Consider Richard Parker as Pi's alter ego. What is the significance of their relationship and of Pi's contrasting feelings towards Richard Parker?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In chapter 53, Pi gives a physical description of Richard Parker as he emerges from underneath the tarpaulin. He is enormous, strong, and beautiful at the same time. He also creates fear in Pi as the two face each other from across the life boat. Now, if this is the moment that Pi's alter-ego emerges, then it scares him that he can represent such power and dominance on the lifeboat. After eating a rat, Richard Parker eats the hyena, who represents the cook. This is the alternate story to Pi avenging his mother's death after the cook killed her. For a sixteen-year-old boy to witness his mother's murder and then kill her murderer is an extremely traumatic experience. In order to cope with the horror, it is easier for Pi's psyche to project his ability to kill onto the persona of a tiger. Since Pi understands animals such as tigers, he can wrap his mind around animalistic behaviors more easily than he can admit to himself that he, as a human, killed another human.

Pi is therefore scared of himself and his ability to stoop to such a base level of living. On the other hand, he understands what his father once taught him about life: "Life will defend itself no matter how small it is. Every animal is ferocious and dangerous" (38). Pi is thrown into an environment of "kill or be killed," much like a tiger is. In an effort to defend his own life, and to survive on the open sea, Pi becomes Richard Parker in his mind to justify his actions.

At home, in a safe environment, Pi never needed a Richard Parker persona. On the sea, with a psychotic cook who attacks and eats people like a hyena, Pi is forced to become a tiger. He is afraid of this new side of himself, but he understands that he needs it to survive. This creates the contrasting feelings that he has towards the tiger within. He loves the tiger because it is a part of him and it helps him to survive, but he also fears it because it is base and too natural for a civilized world.

Pi comes up with a great idea to manage these two "personalities." He decides that he must tame the tiger in chapter 57. Developing a strategy to tame Richard Parker is symbolic of Pi's psyche managing the difference between survival behaviors and those found in civilization. He keeps a mental balance between maintaining his humanity and knowing when Richard Parker and fear are needed to defend and sustain his life. One way he remembers his humanity is through practicing his religious beliefs on the boat in contrast to dealing with Richard Parker. Pi says the following to help him with this balance:

"I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so longs as God is with me, I will not die. Amen" (148).

Pi uses God to calm him down, but ironically, the tiger that he fears also calms him down.

"It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness" (162).

Pi even comes to love the tiger while fearing him at the same time:

"'I love you!' The words burst out pure and unfettered, infinite. The feeling flooded my chest. 'Truly I do. I love you, Richard Parker. If I didn't have you now, I don't know what I would do. I don't think I would make it. No, I wouldn't. I would die of hopelessness'" (236).

Clearly, over the course of the seven months at sea, Pi has developed a complex relationship with a tiger. A tiger is to be feared, as his father once taught him, but he winds up loving it, depending on it, and bonding with it. It's as if Pi fully accepts the tiger within himself because he not only needs it to survive, but it also fulfills his need for companionship, the big hole he has had in his heart since he lost his whole family.

In chapter 94, Pi reaches Mexico and is rescued. He is surprised that Richard Parker leaps out of the boat and finds his way into the wilderness without looking back. This symbolizes the fact that Pi doesn't need the characteristics and behaviors of a tiger in a civilized world. He is afraid that without the tiger, a part of himself is lost and will never emerge again. This is good because it means that Pi won't have to kill to survive again. He won't have to live like an animal anymore, but he got used to it, just like people adapt to a lot of situations in order to survive. He is sad to lose the strength that Richard Parker brings to his life, but that part of him was only needed in a crisis situation.