At a Glance

Life of Pi key themes:

  • In Life of Pi, Pi continually seeks truth as he studies religion and science and redefines his identity following his traumatic experience in the lifeboat.

  • Stories are used to make sense of life in both the religious stories that Pi studies and the two versions of what happened following the sinking of the ship.

  • Much like the animals that assert themselves relative to their environment, Pi learns to adapt to new circumstances and learn new ways of being.

  • Pi sees connections between the animal world, the human world, and religious myth.

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Themes

The quest for 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 centrality of stories in making sense of life
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.

One's identity is shaped by the niche in which one finds oneself
Early in Life of Pi , Pi discusses this truth explicitly, but 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 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...

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