Life of Pi Themes

The main themes in Life of Pi include the meaning of life, the importance of stories, and identity.

  • The meaning of life: Pi seeks the meaning of life by studying religion and science and through his encounters with the unknown on the lifeboat and in Canada.
  • The importance of stories: Pi tells himself his own story on the lifeboat in order to make sense of his experiences, and he tells two markedly different versions of his story to the Japanese officials.
  • Identity: Pi’s identity is shaped by the circumstances in which he finds himself on the lifeboat.

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The Meaning of Life

All throughout Life of Pi, characters are seeking the meaning of life. The primary seeker for this profound truth is, of course, Pi himself. As the first chapter notes, as an adult Pi studies both science (zoology specifically) and religion at colleges. These interests are both the natural extension of how Pi passed his time while he was a boy: he was the son of a zookeeper but also a devotee of several religions, seeking direct knowledge of God from an early age. Both practices seek to understand the mysteries of human existence.

However, these early interests had to have been heightened by Pi’s traumatic time on the lifeboat. When his father decided to move his family from India to Canada, this choice would have stripped many of the customary answers away from Pi. He was to be exposed to new things and would have to make sense of even more of the world in unfamiliar and unexpected ways. When the Tsimtsum sank, not only was Pi shoved face to face with the unknown, but he also lost his family, the core of his human context. Instead, he had to try to survive. For his months at sea, simple survival was the essence of Pi’s existence.

Once Pi had passed through his ordeal, he had to adapt again, this time back to being part of a human society rather than part of the strange man-beast society that he had known on the lifeboat. When Pi returned to human society, he had to live with some of the choices he made. He had been a vegetarian; he became a carnivore. He had eaten animal feces. He had eaten human flesh. What does Pi’s life mean when he transgresses so many of his early values? That is the question Pi tries to answer on a regular basis.

The Importance of Stories

In Life of Pi, the question "Who am I?" is answered by a story: the story of a name. Pi’s identity changes many times, beginning with the story of his name. (As Pi himself says at the start of chapter 5, “My name isn’t the end of the story about my name.”) When he shortens his name from “Piscine,” with the many jokes made about “Pissing,” to “Pi,” he was freed to be himself—and mysterious. When Pi encountered the Christian God, he was troubled not just by the content of the story the Christians told but also by the fact that there was only one core story, told again and again.

When Pi was lost at sea, he told and retold the story of what was happening to him, trying to make sense of it. These stories took quite different forms.

Finally, the story of what happened after the boat sank determines the meaning of Pi’s entire life. The two Japanese officials inquiring in the fate of the Tsimtsum quizzed him about his actual story. They did not believe it, challenging it at many points, especially about the idea of a cannibalistic island. Because they challenged Pi’s story, readers do too. We are left with not one but two possible stories of what happened.


Early in Life of Pi , Pi explicitly discusses the idea that one’s identity is shaped by the niche in which one finds oneself, but he discusses it objectively as he talks about how the different zoo animals adapt to confinement and how they learn to live with other species. For example, in chapter 4, Pi talks about how animals are territorial and how a cage in a zoo might...

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serve as territory as well as a patch of ground in the wild, and in chapter 14 he discusses the fact that how an animal like a lion acts toward his trainer is determined both by the lion’s place in the hierarchy of the pride and by how the trainer claims a space as his own.

Later, on the lifeboat, Pi learns this truth intensely and personally as he forms his own new society with a hyena, a tiger, and an orangutan. His identity is completely shaped by where he is. A strict vegetarian in the human world, Pi becomes a complete carnivore in the lifeboat. He also forms emotional attachments based upon his new animal society; Richard Parker the tiger is more important to him than most humans ever had been before the ship sank.

Universal Truths

Early in Life of Pi, Pi shares a number of observations about how animals adapt to new circumstances, and in chapter 32 he notes that “there are many examples of animals coming to surprising living situations,” such as the mouse in his family’s zoo that was adopted for a time by a family of vipers. At that time, Pi thinks he is only talking about animals, but as the novel goes on, he finds that this is true for humans too: Pi finds a new family of animals in the lifeboat, then makes a new family of humans in Canada.

Other parallels are between realms of nature and even between metaphysical levels of reality. It is not just Pi the vegetarian that learns to eat meat (and humans); it is in chapter 92 a tree! What is true for the animal world applies to the human world, and vice versa, as Pi observes “cities” on the underside of his lifeboat. Finally, what is true in the human realm is also true in the realm of divinity, which humans access through myths.

The Significance of Details

That the essence of life is in the details is the simplest of the novel’s themes; it appears in the line-by-line writing throughout the novel. Whether he is leaving the zoo to walk to school or noticing how many colors a fish passes through as he kills it, Pi is forever alive to the details of the world. He recites them with a pure joy, and in the lifeboat and on the island, his mastery of details is what keeps him alive.


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