What is the author trying to say about basic human needs in Life of Pi, and what (four) quotes would support these needs?

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yann Martel's title character in the novel The Life of Pi follows Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but not in the order of the pyramid as presented by Maslow. An argument could be made that Yann Martel agrees with Maslow's assessment of needs, but not the order in which he presented them. 

Abraham Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. He theorized, and his theory has been widely accepted in the field of psychology. His theory states that humans have the following basic needs: physiological, safety needs, social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Physiological needs are the basic needs that must be met in order for a person to survive. Safety needs include personal security, as well as other needs like health, well-being, and financial needs. Social belonging needs include family, relationships, friendships, and intimacy. Esteem is the need to feel respected. Self-actualization is the need to fulfill all the potential inherent in a human being—in other words, to excel at something. 

Pi begins with self-actualization in his quest for knowledge about religions. In Maslow's theory, this is the last need to be fulfilled and can only be realized when all other needs are met. Pi begins and ends his journey with self-actualization. He feels a need to communicate with and to know God; for this reason, he seeks out the three religions of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He explains his desire to learn of all three religions this way: 

"I have been a Hindu all my life. With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe. But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists!"

In the end, Pi's spiritual beliefs have been transformed by what he thought he knew about the natural world and by what he experienced at sea; much of this stood in contradiction to natural law, such as peacefully coexisting with a hungry predator. 

After the shipwreck, Pi is initially concerned with his safety needs. He is very concerned with having landed in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and a hyena on board. He is uncertain about the prospect of rescue, doubts his capability to survive in the open ocean, and also has two very powerful carnivores to contend with. The following quote shows his reservations about the tiger named Richard Parker.

"Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind, and nose-dead. But at the moment, he could not see me, and in my wet condition, he probably could not smell me, and what with the whistling of the wind and the hissing of the sea as the waves broke, if I were careful, he would not hear me. I had a chance so long as he did not sense me. If he did, he would kill me right away."

Once Pi realizes that the tiger is seasick (as a result it does not pose an immediate threat to him) and that the hyena is gone, he is able to focus on his physiological needs. First, he needs to survive the wreck. Then, he needs to meet his basic requirements of food and water. 

"I have never known a worse physical hell than this putrid taste and pasty feeling in the mouth, this unbearable pressure at the back of the throat, this sensation that my blood was turning into a thick syrup that barely flowed. Truly, by comparison, a tiger was nothing." 

In Richard Parker, Pi's need for social belonging and esteem are met. The tiger was named after a person because of a clerical error when he was shipped to Pi's father's zoo. Because of the tiger's human name—and because of Pi's needs for social interaction—he speaks to the tiger as though he was human. 

"'I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger."

Later, Pi realizes the only way he will survive with the tiger is by positioning himself as its master. He trains the tiger to be submissive by using a whistle and food. 

"Either I tamed him, made him see who was Number One and who was Number Two, or I died the day I wanted to climb aboard the life boat in rough weather and he objected. "

For this reason, he asserted his authority over Richard Parker; in doing so, he fulfilled his need for esteem. 

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the novel, Life of Pi, Pi is an enterprising, open-minded individual who learns to adapt to his environment in order to survive. Pi's experiences teach him the meaning of life such as he understands it, as a young man of both spiritual and scientific knowledge. Rather than allowing his knowledge to cause inner conflict, Pi is able to rationalize his decisions and act in the interests of the most suitable outcome. 

Pi's interpretation of his experience on the boat is too unbelievable for the authorities who question his version of truth. This lends itself to the understanding that people have expectations of humanity and, once questioned, they cannot accept anything out of the ordinary. Pi does point out to them that "it makes no factual difference to you" and, the point here is that, in assessing and managing his own basic human needs, Pi did what he needed to do so why do the authorities have a problem? Supporting the premise of basic human needs which, for the authorities includes their need to hear a story that fits with their concept of humanity, Pi gives them a choice - "which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?"

The author is pointing to man's need to survive, despite enormous odds and despite conflict with lessons learnt, such as not being cannibalistic. Basic human needs, in some instances, outweigh any moral or civilized versions of the truth. To be confined by what you understand can be debilitating and restrictive and whilst “A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely,” to live by that mantra prevents an individual from seeing life as a whole and, would certainly hamper survival in the most basic of circumstances.  

Those things that are important to the "civilized" person become immaterial when survival is paramount, revealing different human needs, depending on the person and the circumstances.What is "basic" to one, is the very thing that will break another: 

“I did not count the days or the weeks or the months. Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time.”

It is Pi's very ability to adapt that makes his chances of survival so much more possible but, at the same time, so much more unbelievable, verging on impossible. “How true is that necessity is the mother of invention, how very true.” 

A quote that puts everything in a nutshell is:   

“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is ken to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” 

In other words, basic human needs are relative to the circumstances. Most believe them to be the same for all mankind but those people have never really been out of their own "compressed territory."