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Free Study Guide for Life of Pi by Yann Martel-Book Notes/Summary
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Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi)

The adult Pi is the narrator of the story who survived 227 days at sea. Being the son of a zookeeper, he constantly interjects facts about animals and animal behavior into his story. The boy Pi is the character experiencing the story, a young man full of wonder. He is slim with dark hair and dark eyes. His attitude is honest, innocent and respectful. He is named after a beautiful pool in Paris because of his father’s love for the stories his friend Francis Adirubasamy tells about the pool. Schoolmates make fun of the name calling Piscine “pissing.” When starting at a new school, Piscine takes the opportunity to adopt a new name, Pi. He also adopts two new religions, Catholicism and Islam, on top of his native Hindu, practicing all three in effort to experience God.

When Pi is sixteen he loses his family in a shipwreck and ends up lost at sea. Relying on faith and his knowledge of animals he is able to survive. He may endure a life-threatening adventure with animals aboard his lifeboat, or he may be shipwrecked with his mother and two others, depending on which story the reader chooses to believe. Pi trains a 450 pound Bengal tiger so that the two survive together, or Pi is the tiger that kills in order to survive.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker, the tiger, may or may not be a real character, depending on which story the reader chooses to believe. In the “better story,” he is a royal Bengal tiger that swims to Pi’s lifeboat after the shipwreck. The tiger got its name from a clerical error that confused the tiger’s name with that of its captor. This human name blurs the distinction between animals and humans. This is brought out especially when Pi, at a low point in his ordeal, describes himself as killing and eating just like Richard Parker.

The tiger represents Pi’s burden in life. He is also Pi’s reason for living. From this perspective, the tiger may represent God or faith.

Pi is constantly asserting his super-alpha male position so that he is not killed by Richard Parker. This training process provides Pi with a diversion and a companion. Pi grows to love the tiger, but the tiger remains an animal and shows no concern for Pi, disappearing into the jungle when the two finally reach land.

If the reader chooses to believe the second story, then Richard Parker is actually Pi himself. He represents the animal side of Pi that survives by killing and eating even human flesh. He disappears at the end of the story because Pi has returned to civilization and the Richard Parker side of him will not be seen again.


The novel espouses several postmodern concepts including learning things for the purpose of using them (such as Pi’s knowledge of animals), subjective rather than traditional approaches to religion (as Pi has practicing three religions), and theological impoverishment (wherein faith is for the story rather than for the soul). Accordingly, the novel is written using postmodern techniques. The most striking example is the change in narrator. Some chapters are narrated by Pi and others are narrated by a fictional author. Another example is ambiguity. The reader is left with doubts about the actual facts.

Life of Pi is like a panchatantra, an ancient Indian fable involving animals, intent on making a point. This “fable” is divided into three distinct parts, each with its own purpose.

Part One is the back-story that sets up the real story to suspend disbelief. It lets the reader know where Pi learned all that he knows about animals and religion. By changing narrator it gives the reader constant reminders that the real character is the adult Pi who is alive and well and living with his family in Canada giving this interview. The author intersperses glimpses into the adult Pi’s life with Pi’s own narration so the reader is convinced that this is more than a story about a boy in India.

Part Two, the central part of the novel, tells how Pi gets along with the tiger. It is the lost-at-sea part of the story and is not sequential. It is scattered memories, possibly delusions, from Pi’s ordeal. In this part of the novel conventional realist techniques are used. The details were researched to establish credibility. Basic life functions are included (eating, drinking, defecating, sleeping, cleaning, etc.). However, though the facts and anecdotes are based on reality, there is still a magical, verging on unbelievable, quality. Part Two underscores the theme of the story that one must have faith in more than pure logic. Whenever Pi is hopeless, faith brings him solace.

Part Three drives home the whole point of the “better story.” Neither of Pi’s narrations is positively the real story. It is for each reader to decide. There are enough inconsistencies in each story to render either one unbelievable. The twist at the end confirms that the story is not “The” Life of Pi in that it is not a specific life, but the array of life. It requires the reader to provide the conclusion. Readers may choose the more logical story or they may choose to have faith in something beyond crude reality and choose the “better story.”

Pi’s story could actually be finished as of Chapter 99, but Chapter 100 is necessary to give the story the proper form of exactly 100 chapters according to Pi’s challenge to the reader in Chapter 94. This gives precise order to the telling of a possibly unbelievable story. Adding to this order is the fact that the story has come full circle, beginning and ending with a Canadian Pi.

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