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Life Of Pi Summary

Life Of Pi Summary

Life Of Pi by Yann Martel


Life of Pi is a Canadian philosophical novel by Yann Martel published in 2001.

Main Characters

Piscine Molitor "Pi” Patel – Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as just "Pi”, is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. "Pi” was named after a swimming pool in Paris, despite the fact that neither his mother nor father liked swimming.

Richard Parker – is a Bengal tiger who is stranded on the lifeboat with Pi when the ship sinks. Richard Parker lives on the lifeboat with Pi and is kept alive with the food and water that Pi delivers. Richard Parker develops a relationship with Pi that allows them to coexist in their struggle.

Plot Summary

Life of Pi begins with an author’s note written by a character named Yann Martel. Pi’s life story inspired Martel’s new novel.

Piscine is the son of a zookeeper who grows up in Pondicherry, India. Young Piscine suffers as a boy because of his name, which sounds very close to the word "pissing.” When he changes schools, he takes the opportunity to rename himself "Pi” after the mathematical symbol, publicly declaring his new name to all. Pi starts to enjoy a happy childhood with his new name, free from mockery, as he explores the zoo, makes new friends, and relishes life with his close-knit family.

Pi is an intelligent and deeply religious boy who excels in the study of his native religion, Hinduism. Surprisingly, however, when his family vacations in Munnar, Pi explores two more of the world’s major religions, Islam and Christianity. Pi becomes a devotee of both religions with the help of a Muslim mystic named Satish Kumar and a parish priest named Father Martin. As an old man, Pi will still practice the three faiths of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, making him a unique religious figure.

Pi’s life in India ends when his father sells the zoo and moves the family to Canada. The family embarks across the Pacific Ocean on the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum with a menagerie of zoo animals to be sold to North American zoos. Unfortunately, the Tsimtsum sinks, taking Pi’s family with it. Pi makes it safely onto a lifeboat, where, besides some vermin, his only companions are a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

At first, Pi does not see the tiger, so he lives in fear of the hyena. Pi manages to survive the hyena’s predatory advances long enough to see it kill and eat the zebra and orangutang since he paid close attention to everything his father said about wild animals. Pi observes nature’s cruelty with horror, realizing that he will become the hyena’s next victim. Pi has virtually surrendered himself to the savage hyena when, suddenly, the tiger makes his presence known, easily destroying the hyena and saving Pi’s life.

Pi remains adrift on the Pacific Ocean with a tiger for 227 days. He struggles to survive and overcome his sudden orphaning, his new grief, seasickness, endless waves, relentless storms, starvation, thirst, blazing sun, desiccative saltwater, skin sores, utter loneliness, and despair, as well as the aggressions of an infamous predator. Pi who is a vegetarian, finds himself eating fish and turtles raw; the frightened boy tames a tiger; the devout disciple of three religions grapples with his faith in God, discovering indomitable strength therein. Pi surprises himself with the depth of his resolve to live, overcoming all obstacles with his powerful will.

While adrift, Pi has two remarkable encounters. First, he discovers a new, carnivorous species of algae, and after going temporarily blind he runs into another survivor from the Tsimtsum, a Frenchman adrift in his own lifeboat who has also gone blind. The Frenchman attacks Pi intending to eat him. However, before he can kill Pi, the tiger attacks and eats him.

The novel ends with the transcript of an interview between Pi and two investigators, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, who are trying to determine what caused the Tsimtsum to sink. The men refuse to believe the more fantastical parts of Pi’s story, such as Pi surviving 227 days on a lifeboat with a tiger or coincidentally running into the Frenchman. They demand that Pi tell them the real story of what happened, and Pi finally offers them an alternative version of his story.

Pi tells the investigators that the lifeboat held four human survivors: Pi, his mother, the French chef from the Tsimtsum, and a Japanese sailor with a broken leg. He claims that the Frenchman amputated the sailor’s leg when it became infected and used the leg as fishing bait. When the sailor died, the Frenchman butchered the body and, in addition to using it for bait, ate some. This horrified Pi and his mother so much that Pi’s mother periodically berated and attacked the chef for many days until the chef killed her while Pi watched. Then, apparently consumed with grief and despair over killing Pi’s innocent mother, the chef allowed Pi to kill him in revenge.

The investigators appear satisfied with the second version of Pi’s story. In addition, they are impressed with the parallels between the two versions. Pi points out that neither story helps them understand what caused the Tsimtsum to sink. Given that both stories are equally valid for the men’s purposes, Pi asks which version they prefer. The men prefer the first, more mysterious and unusual story, the one with the animals. Mr. Okamoto includes the first version in his official report.


  1. Belief in God

Belief in God is clearly a major theme in Life of Pi and has been the most controversial in reviews of the book. Throughout the novel, Pi makes his belief in and love of God clear. It is a love profound enough that he can transcend the classical divisions of religion, and worship as a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Pi, still respects the atheist even though he is amazed by the possibility of lacking this belief because he sees him as a kind of believer. Pi’s devotion to God is a prominent part of the novel; it becomes, however, much less prominent during his time aboard the lifeboat, when his physical needs come to dominate his spiritual ones. Pi never seems to doubt his belief in God while enduring his hardships, but he certainly focuses on it less. This in turn underscores the theme of the primacy of survival.

  1. The Primacy of Survival

The primacy of survival is the definitive theme in the heart of the book, Pi’s time at sea. This theme is clear throughout his ordeal, he must eat meat, and he must take life, which are two things that had always been anathema to him before his survival was at stake. Survival almost always trumps morality, even for a character like Pi, who is deeply principled and religious.

  1. Storytelling

Storytelling is a significant theme throughout Life of Pi, but particularly in the narrative frame. That Pi’s story is just that, a story and is emphasized throughout, with interjections from the author, Pi’s own reference to it, and the complete retelling of the story to the Japanese officials. By including a semi-fictional "Author’s Note,” Martel draws the reader’s attention to the fact that not only within the novel is Pi’s tale of survival at sea an unverified story, but the entire novel itself, and even the author’s note, usually trustworthy, is a work of fiction.

  1. The Definition Of Freedom

The true definition of freedom becomes a question early in Life of Pi when Pi refutes the claims of people who think that zoos are cruel for restricting animals’ freedom. Pi offers evidence against this, questioning the very definition of freedom. An animal in the wild is "free” according to the opponents of zoos, and it is true that that animal is not restricted in its movement by a physical cage. It is, however, profoundly restricted by its survival needs and its instincts. If that animal is guided solely by its need for food, water, and shelter, is it really free? If it will never intentionally wander outside of the territory it has defined for itself, is it really free? In a zoo, where the animal’s needs are always provided, isn’t it freer?

The question of freedom arises again as Pi finds himself in a fight for survival at sea. He is without responsibility to anyone else, he is without any need to be anywhere in the world, he is perpetually in motion; yet he has probably never been less free, for he must always be putting his survival above all else. Throughout the book, the primacy of survival, of life, greatly restricts "freedom,” and thus redefines the very word.

  1. The Relativity of Truth

This theme is not highlighted as a major theme in Life of Pi until the last part of the novel when Pi retells the entire story to make it more plausible to the officials questioning him. Since his story does not affect the information that the officials are looking for, he asks them which story they like better. This question implies that truth is not absolute; the officials can choose to believe whichever story they prefer, and that version becomes the truth. Pi argues to the Japanese officials that there is an invention in all "truths” and "facts,” because everyone is observing everything from their own perspective. There is no absolute truth.

  1. Science and Religion

The theme of science and religion as not opposed but in concert with each other is present primarily in the framing of the narrative. It is exemplified in Pi’s dual major at the University of Toronto of Religion and Zoology, which he admits he sometimes gets mixed up, seeing the sloth that he studied as a reminder of God’s miracles. Similarly, Pi’s favorite teacher, Mr. Kumar, sees the zoo as the temple of his atheism. The theme of the connection between science and religion also is related to Pi’s respect for atheists, because he sees that they worship science as he worships God, which he believes is not so very different.

  1. Loss of Innocence

The theme of loss of innocence in Life of Pi is closely related to the theme of the primacy of survival. Its significance is reflected in the geographic structure of the book. In Part 1, Pi is in Pondicherry, and there he is innocent. In Part 2, Pi is in the Pacific Ocean, and it is there that he loses his innocence. That Part 2 begins, not chronologically with the Tsimtsum sinking, but with Pi inviting Richard Parker onto the lifeboat, also reflects this, for it represents Pi reaching out for what Richard Parker symbolizes which is his own survival instinct. And it is this survival instinct that is at the heart of Pi’s loss of innocence; it is this survival instinct that drives him to act in ways he never thought he could.