It is easy to see why Yann Martel's 2001 novel, Life of Pi, was widely praised and went on to become an international bestseller. Martel tells a story both striking and unique, the life story of Piscine Patel. When he was growing up in India as the son of a zookeeper, Piscine was teased unmercifully for his name, so he shortened it to Pi, as in the mathematical symbol π. This change of name is only the first of several fascinating changes Pi experiences. Some are more or less under his control, like his pursuit of truth by simultaneously studying Christianity Hinduism, and Islam. Some, like his father's decision to move the family to Canada, are not under Pi's control, especially when the ship carrying the Patel family sinks and Pi is stranded in a lifeboat with only a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-pound tiger for company.
The bulk of this fascinating, colorful novel focuses on Pi's struggles to survive and to make sense of this dehumanizing condition in which he finds himself. Every setting, from India to the lifeboat and on to Mexico once Pi is rescued, is vividly rendered. Martel has an eye for vivid details and piles them on, making this novel a joy to read and supremely easy to imagine.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Life of Pi begins with an author’s note written by a character named Yann Martel. Martel confesses that his previous novel received poor reviews and faded into obscurity and he lost interest in writing another novel. Martel sought inspiration in India, where he met a strange old man who directed him to Piscine “Pi” Molitar Patel. Pi’s life story inspired Martel’s new novel.
Piscene grows up in Pondicherry, India, the son of a zoo keeper. Young Piscine suffers as a boy because of his name, which sounds very close to the word “pissing.” When Piscine changes schools, he takes the opportunity to rename himself “Pi” after the mathematical symbol, publically declaring his new name to all. With his new name, Pi enjoys a happy childhood, free from mockery, as he explores the zoo, makes many friends, and relishes life with his close-knit family.
An intelligent and deeply religious boy, Pi excels in the study of his native religion, Hinduism. Surprisingly, however, Pi explores two more of the world’s major religions—Islam and Christianity—when his family vacations in Munnar. With the help of a Muslim mystic named Satish Kumar and a parish priest named Father Martin, Pi becomes a devotee of both religions. As an old man, Pi will still practice the three faiths of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, making him a unique religious figure.
Pi’s life in India ends when his father sells the zoo and moves the family to Canada. The family embarks across the Pacific Ocean on the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum with a menagerie of zoo animals to be sold to North American zoos. Unfortunately, the Tsimtsum sinks, taking Pi’s family with it. Pi makes it safely onto a lifeboat, where, besides some vermin, his only companions are a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutang, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
At first, Pi does not see the tiger, so he lives in fear of the hyena. Since Pi paid such close attention to everything his father said about wild animals, he manages to survive the hyena’s predatory advances long enough to see it kill and eat the zebra and orangutang. Pi observes nature’s cruelty with horror, realizing that he will become the hyena’s next victim. Pi has virtually surrendered himself to the savage hyena when, suddenly, the tiger makes his presence known, easily destroying the hyena and saving Pi’s life.
Pi remains adrift on the Pacific Ocean with a tiger for 227 days. He struggles to survive and overcome his sudden orphaning, his new grief, seasickness, endless waves, relentless storms, starvation, thirst, blazing...
(The entire section is 1068 words.)
Life of Pi is the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, also known as Pi, who at the age of sixteen survived for 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean. Pi’s story begins with an account of his childhood in Pondicherry India where his father is the head of the Pondicherry Zoo. Pi is a deeply spiritual person who, after learning the teachings of Hinduism Islam and Catholicism, creates his own spiritual practice from all three traditions. Pi is equally enthralled with science, influenced not only by his agnostic father but also by his biology teacher, a confirmed atheist. While Pi’s scientific and religious influences exclude one other and even while the different religions he embraces are also mutually exclusive, Pi himself is able to integrate these seemingly disparate systems of thought into his daily life.
In 1977, Pi’s family departs Pondicherry for Toronto to avoid the brewing civil unrest in India, taking many of the zoo animals with them aboard the Tsintsum, a Japanese cargo ship. The ship inexplicably sinks, and Pi finds himself alone in the Pacific Ocean in a 26-foot lifeboat with a crippled zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. No one else survives. Before the first week is up, the hyena has killed the zebra and the orangutan, and the tiger has killed the hyena. Pi is left alone on the raft with the potentially man-eating tiger.
After overcoming his initial shock, Pi uses the boat’s survival gear to preserve his life from both the elements and the tiger. He overcomes his lifelong vegetarianism to be able to kill fish and sea turtles barehanded, though he finds the ease with which killing comes to him disturbing. Pi spends his days fishing for food for Richard Parker—in an effort to preserve his own life from the tiger—and tending the freshwater stills. Pi and the tiger face rainstorms, sharks, the scorching sun, and starvation. They also encounter whales,...
(The entire section is 638 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Summary and Analysis: Part One—Toronto and Pondicherry—Chapters 1-11
This chapter shifts around a bit in time as Pi attempts to recover from his ordeal on the ocean, but it primarily focuses on his education after he arrives in North America. He finished high school, then attended the University of Toronto, where he studied both zoology and religious studies. His zoology thesis focused on the three-toed sloth.
Pi's double major reflects his longstanding interest in the meaning of life. However, this interest is given particular emphasis by the memories of his ocean ordeal, which continually drift through his mind in this chapter. He is continually marked by what he suffered.
"Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn't know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool's gold for the bright—reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God."
Pi's thought here shows the importance of his religious beliefs and how fully the different realms of reality interweave.
Just a few lines long, this chapter introduces Pi as an adult, telling his story to the author.
All chapters in italics will be from the author's point of view.
"No small talk."
This line seems to be a minor observation, but it will gain importance as Pi's story is revealed; all trivia has been burned out of him by his suffering.
Pi tells the story of his relationship with Francis Adirubasamy (Pi calls him Mamaji), a close friend of his father's who had once been a championship swimmer and still swam every day. He taught Pi to swim, the only one of Pi's family that Adirubasamy was able to teach. He entertained the family with stories of swimming competitions and swimming pools, including the great pools of Paris. To Adirubasamy, no pool compared to Paris's Piscine Molitor, "a pool the gods would have delighted to swim in." Pi was named after that pool: Piscine Molitor Patel.
Pi looks back on these details about Adirubasamy from an unspecified future time. Some of this story is clearly not things he could have experienced, as they occurred before he was born, but all details are presented with vivid immediacy, among them his name and his training to swim: it is as if he were being selected from before birth for an ocean adventure.
Pi discusses the nature of zoos, and of his father's zoo in Pondicherry in particular, noting that his father ran a hotel in Madras before starting a zoo.
Here Pi seems to be talking simply about his past, in a way that foreshadows his expertise with animals, and to be discussing issues related to zoos that he cares about because he encountered them through his father's zoo, such as freedom, territory,...
(The entire section is 1330 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part One—Toronto and Pondicherry—Chapters 12-21
The author discusses how much telling his story upsets Pi, and how spicy the food is that Pi serves.
These unrelated details go together thematically; Pi has not "digested" the "spicy" story he lived through in the past, just as the author cannot in the present.
These two brief chapters both discuss pack relations. Chapter 13 notes that an animal will attack primarily to protect its territory and that a trainer must gain a psychological edge over an animal by establishing territorial ownership before the animal does. Chapter 14 follows this by...
(The entire section is 644 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part One—Toronto and Pondicherry—Chapters 22-32
Together these three chapters sum up Pi's confusion regarding the role of faith and meaning in the world. Chapter 22 briefly suggests that the atheist is closer to faith than the agnostic. Chapter 23 describes the time all of Pi's religious teachers met him at the same time, with his family, and had a nasty argument over which faith he followed and which was better. Chapter 24 describes how Ravi teased Pi for his attempt to follow multiple faiths.
Chapter 23 is a deeply ironic commentary on the conflict between the ideals espoused by religion and their practices. They are all supposedly paths of love and paths to truth,...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part One—Toronto and Pondicherry—Chapters 33-36
Pi shows the author photos from his past. The author notes that Pi is smiling in the photos taken since his rescue but that his eyes tell a different story. There are only four photos from India which Mamaji sent to Pi. None are of his family, and Pi can hardly remember what his mother looks like.
The fact that a picture of Richard Parker is part of Pi's family memorabilia symbolizes the role animals play in Pi's identity.
These chapters describe the efforts the Patel family went through as they tried to leave India. Chapter 34 is a comic review of...
(The entire section is 293 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part Two—The Pacific Ocean—Chapters 37-46
This chapter begins with a dramatic line: "The ship sank." After that event, Pi is in the lifeboat, screaming for Richard Parker to swim to the boat. Pi screams at heaven, throws first a life buoy, then an oar, to try to save Richard Parker, who finally makes it on board. In the chapter's last paragraph there is another telling line, "Truly I was to be the next goat."
This chapter marks the beginning of Pi's tremendous ordeal, but also demonstrates how his mind works. In the lifeboat in the heat of the moment, Pi calls to heaven for explanations, always seeking divine meaning even in the midst of loss. He also tries to save...
(The entire section is 1177 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part Two—The Pacific Ocean—Chapters 47-57
The next day, the zebra dies. That afternoon the hyena attacks Orange Juice. She fights back, but the hyena kills her and bites her head completely off. Pi looks away, and sees Richard Parker's head under the bench.
The ecosystem aboard the lifeboat is being whittled away, becoming simplified, and reducing Pi's chances to hide. Soon he will have to be part of it.
Pi sees Orange Juice as a "simian Christ on the Cross" when she is killed. This indicates both his wish to think that suffering has meaning and his recognition that in some ways she did die to save him.
(The entire section is 1119 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part Two—The Pacific Ocean—Chapters 58-67
Pi reads the survival manual included in the lifeboat's supplies and then makes further plans for survival, such as training Richard Parker, fishing, and improving his raft. He then falls into despair over his situation.
Despite Pi's despair, this chapter demonstrates his embrace of his responsibility for keeping himself alive.
Pi's hunger and thirst bring him out of his despair. He pulls his raft next to the lifeboat and retrieves rations, drinks rain water, and splashes his urine on the tarpaulin and locker lid to mark his territory. He then sets...
(The entire section is 984 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part Two—The Pacific Ocean—Chapters 68-77
Chapter 68 describes how Pi's sleeping patterns changed (he slept only at brief stretches) and how they differed from Richard Parker's (he slept for a long time). Chapter 69 describes the times Pi thought he saw a light in the distance and set off flares to attract the ship's attention.
If the previous chapters had shown how animalistic Pi had become, these chapters show how great a distance there still is. Pi cannot sleep much because of his anxiety, and it may be false hope that makes him shoot off the flares. Richard Parker just accepts.
(The entire section is 659 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part Two—The Pacific Ocean—Chapters 78-87
In chapter 78, Pi describes the changing skies and seas he faces, but a castaway's gaze, he says, does not change; it is always a radius with the castaway at the center of the circle. His life as a castaway is a life of opposites, such as wishing to be wet when it is hot, but wishing to be dry when it is raining. Chapter 79 describes the many kinds of sharks that Pi sees, a number of which he catches for food. The first shark that Pi tries to catch is a large mako shark. He grabs it by the tail with his hand and pulls, but it jumps into the air and ends up in the lifeboat. The tiger and the shark fight. Richard Parker wins, but his paw is injured.
(The entire section is 674 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part Two—The Pacific Ocean—Chapters 88-94
The lifeboat runs into some floating trash, and Pi finds a rotted lamb in a floating refrigerator. He pulls a corked bottle from the trash, puts a message in it, and launches it in the water.
Given Pi's powerful religious leanings, the lamb should be taken as symbolic. After becoming a killer as he has, Pi is no longer innocent (as a lamb), but rotten.
Pi describes how everything suffered on the lifeboat from exposure to the weather, and how Pi and Richard Parker were slowing dying. His pens ran dry, ending his diary. His last entry is "I die."
(The entire section is 972 words.)
Summary and Analysis: Part Three—Benito Juárez Infirmary, Tomatlán, Mexico—Chapters 95-100
Told from the point of view of the author's persona, this chapter summarizes how Mr. Tomohiro Okamoto and Mr. Atsuro Chiba from the Japanese Ministry of Transport's Maritime Department make their way from California down to Tomatlán Mexico to interview Pi about the sinking of the Tsimtsum. They get lost because a poorly folded map causes them to read "Tomatán" as "Tomatlán." Chapters 96-99 are excerpts from the transcript of their conversation with Pi.
The fact that these men drove over a thousand miles to get answers about why the Tsimtsum sank shows the intensity of the human need for meaning. The fact...
(The entire section is 877 words.)