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Life of Pi Suggested Essays

by Yann Martel

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. Pi argues that Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba should take the “better story” as the true story. Argue that either the first or second story is the “true story.”

    Suggested Answer: Either side can be argued. To argue that the first story is the true story: all characters in the text, even those originally skeptical, and including the author, eventually choose to believe the first story. Pi was greatly experienced with zoo animals, and manages to plausibly explain how he survived with Richard Parker for so long. Similarly, he seems truly depressed about Richard Parker’s desertion, such that it is clear that he, at least, believes his second story. To argue that the second story is the true story: Pi’s main argument to convince the skeptical Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba that the first is true is that it is better, which is irrelevant in an argument about absolute truth.

  2. Yann Martel has said that the hyena is meant to represent cowardice. Explain how this is true.

    Suggested Answer: The hyena displays many negative qualities, such as greed, stupidity and viciousness, but these qualities can be seen to come from its cowardice. At the beginning of their time in the boat, the hyena whines almost constantly, and is so afraid that it runs in circles until it makes itself sick. Unlike Pi, who even in his desperate fear finds ways to survive, the hyena just kills and eats as much as it can in a panicked state until Richard Parker kills it.

  3. In what ways does Pi parallel religious belief in God to the zoo?

    Suggested Answer: The main parallel that Pi draws between these two things is the true freedom that both provide, even in seeming to restrict it. He says that detractors argue that zoos restrict animals’ freedom and so make them unhappy, and the rituals and rules of religion can similarly be said to restrict human freedom. Pi argues, however, that zoos, by providing an animal with its survival needs, in fact give that animal as much freedom, for it is content, safe, and wouldn’t want to leave. Similarly, the rules and ritual of religion in fact give people what Pi sees as their spiritual essentials, and thus a more significant kind of freedom.

  4. Yann Martel has called chapters 21 and 22 essential to the book. Why would this be so?

    Suggested Anwer: These chapters deal explicitly with the promise of Pi’s story’s power given by Mr. Adirubasamy—that it will make the author, and by extension, the reader, believe in God. In chapter 21, that the author has begun to believe is very clear, and chapter 22 underscores Pi’s belief in every atheist’s potential to become a believer. The chapters together also underscore the act of storytelling, which Pi himself relates to a belief in God, by showing the author writing down the words which he then presents to us as Pi’s own—and which are echoed at the end of the story, when Pi convinces Mr. Okamoto to believe in his story, and thus God.

  5. Both worship of God and survival are hugely important to Pi—which does he give primacy to?

    Suggested Answer: Although Pi claims to have never lost faith in God, this faith clearly becomes less important to him while he is in his desperate fight to survive. Most obviously, he talks about God and his belief much less than in the chapters that deal with his life before and after his ordeal. He becomes to weak to perform his religious rituals with any regularity, but even more, he allows his need to survive to overpower his moral system. That is, he eats meat, kills living animals, and even goes so far as to eat human flesh.

  6. What are the significance of the stories behind how Pi and Richard Parker got their names?

    Suggested Answer: Both Pi and Richard Parker’s naming stories are related to water—Pi is named for a swimming pool, and Richard Parker’s name was supposed to be Thirsty, because he drank so emphatically. Pi’s water-related name is significant because he is the only member of his family who Mr. Adirubasamy can teach to swim, and although it does not explicitly save him, this ability gives Pi options while he is at sea. That Richard Parker ends up named after a man, rather than Thirsty as he is meant to be, is also significant because although Pi knows the danger of it, he eventually anthropomorphizes Richard Parker and so feels betrayed by him.

  7. Belief is a major theme in this novel. How are belief in God and belief in a story paralleled in Life of Pi?

    Suggested Answer: Pi parallels the belief in God with the belief in a story by saying that everything in life is a story, because it is seen through a certain perspective, and thus altered by that perspective. If this is the case, he claims that something that doesn’t change factual existence and cannot be determined finally either way can be chosen. Given this, one can, and should, choose the better story, which Pi believes is the story—the life—that includes a belief in God.

  8. Why is it significant that Pi is blind when he meets the Frenchman?

    Suggested Answer: Pi’s blindness is symbolic in many ways in the episode with the Frenchman. At the end of Life of Pi, Pi tells the Japanese officials that they would believe in the man-eating island if they had seen it, and thus ties belief to sight. Without sight, belief is much more difficult—so much so that Pi assumes he is hallucinating for much of his conversation with the Frenchman. But in the end he is able to believe without sight, an imperative for belief in God. His blindness is also significant because it parallels the literal darkness to the figurative darkness of the scene, which is perhaps the most disturbing of all of Pi’s ordeal.

  9. Why does Pi give Richard Parker credit for his survival?

    Suggested Answer: Richard Parker provides Pi with two things that are essential to his survival—companionship, and a surmountable obstacle. Although Richard Parker’s presence at first seems like a death sentence, the challenges presented by it are in fact surmountable, as opposed to the loss of his family and the despair that it causes, which Pi can do nothing to alleviate. And although Richard Parker is dangerous, once Pi has tamed him, he does, in the wide open sea, provide a certain kind of companionship, which is deeply important to the utterly alone Pi.

  10. If each character in Pi’s two stories are paralleled, Orange Juice to Pi’s mother, the hyena to the cook, the sailor to the zebra, and Pi to Richard Parker, what does the Pi in the first story represent?

    Suggested Answer: While Richard Parker in the first story is paralleled to Pi, it can be said that he is paralleled to Pi’s survival instinct, while the Pi in the first story represents Pi’s spirituality and morality. In this way, Pi’s spirituality is able, with much hard work, to exert some control over his survival instinct—at least enough to remain in existence, even when not in control—while the survival instinct remains powerful and dangerous. Pi says that he would not have survived without Richard Parker, and this too is true in the parallel, for Pi’s spirituality and morality needed Pi’s survival instinct to keep his body alive, so that his spirituality could exist as well.

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