Animal Symbolism in Life of Pi


By: Charlotte Detar /

Yann Martel made notes while this man told him bits and pieces of the story. Later that year, Yann was able to get in touch with Mr. Patel. They met on numerous occasions. Mr. Patel shows Yann documents, his old diary, and newspaper clippings. Yann decided to write down Mr. Patels story and create a novel that is told through Mr. Patel’s perspective. The author didn’t really meet Francis in a coffee shop, and Pi doesn’t really exist, but the author didn’t want to say that he spent time researching zoo’s, religion, and oceanic survival guides, because it would ruin the fantastic fantasy of the entire novel. This is the basis of Yann Martel’s objective: Story-telling.

Pi-Patel is boy who is raised in South India with his family amongst zoo animals. Pi is an intelligent teenager who is devout to Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, thus his ultimate goal is to understand god as a whole. Due to government involvement, Pi’s father was forced to shut down the zoo, board all the animals on a ship, and move his family to Canada. Due to an unexplained hazardous scenario, the ship sank and Pi was the only human along with a Hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger to survive. Pi now forced to survive on a lifeboat with the animals that survived. Through the story, Pi sustains his faith in God because he believes that will get help him survive, thus a miracle will occur. The food is scarce and there are hungry animals on the boat, so obviously Pi is forced to experience the brutalality of the animals. It’s a very emotional story about survival with themes of faith, friendship, and perseverance. The heyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, and tiger kills the heyena. When Pi finally reaches land, and he tells the investigators about his story, they do not believe him. So, Pi gives the investigators a second story in which he replaces the animals on the boat with human


Research Assertion:

Animals are designed to simply exist, while humans are designed to do much more: to thrive. However, we as human beings compare ourselves to animals due to our cognitive abilities and our understanding of what we do not have but what we want. It is a natural component for the human persona to desire what we do not have, like the superior physical capabilities that animals have. Nonetheless, Pi was able to easily replace the animals with humans as the animals represented the physical attributes that he desired to have. Humans have the desire to want to be like animals due to their infatuation with their physical capabilities and mannerisms but also we are infatuated with their emotions and how they are similar to human beings.

* The Hyena: represents the cook of the ship that sank. The Hyena kills both the zebra and orangutan in the animal story. In the second verison of Pi’s story the Cook amputates the sailor’s leg for fishing bait. The Hyena represents the evil in the world. Pi is religious and maintains faith even when there was little hope in surviving. The Hyena is replaced as the cook in Pi’s second story. In the second story, Pi makes it clear that the cook amputates the sailor’s leg to use it as fishing bait. We are exposed to the evilness of the cook and the hyena

* The Zebra: represents the Taiwanese sailor whose leg was amputated by the sailor. The Zebra’s leg is brutally torn apart by the Hyena and is then eaten alive. Perhaps the author uses the zebra to remind us that savagery has a devastating effect on others. It sounds quite simple but the sailor and the zebra suffer so much that we can’t help but to see them both as images of suffering.

* The Orangutan: Pi’s mother is named Gita, but she’s mostly just referred to as “Mother.” She’s an incredibly warm presence for Pi. She’s sympathetic when his father tries to teach him a lesson about the danger of animals with the zoo’s tiger. Also, she simply nudges Pi when the imam, priest, and pandit demand Pi choose a religion. Pi’s mother also tactfully suggests other activities – literature – when Pi asks to purchase a prayer rug and get baptized. Although Pi worries her, she also defends him from his father. Pi’s father, very enamored with the idea of progress, sees Pi’s religious leanings as anti-Indian and anti-modern.

* The Tiger: Depending on which of Pi’s stories you believe, Richard Parker is either a real tiger or he’s simply a very developed figment of Pi’s imagination. But whichever one you choose – the story with animals, the story without, or even both at the same time – we think it’s illuminating to read about these characters side by side. And to at least entertain the possibility that Richard Parker is nothing more than an imaginative extension of Pi. And if your brain melts trying to believe in both stories at the same time, we apologize. Pi and Richard Parker are mashed together in more than one way in Life of Pi.

Richard Parker sulks a lot. Early on in the lifeboat, Pi doesn’t even see Richard Parker since he’s hiding under the tarpaulin. Other times, Richard Parker hides from the wind and sun in his lair. We’re not sure if we would consider Richard Parker, when he does come out to play, a very good conversationalist. But isn’t God silent – in the writings of the mystics – for long stretches? (Martel researched these writings for the book.) Also, wasn’t God silent during Christ’s time on the cross? Perhaps Richard Parker, like a personal god in any number of religions, receives some characteristics from the very care Pi lavishes on him. Richard Parker’s silence also gives him an air of distance – a nobility and independence he might not have otherwise. He is, admittedly, totally dependent on Pi for food and water. Granted, Richard Parker does communicate through action: his violence and the simple grace of his body. He does purr once and growl occasionally, but for the most he’s what we call “the silent type.” Which brings up a few questions, of course: How does Pi react to Richard Parker’s silence? What traits does he project onto Richard Parker? Does Richard Parker really have any of those traits? When Pi begins talking to the blind Frenchman, and at first thinks it’s Richard Parker, is this an attempt to break Richard Parker’s silence? Why is it so traumatic for Pi when Richard Parker leaves without a word in Mexico?

Richard Parker’s Savageness

There are a few times when we’re unavoidably reminded of the fact that Richard Parker is an animal. Notice, too, how Pi becomes more and more like Richard Parker in his eating habits at sea. Pi even admits as much. Also, notice how Pi attributes moods and motivations to Richard Parker, complicating the tiger’s savageness.

Richard Parker’s Enlightenment

A key moment in the book happens during the flying fish “plague.” Pi watches fish jump aboard the lifeboat. As he unsuccessfully tries to collect them, he looks up to see Richard Parker eating with ease or even grace:

“Actually, it was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment. Such a mix of ease and concentration, such a being-in-the-present, would be the envy of the highest yogis”(2.61.19) If Pi learns anything from Richard Parker, it’s how to engage with the actual, physical world. The flip side to Richard Parker’s savageness is Richard Parker’s comfort with his body and eating and being-in-the-world.

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It is important for us to recognize the relationship between human and animal in this story and we as human generally expect animals to behave a certain way in reality we shouldn’t be expecting anything from them. In this story, when pi reaches land, the Richard Parker runs off into the Forest. In this picture below, Pi looks sad and almost shocked that Richard Parker would leave him once they reached land. But why wouldn’t he? Richard Parker is only an animal, regardless the bond Pi believes they shared. As humans we want to believe that we can form companionship with an animal, and in many cases we can, but because of the fact that we can, we expect animals to think as we do.


Written Works Cited:

  • “Yann Martel Interview.” : Textualities. Jennie Renton, 2005. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.
  • “Life of Pi Background.” Study Guides & Essay Editing. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

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