The Life of Pi is very simple, in terms of setting. There is only one main setting during the entire book. With the exception of the first couple chapters, which are set in the past in India, and at the beginning of a few chapters, which is set in the present, in Toronto, the entire novel uses one setting. A boy and a tiger. On a lifeboat. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is this tidbit that first draws you in, the first thing you see when you look at the back cover. It’s the main hook, the way to get readers interested.
And it works. The setting is the ideal way for a story based around the theme of man versus beast. It’s so small, it forces interactions and conflict. There is no way you can survive on a 26-foot lifeboat with no interaction. Plus, it leaves you with a lot of anticipation of conflict as well. There is an element of cabin fever written beautifully into the book, the anticipation of that moment where one will get so sick and tired of the other that they will snap. Yann Martel does an excellent job of leading the readers on, dropping hints of a final confrontation, just enough to keep the audience reading, yet not so much as to ruin the ending. The size of the lifeboat does wonders for this story, it contributes to the conflict, as well as to the cliffhangers.
The other reason this setting is the ideal place for a book is the location. Out on the Pacific Ocean, there’s nowhere to hide. One of humans’ first instincts when faced with danger is to run. Yet, in the lifeboat, there is no room to run. All the clichés, about having your back to the wall, do-or-die, must-win situations seem almost laughable when used in sports compared to this book. It’s the epitome of having no escape. It’s fight-or-flight, except, in this case, there is no flight option. You’re alone, isolated, with no chance for help. It’s not until Pi realizes there is no hope of a rescue that he actually begins to take proactive steps to survive. You can’t help but think that if he had sat around waiting for a boat, Richard Parker would have sensed his weakness. Pi would be dead, having put his faith in others, instead of in himself. The setting creates a modern-day Colosseum, where he must fight off the gladiator tiger in order to survive
Yann Martel creates the opportunity for the perfect storm in his novel. The lifeboat, which seems small in certain situations, can also become as large as a continent in others. There is no escape from the hidden nightmare on the boat, and no chance for help. It’s the perfect way to write a story.