This chapter begins with a dramatic line: “The ship sank.” After that event, Pi is in the lifeboat, screaming for Richard Parker to swim to the boat. Pi screams at heaven, throws first a life buoy, then an oar, to try to save Richard Parker, who finally makes it on board. In the chapter’s last paragraph there is another telling line, “Truly I was to be the next goat.”
This chapter marks the beginning of Pi’s tremendous ordeal but also demonstrates how his mind works. In the lifeboat in the heat of the moment, Pi calls to heaven for explanations, always seeking divine meaning even in the midst of loss. He also tries to save Richard Parker, calling for him as if he were a human; the chapter does not reveal that Richard Parker is an animal until the final paragraph, showing how Pi’s worldview treats animals as human.
Every single thing I value in life has been destroyed. And I am allowed no explanation? I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven? In that case, what is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker?
Pi shouts this and other questions at the world in the time just after the Tsimtsum sinks. It is the question at the heart of his account, the question of his suffering: why me?
These chapters describe the sinking of the Tsimtsum, moving back a bit in time to describe how the ship had functioned while it was successfully underway. The ship is very noisy all the time, but some unfamiliar noise wakes Pi the night that it sinks. Three of the sailors throw Pi to safety in the lifeboat, then throw a zebra after him.
What is essential about these chapters is that Pi is saved by forces beyond himself that he does not understand. He notes that he does not know why he woke up or why he investigated the strange noise, since that was more something Ravi would do. Pi’s new environment is also shaped by these forces, as the sailors create the strange and contained ecosystem he will live in from now on.
In chapters 40–42, three things happen. First, Pi faces his fear for the first time that Richard Parker is going to eat him. Second, the ecosystem aboard the lifeboat is completed: first by Pi discovering a male hyena there, and second by Orange Juice, the female orangutan, joining them on the lifeboat. Third, Pi begins to see that as unnatural as it is, the ecosystem has developed its own rules; Richard Parker does not kill the zebra because the hyena would be there, and this competing predator would have access to his prey.
Pi’s discovery of the hyena is another of those seemingly strange or negative things that he sees as shaping his fate for the better. Pi decides that the sailors had thrown him onto the lifeboat not to save him but as fodder for the hyena, so it would not attack them. Therefore, their self-centered behavior actually saved him. The hyena’s presence in turn keeps Richard Parker from killing the zebra or Pi, which is a prime example of natural/biological laws working toward what Pi sees as divine purpose: his salvation.
Oh blessed Great Mother, Pondicherry fertility goddess, provider of milk and love, wondrous arm spread of comfort, terror of ticks, picker-up of crying ones, are you to witness this tragedy too? (Chapter 42)
Pi cries this when he sees Orange Juice the orangutan floating toward him on a “raft” of...
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bananas. This line shows Pi’s ability to connect the sublime with the ridiculous and his tendency to find meaning in everything.
The last trace of the ship vanishes. The hyena seemingly goes crazy, racing in circles around and around the lifeboat. Pi recalls his father’s teaching about how hyenas will eat and drink anything.
Pi had seen zoos from the outside when growing up and had spoken of them with confidence, indicating that animals were happy there so long as sufficient distance was provided. Here Pi experiences life in a zoo himself—and what happens when that distance is compromised. He is in a very small hell.
When an animal decides to do something, it can do it for a very long time.
Pi’s observation here relates most directly to the hyena, which has just started running around the lifeboat. However, it applies to him as well: his decision to stay alive and to keep Richard Parker alive.
Pi passes his first night in the lifeboat. When it is completely dark, he hears the terrible sounds from the other end of the boat of a fight between the hyena and the zebra. The next morning, after imagining being saved and his brother teasing him for playing Noah, Pi sees that the hyena attacked the zebra and bit its broken leg completely off. After seeing this, Pi sees that Orange Juice is seasick and sees his first sea turtle.
These two chapters highlight the distance between Pi and the religious stories he tries to use to guide him. He is not Noah, and rather than making it through forty days with peace among the animals, they attack one another right away. It also shows the range of human-animal behavior. At this time Pi cannot imagine taking the leg of another being off, especially when it was still alive; that is pure animal. However, he sees Orange Juice’s seasickness as human and tries to send a turtle for help.
During the second evening in the lifeboat, when Pi has seen many sharks around the boat, the hyena goes crazy and attacks the zebra despite Richard Parker’s presence. It bites and gnaws it so savagely that it digs into the animal. While Pi watches in silent horror, Orange Juice gives a roar of disapproval.
The hyena’s break in behavior—attacking despite the tiger’s presence, attacking more savagely than he needed to—foreshadows Pi’s own descent into savagery. Orange Juice’s actions, by contrast, illustrate the way that the universe provides kindness and protection when Pi least expects it and the way animals take on the role of family, in this case a mother.
To lose a brother is to lose someone with whom you can share the experience of growing old, who is supposed to bring you a sister-in-law and nieces and nephews, creatures to people the tree of your life and give it new branches. To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches. To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you.
At this point Pi admits to himself that his family is dead and poetically reflects on the pain of his loss. To think this while stuck in a lifeboat with a hyena chewing on a live zebra makes his condition that much uglier.