Hope and Understanding: Comparing Life of Pi and Bless Me, Ultima

In tough times, it seems that many people turn to their faith. In moments of weakness, when it seems that everything is lost, many people find that a certain hope remains in God. Others turn to God for a “why”; a reason that circumstances are the way they are, or why God is putting them in such a difficult situation. In the novels Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolpho Anaya and Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the protagonists Tony and Pi both have beliefs that give them something to turn to in hard times. The faith journeys of Pi and Tony are similar in that each boy finds mentors for the three faiths he identifies with; however, the main characters differ in how they understand the concept of one person possessing multiple faiths and in how they apply their faiths to the obstacles that they face in their lives.

Both of these adolescent boys are impressionable and malleable, and they both find mentors for their faiths that help shape and guide them in their beliefs. Pi, for one, identifies with Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Growing up in India where Hinduism is predominant, Pi was influenced by Hinduism from a young age. This is why he feels that he is Hindu. He explains that he has always felt a “Presence,” and this seems to explain how he came into Hinduism: “I am aware of Presence, not personal the way we usually feel presence, but something larger” (Martel, 28). Much as Pi grew up with Hinduism surrounding him, Tony grew up in Catholicism. Tony follows the model that his mother sets, and she is a mentor to him in this faith; his mother encourages him to practice Catechism and wants him to grow up to be a priest. Pi’s own second religion is Christianity, and Father Martin introduces him to this faith in his youth. Father Martin encourages him in this faith, and helps him to understand the basic idea of The Story. Tony’s second faith is from Ultima, the ways of “la cuaranderas.” Just as Pi feels a Presence, Tony feels a presence of his own as well: “I had been aware of the awful presence of the river, which was the soul of the river, but through her I learned that my spirit shared in the spirit of all things” (Anaya, 15). Bringing to mind the idea of a spirit within the river, Ultima taught him about the spirits within plants. She tells Tony to speak to the plants before extracting them, and to tell them why they are being dug up. Finally, Pi’s mentor for his third religion, Islam, is Mr. Kumar, a Muslim baker. He introduces Pi to Islam after Pi watches him pray in his bakery. Tony’s own third faith is in the Golden Carp, a pagan god. His mentor who teaches him about the Golden Carp is his friend Samuel (in partnership with Cico), a boy who instructs Tony in the legends and ways of the Golden Carp. These various mentors help to teach these two young boys about the religions that they encounter.

A difference that is clearly evident between these two boys’ journeys is how Tony and Pi interpret faith and how they accept the practice of multiple faiths. Pi sees different religions simply as different channels to the same God, yet Tony finds that the contradictions between the faiths that he practices inhibit his ability to accept all of them at once. To begin with, Pi sees his three religions differently than others do. He has one intention: to love God. When the imam, pandit, and priest all visit Pi’s house inquiring about his faith, Pi simply tells them: “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God” (Martel, 39). Pi maintains that the three religions have distinct characteristics but all lead to the same God. Contrary to how Pi sees things, for the majority of the novel Tony is confused by religion, since he firmly believes in all three faiths but doesn’t see how they can coexist. Cico further confuses Tony by telling him that he cannot have more than one God, because the Catholic God is a jealous God. At the end of the novel, Tony seems to have a better understanding of religion; “Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp – and make it something new” (Anaya, 247). Even though it is difficult for him to see the three religions coming together, he sees how they all point to the same thing, which is a higher power. Tony ultimately realizes that he can worship however he chooses to, and that he does not need to conform to society. He realizes that he can create his own religion. This realization still differs from Pi’s beliefs, though, in that Tony feels that if he is to possess multiple faiths, doing so requires the creation of an entirely new religion. Pi believes that multiple religions can remain separate and distinct, while still leading to the same God.

A further difference between the faith journeys of Pi and Tony can be seen in how Pi and Tony apply their unique religious beliefs to the challenges they face in their lives. They each face very different obstacles; Pi needs to survive, and Tony needs to mature. Yet they both use their faiths as resources as they go through tough times, in different ways. As Pi goes through his ordeal in his lifeboat, his goal is to survive and his faith is what keeps him going, even during his darkest days. At certain points his hope falters, as can be seen in the fading of orange (a color of Hinduism) on the lifeboat, and in the dead, decaying lamb. Yet in the end, Pi’s faith is what brings him to land, and without it he would have died on the lifeboat. As for Tony, his obstacles accompany his journey of growing up. He is trying to understand his destiny, what the purpose of his life is, and his faiths play a large role in that understanding. Some of the situations he goes through challenge his understanding of his purpose, such as the deaths of Florence, Narciso, and Lupito. These deaths cause Tony to question the differences between good and evil, and where the line lies for forgiveness and for condemnation by God. In a dream he has, he asks for forgiveness for Narciso, but not for Tenorio. God laughs and says to him, “You would have a God who forgives all, but when it comes to your personal whims you seek punishment for your vengeance” (Anaya, 173). Furthermore, the problems presented by Tenorio and his daughters continue to provoke Tony’s questions. His faiths are a resource for him in that he turns to them for understanding of all these problems. Yet Tony finds that the many questions he has aren’t always answered in the way that he expects. In fact, he faces even more questions after his first communion, when he thought he would suddenly receive all of the answers he was looking for.

The novels Bless Me, Ultima and Life of Pi are ostensibly similar, but actually differ in multiple ways. Firstly, they are similar in that the novels are both about young boys who identify with multiple faiths, and who find mentors to help guide them through their spiritual journeys. Yet also prominent is the difference in how each boy understands the idea of possessing multiple faiths, and what that means for his life. Finally, they differ in the way that the characters use their faiths to overcome challenges in their lives: Pi uses his faith for hope in his ordeal on the lifeboat, and Tony for understanding as he grows up. These two novels showcase the importance of faith in difficult times, while emphasizing that people experience faith differently and have their own religious ideas. Turning to faith for hope in tough times, or for understanding in confusing situations, is a common tactic of many people in the world. These two powerful ideas can be what bring people through tough times when, without faith in a higher power or purpose, it would be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Journey to Independence

Although innocence may seem at times like a desirable state, a lack of innocence most often pertains to intelligence and maturity. In Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, Bless Me, Ultima, the main character, Antonio Maréz, loses his innocence through experiences of the world’s harsh reality, which force him to cope with his beliefs despite his young age. Through early encounters with death, conflicts with faith, and problems with his family and friends, Antonio matures rapidly by dealing with injustice and conflict.

As only a young child, Antonio is quickly stripped of his outlook on the world when he witnesses the deaths of Lupito and Narciso. When Lupito is killed by the angry town mob, Antonio is introduced to the presence of injustice and violence. He quickly understands that the death was an act of suicide on Lupito’s part when “he was shooting to draw [the mob’s] fire” (Anaya, 22). Antonio must deal with the fact that, for some, death maybe an easier route than living life. He thought before that life was easygoing and rational, but the mob mentality that dominates Lupito’s fate shows him that oftentimes there is no voice of reason among men. He quickly starts to question the ways of humans as they seem to be crueler than he expected. The death of Narciso, a close friend, is another blow to Antonio’s precious childhood. Circumstantially different, this death is caused by revenge rather than as an act to preserve justice (as is the case with Lupito). Antonio falls into shock as he realizes that Narciso has died “for doing good” (170). As a Catholic, Antonio has been taught that killing another man is an unforgivable sin that would send one to hell. However, when Tenorio blindly kills Narciso out of his rage for his daughter, Antonio has to face the fact that God’s laws are not always followed, and that evil lurks in the shadows. Because of this, he starts to wonder why evil had prevailed over good, leading to a religious stalemate with his faith. This instance forces Antonio to grow and mature a tremendous amount, as he struggles to accept the wrongdoing that has escaped with no punishment and left Narciso dying in his hands. The shock of Tenorio’s iniquity reintroduces him to the bloody tendencies of man, as he already witnessed with Lupito. Stripped of his innocence at an elementary age, Antonio is already required to deal with the guilt, suffering, and mourning that accompany cruel injustice.

Another cause of Antonio’s loss of innocence is his constant questioning of his own religion. The deaths of Lupito and Narciso cause him to start doubting the reliability of God and His actions. When Lupito dies, Antonio cannot draw the fine line between who would be punished when he asks Ultima, “will [Lupito] go to hell?” (25). In practice, Catholicism clearly defines the difference between good and evil, but in reality Antonio is unable to discern whether Lupito is at fault with his mental state, or if the mob is for killing a criminal, or even if his father is for being in the mob. Antonio learns that what the church taught him has no accountability until it takes the form of an actual experience. When he asks for the forgiveness of Narciso in a dream, God responds by saying only if “[Antonio] also asks me to forgive Tenorio,” the murderer (173). Antonio is utterly perplexed and distraught about why God would treat good the same way as evil. In his search for answers, Antonio starts accepting new systems of belief, while trying to remain open to Catholicism. Expecting all his questions to be answered during communion, Antonio works hard through catechism, but he hears “only silence” from God, which only leads to more questions (221). The absence of his God coupled with the appearance of the pagan, golden carp, and Ultima’s dominating power lead Antonio to doubt tradition and to sample a different belief under the magical carp. In this process, Antonio trades his innocence for security and faith in a God that he knows actually exists. Another factor which causes Antonio’s separation from Catholicism is the constant questioning of Florence, an atheistic thinker. Florence often attacks Antonio’s faith with questions that are impossible to answer, such as the reason for the existence of evil. When the Catholic God is absent during Antonio’s communion and questioning, he starts to wonder, “was the golden carp a better God?” (197).

The last cause of Antonio’s loss of innocence is the strife that he encounters within his family and group of friends. His three brothers are in a troubling state when they return to Guadalupe: they have already lost their innocence through death and destruction from the war. Gene says “we are men now,” explaining they have grown up through the hardship (72). Antonio is sad because his brothers start to exhibit their individuality, which destroys their parents’ dreams in the process. Their own actions and desires as men cause them to sin, especially with prostitutes. Gene says they “have to say goodbye to the girls at Rosie’s,” and although Antonio is too young to understand, he knows they have done wrong (68). Soon, only Andrew remains in Guadalupe to finish his education, but instead he deals another huge blow to Antonio. When Antonio discovers him at Rosie’s, he feels that Andrew, his former role model, has betrayed and deprived him of his innocence. During a dream, Andrew says that he will “not enter until [Antonio] loses [his] innocence,” indicating that Antonio already knows too much about the world’s cruelty to be considered a child (71). Not only has Antonio witnessed sin and unfairness within his family, he also encounters them among his friends. When Antonio acts as a priest and forgives Florence for his deeds, his friends quickly turn on him and cause physical harm because they are unable to accept an atheist being forgiven. The torture Antonio endures proves again that the mainstream Catholic doctrine results in conflict rather than moral rightness. However, Antonio “stood [his] ground for what [he] felt to be right” (214). This step in his mental thinking points to a self-governing method of reasoning and action which previously he had not considered before. His friends and family ultimately lead him to think for himself, resulting in a huge step in maturity and knowledge.

When a person is brought up following a certain belief, he or she blindly follows it, with innocence. There is nothing to contradict it until an actual, personal experience leads him or her to a self-developed conclusion. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio starts out as a naïve, Catholic child, but through cruel experiences of death, religion, and injustice, he is able to reevaluate his beliefs in order to start thinking about his own ideas. When he buries Ultima’s owl, he essentially buries away his innocence and childhood away to start a new life of intellectuality. This finally marks the point that symbolizes Antonio’s loss of innocence throughout the novel as a positive pattern, for he can finally search for his own truths and start a “new religion,” thus achieving in the end self-responsibility, wisdom, and individuality (247).

Antonio’s Syncretism Through Education in Bless Me Ultima

In 1519, when the Spanish conquistadors landed in North America, they were surprised to discover that natives already inhabited the land. These indigenous people had different beliefs from the Spaniards, so the Spanish proceeded to teach these people to be “civilized”. As the indigenous people began to learn the Spanish ways of life, they blended their beliefs with those of the Spaniards to create syncretism, which continued through the ages. In Bless Me Ultima (1972), Anaya shows how the two worlds collide and settle themselves on common ground in Antonio. Different people in the novel come to represent the different sides of the Spanish colonization of Mexico: Antonio’s father, the Spaniards; Antonio’s mother, the indigenous people; and Ultima, the embodiment of all beliefs. These people, as well as others, help Antonio learn to be a man and teach him to accept all aspects of his life as one. In Bless Me Ultima, Antonio learns syncretism by blending various forms of education: familial, spiritual and Ultima’s. Antonio’s familial education is fraught with the two opposing symbols of Spanish colonization, his mother’s family, the Lunas, and his father’s family, the Marez. The Lunas represent the indigenous people, tied to the earth by their farming; whereas, the Marez represent the conquistadors, freely roaming the llano. Throughout the novel, Antonio, or Tony, is divided between his Luna blood and his Marez blood, always trying to decide between the two. Even in the first pages of the novel, this conflict becomes apparent in Tony’s dream about his birth:This one will be a Luna . . . he will be a farmer and keep our customs and traditions. Perhaps God will bless our family and make the baby a priest . . . Then the silence was shattered with the thunder of hoof-beats; vaqueros surrounded the small house . . . He is a Marez . . . His forefathers were conquistadores, men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered. (5-6)Tony’s first familial education from his parents is that there can be no compromise; he must choose. Throughout the novel, Tony’s mother, Maria, and his father, Gabriel, constantly bicker about Tony’s destiny. Tony knows that one day when he gets to be a man that he will have choose to be his “mother’s priest” or his “father’s son” (41). Both parents always ridicule the other’s family. His mother refers to the vaqueros as “worthless drunks” and “thieves” (9), and his father questions Tony becoming a priest and a farmer. Yet, as the novel progresses, his father comes closer to compromise seeing the effects of Marez blood on his older sons, Andrew, Leon and Gene. Gabriel is bewildered by his sons deserting him and his dreams of California, saying to himself “I was proud that they would show the true blood of the Marez, but little did I realize that same pride would make them desert me” (122). Tony realizes through these words that being too much Luna or Marez is not a good thing because it threatens the balance of the family. Although Maria and Gabriel represent the two forces colliding in one household, Tony’s brothers and his Luna uncles teach him how this conflict functions in the world. When his brothers return from the war, they have changed drastically. The changes in their personalities teach Tony that the world is bigger than just his household. His brothers exhibit Marez tendencies, wanting to leave and strike out on their own. When Tony cannot seem to understand his brothers’ actions, Andrew tries to explain growing up to him, by saying:Look, Tony, I know what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about mama and papa, you’re thinking of their wishes-but it’s too late for us, Tony. Leon, Gene, me, we can’t become farmers or priests, we can’t even go to California with papa . . . maybe it’s because the war made men out of us too fast, maybe it’s because their dreams were never real to begin with. (74) Andrew teaches Tony that a man must find his own destiny instead of relying upon the dreams of the past. Just as Tony’s brothers represent the instability of the Marez, his uncles represent the stability and steadfastness of the Lunas. During his summer stay with his uncles, Tony comes to realize the stability and solitude of the Lunas. They teach him to be one with the earth and respect it. Their lives are governed by the moon, which they hold to be sacred. Because of his uncles’ stability, Tony comes to terms with all the death and sorrow he has seen. He begins to thrive on an inner strength, which prepares him for the “final tragedy” (249), Ultima’s death. His uncles, through their silence and reverence for the earth, teach him to see beyond himself into the earth and its peace, seeing the bigger picture. At the end of the novel, Tony embraces syncretism within his familial education, saying to his father, “maybe I do not have to be just Marez, or Luna, perhaps I can be both” (247). Even as Tony tries to deal with the conflicts within his own familial education, he is also trying to sort through his spiritual education.Tony’s spiritual education also has two opposing sides, Catholicism and cultural spiritual beliefs. Tony’s mother plays a vast role in his spiritual education, believing in both God and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a saint of the culture. Tony mirrors her beliefs in both God and the Virgin, yet he sees vast differences between the two: My mother said the Virgin was the saint of our land, and although there were many other good saints, I loved none as dearly as the Virgin . . . the mother of God, the last relief of all sinners. God was not always forgiving. He made laws to follow and if you broke them you were punished. The Virgin always forgave. God had power. He spoke and the thunder echoed through the skies. The Virgin was full of a quiet, peaceful love. (43-4)His mother has a deep reverence for structured religion, shown throughout the text by her constant kneeling and praying to the Virgin. Tony learns reverence for the Virgin and fear of God, yet he questions the Catholicism rigorously, searching for answers to his questions. The Catholic priest teaches Tony and the other children to fear God by painting Him as a punishing, terrifying God. Tony does not ask the priest his questions for fear of making him mad, believing that the answers will all come from God at his first communion. Although doubt looms in his mind about God, the first significant event where Tony realizes he can never be a priest is the pretend confession in front of the church. When Tony, their pretend priest, does not perform the way the children want him to, they become violent and take on a mob mentality. The other children teach him that he cannot be their priest because he will not do something if he does not believe in it. The second significant event that leads to Tony disbelief in the God is his first communion. When the answers do not come from God, he is extremely disillusioned, wondering why “there was only silence” (221). At this point, Tony becomes very unsatisfied with the Catholic religion, wanting something more substantial and tangible like the golden carp. The golden carp represents a wonderful god to Tony because he is loving and tangible. Although Samuel teaches the legend of the golden carp to him, Tony is reluctant to believe at first because of his former education in Catholicism. When first introduced to the idea of a “new god” (81), uncertainty arises in Tony’s mind:I could not believe this strange story, and yet I could not disbelieve Samuel . . . His voice was strong with faith. It made me shiver, not because it was cold but because the roots of everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken. If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God? (81)Samuel opens another door in Tony’s spiritual education, an opposition to Catholicism. In the summer, Cico takes him to actually see the golden carp. When Tony sees the golden carp for the first time, his reaction is one of awe, “I could not have been more entranced if I had seen the Virgin, or God Himself” (114). By the next summer after the first communion, Tony truly begins to doubt God: “I wondered if God was alive anymore, or if He had ever been. He had not been able to cure my uncle Lucas . . . He had not been able to save Lupito or Narciso. And yet, He had the right to send you to heaven or hell when you died” (236). Cico tries to help Tony believe only in the golden carp, but Tony still cannot let go of God. His syncretism of the two different religions begins when he asks Cico, “Does one have to choose . . . Is it possible to have both?” (238). Even though Tony doubts the Catholic Church, he cannot bring himself to solely believe in the golden carp or in God. In his spiritual education as well as familial education, Ultima, the wise curandera, helps to teach him that he can believe in both sides, leading him toward syncretism. In this text, the most influential person in Antonio’s education is Ultima, who embodies all beliefs. In the first page of the novel, he begins to tell his story at the beginning: “I do not mean the beginning that was in my dreams and the stories they whispered to me about my birth, and the people of my father and mother, and my three brothers-but the beginning that came with Ultima” (1). Ultima herself represents the embodiment of all beliefs. She does not push Tony to choose any particular path in life; she simply wants him to be able to decide for himself. She helps him decipher the conflicts in both his familial education and his spiritual education, ultimately giving him an education in syncretism. From the first day of Tony’s life, Ultima steps forward to protect his right to choose his own destiny by taking the afterbirth and burying it, so she alone knows his destiny. In all disputes on whether he is to be a Luna or a Marez, she remains neutral, not taking sides but providing Antonio with words of wisdom with which to make thoughtful decisions. Ultima allows him the freedom to make his own decisions, pushing him to strike out and discover things on his own without the protection of his mother, who has kept him close and hindered him in making his own decisions. The first day Tony heads out for school, Ultima tells Maria her son’s fate: “He will be a man of learning” (56). Although this seems to make Maria happy, little does she realize that being a man of learning requires Tony to analyze and question seemingly concrete beliefs, such as religion and family heritage. Ultima helps Tony to find his inner strength, which finally comes when he goes to stay with his uncles in El Puerto for the summer. She knows that when he returns he will be a different person, and she prepares him for the changes: “Be prepared to see things change when you return . . . You are growing, and growth is change. Accept the change, make it part of your strength” (245). When she sends him to El Puerto, Ultima knows that he will gain an inner strength that will help him to become a man and deal with the conflict in his life, helping him to find his own paths, both familial and spiritual. Ultima shows Tony syncretism even more in his spiritual education. She embodies all religious beliefs, which is what gives her power. She thrives on all sources of power, balancing them to her advantage. She respects and reveres God, the Virgin, the golden carp, and the earth equally. She longs for Tony to make his own religious choices: “I cannot tell you what to believe . . . As you grow into manhood you must find your own truths” (119). As she heals Uncle Lucas, Tony sees that her powers work where God’s could not, making him question His power. Although her actions such curing Uncle Lucas and ridding the Tellez house of the curse may make Tony question his Catholic beliefs, Ultima never actively tries to persuade him against any beliefs even Catholicism. The power of her education of syncretism is that she allows Tony to decide for himself, not imposing her own feelings on him and protecting him from too much influence from others. Finally, at the end, Tony understands the balance Ultima has taught him; he must be both Marez and Luna and have a balance between all religious beliefs to truly be a man of learning. In one of Tony’s dreams, Ultima appears to him and explains that he must see beyond himself: “You have been seeing only parts . . . and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (121). As Tony learns all beliefs are bound together into a balanced system, he also realizes that, when the balance is disturbed, it must be restored, as with the deaths of Tenorio and Ultima. Tenorio and Ultima both meddle in the lives of other people, which is forbidden, so for balance to be restored, they both must die. By the end of the novel, Tony is able to understand and cope with Ultima’s death, having embraced the syncretism which she taught him and making himself stronger. In Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, Antonio embraces syncretism through several different types of education: familial, spiritual, and, most importantly, Ultima’s. Many different people influence Tony’s path to syncretism, teaching him the importance of all beliefs and opinions. Antonio’s quest for the truth leads him directly into being a man of learning because all good scholars search for a balance in knowledge. Through Ultima, Tony discovers his own destiny and how to lead his own life, despite what others might want him to do, because the choice is ultimately his. Work CitedAnaya, Rudulfo. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1972. Print.