Prose Study: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

FRee choice / originally written in english / C21ST / north america / canada

A wonderful adventure tale whose originality, imaginative detail, suspense, and immediacy will keep you turning pages breathlessly until the very end.

Roberta Rubenstein, from a review in World and I
Watch this Moral of the Story video explainer exploring the hidden meanings behind The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.


Faith, friendship, fiction, floating adrift at sea – all are themes explored in Life of Pi, a 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel. Even those who haven’t read the novel have probably heard of the story: its the tale of a devout Indian boy who becomes stranded in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger as his only companion. Pi must draw on all the knowledge gleaned from his childhood growing up in Pondicherry Zoo, as well as his inner reserves of faith and endurance, to survive this desperate ordeal. Thanks to huge critical acclaim, as well as a 2008 film adaptation directed by Ang Lee, the novel has sold over a million copies and regularly finds itself discussed in schools, bookclubs and wherever anybody loves fiction with a magical-realist twist.

Actually, the novel was embroiled in controversy when it was first published. Buried in Martel’s author’s note is an oft-overlooked detail: he thanks Moacyr Scliar for the ‘spark of life’ that inspired his story. In this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion, Martel acknowledges that his story is based on Scliar’s own Max and the Cats, in which a young Jewish man flees Nazi Germany on a ship bound for Brazil. But when the boat sinks, he finds himself stuck in a lifeboat with a jaguar formerly of the Berlin Zoo. Although the similarity between the two ideas generated controversy after Martel’s novel became a bestseller, both authors have publicly recognised that the two books are very different.

Life of Pi, then, is a survival story, religious parable, and coming-of-age tale rolled into one. Pi Patel is a curious teenager with a lifelong love for both animals and religion. In fact, he is intensely religious and practices the faiths of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity with equal zeal. When Pi is about 16 years old, his father decides to relocate his family to Canada to escape the increasingly fraught political situation of India in the 1970s. While transporting themselves and what remains of their Pondicherry Zoo on a cargo ship to Canada, the ship sinks in a storm. Brutally, Pi is instantly orphaned… and lost at sea alongside a crippled zebra, a hungry hyena, a gentle orangutan – and a fearsome Bengal tiger.

IB Student Learner Profile: balanced

We understand the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives – intellectual, physical, and emotional – to achieve well-being for ourselves and others. We recognize our interdependence with other people and with the world in which we live.

IB Learner Profile

As outlined by the IB, the trait of balance involves cultivating the importance of different aspects of your life – emotional, physical and intellectual – as well as coming to an understanding of one’s place in the world. During his ordeal, Pi has to learn to walk the line between taking control of his destiny and allowing powers larger than himself – the tiger, the ocean – to see him to safety. He endures much: the loss of his family, the unbearable cycles of hope and despair as chances for rescue slip away, and ultimately abandonment by his only friend. The delicate balancing act between two extremes is a crucial part of Pi’s character development, beginning as early as the first chapters of part one where Pi learns to balance his love of zoology with his love of God.

IB Lang and Lit Concept: identity

The question of ‘who am I?’ is pondered by philosophers, psychologists, teenage IB students – and likeable Indian narrators alike. Literature presents an underlying structure for people to examine this most fundamental of questions: the coming-of-age story. Life of Pi gives us a unique spin on this age-old story. Throughout part one of the novel, Pi starts to answer this question, and making discoveries about his own identity. One early, memorable scene has him respond to schoolyard bullies who like to mispronounce his name by effectively taking charge of the classroom and making sure everyone knows who he is. He is guided in his search for answers by a quirky variety of mentors, such as his father, not-one-but-two Mr Kumars, and his uncle Mamaji. Then, just as he seems to be getting a handle on his identity, his world is thrown into turmoil by his father’s decision to leave India – and the terrible ordeal he finds himself plunged into out on the Pacific Ocean. As you read Life of Pi, you too can ponder this most fundamental of questions and explore how identity is forged through the crucibles of life’s most challenging times.

Part 1: Toronto and Pondicherry

I was named after a swimming pool.

In 2022 a theatrical version of Life of Pi directed by Max Williams was transferred to the West End in London. You can read about this award-winning production here.

At the beginning of Life of Pi, a fictional version of Yann Martel meets with a stranger in his home in Canada. He’s trying to find the ‘spark of life’ that will ignite his new novel, and has travelled from Portugal to India to Toronto in Canada to meet with this man. He has been promised a story ‘to make you believe in God’ – and that’s what he’s going to hear. The man is Pi Patel, many years after the events in the novel have taken place. Over the next couple of hundred pages he will retell his incredible survival story. But first, we are taken right back to the beginning, and Pi’s Indian childhood spent running around Pondicherry Zoo, learning about the animals cared for by his zookeeper father. During this time he also found his love of religion, and the contrasting fields of biology and theology will come to define two important facets of his character from here on out.

1. My Family and Other Animals

Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds.

Pi spends some time introducing himself, how he got his strange name (he was named after a swimming pool in Paris) and we meet some important figures from his childhood, all of whom have some life lessons to impart. From his Uncle Mamaji he learned to swim; from his brother Ravi he learned to laugh at himself; from his father he learned zoology and biology. Most importantly, he learned how to care for and respect wild animals, a skill that will be put to unexpected use later in his life.


At the end of chapter 4, Pi says that Pondicherry Zoo closed down and the only animals there now are in his memory. This is a slight piece of misdirection – Pondicherry does, in fact, still have a botanical garden which doubles as the zoo. But no large or dangerous animals – such as a 450-pound Bengal tiger – were ever kept there.

2. Religion

Piscine’s piety is admirable… but he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.

Alongside zoology, faith in God is the guiding force in Pi’s life. Continuing the introduction of his childhood mentors, we now meet Mr Kumar, a sufi mystic who inducts Pi into the world of religion. But Pi’s natural curiosity gets the better of him; not content with worshipping Hinduism, the most common religion in India, he also wants to follow Islam and Christianity too. Things come to a head when three religious leaders all confront Pi and tell him he must choose only one. But Pi has other ideas.

Many readers might think that science and religion are opposite forces; how can one accept the scientific evolution of animals and still believe in creation myths too? But one of the most important aspects of Pi’s character, indeed one of the crucial themes of the entire novel, is that fiction and reality, science and spiritualism, are merely two sides of the same coin, two ways of understanding this wonderful and bizarre world we live in. One of the most important lessons Pi learns, and imparts to us, is that one can be a person of faith in miracles – and have a practical, scientific side rolled into one.


Unsurprisingly, Pi’s nickname refers to the number π, a symbol for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. ‘Pi’ is an irrational and unending number which initially contrasts with Pi’s love of harmony and order. However, the significance of this will later become apparent when Pi is forced to confront Richard Parker, an omega animal where ‘omega’ is the final, ending letter of the Greek alphabet.

Learner Portfolio: practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Life of Pi (Part One): the literary form is ‘prose fiction’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

3. Leavetaking

We sold the zoo, lock, stock and barrel. To a new country, a new life.

The final section of Part 1 touches upon some of the social and political problems of 1970s India. Pi’s father decides that running the zoo will no longer be a profitable endeavour for his family. He wants to sell as many animals as he can to zoos around the world and take his family to begin a new life abroad. While arranging everything is a complicated process that takes well over a year, all too soon the family are ready to depart India. They load themselves, and those animals destined for zoos in the Americas, onto a cargo ship and say goodbye to their homeland. But, unbeknownst to the ill-fated Patels, Pi’s adventure is only just beginning.

  • Chapters 29 – 36 Questions and Activities

The ‘Emergency’ was a period of time in 1970s Indian society when Mrs Gandhi suspended all civil liberties to protect her power and position in office. This decision eventually led to Pi’s father’s decision to leave India, a move that will have tragic consequences for the entire family.

Learner Portfolio: a two-sided boy

Create a character profile of Pi, including the influential people and events in his life. Who educates him practically or scientifically? Who nourishes his soul? Use your work to show how Pi has two facets to his character: one part of him is curious, spiritual and imaginative; the other is practical, logical and scientific.

Part 2: The Pacific Ocean

The sea roared like a tiger.

Richard Parker – The Aquatic Life at Sea is a painting by Adrienne Sherman inspired by Yann Martel’s novel.

The second, and longest, part of the novel takes place on the Pacific Ocean as Pi is thrown headlong into a battle for survival. Four days into the Pacific crossing, he is awoken in the depths of night by something that sounds like an explosion. He goes to investigate – and walks into a nightmarish and chaotic scene. A storm is battering the Tsimtsum, animals have broken loose from the cargo hold, and the ship begins to sink. He is thrown onto a lifeboat by a group of sailors, and barely moments later finds himself the only survivor as the ship goes down with all hands. That is to say, Pi finds himself the only human survivor. Because sharing the lifeboat with him is a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan in mourning for her drowned children, a viscous and hungry hyena – and, most terrifying of all, a royal Bengal tiger.

4. A Matter of Life and Death

I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me.

In the first few chapters after the ship sinks, Pi is embroiled in a simple battle for survival. Not only is his lifeboat crowded with dangerous animals, but the sea around him is boiling with sharks. He’ll need to use the survival instincts that all humans and animals share, combined with no small amount of luck, to get through the first night.

Pi soon realises that no help is coming, and his situation appears to be hopeless. Things take a turn for the worse when the hyena begins to attack the other animals on the lifeboat, and Pi starts to think that he will certainly die. Even his faith in God seems like it might not be enough to save him. But, once he brings the initial shock of his situation under control. he starts to think more clearly and his ingenious side comes to the fore: he resolves to try to get himself out of this impossible situation.


Tsimtsum is the name of the ship that sinks taking all of Pi’s family with it. The concept ‘tzitzum’ is also a Jewish teaching in which God withdraws his infinite self from the cosmos in order to create the universe. The empty space left behind is given to his creations to grow and live according to their own free will. Accordingly, the sinking of the Tsimtsum represents God ‘withdrawing’ from Pi’s life – leaving it up to him to both survive and find meaning from his experience.

Learner Portfolio: an unlikely survival story

The chances of Pi’s survival are incredibly slim – but somehow he makes it through the first few hours, days and nights on the lifeboat. How does he survive? Below are a list of factors that contribute to Pi’s survival. Devise a method to randomly assign individuals or pairs one of these factors. Your job is to persuade your teacher that your given factor is the principal reason for Pi’s survival in this section of the novel. Set a time limit for both preparation and presentation, and use all the persuasive tricks you know to convince your listener that you have the key to Pi’s survival:

  • Luck
  • Logical thinking
  • Ingenuity
  • Bravery
  • Knowledge
  • Faith

5. Drifting

I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me.

In this section of the novel, Pi drifts further and further than ever before. His clothes disintegrate and his body starts to break down: he is constantly sunburned and develops painful sores on his exposed skin. The possibility of rescue or finding land has never seemed so remote, and despair threatens to overwhelm Pi on several occasions. Hunger and thirst also work their terrible magic on Pi, and the peaceful vegetarian we met in part one fades into memory. As Pi’s ordeal transforms him, we wonder how he will survive with any trace of his humanity intact.


In this section of the story, it is revealed that Pi spent 227 days lost at sea. What is significant about this number? Well, 22/7 = pi. Just as there are exactly 100 chapters in the novel, the author is drawing attention to the fact that the story, no matter how ‘real’ it pretends to be, is still an artificial construction. Readers should be aware of the author’s guiding (and playful) hand behind the words on the page.

Learner Portfolio: practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Life of Pi (Part Two): the literary form is ‘prose fiction’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

6. Taming the Tiger

I love you Richard Parker. If I didn’t have you now, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t think I would make it.

Pi is forced to confront the problem of Richard Parker. Not only does he take up lots of the space on the lifeboat, he poses a constant threat to Pi’s life. He comes to the conclusion that he needs to ‘carve out’ more territory for himself on the lifeboat, just as if he was another tiger sharing a zoo enclosure. At this point, his upbringing in Pondicherry Zoo comes to his aid. He is able to devise a training programme for Richard Parker based on his knowledge of omega animal behaviour. He rigs up a sea anchor that he can use to stabilise and de-stabilise the boat, and uses the tiger’s seasickness against him. the training regimen is exceptionally dangerous, and Pi comes within a whisker of being swatted by the tiger’s sharp claws. But gradually he starts to assert his dominance – and one day, Richard Parker backs down. Pi has won!


Yann Martel poached the name ‘Richard Parker’ from an Edgar Allen Poe short story written in 1838 where a character, by the name of Richard Parker, is eaten by fellow sailors after hunger sets in. Remarkably, the name also appears in the true account of the shipwrecked Mignonette, which ended in gruesome tragedy for a poor cabin boy with this name – 50 years after Poe’s story was written!

Learner Portfolio: Richard Parker

The closest and most touching relationship in the novel is between Pi and Richard Parker – and it doesn’t matter that one is a three year old, 450-pound Bengal tiger who could eat the other for breakfast! Richard Parker was captured as a cub and given his odd name due to a clerical error (it’s actually the name of the hunter who caught him). The tiger is beautiful and terrible; fierce and dangerous – yet Pi needs him and decides his survival depends upon taming him rather than trying to kill him. By the end of the novel, Pi is heartbroken when Richard Parker leaves him ‘so unceremoniously’.

How does Yann Martel make this into such a poignant relationship? In what ways do the two depend upon each other? What exactly is the relationship between the two? Do you think that the tiger is even real? Write a one-two page entry in your journal developing your ideas about the relationship between Pi and his feline companion.

7. Out of the Abyss

Something in me died then, that has never come back to life.

Use this ‘rites of passage’ diagram in class to help you understand the growth of a character in a coming-of-age story.

In undoubtedly the strangest few chapters of the novel, Pi relates two dreamlike experiences which are so bizarre as to be almost unbelievable. The first is an encounter he has with a fellow castaway; they drift into one another whilst temporarily blinded by malnutrition, and the reader must ask whether the other castaway is really there or if Pi is caught in a circular conversation with himself.

Days later Pi comes across a floating island that even he believes is a mirage – until he stands on firm ground and enjoys a temporary respite from the lifeboat’s confinement. The island is made of a bright green, edible algae and populated by a colony of meerkats. How they got there is one of many mysteries that Pi cannot explain, until he begins to explore the interior of the island. One night, whilst sleeping in a hammock he suspends between two trees, Pi makes a discovery that shocks him to his core. What is the secret of the algae island? Study the materials in this section to come to your own conclusion.


While Pi’s floating algae-island may not be real – yet – that doesn’t mean it’s not scientifically sound. Like the floating island Pi and Richard Parker discover, the island of Castello Aragonese creates beds of vivid green sea grass and sustains swarms of translucent jellyfish and algae. Yet no other life survives in its waters.

Learner Portfolio: practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Life of Pi, or you could try to compare your ideas with another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. “Coming of age stories” are ones which present the psychological, moral and social shaping of a character. Discuss how the protagonist develops in works of literature you have studied.
  2. Animals and images drawn from the world of animals are a rich source of inspiration for writers. Discuss how animals are used to develop central ideas in works you have studied.
  3. Consider how the idea of freedom is explored in literary works you have studied.
  4. How important is the ending to a work of literature? Refer to endings of works you have studied to answer this question.

Part 3: Mexico

I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know… You want dry, yeastless factuality. You want a story without animals.

After Pi’s lifeboat washes up on a beach in Mexico, Pi is taken by local people to a hospital where he is treated and slowly recovers. One day, two Japanese men, Mr. Tomohiro Okamoto and Mr. Atsuro Chiba, appear at the hospital. They are representatives of an insurance company and have been sent to discover what happened to the Tsimtsum. They then interviewed Pi in English and taped the conversation. The fictional author who we met in part one has since received a copy of this tape and Mr. Okamoto’s final report, which he presents and discusses in this final part of the story.

8. In the Hospital

The story with animals is the better story… And so it goes with God.

Chapter 99 includes the transcript of the interview between Pi and the two Japanese officials sent to discover why the Tsimtsum sank. Pi told them his survival story, including what happened to Orange Juice, the zebra, hyena and Richard Parker – but they didn’t believe him. So he tells them a second story in which the animal characters are replaced with humans. In this version Pi is on the lifeboat with a French cook, a Chinese sailor, and his own mother. The sailor dies and the cook eats his flesh. The cook later kills Pi’s mother – and then Pi kills the cook. The officials are horrified, but they believe this version of events.


After Pi finishes telling his story, his skeptical Japanese listener, in order to assert his belief the story is made-up, jumps on the detail of floating bananas and asserts that bananas don’t float. But – what if he’s wrong? Does that mean Pi’s story is real? The same goes for the floating carnivorous algae island, which sounds unbelievable, yet might actually be a true phenomenon.

Learner Portfolio: the better story

Metafiction is a modern style of fiction in which the author deliberately calls attention to the story as a fictional creation. Often the author does this to make a point about how the fictional world relates to reality, and vice versa. In Life of Pi, Yann Martel highlights how his realistic-seeming story is actually pure fiction in several ways. First, the entire work is a “story within a story,” as the story of Pi’s survival is set within the framework of an author trying to write a new novel. The ‘core’ of the novel is surrounded by additional parts that are also fictional, such as the Author’s Note and the interview transcript in part three. These parts frame Pi’s tale within a real-world scenario, and encourage the reader to confront his or her own ideas about fact and truth. This resonates with the novel’s message of finding truth in a “better story” instead of just looking for the most straightforward explanation of events.

Therefore, the ending of the novel is a kind of challenge to the reader. Martel, through Pi, basically admits that his story is completely made-up – but the Japanese interviewer includes in his report mention of Richard Parker anyway, even though he knows he may not have existed on the lifeboat. Clearly he has been moved by Pi’s words and wants to believe ‘the better story’. In a way, he is showing the same kind of faith that a person who believes in God shows; even in the absence of proof, one can choose to believe.

As you can see from this piece of wider reading, not everybody appreciates this element of Martel’s novel. Once you have read this review, think about your own reaction the first time you read Part Three, and reflect on whether you still feel the same after discussion in your class. How do you react to this aspect of Life of Pi? Which version of the story did you like best and why? Can you accept things can be true even if they are not real? Write a reflective entry in your journal engaging with these ideas.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Life of Pi offers many possibilities for completing this assessed activity. ** Angles of investigation include, but are not limited to:

  • Discuss the importance of narrative structure and metafictional elements in Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
  • How does Yann Martel convey the extremes of survival in Life of Pi?
  • What is the importance of the ocean setting in Part Two of Life of Pi by Yann Martel?
  • Explore the symbolism of ‘circles’ and ‘boundaries’ in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
  • What is the role and importance of ‘religion’ in Life of Pi by Yann Martel?
  • By what methods does Yann Martel make Pi such an engaging narrator to listen to in his novel Life of Pi?
  • Explore the portrayal of family in Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
  • To what extent is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi an exploration of atavism?
  • How, and to what purpose, does Yann Martel’s writing style shift from poetic to practical prose in the novel Life of Pi?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course), students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Life of Pi is choc-a-bloc full of interesting ideas and themes that can be translated into Global Issues with just a little thought. From the passages in part 1 about animal welfare, to the depths one might plunge when in the grip of despair and desperation, to the importance of a good teacher – you should be able to find something that piques your curiosity and can give your Individual Oral presentation that ‘spark of life’ that can make it soar. Now you have finished reading and studying the novel, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the play, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

This is one of the major themes of Yann Martel’s novel, which carries a strong environmental message throughout. In Pi’s opinion mankind can learn to live in harmony with nature. His journey teaches him a newfound respect for and amazement of the wonders of the natural world – a lesson his father tried to teach him and was crucial in him surviving his ordeal at sea.

Pi is a devout Hindu, Muslim and Christian – he even respects atheists for the strength of their beliefs – and faith in God is a guiding force in his life. Without his spiritual beliefs he would have succumbed to despair in the first few days of his castaway ordeal. Whether religious, scientific, or even imaginary, Yann Martel argues that everybody needs to believe in something greater than themselves to give their lives meaning and purpose in a vast and hostile universe.


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