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 manner that Pi does.

Pi has a talent that many adults lack: he is able to comprehend the world without prejudice. This child-like, credulous quality is what allows him to delve into different religions, accepting them for what they are, while his teachers quibble over the superiority of one particular faith over another. There is a pungent sense of irony when Pi deadpans, in all innocence: “Mr. and Mr. Kumar were the prophets of my Indian youth.” Although the two are indistinguishable in name, they (as well as Father Martin and Pi’s belief in Lord Krishna) represent opposing worldviews.

A non-judgmental protagonist, Pi is able to comprehend that there is one truth behind the creeds of both Mr. Kumar and Mr. Kumar. Unlike most adults, this...

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A Christian Parable

In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the novel’s protagonist, Piscine Molitor, relates an anecdote of how he came to be known by his nickname, Pi. When he first entered elementary school, a schoolmate immediately began calling him “Pissing,” a denigrating name that stuck with him throughout primary school, much to Pi’s great humiliation. When he reached secondary school, however, he resolved to overcome this problem: insisting on being called Pi, he drew the Greek symbol for pi on the blackboard of his classroom for his teachers and classmates to see, and from that point on he would be known to everyone as Pi.

This small anecdote of Pi’s triumph over a childhood suffering serves to foreshadow the bigger triumph to come: Pi’s surviving as a castaway, against all odds, in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days. This anecdote, along with his experiences at sea, brings to light the parallels of Pi’s life with the life of Jesus Christ, particularly with respect to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

When Pi first experiences the abuse of being referred to as “Pissing,” he alludes to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ to illustrate his own humiliation and his ultimate triumph: he refers to the classmate who gave him that name as his “Roman soldier,” and he says he wore his nickname “like a crown of thorns.” By successfully renaming himself and emerging anew with the nickname Pi—a name that would hold for the remainder of his life—Pi facilitated his own symbolic resurrection.

The name itself—Pi—comes from the Greek letter pi, a letter closely associated with the circle, a geometric symbol which is often used to represent the idea of eternity and therefore, of God. Likewise, in mathematics, pi is used to represent an irrational number—that is, a number that goes on for eternity. By taking a name that symbolizes eternity, Pi’s “resurrection” effectively comes to symbolize—like Christ's resurrection, in Christian doctrine—eternal life. Also, that Pi chooses such a significant symbol for his name is strongly reminiscent of the appellation “the Alpha and the Omega” attributed to Christ (Rev. 1:8). So by the time the tanker carrying Pi and his family sinks, and Pi is left alone with Richard Parker in Part II of the novel, the parallels between Pi and Christ have been established, and the progression of Pi’s trial at sea can be more readily viewed as a retelling of Christ’s own suffering, death, and resurrection.

In addition to the anecdote of the origin of Pi’s nickname, Martel establishes other parallels between Pi’s character and the figure of Christ. In Part I of his narrative, Pi establishes that he is a deeply spiritual person with an insatiable hunger for knowing God—so much so that he combines the practices of three different religions into his own daily practice. Already equipped with an extraordinary spirituality and strong faith in God, it takes an extraordinary event for Pi’s faith to be tested. During his 227 days as a castaway, he suffered immensely, both physically and spiritually. Even through his suffering, however, he strived to maintain his faith in God through the daily practice of religious rituals, but he admits that his faith was continually tested. He says, “I...

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