The Ambiguity of Sacrifice: Understanding Pi’s Change of Character
Equivalent exchange, an absolute law in nature, dictates that one must give up something so that one may gain something that is equal in value. By this logic, sacrifice is, at its very core, a necessity in life; however, it is also a gray area with no definite lines for good or bad. Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi illustrates this overarching theme throughout Piscine “Pi” Patel’s struggle to overcome the daunting task of survival in solitude. After a storm washes away all hints of life and hope, Pi, alone and scared, struggles to come to terms with the fact that the life he once lived is now gone, such that neither religion nor family can help him anymore. Equipped with sparse supplies and miles of water between him and land, Pi is set adrift on a lifeboat for two-hundred twenty-seven days, with only a Bengal tiger to keep him company and the constant threat of insanity and death shadowing his every action. Each sacrifice Pi makes is a price he must pay to keep himself alive, even if the outcome can be considered worse than the alternative based on differing perspectives of the situation. Despite his formerly principled lifestyle and faiths, Pi soon learns that he must leave behind or look past his core beliefs and step out of his comfort zone in exchange for survival, exemplifying the necessity of sacrifice and its ambiguous nature.
Richard Parker is such an important figure to Pi’s survival that Pi purposely sacrifices his own safety and comfort to keep the tiger and, by default, himself alive. After the other animals are killed, Richard Parker offers Pi something that nothing else can during his lonely journey: companionship. Stranded in the middle of the ocean with no hope for rescue, it is in this deep loneliness that Pi realizes his fear of insanity spurred by solitude overpowers his fear of Richard Parker; this epiphany allows him to choose Richard Parker’s survival over his own immediate safety: “It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness” (Martel 162). In quelling Pi’s need for companionship and keeping him occupied and alert, Richard Parker fills Pi’s empty days with work rather than allowing him to dawdle his thumbs. This allows Pi to focus on keeping both of them alive rather than waste away, hopeless. However, by keeping the tiger alive, Pi endures the constant fear of having Richard Parker turn on him and kill him; still, to him, this outcome is much better than being completely alone. Pi’s sacrifice to keep Richard Parker alive in the form of depleting supplies and psychological horror pays off in the comfort of knowing he might not die alone on the ocean. This toxic relationship between the tiger and Pi progresses until Pi admits that “without Richard Parker, [he] wouldn’t be alive today to tell you [his] story” (164). Despite Richard Parker constantly terrorizing Pi and making his life on the boat a nonstop game of paranoia and walking on eggshells, Pi realizes that his nemesis is also his savior. The fact that both of them are stuck in the same situation together brings comfort to Pi, who sees no hope in his survival, and Richard Parker is always there to motivate him to continue on—if not for the tiger, then for himself. He considers the tiger so valuable that he is willing to cohabitate in order to subvert the threat of loneliness that he predicts will kill him if left alone for long enough. Pi admitting that Richard Parker is a “good” thing for him despite the obvious discomfort he feels augments just how deep his trauma is, therefore highlighting the significance of his sacrifice. In this case, while his survival can be considered “good,” the trauma he receives because of it leads this particular sacrifice to err more on the side of negligence.
In surviving, which is always a “good” thing, Pi now has to live with permanent trauma for the rest of his life. As such, keeping Richard Parker alive is both “good” and “bad,” thus illustrating the unclear nature of sacrifice. Pi also says while looking back on the events that transpire throughout the novel, “Richard Parker has stayed with me. I’ve never forgotten him. Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart” (6). Pi’s dependency on Richard Parker throughout his time on the boat morphs his perception of him to the point where he looks back with fondness in spite of the tiger’s antagonistic role. Pi finds that despite Richard Parker’s nightmarish existence on the lifeboat, he remembers him as the one thing that kept him alive, busy and focused. This is proof that Pi has been psychologically scarred by the tiger, so much so that he has recognized his own dependency on Richard Parker and openly accepts it as evidence that his decision to keep Richard Parker alive was a good one. However, this is not the case. Both scenarios of cohabitating with Richard Parker despite the mental strain and the alternative of solitude are classified as “bad” because they offer different types of anguish either way. Just because one choice seems better than the other does not mean that it is a “good” choice. Without Richard Parker, Pi would have been alone and without much work to keep him occupied, which he admits to, but with Richard Parker around, Pi still receives trauma that does not disappear even into adulthood. Although Pi’s choice of sacrifice does bear fruit and proves to be crucial to his survival, it cannot be so easily colored black or white. It blurs the lines between “good” and “bad,” laying down a gray area that concludes his sacrifice to be neither singularly good nor bad but, rather, both.
Contrary to his religious beliefs, Pi turns a blind eye to his faith in order to survive. Born and raised a Hindu, Pi still conforms to the Hindu vegetarian values that disapprove the act of harming and eating other living animals, even after he accepts Christianity and Islam as a part of himself. These beliefs prevent him from killing or eating meat. On the lifeboat, however, as supplies dwindle and desperation sets in, Pi realizes that he must kill and eat sea life in order to survive: “It was simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything, even killing” (185). He ultimately forgoes his Hindu values and kills a dorado when he finally accepts that his life is at stake. He weeps in anguish at first, but he easily moves past his disposition towards killing and eating meat when it proves to be an invaluable act of survival. This keeps him alive, even at the expense of desensitizing him to violence and betraying his Hindu teachings. Even Pi himself considers his actions deplorable, but that does not keep him from repeating it. Any act of heresy is considered to be culturally shameful and “bad,” but Pi’s actions keeps him alive, which makes the sacrifice of religion both “good” and “bad” rather than one or the other. Eventually, when killing becomes second nature to Pi and he is able to cope by compartmentalizing survival and religion, he narrates, “I laid hands on so many fish that my body began to glitter from all the fish scales that became stuck to it. I wore these . . . like tilaks, the marks of colour that we Hindus wear on our foreheads as symbols of the divine” (196). He mentions his faiths very rarely after he begins his carnivorous diet, but he still ironically relates the proof of his misdoings to the tilaks of Hindus, as if to mock how far he has fallen.
Even though Pi is willing to look past his religious beliefs to survive, it still makes him feel guilty, but that is not enough to make him stop. He subconsciously acknowledges this and always seems to feel ashamed in the back of his mind despite never officially confronting this conflict. Throughout the first part of the novel, Pi tells the audience that his religious beliefs are very important to him, enough to cause tensions within his family. Even so, not even his attachment to religion lasts in the face of starvation. In fact, this is one of the first things Pi overlooks, starting with his consumption of the biscuit made from animal fat, believing that the higher powers will overlook his act of desperation. As the novel progresses, Pi moves farther and farther away from religion until it is one of the last things on his mind. In sacrificing his devoutness, Pi ensures that he survives starvation. However, while Pi’s survival is a good thing in that his life is saved, he also personally considers his actions “bad.” The reverse—Pi dying instead of betraying his religious beliefs—is also a “bad” outcome, but if he starves to death rather than eat meat or the biscuit, this can also be considered “good” because his devoutness stays true. In one case, he dies because of staying true to his Hindu values, and in the other, he stays alive by betraying them. Death is inherently “bad,” but so is becoming a heretic; thus, neither of Pi’s choices can be classified as wholly good or bad since both have their vices. Ultimately, either choice Pi makes is subject to different views of religion and life and, depending on which side one favors, can be seen as ambiguous in nature.
Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi features an intimate take on the necessity and dual perception of sacrifice. Throughout his journey, Pi learns that the things he had once valued in the past are both worthless to uphold when his life is at stake and invaluable tools for his survival when betrayed. His sacrifice takes the form of keeping Richard Parker alive in order to satiate his loneliness and betraying his Hindu upbringing to eat meat. In both cases, Pi’s choice keeps him alive in mind and body; however, in keeping Richard Parker alive, Pi lives in constant fear and paranoia, stressed with every move the tiger makes, and eating meat causes him to betray his beliefs, which already have an established importance in his life. These trade-offs make his choices “bad” in that he attains deep psychological damage and turns his back on the lifestyle he lived. Even so, it is still “good” that he is ultimately kept alive. By this double standard, Pi’s sacrifices and the outcomes they produce augment the fact that not all sacrifices are singularly good or bad but, rather, gray and subject to opinion.
Martel, Yann. The Life of Pi. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.
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