Life of Pi: What Really Happened?

What if the fantastical story of a boy stranded at sea with a Bengal tiger in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was not just a false story, but actually had a parallel? As readers, we are left to wonder about the reality of what actually happened in Pi’s incredible tale. Is it completely false that Pi found an island composed entirely of algae, or is there a parallel the reader is intended to infer? In addition to the parallels Yann Martel provided, the reader can infer additional parallels from the story Pi told, as to what actually happened.

The first parallel in Life of Pi, the one Yann Martel spells out for the reader, is how the animals in the lifeboat each have a human counterpart. At the beginning of Pi’s story, the boat he is traveling on sinks, and four of the zoo animals, along with Pi, escape on a lifeboat. The four animals are a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger. The author explains that each of the animals has a represented human counterpart. “So the Taiwanese sailor is the zebra, his mother is the orang-utan, the cook is … the hyena — which means he’s the tiger!” This tells the reader that there is a parallel and that the two stories do, in fact, have a coinciding relationship, “His stories match.” (Martel, 311)

It is interesting to note that the level of importance of the character the animal represents is represented by the level of backstory the reader is given for that animal. The hyena and zebra receive little to no backstory because the human they represent is introduced on the lifeboat. Whereas the orangutan is given a decent amount of backstory because she represents Pi’s mother. The tiger is given the most backstory and character because he represents Pi himself. This demonstrates that Yann Martel is really good at making even the tiniest details work within the parallels, and it can be inferred that nothing is arbitrary.

After Pi being is at sea for a while, he finds himself on an island “The trees remained. In fact, they grew to be a forest. They were part of a low-lying island.” (Martel, 256) The island in Pi’s story is one made up entirely of some sort of algae “The island had no soil. Not that the trees stood in water. Rather, they stood in what appeared to be a dense mass of vegetation.” (Martel, 257) One way to interpret this island is that it is a real island made up of dirt and stone. Because Pi is starving for food and water and in need of proper shelter, it is the only thing he can see, making the island nothing but food and water in the form of algae and shelter in the form of trees. If Pi’s blindness is metaphorical for single-minded desires for food, then it means he is cured when he finally gets enough food and water to sustain himself. With the meerkats on the island, they could actually be there because Pi uses the fact that he has meerkat bones as “evidence” for his story “By the way, how do you explain the meerkat bones in the lifeboat?” (Martel, 299) The meerkats could be the food source Pi finds on the island that supports him because they are what fed Richard Parker (the tiger) who represents Pi.

Although the island could have sustained Pi for longer than he chose to stay, he makes the decision to leave because he realizes the island will kill him “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.” (Martel, 283) One interpretation is that Pi finds a dead body on the island instead of a set of teeth. In this parallel, his body would metaphorically be killed and absorbed by the island. A body would have shocked Pi just as much or even more, into realizing that if he stays on the island he would die alone.

The carnivorousness of the island could be a complete parallel metaphor. At first, in PI’s story, Pi didn’t know that the island was carnivorous. This could mean that Pi is blissfully unaware that he would die on this island. Then he started to notice something was wrong with the island “I found the sight sinister. There was something disturbing about all those dead fish.” (Martel, 277) This could parallel the idea that he slowly would become aware of a problem. Lastly, after he finds the dead body, Pi realizes that the island is going to kill and absorb him. This could be the author showing that Pi is becoming aware that, even though the island could sustain him in a literal sense, it wouldn’t be able to sustain his need for socialization, and he would die alone and his body would decompose on the island. In this version of the story, the island is only extra carnivorous at night, they can infer that day and night are metaphorical and are a state of emotional high and low. At day, or emotionally well, the island seems perfect with only the tiniest hint of any problems. Whereas at night, or emotionally unwell, Pi has to elevate himself in the trees, and that’s when the island would truly reveal itself to Pi, showing him it will kill him.

After Pi has been lost at sea for a while, he goes blind. This is a plot point that the reader could take literally, but if the reader interprets it as a parallel, it can mean much more. Because Pi loses his sight and he met someone previously who lost his vision at sea, it is more likely to be a metaphor than reality “Two blind people in two separate lifeboats meeting up in the Pacific—the coincidence seems a litter far-fetched, no?” (Martel, 299) If it is a metaphor, Pi’s blindness could represent single-mindedness. He is so fixated on starving for food and water that he can think of nothing else. It’s interesting to note that when Pi finally is cured of his blindness it’s when he is able to get an abundance of food and water.

Shortly after becoming blind, Pi also runs into another stranded blind man in another lifeboat. Because the man is lying about having food “I found he had lied to me. He had a little turtle meat, a dorado head, and even—s supreme treat—some biscuit crumbs.” (Martel, 255) it is possible that, within Pi’s story, he is lying about being blind. However, if the reader interprets the guy in the boat as a metaphor, similar to the blindness metaphor, then things begin to make more sense. Not only is the boat man’s blindness able to be interpreted as single-mindedness for food, but it could also represent nature and natural causes starting to kill Pi.

In the end, except for the parallels about the animals given by Yann Martel, the reader can only speculate about what they are meant to infer about the other plot points in Pi’s story. Although the reader can guess what other parallels might exist and might be able to find substantial evidence for them, they should realize that the parallels are only a guess. The events in Pi’s story could be completely true, or they could be arbitrary with no parallels.

Works Cited:

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Mariner Books, 2001.

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