Life of Pi by Yann Martel

December 29, 2010
By molly welch SILVER, Houston, Texas
molly welch SILVER, Houston, Texas
9 articles 0 photos 2 comments

In the novel, Life of Pi, Yann Martel uses various symbols that reveal the life of Piscine Patel and furthermore the ways in which humans and animals are alike and different. Pi, the main character, grows up in an Indian town called Pondicherry. Even as a young boy he has an immense amount of knowledge about animals and their behavior. When Pi and his family decide to move to Canada, his life changes forever. As the ship sinks, he finds himself on a lifeboat with a Belgian tiger, a hyena, and an orangutan and so the journey begins. Later the reader finds that the story of animals is in fact his way of coping with this horrific time in his life. He uses animals, area that he has loved and taken interest in all his life, to represent the characters of the people in the lifeboat with him. As Pi tells the first story, the one “with the animals,” he enlightens the reader on animals’ behaviors that in some ways are extremely savage (398). However, in the second story “with out the animals”, he replaces each animal with a person, yet keeps all the actions and behaviors and revealing how animals- like humans can be (398). This is one of the many unique figurative twists in the novel. The complex symbolism throughout the book compares and contrasts the instinctive nature of animals with human impulses exposing how humans are similar to animals. Yann Martel uses symbolism to demonstrate that humans can be caring and afraid but also can be savage and inhumane.
Martel uses symbolism to show that humans can be savage and inhumane. On Pi’s second treacherous night, while he is mourning for the loss of his family, he becomes overwhelmed by the savage ways of the hyena. It has been continuously circling the zebra and after attacking, it begins to eat the zebra from the inside out. Pi was awestruck and disgusted; he “couldn’t believe it. It had a two foot wide hole in its body…” and was still struggling while “it’s strictly essential parts.. Continued to pump with life, if weakly”(161). The hyena inflicts a fate worse than death on an innocent harmless zebra, whose leg was already injured, and could hardly protect itself. The hyena symbolizes the cook, a savage brute that tricks everyone on the lifeboat into cutting off a frightened sailor’s leg. The zebra represents the sailor and his innocents and vulnerability as the cook takes advantage of his situation. The reader also finds that the cook only wants to amputate the leg so that he has fishing bait and that he later resorts to cannibalism of the sailor’s leg. The cook symbolizes the savage side that is unfortunately in every human. Savagery is also shown when the hyena kills the orangutan, Orange Juice. It was not hours after the zebra had died that the hyena assaults its next victim. Tension has been growing between Orange Juice and the hyena when the hyena attacks. It was a fierce masquerade as he ”violently shook her. She fell off the bench to the bottom of the lifeboat, the hyena with her.. [Pi] herd noises but no longer saw anything” (165). The hyena mutilates Orange Juice with unreasonable, foolish motive even though he has enough of the zebra’s body left to last him many days. This action shows that the hyena does not kill out of necessity. He kills just to kill. Comparing this to when Pi kills the cook highlights the fact that the hyena has no reason to kill a second living creature. When Pi kills, it is not only necessary but also it is expected, and justified. One feature that is significant about the hyena is how messy and disgusting he is when he kills. The zebra lives through a majority of the time that the hyena is eating within it. Secondly, the orangutan was an unnecessary kill that was unreasonable and atrocious. With the hyena, it is never a quick easy kill, causing little pain to the victim, but a killing that embellishes death and brutality. The killing style of the hyena compares to the tiger, Richard Parker. Richard Parker is stealthy and even as a killer, beautiful. When the hyena’s savage character is compared to the tiger it is clear to the reader how cruel the hyena actually is. In comparison, the tiger's kill was silent and he did not cause any suffering. He merely killed out of necessity and protection unlike the hyena that killed the orangutan, simply for the sake of killing.
Life of Pi also reveals the true, inhumane character that is lurking inside of every human. When Pi tells the second story, the one “without the animals” he explains that his mother and the cook each have different beliefs and views on moral character causing tensions to continuously grow between them (389). Eventually the cook strays too far away from what is right and Pi’s mother takes action only to be stabbed to death by the vile, merciless cook. Pi recalls watching, helpless, as the cook repeatedly stabs a knife into his beloved mother and throws her head into his shaking hands (390). This is the most tragic part of the story. Pi loses his mother, the only piece of his old life that he has left in the world, to the cook, a callous, malicious man. It is clear to the reader that the cook has lost all of his moral reasoning. He would never have killed a woman, a caring mother, in a civilized society. However once he is removed from one, he becomes an atrocious beast. He does not once do what every human knows to do, consider others feelings, consider consequences, even consider how his actions will look to the outside world. The cook represents the part of humans that does not contemplate these thoughts, the part that gives into the inhumane animal inside. It is only because of society and the rules that are set for people that humans do not act like the cook, relying on the instincts of an animal. The cook resorts to acting like an animal the first moment he comes onto the lifeboat. They not only newly arrive on the boat but also have food, water, fishing supplies, and fresh hope for rescue, when the cook begins to catch and eat the flies as though he were a starving animal (382). This scene is repulsive for the reader because there was an abundance of accessible food yet the cook still turns to the perverse side of himself. This demonstrates that he has truly lost all sense of civilized behavior. When Pi and his mother see how he is acting they keep their civilized attitudes and look the other way. They excuse his repulsive ways because that is the polite way to act in society. They do not expect a man to let go of civilization so quickly. The mother holds onto her civilized ways even as she begins to starve. When the cook is in comparison to Pi’s mother it show how far he has strayed from social expectancies. He has turned into an animal, with the instinct to kill, and a thirst for blood. He has lost all morals. He is heartless.
Two positive characteristics of humans that are symbolized through animals in the book are caring and fearful. Pi’s mother comforts him in times of need and cares for him and his brother when they are children. She is one of the most important people in his life. She is his protector and teacher. In the story “with the animals,” an orangutan named Orange Juice represents Pi’s mother (389). When Orange Juice is about to fight the hyena, Pi remembers when he was young and Orange Juice cared for him just as if he was her own son. When the reader sees how motherly and loving Orange Juice is to children that are not even hers, one sees how caring she is. Orange Juice and the personality she has can represent the same aspects in humans. Humans, especially mothers, have the ability to reach out to others and care for their well being without having any connection to them at all. Orange Juice cared for Pi and his brother just as an adopted mother would for her adopted son, showing that humans are capable of an infinite amount of ways to love, just like Orange Juice. Pi’s mother demonstrates a caring giving person. They have not been on the boat long when the cook tricks everyone into amputating the sailor’s leg. Pi’s mother comforts him as he suffers through the pain of amputation and the vulnerability he feels by being injured (383). Pi’s mother reaches out to this stranger and, just as Orange Juice does, loves and cares for him even though he is not connected to her. Humans throughout the world have been recognized for tremendous acts of kindness, proving that there is good in every soul. Our world would not function without the people who choose to act out of good rather than bad. They fix the world, comfort each other, and behave as God wants humans to behave. This act of kindness from Pi’s mother represents all the good and noble people in the world that try to make the world a better, safer place. An additional characteristic that stands out in the book is fearful. Within the first day on the boat, Pi gives details about each person and the sailor represents the most vulnerable and fearful of them all. His leg is broken, he has an infection, and he does not speak or understand any English. When the reader puts themselves into the position of the sailors, one realizes that his life is at risk at every moment, that anyone can do anything to him and he would not know. He is shut off from the world around him and has nothing to rely on (304). It is because he is so alone that he is so fearful however this can illustrate how vulnerable everyone is when they do not fit into the world, which in fact is everyone at some point in their life. Humans always try to blend in because when a person is different in a significant way, such as speaking a different language, one is degraded as a human and vulnerable to everyone else. Pi also exemplifies fear when he is placed on the boat with a hyena. Soon after being thrown onto the lifeboat Pi realizes that he is not expected to live. However, because Pi knows the nature of animals, he perches himself of an oar and stays still and alert to his surroundings, focusing on nothing else. It is only because of his fear of the hyena that he has the endurance to stay on the oar for so long, searching for boats and staying attentive towards any actions of the animals. The reader can see that this fear continuously inside of him is what keeps him alive and sane.

In conclusion, Martel’s use of symbolism throughout the novel exemplifies that humans are caring and fearful as well as savage and inhumane. The hyena was the animal that represented the cruel, savage character of the cook, while the zebra and orangutan represented the caring side of humans. All the animals were placed on a lifeboat together to represent the world and how humans interact with one another. A person could live the life of Pi's mother, for example, and be a noble moral character. Or one could live the life of the cook and take what their animal instinct requires with no regard for the rules of society. On the other hand, one could live the life of the sloth, the life Piscine Patel hopes to live after his journey. The sloth “lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment” and takes no notice of problems such as predators. The sloth survives simply “by being slow. Sleepiness and slothfulness keep it out of harm’s way, away from notice of jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles and anacondas” (4). Whatever life one leads, it has an effect on the world, just as each animal affects the outcome of survivors. Martel wants readers to realize that if humans live the life of the cook, or a relentless blood thirsty animal, humans will end up killing each other. However, if one lives the life of the injured sailor, oblivious to the real world and completely vulnerable to any threat, one will be taken advantage of. Through symbolism, the author believes the life of the sloth, calm, content, and nonjudgmental, with spiritual beliefs placed higher then life itself, is the way to live a full, happy, and coexistent life with other humans. Also, to exist with animals, one has to realize what Pi knew on the boat, that each animal needs space and routine and it is only when these aspects are interrupted that chaos begins. Life of Pi allows the reader to look at humanity and the ways that humans interact with one another and with animals in a new way. The novel uses symbolism to communicate with people and escape the first impressions of animals and each other that humans have.

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