Theme Synopsis – Life of Pi

There are many themes in  Life of Pi, some of them subtle and intricate, others slapping you in the face.  So far, everyone’s talked about the religious aspect.  So many have touched on the believability of his story, and what it means to truly believe.  I see where these people are coming from, yet I don’t think that was the point of the story.  Yes, sparknotes may disagree with me.  They may claim that the theme is about

believing in something

but I disagree.  Sure, I recognize and accept the fact, that on one level, it’s important to take that leap of faith, and accept that that is true.  The first time I read it, I so desperately wanted it to be true, simply so I could believe in miracles.  I wanted it to be true, so that I could accept that great things happen to normal people, that even the most dire of situations can have rewards within it.  Yet to accept this, and to stay focused on this, is to do a great disrespect to this book.  To simply believe that this book is about religion is like keeping your eyes closed in room full of light in order to fool yourself into thinking it dark.  It’s like swimming with sharks, yet believing they’re fish.  We need to recognize that the religiousness of this book wasn’t the point the author was trying to make.  Yes, it comes along with the territory, but as all great teachers say, “it’s like saying the house has pink curtains, without telling me the house is on fire.”

I think that it’s about self-realization.  About what is false, and what is true.  About whether you can actually lie to yourself.  It’s the constant struggle within yourself, with every decision you make.  It’s about realizing your shortcomings, and knowing how to handle them.

There was one part for me that really drove this point home.  At the end, during the debriefing Pi Patel goes through, the two Japanese men, Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto, try to puzzle out the character roles in the two different stories Pi tells them.

“So the Taiwanese sailor is the zebra, his mother is the orang-utan, the cook is…the hyena – which means he’s the tiger!”

“Yes.  the tiger killed the hyena – and the blind Frenchman – just as he killed the cook.”

Other more knowledgeable experts claim that this duality of roles is to differentiate between those who believe, and those who don’t.  The religious ones will believe in miracles, the agnostics will choose to believe the story with humans in it.  I beg to differ, and claim a third option.  It has to do with how Pi views himself.  He has grown up a vegetarian all his life, and is reduced to tears and sadness when forced to kill a fish, in order to survive.  Yet he is also forced to commit much greater acts of brutality, things like killing the cook.  Many people try to write about how you change once you’ve killed a man, but nothing can come close to the actual feeling.  To know that you have willingly taken a man’s life, I think that would produce a wrenching change in yourself.  For Pi, he has no way to cope.  There is no support group to rely on, no psychiatrist to talk to, no where to go to share how he’s feeling.  So he talks to himself.  He makes up an alternative story, one that he can accept and believe, one that won’t cause him grief and pain every day of his life.  He comes up with Richard Parker.

There is so much symbolism within this relationship, it’s hard to know where to start.  It feels like it’s a perpetual battle, between good and evil, light and dark.  Richard Parker is the physical manifestation of Pi’s dark side.  He’s the carnivore, the ruthless killer, the animal with no morals or ethics.  He’s the typical dark side, the side you fear, the side you try to keep hidden inside.  The side that you know you can never resist, the side that can destroy you at any moment.  The dark side.  And Pi is the light side.  The vegetarian.  The man who truly believes in 3 different religions, the man who tries to foster interfaith dialogue by saying “Bapu Ghandi said ‘All religions are true’“.  He’s the good side, the side that cries over killing a fish, the side that never forgets his family.  He’s the side of truth, love, and happiness.  The side of you that you try to develop, the side where small deeds do big things, the part that seems weak, but is the strongest of all.  But, inevitably, as with all of us, we come out gray.  It’s like ice cream.  Put a drop of vanilla in a scoop of chocolate, and the chocolate will eat it up.  But put a drop of chocolate in the vanilla, and suddenly the vanilla is brown.  And for the rest of our lives, after that first drop of chocolate, we’re forever regretting it and trying to scrub away the stain.

I think that Life of Pi is Pi’s story about trying to scrub away his stain.  Trying to distance himself from the deeds he committed, his solution is to create a story he finds acceptable, one that won’t place mental strain upon him.  Life of Pi isn’t about religion, it’s about the battle within yourself to find your sense of balance.  One quote that I find particularly enlightening for this situation:

Without shadows, you cannot have light.

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