The War on Terrorism
In late 2002, America, only one year removed from the September 11 attacks, had just defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan but was deeply divided over the impending war in Iraq. At a time of continued anxiety over possible attacks from al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorists, Americans were increasingly curious about Islam. Many struggled to understand why many Muslims hated America and why the al Qaeda airplane hijackers were driven to kill otherwise innocent Americans. Many Americans saw the need to deal with, and perhaps make peace with, Muslims after the carnage that al Qaeda had wrought on the United States. However, books such as Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations (1996, Simon & Schuster) asserted Christian and Islamic cultures were absolutely opposed and could not peacefully coexist. As an earnest practitioner of Christianity Islam and Hinduism who saw no conflict between these three beliefs, Pi became a symbol of how the major religions of the world could coexist and that they in fact shared many common features. Pi’s reconciliation of three different faiths stood in sharp contrast to the violence between Christian and Muslim peoples that was evident both in America and in the Middle East.
In the decades before the issue of a possible clash between Muslim and Christian cultures arose, growing numbers of Americans had also become less attached to specific churches while still affirming a belief in God and seeking to pursue a religious path. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph (London) shortly after receiving the Man Booker Prize, Martel said his novel “will make you believe in God or ask yourself why you don’t.” Pi, a believer who does not choose between the various visions of God offered by the world's different religions, offered American readers a way to explore faith and spirituality without having to follow any specific creed or tradition.
Indian History and Culture
India has a long history of hostility between Muslims and Hindus. Soon after the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, it embarked on a civil war, which resulted in the partitioning of Pakistan from India as a homeland for the nation’s Muslims. However, clashes over Kashmir, a land in northern India claimed by both India and Pakistan, continued to haunt the region throughout the rest of the 1900s. The conflict led both...
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Sources for Further Study (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
1. Where did Pi get his given name? (Chapter 3)
2. How did Pi come to be called Pi? (Chapter 5)
3. What does the Pi mean? (Chapter 5)
4. What does Pi's home in Toronto tell the author about his character? (Chapters 6 and 15)
5. Who is Mr. Satish Kumar? (Chapters 7 and 20)
6. How does Pi's father prepare him for the ordeal on the lifeboat (unknowingly), and how does he handicap him in this ordeal? (Chapter 8)
7. How is the Patel's family departure from India like the attempts of animals to escape from the zoo, and how is it different? (Chapter 10)
1. Pi was given the name Piscine Molitor Patel after a family friend (Francis Adirubasamy)'s favorite swimming pool.
2. Pi renamed himself, starting with his first day at Petit Séminaire when he wrote his name on the blackboard in each class and underlined the "Pi" in Piscine. He forced the nickname on those around him through repetition, which he thought was important in training not only animals but also humans.
3. Pi (π), the mathematical symbol, represents the ratio between the distance around a circle (the circumference) and the distance across its center (the diameter): π=3.14.
4. Pi's house is jammed full of food; he is terrified of ever going hungry again. But it is also jammed full of religious icons, as if he were terrified of going "hungry" of meaning.
5. There are two Satish Kumars in Life of Pi. One is a biology teacher, a Communist, a rationalist, and an atheist. The other is a baker and a Sufi mystic. Both teach Pi in ways that shape his soul.
6. The answers to both questions are the same: the intimate knowledge he provides of animals. This knowledge lets Pi survive and guides him in taming Richard Parker. It also handicaps him because Mr. Patel taught him never to get close to an adult tiger.
7. In chapter 10, Pi notes that animals try to escape not to something, but from something. The Patel family's "escape" from India is similar to this in that Mrs. Gandhi's changes force Mr. Patel to leave India. Their departure is different in that they were not fleeing blindly, but rather consciously seeking something better.
1. What are Pi's initial objections to Christianity? (Chapters 17)
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Life of Pi can be read as a parable. A parable is a story told in such way that it parallels a particular lesson that the storyteller is trying to teach the audience. The most famous parables in Western culture are those told by Jesus in the New Testament Gospels of the Bible. In Life of Pi, Pi himself is the storyteller, and he relates two very different stories: a fantastic, yet hopeful and encouraging story about being stranded on a lifeboat with animals, and a more realistic, yet bleak story about being stranded on a lifeboat with human beings. The choice Pi offers between the two stories is a parable for the choice between having faith in God that cannot be proven, or atheism. The parallel is explicitly drawn when the Japanese businessmen, to whom Pi offers the choice, choose the story with animals as “the better story.” When they make their choice, Pi concludes, “And so it goes with God.”
Narrative Structure and Point of View
In Life of Pi, Martel utilizes three distinct narrative voices. The first is the voice of the author, which narrates both the opening Author’s Note as well as parts of Part One in the first person. The first-person point of view, in which the narrator speaks as “I” and is a participant in the story, relates the narrative exclusively from the subjective, biased, and therefore limited point of view of that character. The Author’s Note, which describes how the author came upon Pi’s fantastic story, has the effect of grounding the novel in reality: the author sees Pi’s story as biography, not fiction. The author also points out that although Pi’s story will be told “in [Pi’s] voice and through his eyes,” it is written by the hand of the author, and “any inaccuracies or mistakes” are his. This note introduces one of many levels of doubt experienced in the reading of this tale.
Parts One and Two are narrated in the first person by Pi himself. The first-person point of view is fitting for the account of a solitary character surviving in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but it also is limited to Pi’s particular and subjective perspective. The increasing incredulity of Pi’s story—from being trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, to meeting a blind man on the open sea, to finally landing on an island made entirely of carnivorous algae—gives the reader cause to doubt the veracity of Pi’s subjective...
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- The audiotape version of Life of Pi was issued in January 2003 by Highbridge Audio, with Jeff Woodman narrating.
- The movie adaptation of the book is forthcoming in 2006 from Fox 2000, with Alfonso Cuarón directing and Dean Georgais writing the screenplay.
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Boyagoda, Randy. “Faith, Fiction, Flotsam.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 131 (May, 2003): 69-72. Critical review of Life of Pi that appreciates the story’s power but argues that Martel’s scattered views on religion weaken the book.
Cloete, Elsie. “Tigers, Humans, and Animots.” Journal of Literary Studies 23, no. 3 (September, 2007): 314-333. Provides a complex analysis of the tiger’s role in the novel, drawing upon major theories in literary studies to examine the representation of relationships between humans and animals.
Duncan, Rebecca. “Life of Pi as Postmodern Survivor Narrative.” Mosaic 41, no. 2 (June, 2008): 167-183. Analyzes the novel’s self-reflective, postmodern characteristics, paying special attention to the text’s portrayal of Pi’s subjective experience of trauma.
Dwyer, June. “Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and the Evolution of the Shipwreck Narrative.” Modern Language Studies 35, no. 2 (Fall, 2005): 9-21. Focuses on animal-human relations in the novel, comparing this work to other important works about animal-human relations such as The Black Stallion (1941).
Innes, Charlotte. “Robinson Crusoe, Move Over.” The Nation 275, no. 6 (August, 2002): 25-29. Favorable review focusing on the novel’s religious themes of both...
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