Life of Pi

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The Life of Pi
Life of Pi cover.png
Life of Pi cover
AuthorYann Martel
Original titleLife of Pi
GenrePhilosophical fiction
PublisherKnopf Canada
Publication date
11 September 2001 (2001-09-11) (Canada)
ISBN0-676-97376-0 (first edition, hardcover)
Preceded bySelf 
Followed byBeatrice and Virgil 

Life of Pi is a Canadian philosophical novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist is Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian Tamil boy from Pondicherry who explores issues of spirituality and metaphysics from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger which raises questions about the nature of reality and how it is perceived and told. He is part of a Hindi speaking family.

The novel has sold more than ten million copies worldwide.[1] It was rejected by at least five London publishing houses[2] before being accepted by Knopf Canada, which published it in September 2001. The UK edition won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year.[3][4][5] It was also chosen for CBC Radio's Canada Reads 2003, where it was championed by author Nancy Lee.[6]

The French translation L'Histoire de Pi was chosen in the French CBC version of the contest Le Combat des livres, where it was championed by Louise Forestier.[7] The novel won the 2003 Boeke Prize, a South African novel award. In 2004, it won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Best Adult Fiction for years 2001–2003.[8] In 2012 it was adapted into a feature film directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay by David Magee.


The book begins with a note from the author, which is an integral part of the novel. Unusually, the note describes entirely fictional events. It serves to establish and enforce one of the book's main themes: the relativity of truth.

Part one[edit]

The narrator, Indian theologist Piscine Molitor Patel, tells the story of his childhood in Pondicherry, during the early years of India's status as an independent nation. At the time, he is the son of the local zoo's manager. While recounting his life there, Piscine proffers insight on the antagonism of zoos, and expresses his thoughts on why animals react less negatively than proponents of the idea suggest.

The narrator describes how he acquired his full name as a tribute to the swimming pool in France. After hearing schoolmates tease him by transforming the first name into "Pissing", he establishes the short form of his name as "Pi" when he starts secondary school. The name, he says, pays tribute to the transcendental number which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

In recounting his experiences, Pi describes several other unusual situations involving proper names: two visitors to the zoo, one a devout Muslim, and the other a committed atheist, bear identical names; and a 450-pound tiger at the zoo bears the name Richard Parker as the result of a clerical error which switched the tiger's name with the name of his human captor.[9]

One day, Pi and his older brother Ravi are given an impromptu lesson on the dangers of the animals kept at the zoo. It opens with a goat being fed to another tiger, followed by a family tour of the zoo on which his father explains the aggressive biological features of each animal.

Pi is raised as a Hindu who practices vegetarianism. At the age of fourteen, he investigates Christianity and Islam, and decides to become an adherent of all three religions, much to his parents' dismay (and his religious mentors' frustration), saying he "just wants to love God".[10] He tries to understand God through the lens of each religion, and comes to recognize benefits in each one.

A few years later in February 1976, during the period when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declares "The Emergency", Pi's father decides to sell the zoo and emigrate with his wife and sons to Canada.

Part two[edit]

The second part of the novel begins with Pi's family aboard the Tsimtsum, a Japanese freighter that is transporting animals from their zoo to North America. A few days out of port from Manila, the ship encounters a storm and sinks. Pi manages to escape in a small lifeboat, only to learn that the boat also holds a spotted hyena, an injured Grant's zebra, and an orangutan named Orange Juice. Much to the boy's distress, the hyena kills the zebra and then Orange Juice. A tiger has been hiding under the boat's tarpaulin: it is Richard Parker, who had boarded the lifeboat with ambivalent assistance from Pi himself some time before the hyena attack. Suddenly emerging from his hideaway, Richard Parker kills and eats the hyena.

Frightened, Pi constructs a small raft out of rescue flotation devices, tethers it to the bow of the boat and makes it his place of retirement. He begins conditioning Richard Parker to take a submissive role by using food as a positive reinforcer, and seasickness as a punishment mechanism, while using a whistle for signals. Soon, Pi asserts himself as the alpha animal, and is eventually able to share the boat with his feline companion, admitting in the end that Richard Parker is the one who helped him survive his ordeal.

Pi recounts various events while adrift in the Pacific Ocean. At his lowest point, exposure renders him blind and unable to catch fish. In a state of delirium, he talks with a marine "echo", which he initially identifies as Richard Parker having gained the ability to speak, but it turns out to be another blind castaway, a Frenchman, who boards the lifeboat with the intention of killing and eating Pi, but is immediately killed by Richard Parker.

Some time later, Pi's boat comes ashore on a floating island network of algae inhabited by hundreds of thousands of meerkats. Soon, Pi and Richard Parker regain strength, but the boy's discovery of the carnivorous nature of the island's plant life forces him to return to the ocean.

Two hundred and twenty-seven days after the ship's sinking, the lifeboat washes onto a beach in Mexico, after which Richard Parker disappears into the nearby jungle without looking back, leaving Pi heartbroken at the abrupt farewell.

Part three[edit]

The third part of the novel describes a conversation between Pi and two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, who are conducting an inquiry into the shipwreck. They meet him at the hospital in Mexico where he is recovering. Pi tells them his tale, but the officials reject it as unbelievable. Pi then offers them a second story in which he is adrift on a lifeboat not with zoo animals, but with the ship's cook, a Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg, and his own mother. The cook amputates the sailor's leg for use as fishing bait, then kills the sailor himself as well as Pi's mother for food, and soon he is killed by Pi, who dines on him.

The investigators note parallels between the two stories. They soon conclude that the hyena symbolizes the cook, the zebra the sailor, the orangutan Pi's mother, and the tiger represents Pi. Pi points out that neither story can be proven and neither explains the cause of the shipwreck, so he asks the officials which story they prefer: the one without animals or the one with animals. They eventually choose the story with the animals. Pi thanks them and says: "And so it goes with God." The investigators then leave and file a report.


Martel has said that Life of Pi can be summarized in three statements: "Life is a story"; "You can choose your story"; "A story with God is the better story".[11] Gordon Houser suggests that there are two main themes of the book: "that all life is interdependent, and that we live and breathe via belief."[12]


Martel said in a 2002 interview with PBS that he was "looking for a story … that would direct my life".[13] He spoke of being lonely and needing direction in his life, and he found that writing the novel met this need.[14]

Richard Parker and shipwreck narratives[edit]

The name Richard Parker for the tiger was inspired by a character in Edgar Allan Poe's nautical adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Richard Parker is a mutineer who is stranded and eventually cannibalized on the hull of an overturned ship, and there is a dog aboard who is named Tiger. Martel also had another occurrence in mind in the famous legal case R v Dudley and Stephens (1884), where a shipwreck again results in the cannibalism of a cabin boy named Richard Parker, this time in a lifeboat.[15] A third Richard Parker drowned in the sinking of the Francis Spaight in 1846, described by author Jack London, and later the cabin boy was cannibalized. "So many victimized Richard Parkers had to mean something", Martel suggested[16][17]

Moacyr Scliar[edit]

Martel has mentioned that a book review of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella Max and the Cats accounts in part for his novel's premise. Scliar's story describes a Jewish-German refugee crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a jaguar in his boat.[18][19] Scliar said that he was perplexed that Martel "used the idea without consulting or even informing me," and indicated that he was reviewing the situation before deciding whether to take any action in response.[20][21] After talking with Martel, Scliar elected not to pursue the matter.[22] A dedication to Scliar "for the spark of life" appears in the author's note of Life of Pi. Literary reviews have described the similarities as superficial between Life of Pi and Max and the Cats. Reviewer Peter Yan wrote: "Reading the two books side-by-side, one realizes how inadequate bald plot summaries are in conveying the unique imaginative impact of each book,"[23] and noted that Martel's distinctive narrative structure is not found in Scliar's novella. The themes of the books are also dissimilar, with Max and the Cats being a metaphor for Nazism.[24] In Life of Pi, 211 of 354 pages are devoted to Pi's experience in the lifeboat, compared to 17 of 99 pages in Max and the Cats depicting time spent in a lifeboat.[24]


Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel[edit]

He acquires layer after layer of diverse spirituality and brilliantly synthesizes it into a personal belief system and devotional life that is breathtaking in its depth and scope. His youthful exploration into comparative religion culminates in a magnificent epiphany of sorts.

—Phoebe Kate Foster of PopMatters[25]

Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as just "Pi", is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. He was named after a swimming pool in Paris, despite the fact that neither his mother nor his father particularly liked swimming. The story is told as a narrative from the perspective of a middle-aged Pi, now married with his own family, and living in Canada. At the time of main events of the story, he is sixteen years old. He recounts the story of his life and his 227-day journey on a lifeboat when his ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a voyage to North America.

Richard Parker[edit]

Richard Parker is a Bengal tiger who is stranded on the lifeboat with Pi when the ship sinks. Richard Parker lives on the lifeboat with Pi and is kept alive with the food and water Pi delivers. Richard Parker develops a relationship with Pi that allows them to coexist in their struggle.

In the novel, a hunter named Richard Parker is hired to kill a panther that has been terrorising the people of a small village in Bangladesh and thought to have killed seven people within two months. Instead, he accidentally immobilizes a female Bengal tiger with tranquilizer darts while her cub is caught hiding in a bush. Parker names the cub Thirsty after his enthusiasm when drinking from a nearby river. The paperwork that accompanies the shipment of the two tigers to Pi's family's zoo in Pondicherry states that the cub's name is "Richard Parker" and the hunter's given name is "Thirsty" and his surname is "None Given", due to a mix-up with the names. Pi's father finds the story so amusing that they continue to call the tiger "Richard Parker".


Brian Bethune of Maclean's describes Life of Pi as a "head-scratching combination of dense religious allegory, zoological lore and enthralling adventure tale, written with warmth and grace".[26] Master Plots suggested that the "central themes of Life of Pi concern religion and human faith in God".[27] Reutter said, "So believable is Pi's story telling that readers will be amazed."[28] Gregory Stephens added that it "achieves something more quietly spectacular."[29] Smith stated that there was "no bamboozlement here."[30] Gary Krist of The New York Times praised the book, but added that at times Martel "pushes the didactic agenda of his story too hard."[31]

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama wrote a letter directly to Martel, describing Life of Pi as "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling."[32]


Illustrated edition[edit]

The first edition of Life of Pi was illustrated by Andy Bridge. In October 2005, a worldwide competition was launched to find an artist to illustrate Life of Pi. The competition was run by Scottish publisher Canongate Books and UK newspaper The Times, as well as Australian newspaper The Age and Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac was chosen as the illustrator for the new edition, which was published in September 2007.[33][34][35]

Film adaptation[edit]

A 2012 adaptation directed by Ang Lee and based on an adapted screenplay by David Magee was given a wide release in the United States on 21 November 2012. At the 85th Academy Awards, it won four awards from eleven nominations, including Best Director.

Theatrical adaptations[edit]

This novel has also been adapted as a play by Keith Robinson, artistic director of the youth-oriented Twisting Yarn Theatre Company. Andy Rashleigh wrote the adaptation, which was directed by Keith Robinson. The premier/original cast contained only six actors – Tony Hasnath (Pi), Taresh Solanki (Richard Parker), Melody Brown (Mother), Conor Alexander (Father), Sanjay Shalat (Brother) and Mark Pearce (Uncle).[36] The play was produced at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, England, in 2003.[37] The company toured England and Ireland with the play in 2004 and 2007.

Keith Robinson also directed a second version of the play. He brought some of his company to work with students of the BA (Hons) Drama, Applied Theatre and Education Course at the Central School of Speech and Drama. The joint production was performed at the Minack Theatre, in Cornwall, England, in late June 2008.[38] It was well received by the press and community.

A new adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti was produced at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield in June 2019.[39] It was directed by Max Webster, with puppetry and movement directed by Finn Caldwell. It was well reviewed unanimously by critics [40] and will open in the West End, at Wyndham's Theatre, in June 2020.[41]


  1. ^ Miller, Daniel (18 February 2013). "'Life of Pi' a surprise success story around the world". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 January 2019.
  2. ^ Gibbons, Fiachra (24 October 2002). "Top publishers rejected Booker winner". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 31 August 2010.
  3. ^ "Life of Pi". Man Booker Prize. Archived from the original on 2 December 2010. Retrieved 31 August 2010.
  4. ^ Kipen, David (23 October 2002). "Canadian wins Booker Prize / 'Life of Pi' is tale of a boy who floats across the ocean from India". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 31 August 2010.
  5. ^ Reynolds, Nigel (30 September 2002). "Life of Pi wins Booker". The Daily Telegraph. UK. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
  6. ^ "Canada Reads 2003". Canada Reads. Retrieved 1 September 2010.
  7. ^ "Martel seeks quiet of Saskatoon". CBC News. Retrieved 1 September 2010.[dead link]
  8. ^ "Asian Pacific American Award for Literature (APAAL) 2001–2003". APAAL. Archived from the original on 6 February 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  9. ^ Martel, p. 14
  10. ^ Martel, p. 69
  11. ^ Renton, Jennie. "Yann Martel Interview". Textualities. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  12. ^ Houser, Gordon (2003). "The Life of Pi". The Christian Century. 120 (3): 34+. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  13. ^ Martel, Yann (11 November 2002). "Conversation: Life of PI". PBS NewsHour (Interview). Interviewed by Ray Suarez. PBS. Retrieved 16 January 2015.
  14. ^ Martel, Yann (27 October 2002). "Triumph of a castaway adrift in the sea of his imagination". The Sunday Times. UK. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Yann Martel on tigers, cannibals and Edgar Alan Poe". Canongate Books. 14 May 2002. Archived from the original on 18 March 2008. Retrieved 1 September 2010.
  17. ^ Martel, Yann. "How Richard Parker Came to Get His Name". Retrieved 1 September 2010.
  18. ^ "From the Author – Yann Martel – Powell's Books". Archived from the original on 14 January 2013. Retrieved 30 December 2012.
  19. ^ Mitgang, Herbert (11 July 1990). "Books of The Times; Fleeing the Nazis With a Jaguar That May Be Real". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 September 2010.
  20. ^ Rohter, Larry (11 July 1990). "Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat: A Furor Over a Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 September 2010.
  21. ^
  22. ^ Scliar, Moacyr (16 July 2006). "Writers & Company" (Interview). Interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel. CBC Radio 1.
  23. ^ "Review". Books in Canada. Retrieved 30 December 2012.
  24. ^ a b ""Hollow at the core": Deconstructing Yann Martel's Life of Pi | Stratton | Studies in Canadian Literature". Retrieved 30 December 2012.
  25. ^ Foster, Phoebe Kate (4 September 2002). "Life of Pi: A Novel by Yann Martel". PopMatters. London. Retrieved 27 August 2011.
  26. ^ Bethune, Brian (13 April 2010). "The missing half of Yann Martel's new novel: His plan for his long-awaited follow-up to 'Life of Pi' didn't quite work out". Maclean's. Retrieved 31 August 2010.
  27. ^ Cockeram, Paul (November 2010). "Life of Pi". Master Plots 4 edition: 1–3.
  28. ^ Reutter, Vicki (2004). "Martel, Yann. Life of Pi". School Library Journal.
  29. ^ Stephens, Gregory (14 May 2013). "Feeding tiger, finding God: science, religion, and 'the better story' in Life of Pi". 1. 14. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  30. ^ Smith, Jean (2003). "Yann Martel. Life of Pi". The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 23 (1).
  31. ^ Krist, Gary (7 July 2002). "Taming the Tiger". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 7 March 2017.
  32. ^ "Life of Pi author Martel hears from Obama". Saskatoon StarPhoenix. Winnipeg Free Press. 8 April 2010. Retrieved 6 September 2011.
  33. ^ "Life of Pi: The Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel and Tomislav Torjanac". The Sunday Times. UK. 15 September 2007. Archived from the original on 21 May 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  34. ^ Martel, Yann (15 April 2006). "A brush with the art of Pi". The Sunday Times. UK. Archived from the original on 16 June 2011. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  35. ^ "The Illustrated Life of Pi". The Guardian. UK. 27 September 2007. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  36. ^ Cooper, Neil (15 March 2007). "Life of Pi, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow". The Herald. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  37. ^ "A remarkable journey from novel to stage". Yorkshire Post. 6 December 2004. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  38. ^ "Production which goes for the jugular". This is Cornwall. Northcliffe Media. 18 June 2008. Archived from the original on 21 April 2013. Retrieved 22 March 2012.
  39. ^ "Life of Pi review at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – 'pure theatrical magic'". The stage. Retrieved 18 July 2019.
  40. ^ "'It's a hit' - five-star reviews for Life of Pi on stage in Sheffield".
  41. ^ "Delfont Mackintosh Theatres".


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