity, all is vanity."[25]

Moreover, naturalism appears to exclude the freedom of will necessary for the ethical responsibility cherished by secular humanists. According to atheist William Provine:

Humans are comprised only of heredity and environment, both of which are deterministic. There is simply no room for the traditional concepts of human free-will. That is, humans do make decisions and they go through decision-making processes, but all of these are deterministic. So from my perspective as a naturalist, there's not even a possibility that human beings have free will.[26]

Little wonder atheist John Gray concludes: "A truly naturalistic view of the world leaves no room for secular hope."[27]

When your intellect has cleared itself of delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future

- Bhagavad-Gita

For the Hindu, "atman [the 'true self'] seeks to realize Brahman [the impersonal Fundamental Reality with which atman is actually identical], to be united with the Absolute, and it travels in this life on a pilgrimage where it is born and dies, and is born again and dies again, and again, and again [samsara], until it manages to shed the sheaths that imprison it here below [moksha]." (Life of Pi, p.49.) One might be tempted to think that in the idea of moksha (the Hindu term for the liberation of the 'soul' from the wheel of karma) Hinduism provides adherents with a goal to hope for and look forward to. However, the individual cannot hope to reach this goal, nor can they look forward to it, because this goal is precisely the abolition of the (illusory) individual; for the existence of individual persons is Maya, an illusory or provisional reality, in-as-much-as "Atman is Brahman. Brahman is one and impersonal. Therefore, Atman is impersonal… Human beings in their essence – their truest, fullest being – are impersonal."[28]

Contrary to the common western understanding of reincarnation, for the Hindu "no human being in the sense of individual or person survives death. Atman survives, but Atman is impersonal. When Atman is reincarnated, it becomes another person."[29] Likewise, the naturalistic worldview of the Secular Humanist entails that when a person dies, although their matter continues to exist and to be incorporated into new things (even new people), the person is dead and gone.

Anthropologist David Burnett explains that within the Hindu worldview:

Individuality and human consciousness are just a part of the total illusion of Maya. The individual soul, atman, is in fact the divine self, which is identical with 'Brahman'. The focus of human achievement therefore becomes world-denying rather than world-affirming as with the secular worldviews. To realize one's true oneness with the cosmos is to pass beyond personality… Personality demands self-consciousness that requires a distinction between the thinker and the thing thought about.[30]

If long-term hope is an inappropriate category to apply to the Hindu worldview, what about the short term? Like the Secular Humanist, the Hindu can of course have their own subjective hopes for their immediate, worldly future. However, the monistic nature of both Pantheistic Hinduism and Naturalistic Secular Humanism appears to preclude any objective grounding for values, any objective distinction between good and evil. Cave talks about the way in which "Humanists are tempted to think that 'deep down inside' each human is valuable"[31] and ponders: "Is it not utterly ridiculous that things should matter so much to us, when from outside they matter not at all?"[32]

There is nothing that one objectively ought or ought not to hope for within either worldview. The Bhagavad-Gita says: "When your intellect has cleared itself of delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future."[33] Moreover, the Hindu doctrine of karma works itself out in a caste system that precludes any hope of social mobility: "Each caste has its own skills and specialized functions. A person is born into a particular caste and as such, his or her lifestyle, occupation and even the food he or she eats are designated. There is no possibility of social mobility."[34]

The apostle Peter commanded Christians to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have … with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15) For Christianity, then, hope is grounded in truth – especially (a) truth concerning the character and intentions of God and (b) truth concerning Jesus' divinity and resurrection from the dead. If the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact, then the Christian hope is one solidly grounded in reality. If not, then the Christian hope is an illusion.

As the apostle Paul observed: "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:14). At one stage of his journey Pi professes to have "lost all hope" and to have "perked up and felt much better" as a consequence. Be that as it may, it would seem that Christians, Hindus and Secular Humanists all agree that if Christian faith isn't truthfully grounded in reality, we face the absence of any long-term personal hope.

Discussion Questions:

  • Pi's father says: "Believing in everything, is the same as not believing in anything." Do you agree? Do we need to believe in anything?
  • How do you respond to Pi's three different 'conversions' and his desire to hold all three at once?
  • Pi says: "You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better." Do you think it is good for us to have hope? Or to lose it? Or to lose one type of hope and find another?
  • Pi suggests that we can choose our own story, and that it is better to choose a good story than a true story. Do you agree?
  • What is the difference between faith and blind faith? Is it possible to have blind doubt?


  • [1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 16, Objection 3.
  • [2] Quoted by Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell, Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1982.
  • [3] Thomas Aquinas, Questiones Disputatae de Veritate, in McDermott (ed.), Aquinas – Selected Philosophical Writings, Oxford University Press, 1998, p.58.
  • [4] Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Norman L. Geisler & Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987, p.247.
  • [5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, Nottingham: Apollos, 2011, p.124.
  • [6] David Burnett, Clash of Worlds, London: Monarch, 2002, p.71.
  • [7] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue, 5th edition, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009, p.155.
  • [8] 'Kena,' in The Upanishads, p.31 quoted by Norman L. Geisler & William D. Watkins, Worlds Apart, 2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989, p.80.
  • [9] Geisler & Watkins, Worlds Apart, p.104.
  • [10] Sire, op.cit., p.155.
  • [11] Tom Price, 'Faith is about "just trusting" God isn't it?', available at
  • [12] Michael J. Wilkins & J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire – Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1996, p.8.
  • [13] J.P. Moreland, 'Living Smart' in Paul Copan & William Lane Craig (eds.), Passionate Conviction, B&H Academic, 2007, p.22.
  • [14] J.P. Moreland, The Kingdom Triangle, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, pp.130-131.
  • [15] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, available at
  • [16]Ibid.
  • [17] Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, 'The Three Stages of Faith', available at
  • [18]Ibid.
  • [19] A.C. Grayling, Against All Gods, London: Oberon Books, 2007, pp.15-16.
  • [20] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford Paperbacks, p.198.
  • [21] Richard Norman, 'Holy Communion', New Humanist, November-December 2007, p.18.
  • [22] Norman, Ibid., p.19.
  • [23] Humanist Manifesto III, available at
  • [24] Peter Atkins, quoted by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 2006, p.ix.
  • [25] Peter Cave, Humanism, Oxford: OneWorld, 2009, p.132.
  • [26] William Provine in Russell Stannard (ed.), Science and Wonders, London: BBC / Faber and Faber, 1996.
  • [27] John Gray, Straw Dogs, London: Granta, 2002, p.xii.
  • [28] Sire, op.cit., p.154.
  • [29]Ibid, p.158.
  • [30] Burnett, op.cit., p.72.
  • [31] Cave, p.134, my emphasis.
  • [32]Ibid, p.139.
  • [33]Bhagavad-Gita, translators Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, New York: Mentor, 1972, p.41.
  • [34] Burnett, op.cit., p.75.

© 2013 Peter S. Williams

This article originally appeared in Dialogue Australasia Journal, May Issue 2013.

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This article is about the novel by Yann Martel. For the film based on the novel and directed by Ang Lee, see Life of Pi (film).

Life of Pi is a Canadian fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist is Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry who explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The novel has sold more than ten million copies worldwide.[1] It was rejected by at least five London publishing houses[2] before being accepted by Knopf Canada, which published it in September 2001. The UK edition won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year.[3][4][5] It was also chosen for CBC Radio's Canada Reads 2003, where it was championed by author Nancy Lee.[6]

The French translation L'Histoire de Pi was chosen in the French CBC version of the contest Le combat des livres, where it was championed by Louise Forestier.[7] The novel won the 2003 Boeke Prize, a South African novel award. In 2004, it won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Best Adult Fiction for years 2001–2003.[8] In 2012 it was adapted into a feature film directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay by David Magee.


The novel begins with a note from the author, which is an integral part of it. Unusually, the note describes entirely fictional events. It serves to establish and enforce one of the book's main themes: the relativity of truth.

Life of Pi is subdivided into three sections:

Part one[edit]

In the first section, the main character, by the name of Piscine Patel, an adult Canadian, reminisces about his childhood in India. His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry. The livelihood provides the family with a relatively affluent lifestyle and some understanding of animal psychology.

The narrator describes how he acquired his full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, as a tribute to the swimming pool in France. After hearing schoolmates tease him by transforming the first name into "Pissing", he establishes the short form of his name as "Pi" when he starts secondary school. The name, he says, pays tribute to the irrational number which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

In recounting his experiences, Pi describes several other unusual situations involving proper names: two visitors to the zoo, one a devout Muslim, and the other a committed atheist, bear identical names; and a 450-pound tiger at the zoo bears the name Richard Parker as the result of a clerical error, in which human and animal names were reversed.[9]

Pi is raised as a Hindu who practices vegetarianism. At the age of fourteen, he investigates Christianity and Islam, and decides to become an adherent of all three religions, much to his parents' dismay, saying he "just wants to love God."[10][11] He tries to understand God through the lens of each religion, and comes to recognize benefits in each one.

A few years later in 1977, during the period when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declares "The Emergency", Pi's father decides to sell the zoo and immigrate with his wife and sons to Canada.

Part two[edit]

The second part of the novel begins with Pi's family aboard the Tsimtsum, a Japanese freighter that is transporting animals from their zoo to North America. A few days out of port from Manila, the ship encounters a storm and sinks. Pi manages to escape in a small lifeboat, only to learn that the boat also holds a spotted hyena, an injured Grant's zebra, and an orangutan named Orange Juice. Much to the boy's distress, the hyena kills the zebra and then Orange Juice. A tiger has been hiding under the boat's tarpaulin: it's Richard Parker, who had boarded the lifeboat with ambivalent assistance from Pi himself some time before the hyena attack. Suddenly emerging from his hideaway, Richard Parker kills and eats the hyena.

Frightened, Pi constructs a small raft out of rescue flotation devices, tethers it to the bow of the boat and makes it his place of retirement. He begins conditioning Richard Parker to take a submissive role by using food as a positive reinforcer, and seasickness as a punishment mechanism, while using a whistle for signals. Soon, Pi asserts himself as the alpha animal, and is eventually able to share the boat with his feline companion, admitting in the end that Richard Parker is the one who helped him survive his ordeal.

Pi recounts various events while adrift in the Pacific Ocean. At his lowest point, exposure renders him blind and unable to catch fish. In a state of delirium, he talks with a marine "echo", which he initially identifies as Richard Parker having gained the ability to speak, but it turns out to be another blind castaway, a Frenchman, who boards the lifeboat with the intention of killing and eating Pi, but is eventually killed by Richard Parker.

Some time later, Pi's boat comes ashore on a floating island network of algae and inhabited by hundreds of thousands of meerkats. Soon, Pi and Richard Parker regain strength, but the boy's discovery of the carnivorous nature of the island's plant life forces him to return to the ocean.

Two hundred and twenty-seven days after the ship's sinking, the lifeboat washes onto a beach in Mexico, after which Richard Parker disappears into the nearby jungle without looking back, leaving Pi heartbroken at the abrupt farewell.

Part three[edit]

The third part of the novel describes a conversation between Pi and two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, who are conducting an inquiry into the shipwreck. They meet him at the hospital in Mexico where he is recovering. Pi tells them his tale, but the officials reject it as unbelievable. Pi then offers them a second story in which he is adrift on a lifeboat not with zoo animals, but with the ship's cook, a Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg, and his own mother. The cook amputates the sailor's leg for use as fishing bait, then kills the sailor himself as well as Pi's mother for food, and soon he is killed by Pi, who dines on him.

The investigators note parallels between the two stories. They soon conclude that the hyena symbolizes the cook, the zebra the sailor, the orangutan Pi's mother, and the tiger represents Pi. Pi points out that neither story can be proven and neither explains the cause of the shipwreck, so he asks the officials which story they prefer: the one without animals or the one with animals. They eventually choose the story with the animals. Pi thanks them and says: "And so it goes with God." The investigators then leave and file a report.

Major themes[edit]

Life is a story[edit]

Life of Pi, according to Yann Martel, can be summarized in three statements: "Life is a story... You can choose your story... A story with God is the better story."[12] A recurring theme throughout the novel seems to be believability. Pi at the end of the book asks the two investigators "If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for?"[13] According to Gordon Houser there are two main themes of the book: "that all life is interdependent, and that we live and breathe via belief."[14]

Growth through adversity[edit]

PBS has described Martel's story as one of "personal growth through adversity."[15] The main character learns that "tigers are dangerous" at a young age when his father forces him to watch the zoo's Royal Bengal tiger patriarch, Mahisha, devour a live goat. Later, after he has been reduced to eking out a desperate existence on the lifeboat with the company of a fully grown tiger, Pi develops "alpha" qualities as he musters the strength, will and skills he needs to survive.[15]


In a 2002 interview with PBS, Martel said "I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small 's' but sort of with a capital 'S' – something that would direct my life."[16] He spoke of being lonely and needing direction in his life, and found that writing the novel met this need.[17]

Richard Parker and shipwreck narratives[edit]

The name of Martel's tiger, Richard Parker, was inspired by a character in Edgar Allan Poe's nautical adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). In this book, Richard Parker is a mutineer who is stranded and eventually cannibalized on the hull of an overturned ship (and there is a dog aboard who is named Tiger). The author also had in mind another occurrence of the name, in the famous legal case R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) where a shipwreck again results in the cannibalism of a cabin boy named Richard Parker, this time in a lifeboat.[18] A third Richard Parker drowned in the sinking of the Francis Spaight in 1846, described by author Jack London, and later the cabin boy (not Richard Parker) was cannibalized.

Having read about these events, Yann Martel thought, "So many victimized Richard Parkers had to mean something."[19][20]

Moacyr Scliar[edit]

Martel has mentioned that a book review he read of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella Max and the Cats accounts in part for his novel's premise. Scliar's story describes a Jewish-German refugee crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a jaguar in his boat.[21][22] Scliar said that he was perplexed that Martel "used the idea without consulting or even informing me," and indicated that he was reviewing the situation before deciding whether to take any action in response.[23][24] After talking with Martel, Scliar elected not to pursue the matter.[25] A dedication to Scliar "for the spark of life" appears in the author's note of Life of Pi. Literary reviews have described the similarities between Life of Pi and Max and the Cats as superficial. Reviewer Peter Yan wrote: "Reading the two books side-by-side, one realizes how inadequate bald plot summaries are in conveying the unique imaginative impact of each book,"[26] and noted that Martel's distinctive narrative structure is not found in Scliar's novella. The themes of the books are also dissimilar, with Max and the Cats being an allegory for Nazism.[27] In Life of Pi, 211 of 354 pages are devoted to Pi's experience in the lifeboat, compared to Max and the Cats, in which 17 of its 99 pages depict time spent in a lifeboat.[27]

Narrative structure[edit]

According to the reviewer Peter Yan,

'Life of Pi' is told from two alternating points of view, the main character Pi in a flashback and Yann Martel himself, who is the "visiting writer" (Martel 101) interviewing Pi many years after the tiger in the boat story. This technique of the intrusive narrator adds the documentary realism to the book, setting up, like a musical counter-point, the myth-making, unreliable narrator, Pi. The reader is left to ponder at the end whether Pi's story is an allegory of another set of parallel events.[26]


The novel is a work of fiction set in the summer of 1977 that draws on places and historical events in India. The Patel Family's discussions of the political situation refer to the Emergency period of the mid-1970s, when Indira Gandhi's administration ruled by decree, curtailed press freedoms, and imprisoned political opponents. Pondicherry is a former French colony in India. It does have an Indian Coffee House and Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Garden had a zoo in 1977 but did not have any animals bigger than a deer. Munnar, the destination for the Patel family's vacation, is a small but popular hill station in Kerala. Madurai, also referenced in the novel, is a popular tourist and pilgrimage site in Tamil Nadu.


Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel[edit]

He acquires layer after layer of diverse spirituality and brilliantly synthesizes it into a personal belief system and devotional life that is breathtaking in its depth and scope. His youthful exploration into comparative religion culminates in a magnificent epiphany of sorts.

—Phoebe Kate Foster of PopMatters[28]

Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as just "Pi", is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. He was named after a swimming pool in Paris, despite the fact that neither his mother nor his father particularly liked swimming. The story is told as a narrative from the perspective of a middle-aged Pi, now married with his own family, and living in Canada. At the time of main events of the story, he is sixteen years old. He recounts the story of his life and his 227-day journey on a lifeboat when his ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a voyage to North America.

Richard Parker[edit]

Richard Parker is a royal Bengal tiger who is stranded on the lifeboat with Pi when the ship sinks. Richard Parker lives on the lifeboat with Pi and is kept alive with the food and water Pi delivers. Richard Parker develops a relationship with Pi that allows them to coexist in their struggle.

In the novel, a hunter named Richard Parker is hired to kill a panther thought to have killed seven people within two months. Instead, he accidentally immobilizes a female Bengal tiger with tranquilizer darts while her cub escapes hiding in a bush. Parker names the cub Thirsty after his enthusiasm when drinking from a nearby river. The paperwork that accompanies the shipment of the two tigers to Pi's family's zoo in Pondicherry states that the cub's name is "Richard Parker" and the hunter's given name is "Thirsty" and his surname is "None Given", due to a mix-up with the names. Pi's father finds the story so amusing that they continue to call the tiger "Richard Parker".


Brian Bethune of Maclean's describes Life of Pi as a "head-scratching combination of dense religious allegory, zoological lore and enthralling adventure tale, written with warmth and grace".[29]Master Plots suggested that the "central themes of Life of Pi concern religion and human faith in God".[30] Reutter said, "So believable is Pi's story telling that readers will be amazed."[31] Gregory Stephens added that it "achieves something more quietly spectacular."[32] Smith stated that there was "no bamboozlement here."[33] Gary Krist of The New York Times praised the book, but added that at times Martel "pushes the didactic agenda of his story too hard."[34]

In 2010, U.S. PresidentBarack Obama wrote a letter directly to Martel, describing Life of Pi as "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling."[35]


Illustrated edition[edit]

In October 2005, a worldwide competition was launched to find an artist to illustrate Life of Pi. The competition was run by Scottish publisher Canongate Books and UK newspaper The Times, as well as Australian newspaper The Age and Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac was chosen as the illustrator for the new edition, which was published in September 2007.[36][37][38]

Film adaptation[edit]

Main article: Life of Pi (film)

A 2012 adaptation directed by Ang Lee and based on an adapted screenplay by David Magee was given a wide release in the United States on 21 November 2012. At the 85th Academy Awards it won four awards from eleven nominations, including Best Director.

Theatrical adaptations[edit]

This novel has also been adapted as a play by Keith Robinson, artistic director of the youth-oriented Twisting Yarn Theatre Company. Andy Rashleigh wrote the adaptation, which was directed by Keith Robinson. The premier/original cast contained only six actors—Tony Hasnath (Pi), Taresh Solanki (Richard Parker), Melody Brown (Mother), Conor Alexander (Father), Sanjay Shalat (Brother) and Mark Pearce (Uncle).[39] The play was produced at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, England, in 2003.[40] The company toured England and Ireland with the play in 2004 and 2007.

Keith Robinson also directed a second version of the play. He brought some of his company to work with students of the BA (Hons) Drama, Applied Theatre and Education Course at the Central School of Speech and Drama. The joint production was performed at the Minack Theatre, in Cornwall, England, in late June 2008.[41] It was well received by the press and community.


  1. ^'Life of Pi' a surprise success story around the world
  2. ^Gibbons, Fiachra (24 October 2002). "Top publishers rejected Booker winner". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 31 August 2010. 
  3. ^"Life of Pi". Man Booker Prize. Archived from the original on 2 December 2010. Retrieved 31 August 2010. 
  4. ^Kipen, David (23 October 2002). "Canadian wins Booker Prize / 'Life of Pi' is tale of a boy who floats across the ocean from India". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 31 August 2010. 
  5. ^Reynolds, Nigel (30 September 2002). "Life of Pi wins Booker". The Daily Telegraph. UK. Retrieved 3 September 2010. 
  6. ^"Canada Reads 2003". Canada Reads. Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  7. ^"Martel seeks quiet of Saskatoon". CBC News. Retrieved 1 September 2010. [dead link]
  8. ^"Asian Pacific American Award for Literature (APAAL) 2001–2003". APAAL. Archived from the original on 6 February 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  9. ^Martel, p. 14
  10. ^Martel, p. 69
  11. ^"Life of Pi (review)". Archived from the original on 29 May 2012. Retrieved 10 October 2011. 
  12. ^Renton, Jennie. "Yann Martel Interview". Textualities. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  13. ^Martel, Yann (2001). Life of Pi. New York: Knopf Canada. 
  14. ^Houser, Gordon (2003). "The Life of Pi". The Christian Century. 120 (3): 34+. Retrieved 5 June 2013. 
  15. ^ ab"Life of Pi' Author Reveals to That The Inspiration For His Best-Selling Book And Now Hit Film Came From A Little Known Book About A Shipwrecked German Boy". Retrieved 15 May 2013. [permanent dead link]
  16. ^Martel, Yann (11 November 2002). "Conversation: Life of PI". PBS NewsHour (Interview). Interview with Ray Suarez. PBS. Retrieved 16 January 2015. 
  17. ^Martel, Yann (27 October 2002). "Triumph of a castaway adrift in the sea of his imagination". The Sunday Times. UK. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  18. ^
  19. ^"Yann Martel on tigers, cannibals and Edgar Alan Poe". Canongate Books. 14 May 2002. Archived from the original on 18 March 2008. Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  20. ^Martel, Yann. "How Richard Parker Came to Get His Name". Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  21. ^"From the Author — Yann Martel — Powell's Books". Archived from the original on 14 January 2013. Retrieved 30 December 2012. 
  22. ^Mitgang, Herbert (11 July 1990). "Books of The Times; Fleeing the Nazis With a Jaguar That May Be Real". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 September 2010. 
  23. ^Rohter, Larry (11 July 1990). "Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat: A Furor Over a Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 September 2010. 
  24. ^
  25. ^Scliar, Moacyr (16 July 2006). "Writers & Company" (Interview). Interview with Eleanor Wachtel. CBC Radio 1. 
  26. ^ ab"Review". Books in Canada. Retrieved 2012-12-30. 
  27. ^ ab""Hollow at the core": Deconstructing Yann Martel's Life of Pi | Stratton | Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne". Retrieved 2012-12-30. 
  28. ^Foster, Phoebe Kate (4 September 2002). "Life of Pi: A Novel by Yann Martel". PopMatters. London. Retrieved 27 August 2011. 
  29. ^Bethune, Brian (13 April 2010). "The missing half of Yann Martel's new novel: His plan for his long-awaited follow-up to 'Life of Pi' didn't quite work out". Maclean's. Retrieved 31 August 2010. 
  30. ^Cockeram, Paul (November 2010). "Life of Pi". Master Plots 4 edition: 1–3. 
  31. ^Reutter, Vicki (2004). "Martel, Yann. Life of Pi". School Library Journal. 
  32. ^Stephens, Gregory (14 May 2013). "Feeding tiger, finding God: science, religion, and 'the better story' in Life of Pi". 1. 14. 
  33. ^Smith, Jean (2003). "Yann Martel. Lif eof Pi". The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 23 (1). 
  34. ^Krist, Gary (2002-07-07). "Taming the Tiger". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-07. 
  35. ^"Life of Pi author Martel hears from Obama". Saskatoon StarPhoenix. Winnipeg Free Press. 8 April 2010. Retrieved 6 September 2011. 
  36. ^"Life of Pi: The Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel and Tomislav Torjanac". The Sunday Times. UK. 15 September 2007. Archived from the original on 21 May 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  37. ^Martel, Yann (15 April 2006). "A brush with the art of Pi". The Sunday Times. UK. Archived from the original on 16 June 2011. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  38. ^"The Illustrated Life of Pi". The Guardian. UK. 27 September 2007. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  39. ^Cooper, Neil (15 March 2007). "Life Of Pi, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow". The Herald. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  40. ^"A remarkable journey from novel to stage". Yorkshire Post. 6 December 2004. Retrieved 19 October 2010. 
  41. ^"Production which goes for the jugular". This is Cornwall. Northcliffe Media. 18 June 2008. Archived from the original on 21 April 2013. Retrieved 22 March 2012. 


External links[edit]



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