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“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel Essay

All humans are born with instincts; it is during the most desperate times in life when these instincts take control of an individual. In the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the protagonist, Pi, goes through a situation that evoked his instincts to take control of himself. Pi spent 227 days as a castaway on a boat drifting in the Pacific Ocean. During this time he dealt with intense hunger and thirst and was very desperate. In the second story that Pi tells, each of the animals from the first story are symbolic of humans. Pi is related to Richard Parker, as many of their actions are similar between the two stories. In light of Pi’s second story the similarities suggests that Pi uses Richard Parker to represent his instinctive mind and serve as an escape from the horrific level of savagery he sank to on the lifeboat. Pi, however, did begin to accept his situation and realize that his instinctive mind would play a major role in his survival no matter how opposed to killing and eating his rational mind was. The savage-like behavior of Pi is brought on by intensely desperate situation, hunger, thirst, and Pi’s instinctive mind represented by the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker.

When an individual acts on instincts, their actions become spontaneous and that person’s beliefs and values are not part of the decision. Richard Parker represents the instinctive part of Pi’s mind; this becomes clear after analysis of Richard Parker’s actions and emergence in the plot. Richard Parker only emerges after the orangutan or Pi’s mother is killed and Pi is in his most desperate state. This shows that Pi began acting on his instincts at this point where he felt very lonely and vulnerable while his life was in danger. Pi’s instincts provided him with food in the form of fish, turtles, and sharks, as well as the hyena or the cook. Pi states, “It is the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story.” (Martel 164)

Pi has his animal instincts to thank for his survival and shows that he knows this by thanking Richard Parker, the representation of his instincts. Pi’s rational mind was not fit to survive all that time on the lifeboat; he is a vegetarian and a very religious person and would not have had any food on the lifeboat if not for his animal instincts. His rational self would not have killed the cook or the turtles and fish and he would have starved because there was no access to vegetables and fruits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On page 164, Pi talks of his instincts in the form of Richard Parker as he states, “He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it yet at the same time I was grateful.” He says that he hated his instincts for keeping him alive because they caused him to do things that were against his beliefs and values but at the same time he was grateful for his life. Pi has only his animal instincts to thank for his survival in a lifeboat for 227 days.

After many desperate days on the lifeboat, Pi’s instinctive mind begins to blend with his rational mind. On page 197, after he kills and eats a turtle without blaming it on his instincts represented by Richard Parker, he realizes that he has “descended to a level of savagery [he] never imagined possible.” His instincts have blended with his sensible mind and he is no longer the strict vegetarian that he was before he was put in this situation. During his time on the lifeboat, Pi came a long way from the strict vegetarian that he once was. Pi speaks of his former self as he says, “To think that when I was a child I always shuddered when I snapped open a banana because it sounded to me like the snapping of an animal’s neck.” (197)

The experience on the boat drastically changed him as his instincts no longer had to control him to kill and to eat. After continually killing to eat, he gets used to the idea and no longer needs his instincts to take over for him to eat. His vegetarian principles are irrelevant with the extremity of the situation as he could not have lived by his beliefs and values if he wanted to survive. His rational mind stepped away from its belief and values and began to accept a kill or starve mentality. Pi’s lengthy and desperate situation caused his rational mind to accept that he had to live off animal instincts if he did not want to starve.

Guilt is a very powerful feeling and it can cause people to do crazy things in order to hide and escape from these feelings. In terms of the second story Pi acted on many of his animal instincts and killed and ate animals as well as humans. Pi used Richard Parker not only as his escape from his guilt but also to escape the reality of the situation he was in. The guilt that Pi felt from being a vegetarian and doing what he did coupled with the emotional pain and torment of his situation caused Pi to force himself to believe that everyone on the lifeboat were animals.

Because the events that occurred on the lifeboat were similar to those that would occur between wild animals where it is a kill or die situation it was easy for Pi to substitute animals for all of the people on the lifeboat. He continuously turned to God for help in dealing with the guilt that he felt. After telling how he killed the cook in the second story, he said “I must live with that. Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.” Pi was very religious before he was stranded on the lifeboat and he used his faith to help him through the situation. Pi’s feelings of guilt caused him to do whatever it took to escape from the guilt and from reality.

The idea of Richard Parker, therefore, stemmed from Pi’s desperate survival in a lifeboat. Richard Parker was the reason that Pi survived and also served as a savior from the guilt and emotional pain that he felt. Pi’s instincts were represented by the idea of the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, and he survived because of these instincts. It was only natural for these animal instincts to take control of him as he was dealing with intense hunger and thirst. During his time on lifeboat, even his rational self accepted that he would have to kill to eat, a big change for the strict vegetarian that he once was. He also had to deal with severe guilt for his actions as well as tremendous emotional pain. Richard Parker served as a way for him to escape this guilt and to escape reality. Desperation and loss combined with intense hunger and thirst are some of the many things that could cause an individual to lose control of their rational mind and live on instincts.

Work Cited

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2001.


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