What idea(s) does Martel develop in Life of Pi regarding the transition from youth and childhood?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Martel uses the idea that who we are as children play a significant role in who we are as adults.  The transition from youth and childhood is one in which human beings always live with one foot in the past and another foot in the present and future.  Pi's narrative details how the past is never really dead.  As Faulkner might conclude, "It's not even past."

One example in which Martel develops the idea of how the transition from youth and childhood never strays far from one's past surrounds Pi's spirituality. The novel opens in the first chapter with Pi's reflection as an adult about the importance of spirituality in consciousness:

Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn't know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool's gold for the bright—reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.

This is an idea that Pi carries as part of his transition from childhood.  Pi's experience as a young person reflects this:  "I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both." Pi's transition from youth and childhood was one in which the fervent understanding of religion underscored his identity.  Pi constructs reality as an adult from the world of his childhood regarding spiritual notions of the good.  This shows how Martel wants to develop the idea that the transition of our identities is firmly defined by who we are as children.  Pi shows to love religion as a child.  As a result, he is an adult who understands the power and potency of religious identity.

Pi's understanding to resist conformist notions of the good is another element that is a part of his childhood.  Pi understands from an early age that the world seeks to reduce complexity into something homogenous and easily categorical. Pi's name is a complex one.  Yet, early on he sees that it becomes reduced to the guttural "Pissing."  Pi learns that the world does not actively seek to embrace complexity and intricacy.  In taking his nickname, he recognizes that the complex is essential because the world does not immediately validate it:  "And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge."  Pi's refuge into complexity enables him to not take the form of the world around him. This is a lesson from his childhood which formulates his transition into adulthood. It is for this reason that religions such as Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam are seen as separate religions.  Their reduction is another part of the conformist world against which Pi learns to challenge. 

Pi's transition from youth and childhood play a formative role in his adult experiences.  The narrative he writes as an adult never loses sight of the ideas he gained from his past, notions that defined who he is as an adult and what he shall do.

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