Life of Pi

Allie Norman

Significance of the Setting

When & Where - Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, is centered on the character, Piscine Patel, who is also referred to as Pi – a deeply religious boy with a fascination for animals. The first part of the novel is anecdotal to nature – a flashback to Pi’s childhood, in which we learn about his devotion to Hinduism and his unique view on life. The first part of the novel ends with political unrest in India, which pushed Pi’s parents’ decision to move their family to Canada along with their zoo. This is just a foundation for the rest of the novel – without it, the plot would not stay connected in the second part of the novel. Part two is when the ocean comes into play within Pi’s survival; the ship carrying his family sinks and Pi is left with a lifeboat along with one male Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. Pi’s 277 days of survival without human contact starts that first day the boat sinks. The setting of the ocean plays a significant role in Martel’s novel; the Pacific Ocean is that of which he is voyaging through and may be believed to represent Pi’s subconscious mind, as it’s an environment to which he has no control. Pi – being immersed in the “ocean” of his subconscious, he draws upon some strength that he did not know existed, but had developed when he lived in Pondicherry. Pi is determined to survive, no matter what the conditions are; the ocean transforms him from a quiet boy into a courageous young man. “Physically it is extraordinary arduous, and morally killing. You must make adjustments if you want to survive… You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish” (115).

Political Context - Life of Pi takes place in Pondicherry, India around the mid 1970's. During that time in India, under the influence of Indira Ghandi, (the Prime minister), the President declared a state of emergency where Ms. Ghandi had the power to rule by decree which meant she had total control. Thus, the story of Pi's adventure begins. His father, who owned the Pondicherry zoo began fretting over the idea that she would take over his zoo, "Soon she'll come down to our zoo and tell us that her jails are full, she needs more space" (87). Because Pi's family was poor, the zoo was "neither big enough a business to be above the law nor small enough to survive on its margins" (87), which is why Pi's father decided to move the zoo to Canada. He thought that they could avoid the political turmoil in the country so they ad the animals climbed aboard Tsimtsum, which would sink, leaving Pi the sole survivor.

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Content Components

Modern Context - Piscine Patel is intensely fascinated with animals and religion; we learn that he is deeply devoted to Hinduism and Christianity through his unique views on life. There is something utterly humanizing about religion, despite it being otherworldly, it brings us back to ourselves in a centering way. People remain fascinated with animals today, and in some ways, that lack of connection to them in our daily lives makes Martel’s animal characters a channel to set us apart from our ordinary frame of mind. If we all had a Richard Parker, we could have two perspectives on the world. In addition to spirituality, modern lifestyles have also become detached from the natural world. Martel plays with this lost connection in Life of Pi by making animals not only central to the plot, but also primary characters that the audience can connect with and build empathy toward. This helps us go beyond what is right in front of us and leads us to believe that there is something beyond the material front. If you think about it, this story can be applied anywhere anytime, any story can be universal, this lifeboat Pi is confined to is just a stage to a potentially universal story.

Significance to Peers - Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, can be used to connect Pi and the hardships he faces with today’s youth and the different daily struggles they must go through in order to find real happiness. Martel gives us a young boy who has recently suffered from a tremendous loss, yet somehow overcomes many obstacles and manages to come out as a courageous man stronger than ever before. Pi could have easily jumped from the boat or let Richard Parker eat him alive to avoid his 277-day voyage, but he didn’t. Pi never gave up when he felt that he was “at the bottom of hell,” he instead, put a smile on his face and pushed through it becoming a better person by doing so. This cannot be said for many teens that choose not to stick around. Pi’s experience could be used as a guide for many – how to approach an issue, or even an uplifting lesson to show that things won’t stay bad forever. Some can even relate to Martel’s novel – overcoming an obstacle such as; losing a loved one, battling disease, or even bullying. The individuals who have struggles with these obstacles know that overcoming these problems can only make them stronger – managing to come out as a better, more rounded, and intelligent individual. The Life of Pi shows how everyone struggles with different obstacles and chooses to handle them very differently, but determination and courage are always an option for the road to success. Pi never took anything for granted, even though he was in a terrible situation, anytime anything good happened, he was grateful. The way Pi views life is something we all should take away from reading this novel.

Literary Text - Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is similar to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, with the portrayal of loss, loneliness, and triumph. In Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Jacob, the protagonist, suffers the loss of both parents in an accident just as Pi suffers the loss of his family. When the two experience their losses, they are left alone without food or money – Pi with one Bengal tiger names Richard Parker. Pi stays on the boat, pushing through the events that had happened – surviving. Whereas Jacob takes a different approach to his survival; he runs off to the circus where he is hired as a helping hand for the animals. When Jacob meets Rosie the Elephant, his life changes; Rosie holds symbolic value, holding beauty and wonder as well as religious beliefs, just as Richard Parker does to Pi. Jacob and Pi persevere through so much, yet by suffering a great loss they are able to achieve a greater success by the end of the novels.


Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi to reveal his ideas on faith and inner strength. He does this through the character of Piscine Patel, also referred to as Pi – who exhibits qualities such as, immense faith, inner strength, determination, and the will to live, which help him survive his 227-day voyage through the Pacific Ocean.

Life of Pi is relayed with a very realistic sense. In the Author’s Note, Martel explains how he spoke with Pi and met with him in order to learn about his story, and throughout Part One of the novel, Martel talks of his meeting with Pi and the things he's learned about his background. Martel begins Life of Pi with a flashback to Pi’s childhood; he uses this to explain his family’s situation, why they were moving to Canada, and Pi’s unique views on life. Within Part One, Pi describes in detail the zoo his father owned and the lesson his father taught him about animals – “every animal [is] dangerous if you [aren’t] careful.” Other than describing the zoo, Pi also describes how he came to know three different religions and how he feels about it all, how being involved in these religions effect the way he looks at life. By the end of Part One, we have a deep knowledge and understanding of Pi.

During Part Two, Richard Parker is introduced, we don’t have much knowledge of him except that Pi “has grown to fear him and yet love him”. Richard Parker is a Bengal tiger that is trapped on the lifeboat with Pi, and because of the way Pi felt about Richard Parker, he develops as the novel progresses. By the time Part Three roles around, we have a better understanding of Richard Parker, we think, until Martel throws a whole new idea out – what if Richard Parker is a metaphor for Pi himself? This might actually be true considering Pi’s mood often reflected in the tiger’s. Through this, we can see great attributes in each of them, Pi adapts easily and quickly in is current situation and also displays faith, hope, and perseverance.

Life of Pi is initially set in Pondicherry, India – Pi’s hometown, while the end of the novel is set in Canada; each place represents a safe haven, which contrasts to most of the novel. The majority of the novel was set on the ocean, in which Pi must learn to survive despite the storms, lack of supplies, and a tiger that essentially threatens his life. The harsh setting of the ocean sets Pi up with trouble from the beginning to the end of his voyage, but with faith and strength, Pi shines through even the toughest of times. Life of Pi serves a great lesson – to have faith in the toughest of times. You may not be a religious person, but I recommend Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, he does an exceptional job of carrying the theme through to the reader. Chapter after chapter, Pi finds himself with new problems, but it’s the way he deals with these problems that’s extraordinary.

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Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

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