Jesse's Reviews > Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
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Mar 25, 2013

really liked it

** spoiler alert ** Life of Pi was a fairly engaging story in terms of plot and character, but what made it such a memorable book, for me at least, was its thematic concerns. Is it a "story that will make you believe in God," as Pi claims? I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I would recommend it to people who enjoy thinking about the nature of reality and the role of faith in our lives.

To me, the entire thrust of the book is the idea that reality is a story, and therefore we can choose our own story (as the author himself puts it). So if life is a story, we have two basic choices: we can limit ourselves only to what we can know for sure - that is, to "dry, yeastless factuality" - or we can choose "the better story." I suppose in Pi's world the "better story" includes God, but he doesn't say this is the only meaningful possibility. In fact, Pi calls atheists his "brothers and sisters of a different faith," because, like Pi, atheists "go as far as the legs of reason will carry them - and then they leap."

Pi's point, in my opinion, is that human experience always involves interpretation, that our knowledge is necessarily limited, that both religious belief and atheism require a leap of faith of one kind or another - after all, there's so little we can know for sure. For Pi, then, we shouldn't limit ourselves only to beliefs that can be proven empirically. Instead, we should make choices that bring meaning and richness to our lives; we should exercise faith and strive for ideals (whatever the object of our faith and whatever those ideals might be). Or, as Pi says in taking a shot at agnosticism: "To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."

In the end, however, I didn't necessarily read this book as an invitation to believe in God. Instead, I saw it as a mirror held up to the reader, a test to see what kind of worldview the reader holds. That is, as Pi himself says, since "it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without the animals?" Or, as I took it: Is it my nature to reach for and believe the better but less likely story? Or do I tend to believe the more likely but less lovely story? What view of reality do I generally hold?

Another equally important question is this: How did I come by my view of reality? Do I view the world primarily through the lens of reason? Or do I view it through the lens of emotion? For Pi, I think it's safe to say his belief comes by way of emotion. He has, as one reviewer noted, a certain skepticism about reason (in fact, Pi calls it "fool's gold for the bright"). Pi also has what I would call a subtle but real basis for his belief in God, namely, "an intellect confounded yet a trusting sense of presence and ultimate purpose." But belief still isn't easy for him. Despite his trusting sense of purpose, Pi acknowledges that "Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer." So it's not that a life of faith is easier, in Pi's opinion, it's that for him belief is ultimately more worthwhile.

This is not to say, however, that Pi holds a thoroughly postmodern view of God or that he believes as a matter of art rather than in a sincere way. True, Pi suggests that whether you believe his story had a tiger in it is also a reflection of your ability to believe in something higher. And of course it's easy to read Pi's entire story as an attempt to put an acceptable gloss on a horrific experience. Still, there are a number of clues throughout the book that give the reader at least some reason to believe Pi's story did have a tiger in it (for instance, the floating banana and the meerkat bones).

As such, Pi's two stories could be seen as an acknowledgement that both atheism and belief in God require some faith, and therefore it's up to each of us to choose the way of life that makes us the happiest. He's not necessarily saying that the truth is what you make it, he's saying we don't have unadulterated access to the truth: our imagination, personalities, and experiences unavoidably influence the way we interact with the world. But that's not the same as saying whatever we imagine is true. I think Pi, for instance, knows which of his stories is true. It's not Pi but the reader who is left with uncertainty and who therefore has to throw her hands up and say "I don't know," or else choose one story or the other. And to me, this isn't too far off from the predicament we all find ourselves in.

And that's what makes Life of Pi such a challenge to the reader: Pi's first story is fantastic, wonderful, but hard to believe. Yet there's some evidence that it happened just the way he said it did. And Pi's second story is brutal, terrible, but much easier to accept as true. Yet it's not entirely plausible either, and it leaves no room for the meerkat bones or Pi's "trusting sense of presence and ultimate purpose." If the reader personally dismisses the tiger story out of hand, I suppose that's another way of saying the reader, by nature, tends to believe the more likely but less lovely story. In the same way, if the reader gets to the story's payoff and still believes there was a tiger in the boat, the reader is probably inclined to believe the more emotionally satisfying story. But it should be born in mind that Pi doesn't definitively state which story was true, something which only he can know for sure. All we can really be sure of, in Pi's universe, is that he was stuck on a lifeboat for a while before making it to shore. So which story do I believe? I struggled with that question for a long time. But after thinking about it for a couple of days, I'll end this review with the final lines from the book: "Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal Tiger."
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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Wendy I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this book after reading the book yesterday. Your comments have helped me to see things differently. Thanks.


Nick Thank you for an excellent review! I agree on almost all accounts. Those who criticize this book should read this review.


Janice(JG) George I was going to write a review for this book, but then I read yours and realized I really had nothing more to add... you've said what needed saying. Do I believe there was a tiger? Yes I do -- for Pi, there was a tiger, and now there is one for me.


Maroniae A very insightful review of the intent of the book!


Katy Thank you for articulating what I thought about this book. I am trying to get my husband to take me to see the film, but when he asks what it's about, I can't explain it :)


Louise Shore No need for me to add a review you said everything I wanted to! However, it'd never have read as well as yours. Thanks.


Cjdt Very good review. Finished the book yesterday, and love the perspective you've brought to it.


Laura This is probably one of the best reviews of a book I have ever read. You really got it spot on!


Lali There was not a part of your review in which I didn't agree. I'll be checking your other ones!


Desiree Wills Fantastic review...right on point!


Catherine Nice job!


message 12: by Emma (new)

Emma C


Crystol Very well said. This book gets better the deeper you examine it. Kinda like life. :-)


message 14: by Beth (new) - rated it 5 stars

Beth Kiesel Pi believes, because in the beginning of the book he talks about how he doesn't understand why Richard Parker left him. right?


Michelle This articulates what I thought! Great review!


message 16: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald I absoultely love this review. So respectful and thoughtful. Well done.


message 17: by Adil (new) - rated it 5 stars

Adil Zafar Your review matches my understanding of the book well. Thank you.


message 18: by Mary (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mary Sue Astonishing review. Thank you for taking the time to write this very insightful piece.


message 19: by Adam (new)

Adam Gottbetter Great review. I read this book years ago and your review has caused me to want to read it again. Adam Gottbetter


message 20: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer Thank you. Great review. This is not just a book about a boy on a boat, as many reviewers posit. If you miss out on the faith/atheism/agnosticism aspects, the unlikely, yet lovelier versus likely, but brutal, you've missed the point. But the island....what is the island?


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