Life of Pi Symbolism, Imagery, & Allegory
Sometimes, there’s more to Pop Lit than meets the eye.
Everything and Nothing is Allegorical
The greatest temptation in the history of mankind is to read Life of Pi as an allegory. It's so easy, right? Each surviving animal matches up with a human survivor. (Martel offers us the blueprint in the second-to-last chapter.) You could also see Richard Parker as God. Pi's ordeal on the Pacific could be viewed as a spiritual journey. And what about the algae island with human teeth hidden in sacs of leaves? Doesn't that have to symbolize something? Isn't this book one big allegory? Don't hate us, but we're going to say, "Well, yes and no."
Animals = Humans
Pi tells the Japanese investigators a horrific, factual version of his ordeal in Chapter 99. It takes about seven pages. As Martel has stated in one interview, he pushes his readers to make a leap of faith as the novel's events get more and more unlikely. (Check out the interview here.) We have to make a leap of faith – meaning, we have to take Pi for his word – in order to finish the novel without saying, "Oh, this must be Pi's imagination now," or "Martel's using allegory now." Martel and Pi test our latent incredulity with the blind Frenchman and the algae island. When the Japanese investigators question Pi and he tells an alternate version of the story, we're being given The Ultimate Test. We at Shmoop didn't pass the test the first time we read the novel. But now that we know it's a test, we could pass it. No problem.
Pi could have come up with whole Richard Parker story, right? He's a sixteen-year-old boy who experiences some very traumatic events. This is his way of coping. So he invents animals for each survivor of the Tsimtsum. Here's the crucial exchange between Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba:
[Mr. Okamoto:] "The blind Frenchman they met in the other lifeboat – didn't he admit to killing a man and a woman?"
[Mr. Chiba:] "Yes, he did."