What do you think the author is trying to say about basic human needs in Life of Pi? Are there quotes to back up the answer?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The earlier answer posted to this question provides a very thoughtful reflection on author Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi. The conflict between science and religion occupies a central space in the story, with frequent reflections on both fields of study. Piscine "Pi" Patel pursued a double-major in college, studying both religion and zoology. While Pi's concept of the basic human needs in life ultimately incorporates both fields of study, it is within the realm of zoology that one can find an answer to the question at hand. Pi is a strong believer in the concept of zoos. Martel devotes considerable space in Chapter 4 of Life of Pi to defending the existence of zoos, which he notes are frequently subjected to criticism by those who believe capturing and imprisoning wild animals for the benefit of humans is innately inhumane. In his defense of zoos, Pi sets forth what could be considered his list of basic human needs. The "wild," he argues, represents freedom in a very limited sense, especially from a Darwinian perspective. Animals in the wild must constantly struggle to survive. They must search for food and defend themselves against predators. They are more likely to be sickened by parasites than are animals enclosed in cages and cared for by veterinarians. In the following passage from Life of Pi, Chapter 4, Pi summarizes his thoughts on the matter:

"Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal's needs, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?"

One can conclude from this discussion of the benefits of zoos to animals that Pi views the basic needs of humans, especially when including his reference to "the Ritz," as a safe, hygienically-maintained space; a secure supply of food; and medical care. This is, after all, consistent with what children are taught in schools regarding distinctions between "wants" and "needs." People need food, shelter, clothing, and access to medical care. The same is true of animals in the sense in which Pi explains his views on the matter. All of this, however, precedes the tragedy and ordeal that follows. Pi loses his family to a maritime disaster and survives alone on a lifeboat, possibly with animals, possibly without, possibly with a crewman from the boat, a French cook, and his mother, possibly without. The reader will never know. The reader, like the two Japanese officials who question Pi in the novel's final sections, must either apply strict logic or, as Pi's religious studies allow, believe in the far more fantastical version involving a tiger.

Because of his spiritual journey, the requirements of survival, and the harrowing mental ordeal of life on the boat without a safe place, a secure supply of food (other than the food stored in the lifeboat for emergencies), or access to medical care, Pi's approach to the basic needs of human life evolve. Left out of the discussion has been the need for human contact or, at a minimum, for contact with another living being. In the end, it is apparent that Pi's list of basic human needs includes companionship, a sentiment revealed in the following passage from Pi's meetings with the aforementioned officials, who understandably question Pi's story about the tiger:

"The arrogance of big-city folk! You grant your metropolises all the animals of Eden, but you deny my hamlet the merest Bengal tiger!"

"Mr. Patel, please calm down."

"If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe?"

In other words, to the basic list that begins with food, shelter, clothing, and access to medical care, one should add "love."

amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Life of Pi, our protagonist (Pi) is interested in science and multiple religions because he finds meaning in all these disciplines. When Pi is stranded on the lifeboat, he struggles with maintaining those intellectual pursuits and he struggles with maintaining his values in practice. For instance, he must eventually eat meat (including human flesh) although he had been a vegetarian. While on the lifeboat, basic human needs become is primary pursuit and at desperate times they become his sole interest. Because survival (securing these basic needs) occupies his thoughts and practices, they also become the way he finds meaning (just as he did with religion and science prior to the lifeboat). 

One of the things the author is trying to do is to show the link between nature and spirituality. He establishes this link with Pi's interest in religion and science. He completes this message by showing how Pi gives greater narrative and spiritual significance to events during his ordeal. This is how Pi deals with his ordeal: by giving it more meaning. Martel plants this question in the reader's mind: Does tragedy or acquiring a basic necessity of life have meaning beyond the event itself? Do humans impose meaning on the events of life or are those meanings potentially there, waiting for us to notice and/or help manifest them? This is a large philosophical question and Martel does well to pose the question without giving the reader a simple answer. 

Some examples of the ways Martel expresses how Pi attributes greater significance to tragedy and to daily tasks of acquiring basic human needs are as follows. In Chapter 47, Pi sees Orange Juice as a "simian Christ on the Cross," thus giving her suffering meaning and supposing that she dies for him. In Chapter 60, Pi notes:

For the first time I noticed-as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next-that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting.

In Chapter 99, Pi asks Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto which story they like better. It is here that Pi shows a surprising similarity to a scientific description and a description of the same events in the form of a narrative or parable. 

So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?

To which, they reply that they prefer the story with the animals. The author tries to show how we attribute or discover meaning in all life's events: from solemn religious beliefs to scientific data to tragedy to essential human needs.