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There are two main settings that drive the plot forward in Martel's Life of Pi. First, there is the Pondicherry Zoo, where Pi learns about the behaviors and natural instincts of wild animals in captivity. The second major setting is life at sea on a lifeboat. Because of Pi's education, knowledge, and experience with wild animals during his childhood at the Pondicherry Zoo, he is more prepared than almost any other teenager would be when he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with wild zoo animals. Therefore, the role of the first setting is to be the foundation for educating Pi with what he needs to know about animals to survive with them at sea. Without his experiences in the first setting, he may not have survived the second.
Chapter 8 discusses the life of zoos and zookeepers. It details the interactions between people and zoo animals. Only a zookeeper's son would know the consequences of the public's mindlessness when interacting with zoo animals. For example, the zoo has a sign that asks visitors what the most dangerous zoo animal is. Visitors are directed to a curtain with a mirror underneath because humans can be the most hazardous to zoo animals due to their disrespectful and uneducated natures. The following is one of the most useful lessons Pi learned at the Pondicherry Zoo:
Life will defend itself no matter how small it is . . . Getting animals used to the presence of humans is at the heart of the art and science of zookeeping. The key aim is to diminish an animal's flight distance, which is the minimum distance at which an animal wants to keep a perceived enemy (38-39).
This information that Pi learns at the Pondicherry Zoo is vital to his survival on the lifeboat at sea with a tiger.
While at sea, Pi is confined to a tiny space on the lifeboat since he must first share it with a tiger, hyena, orangutan, and zebra. After the zebra and orangutan are killed by the hyena, Pi describes the small area he is confined to as follows:
Instead, we were three and it was awfully crowded. The boat was symmetrically shaped, with rounded ends that were hard to tell apart. The stern was hinted at by a small fixed rudder, no more than a rearward extension of the keel, while the bow, except for my addition, featured a stem with the saddest, bluntest prow in boat-building history. The aluminum hull was studded with rivets and painted white (137).
The "three" Pi refers to are the tiger, the hyena, and himself. Once the tiger finishes off the hyena, there are only two left on the boat. Because of Pi's knowledge of tigers and his desire to survive, he creates a boundary between him and Richard Parker by urinating on the tarpaulin and the locker lid in chapter 59. As a result, Pi claims his own territory to keep the tiger at bay and secure the survival items he needs.
Again, the education Pi receives at the Pondicherry Zoo arms him with information for innovation while having to survive on a lifeboat with the fiercest of wild animals. The role of the first setting supplies Pi with skills to survive the second. Consequently, the second setting at sea becomes the backbone for Pi's inspirational story of survival. Without either of these two settings, there wouldn't be much of a story.
The setting of the story, mainly Pi in the life boat with the tiger, is what creates most of the conflict and really drives the story. If it were somewhere else, like a cozy apartment in London, things would have been decidedly different and I can only imagine that Pi would have left the apartment in the hands of the tiger and gone for help.
The earlier portion of the story is important as well, because it shows the way that Pi begins to build this understanding of science and animals and their nature. It also serves to develop and show the character his attitude towards animals and how he personifies them constantly due to that experience as a child.
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