17 October 2018
The Primacy to Survive
Human beings have the power to worry themselves sick over the irrelevant infatuations of life, failing to register that any action paramount to existence happens for a reason. In his novel Life of Pi, Yann Martel tests his audience by presenting a story so vast in wisdom and imagination that one forgets its predetermined fictional heritage. Pi Patel, helpless on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a bengal tiger, rationalizes his situation by operating on every ultimatum he encounters: “Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway's worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little” (Martel, 186). While life-preserving action is necessary to survive inevitable death, a strong faith in the impractical ultimately leads Pi to salvation. To be delivered from sin, Pi must liberate himself from his past deeds and trust in faith and imagination to set him free.
As Pi reflects on his traumatic experience on the lifeboat, he acknowledges those who preserve his emotional condition: “It’s the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story” (Martel, 182). His consuming fear of this large, 450-pound tiger is ironically the very sentiment that keeps him alive and preserves his sanity. Richard Parker acts as a distraction from the immense loss that lingers nearby. The overwhelming grief of his family and traditional life is detrimental to his mind, especially when accompanied by feelings of loneliness and distress. Pi also understands that Richard Parker is inescapably stronger than him, so this inevitability of death contrastingly inspires him to pursue life:
You might think I lost all hope at that point. And I did. And as a result, I perked up and felt much better. To cope with a hyena seemed remotely possible, but I was so obviously outmatched by Richard Parker that it wasn’t even worth worrying about. With a tiger aboard, my life was over. With that being settled, why not do something about my parched throat? (Martel, 149)
A crucial element of survival includes the acceptance of reality, just as a part of Pi’s journey to salvation is recognizing his past sins before progressing in life: “All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive” (Martel, 44-45). Although too much hope is dangerous for any castaway, Pi’s ability to hold onto a small fragment of promise allows him to process reality with caution.
When life simplifies itself to merely conserving existence, all supplementary concerns become inferior. This includes tending to the life of a murderous cook, whom Pi vengefully kills and feasts on to survive. Richard Parker killing the blind Frenchman provides insight on the animalistic instinct that overcomes Pi when he kills the cook. The conversation between the two blind men in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is so important because it shows the extremity of Pi’s long for companionship, over the spiritual death of being alone: “You are the most precious, wonderful person on earth. Come, my brother, let us be together and feast on each other’s company.” (Martel, 282). However, after gaining his trust, the blind Frenchman lunges at Pi with the intent to kill him, revealing how desperation and a lack of faith can lead people to react in deranged ways.
Pi’s interest in and practice of theology not only provides him with a reason to survive, but strengthens his life-long relationship with God. Islam, Hindu and Christianity work separately to teach Pi valuable elements concerning God, yet combined they preserve Pi’s trust in Him while at sea: “Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen…” (Martel, 148). Martel touches on the importance of a healthy relationship with God in times of desperation or mourn. The shadow of anguish that envelopes Pi validates that humans cannot redeem themselves without faith as a flame of hope: “Despair is a heavy blackness that lets no light in or out… The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving” (Martel, 232). In Pi’s house, the embedded author describes rooms full of religious symbols and trinkets to demonstrate how his faith does not dissipate after leaving the boat. In effect, Martel stresses the importance of worshipping God not only in times of need, but also in times of praise.
In moments where Pi “resolves to die” (Martel, 269), his mind soars into the realm of fiction. To the reader, this transition is made clear through the use of the dream rag, a shriveled piece of cloth that brings Pi’s imagination to new heights: “The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar” (Martel, 314). In Mexico, Pi reveals a different yet equally plausible story regarding his survival on the lifeboat for 227 days. Yet Martel intentionally leaves the question of which story is correct unanswered, so that the readers of his novel can determine for themselves which version of Pi’s trauma is the “better story” (Martel, 352). By doing this, Martel comments on society’s need to uncover the ending before accompanying the journey. Rationality and practicality may be worth fighting for, but it is not always the final objective. In truth, one will never really know how Pi survives on the lifeboat, a moment of theological reflection to the reader. They revert inwards and examine if their belief system is based on concrete evidence, or leaps of faith and trust in miracles.
While Pi retells his ordeal as a form of personal salvation and acceptance of his desperate acts, he still leaves his story up for interpretation. For example, Pi’s nickname is a mathematically infinite number that society will never fully understand. Martel uses this analogy to project the same idea regarding life itself: it is whole within its contrasts of the known and the unknown. Pi’s story, one to “make you believe in God” (Martel, VIII), challenges interpreting skeptics to trust in the unrealistic. By choosing the animal story as the better story, one takes a leap of faith and solidifies their relationship with God. In turn, Pi survives at sea because he ultimately believes in the unbelievable.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001. Print.
A portion of Pi’s hope derived from his verdict that God is present and watching over him, and so he did not want to act in a way that may strain the only other relationship he had with him on the boat. Comment by Samantha Boston: keep?
On the lifeless lifeboat, the finality of any decision is life or death. Pi’s faith mitigated the severity of his actions because he knew that every choice he made was made under God’s presence. Just as the hyena cannot comprehend the overwhelming emotions of his reality, if Pi did not have the ability to rationalize taming Richard Parker, then the tiger would have killed him. The same is to be said about the cook, and due to extreme circumstances one will never understand, his animal instincts kicked into overdrive. Comment by Samantha Boston: Do I need this paragraph?