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Establishing Faith Despite Opposing Realities: The Truth of Fiction in Life of Pi

At a superficial level, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is a simple tale of endurance after a shipwreck. However, there is much more to the novel than that. Ultimately, Martel has created an allegory for something deeper, which sets it apart from more straightforward, journalistic-style survival tales. The added twist of having a 450-pound Bengali tiger in the lifeboat adds an unreal Calvin and Hobbes element; on a literal level, a teenage boy relates to a tiger during a months-long adventure at sea, and from this he somehow learns the necessities of survival.

But to summarize Life of Pi as a boy and a tiger’s tale of survival is to overlook one of its main themes—the role of religious tales in helping mankind find faith. Pi ultimately relies on his own amalgamation of religions for the faith he needs to cope with the harsh reality of survival in a lifeboat and, afterwards, with his everyday existence as an orphan in a foreign land. Without that faith, he is doomed. At its heart, Life of Pi is a deeply religious book that sets out to show that faith depends on stories for its existence. Without stories, mankind would not have the faith necessary for survival.

Since there are animals involved, one may be apt to view Life of Pi as a fable, which is often an indicator of a religious or moral theme. But the tale is a bit too long and pays too much attention to realistic detail to be a fable. Furthermore, while Pi is able to communicate with Richard Parker, the tiger does not speak a human language; speaking animals are often a criterion for fables.

If Life of Pi is not a fable in the classic sense of the word, and is too long to be a parable—the most likely genre classifications that allow for a tale to be included in a religious canon—is it fair to relegate the work as common “fiction”? The problem is that this would imply that the book is mere fancy, a concoction of a fertile imagination and nothing more. Can a work openly address religion and God and also be considered a work of "fiction"? Is it possible to classify Life of Pi then as “religious fiction”? Labeling a religious work “fiction” opens a can of worms, setting the obdurate theist against the equally stubborn atheist, both slugging it out without realizing that the two are not necessarily incompatible. From the believer's point of view, labeling a religious work as "fiction" diminishes the "truth" of the theology it address. How can a work be regarded as "fiction" and still be seriously considered as a religious text?

Regardless of this apparent contradiction, Life of Pi is an enthusiastically religious tale as well as a work of fiction. What’s more, the work stands as a statement on the importance of fiction in religious belief; in order to have faith in a religion, mankind must suspend disbelief and have faith in many stories that to all logical reason should be viewed as fictional.

Many readers intent on enjoying Life of Pi as an adventure tale might casually overlook Pi’s curiosity about, and reverence for, the three major world religions, as if Pi’s all-embracing acceptance of different faiths is not a central theme of the work. How can an author make constant observations on life and death without revealing the religious beliefs of the person who narrates? Pi’s Hindu background, his forays into Christianity and Islam and the faith these elicit are ultimately as responsible for his survival as is his knowledge of zoology and animal behavior. In fact, if one ultimately chooses to believe Pi's alternate story of survival—the one without Richard Parker—that he “concocts” to mollify the officials investigating the sinking, then one must allow that it was Pi’s faith in religious tales that helped him to keep his sanity and cope with what actually occurred on the lifeboat. Yann Martel deliberately left the ending obscure, with no one tale predominating as the absolute “truth.” Ultimately, each reader must decide what the truth is for him or her, much in the...

(The entire section is 3,333 words.)