More Pi, dear?


I don’t usually do Literary Symbolism, just developmental/psychological interpretation, but with The Life of Pi, I just can’t resist one quick foray.

The book itself is an allegory not only at a developmental level, which I mentioned last time, but also an allegory about the nature of belief. At the end of the book when the Japanese shipping officials don’t believe that the tiger exists since it left into the Mexican jungle before anyone else saw it and there was no evidence of the beautiful but corrosive island (except the small animal bones in the boat), Pi tells an alternative “logical” story in which the orang-utan is his mother and the jackal is the ship’s cook, who kills and butchers a sailor with a broken leg . . . the zebra . . . and eventually kills Pi’s mother. Pi kills the cook, becoming the tiger himself.

In the absence of proof of one or the other story, Pi states, the only way to make a choice is to pick the story you believe is the better, the story you wish. (That would work a little better without the small animal bones, which are proof of one of the stories, as, of course, fossils are proof of evolution). So of course there is a story with animals and one without and the Japanese officials wisely choose the one with the animals (God) rather than the “rational” (atheistic) one. And Pi makes the connection with religion for us in case we’re too thick.

So let’s look at the representations of religions.

First, it’s not hard to see Richard Parker, the tiger, as a representation of religion or gods in general: it is powerful, it must be appeased, there are rituals which must be followed. The original Richard Parker of the Poe short story gave himself as sustenance to the other sailors. I would argue that the tiger represents Hinduism, the religion in which Pi grew up. First, he grew up with the tiger–its rituals are rituals Pi has known from his childhood. I would argue the saffron color of the tiger’s coat is also the saffron of those ritual offerings. The ritual offerings the tiger demands, the attention that must be paid to the tiger day in and day out echo the life-sustaining demands of the gods.

This may or may not come as a shock, but [gasp] fish could be a symbol for Christianity. And throughout the 227 days of Pi’s journey the fish sustained him . . . no . . . not quite true. The fish did not sustain him until he gave up his vegetarian innocence and accepted the guilt for the death of that first (Christ) fish–the one he felt so guilty about he wrapped it in a blanket before he could break its spine.

That leaves us with the third religion that Pi embraced, Islam. I would argue the green island, the island which has no ground, but is rather a single plant, one organism, is Islam–Islam with only one God: no Son, no Holy Spirit and no Ganesha, no Vishnu, no Shiva. The island is home and provider to the huge colony of meerkats. It provides fish, fresh water and its own substance to the meerkats, to Pi and to Richard Parker. But it only does so as long as its rules are strictly followed; come down from the trees and walk on the surface of the island at night and you find it is easily as deadly as the tiger, deadly and corrosive.

I’ll leave things here. This is a good book. Have fun with it.


4 Responses to “More Pi, dear?”

  1. Your tying in of all three major religions into the story is really interesting…one could go so far as to draw a comparison between Pi and the biblical story of Job – faith in the face of adversity is eventually rewarded. I am not a scholar of religion, but surely Islam and Hinduism have stories with similar morals.

    I rather dislike the comparison between the island and Islam, although I certainly can see your point. To me, that comparison says that in the same way that the island is able/willing to sustain your body, religion is able/willing to sustain your soul, but only within the confines of its rules. That doesn’t make an argument that religion is benevolent or even very wise to follow, to me. I suppose, however, that one could imagine that like on the island, the rules are finite and absolute (rather than arbitrary), and that the salvation of one’s spirit requires adherence to rules that are also not arbitrary but necessary. Which brings us to what I suppose may be the crux of the argument – religion/faith is necessary for the sustaining of one’s soul. Do you think that that’s the argument the author is trying to make with the story?

  2. I think that’s exactly the argument that follows from the story. I don’t think that the author is any harder on Islam than he is on Hinduism–if the tiger is not properly appeased, death follows. I suppose Christianity gets off a little better, but to nourish your soul from that fish, you have to accept the guilt of its murder.
    In this context what do you suppose the transient blindness of first the tiger, then Pi and the killing of the blind stranger signify?


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