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Life of Pi Themes

by Yann Martel

Major Themes

Belief in God

Belief in God is clearly a major theme in Life of Pi, and has been the most controversial in reviews of the book. Throughout the novel, Pi makes his belief in and love of God clear—it is a love profound enough that he can transcend the classical divisions of religion, and worship as a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Pi, although amazed by the possibility of lacking this belief, still respects the atheist, because he sees him as a kind of believer. Pi’s vision of an atheist on his death bed makes it clear that he assumes the atheist’s form of belief is one in God, without his realizing it until the end. It is the agnostic that truly bothers Pi; the decision to doubt, to lack belief in anything, is to him inexcusable. This is underscored in that essential passage in the novel when Pi asks the Japanese officials which of his two stories they preferred—he sees no reason why they should not believe the better story.

Pi’s devotion to God is a prominent part of the novel; it becomes, however, much less prominent during his time aboard the lifeboat, when his physical needs come to dominate his spiritual ones. Pi never seems to doubt his belief in God while enduring his hardships, but he certainly focuses on it less. This in turn underscores the theme of the primacy of survival.

The Primacy of Survival

The primacy of survival is the definitive theme in the heart of the book, Pi’s time at sea. This theme is clear throughout his ordeal—he must eat meat, he must take life, two things which had always been anathema to him before his survival was at stake. Survival almost always trumps morality, even for a character like Pi, who is deeply principled and religious. When Pi tells the second version of his story to the Japanese men, this theme is highlighted even more vividly, because he parallels his survival instincts in the second story to Richard Parker in the first—it is he, when he must survive, who steals food, he who kills the Frenchman. If the first version of the story is seen as a fictionalized version of the second, the very fact that he divides himself from his brutal survival instinct shows the power of that instinct.


The act of storytelling and narration is a significant theme throughout Life of Pi, but particularly in the narrative frame. That Pi’s story is just that—a story—is emphasized throughout, with interjections from the author, Pi’s own references to it, and the complete retelling of the story for the Japanese officials. (This is not to mention chapter ninety-seven, which contains two words: “The story.”) By including a semi-fictional “Author’s Note,” Martel draws the reader’s attention to the fact that not only within the novel is Pi’s tale of survival at sea an unverified story, but the entire novel itself, and even the author’s note, usually trustworthy, is a work of fiction.

This is not to say that Martel intends the reader to read Life of Pi through a lens of disbelief or uncertainty; rather, he emphasizes the nature of the book as a story to show that one can choose to believe in it anyway, just as one can choose to believe in God—because it is preferable to not believing, it is “the better story.”

The Definition of Freedom

The true definition of freedom becomes a question early in Life of Pi, when Pi refutes the claims of people who think that zoos are cruel for restricting animals’ freedom. Pi offers evidence against this, questioning the very definition of freedom. An animal in the wild is “free” according to the opponents of zoos, and it is true that that animal is not restricted in its movement by a physical cage. It is, however, profoundly restricted by its survival needs and its instincts. If that animal is guided solely by its need for food, water, and shelter, is it really free? If it will never intentionally wander outside of the territory it has defined for itself, is it really free? In a zoo, where the animal’s needs are always provided, isn’t it more free?

The question of freedom arises again as Pi finds himself in a fight for survival at sea. He is without responsibility to anyone else, he is without any need to be anywhere in the world, he is perpetually in motion; yet he has probably never been less free, for he must always be putting his survival above all else. An example of this is that he can no longer choose to be a vegetarian—he must eat meat to stay alive. Throughout Life of Pi, the primacy of survival, of life, greatly restricts “freedom,” and thus redefines the very word.

The Relativity of Truth

The relativity of truth is not highlighted as a major theme in Life of Pi until the last part of the novel, when Pi retells the entire story to make it more plausible to the officials who are questioning him. He then asks the officials which story they liked better, since neither can be proven and neither affects the information they are searching for—how the ship sunk. This question implies that truth is not absolute; the officials can choose to believe whichever story they prefer, and that version becomes truth. Pi argues to the Japanese officials that there is invention in all “truths” and “facts,” because everyone is observing everything from their own perspective. There is no absolute truth.

Science and Religion

The theme of science and religion as not opposed but in concert with each other is present primarily in the framing of the narrative. It is exemplified in Pi’s dual major at the University of Toronto of Religion and Zoology, which he admits he sometimes gets mixed up, seeing the sloth that he studied as a reminder of God’s miracles. Similarly, Pi’s favorite teacher, Mr. Kumar, sees the zoo as the temple of his atheism. The theme of the connection between science and religion also is related to Pi’s respect for atheists, because he sees that they worship science as he worships God, which he believes is not so very different.

Loss of Innocence

The theme of loss of innocence in Life of Pi is closely related to the theme of the primacy of survival. Its significance is reflected in the geographic structure of the book—in Part 1, Pi is in Pondicherry, and there he is innocent. In Part 2, Pi is in the Pacific Ocean, and it is there that he loses his innocence. That Part 2 begins, not chronologically with the Tsimtsum sinking, but with Pi inviting Richard Parker onto the lifeboat, also reflects this, for it represents Pi reaching out for what Richard Parker symbolizes—his own survival instinct. And it is this survival instinct that is at the heart of Pi’s loss of innocence; it is this survival instinct that drives him to act in ways he never thought he could.

Throughout Part 2 there are other representative moments of a loss of innocence, besides the symbolic one of bringing Richard Parker onto the lifeboat. The most important of these is the death of the Frenchman, which Pi describes as killing a part of him which has never come back to life. That part can certainly be read as his innocence.

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