Truth is subjective, affecting the individual in the present moment. In efforts of survival, Yann Martel’s protagonist Pi Patel shares two stories of the same incident in Life of Pi. Human thought and imagination use critical thinking skills as creative ways of envisioning outcomes for situations. Jonathan Gottschall calls imagined scenarios elements of “story” and sees “storytelling” as an evolutionary adaption. In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Gottschall illustrates the authoritative human voice found in “story.” Forms of fiction such as literature, film, and video games, provide imaginative experience that propels the participant through the critical world of “what-if.” Reality can be harsh. This essay shows that creating elaborate delusions soothes one’s spirit and presents room for possibility.
The facts of Pi’s tragedy are: the Patel family, with their zoo animals, were aboard the Tsimtsum; the ship sunk in the oceans’ depths, leaving Pi as sole survivor. Japanese officials investigate the occurrence and interview Pi who issues his circumstance through two “storytelling” methods: subjective-spirituality and objective-rationality. In the first “story,” Pi’s narrative voice constructs the events by offering a rich, detailed observance of the animal world and religious connection with three belief systems. However, the second rendition of the same event at sea presents an anticlimactic dose of reason that issues the ugly truth. Neither “story” explains why the Tsimtsum sunk, and the reader is left deciding which tale holds preference: the facts or the fabrication.
The second “story” rudely shows face at the end, shocking the reader who longed for Richard Parker’s noble inclusion. This action turns the tables on truth, showing the reality of Pi’s situation as distasteful. The reader comes to love Pi and finds disgust at acts of cannibalism and primal brutality. The reader wishes the truth was not real, that the first “story” was instead possible and accurate. More than likely, the “storyteller” also sides with the tale involving the tiger because the means for creating this “story” lives in survival. In order of simply making it through, Pi relied on the authority of his imagination. Pi created another individual – Richard Parker – from his memory and veterinary knowledge. In avoidance of absolute solitude, Pi utilized the power of “story” in creation of a reality he could deal with or accept.
“Story” is not limited to fiction, and Gottschall notes religious institutions as harnessing societal needs with “story.” The catch, however, is that different religions may tell contrasting versions of “stories.” He said, “Religion draws coreligionists together, and it drives those of different faiths apart” (Gottschall 123). Pi connects with three opposing religions. Forming a bond with each deity, Pi picks and chooses which religious message he prefers. In this way, Pi internally avoids religious disagreement. By subjectively addressing belief, Pi sculpts his own understanding. This essay notes the value lay in accepting multiple “stories” for individual comprehension.
The evolutionary benefit lay with the first “story.” Evolution supports the betterment of species. Gottschall calls the characters from “story” – including fictional, historical, and religious figures – “ink people,” recognizing the “ink people’s” way of wielding authority inside reality (144). He said, “[Ink people] shape our behaviors and our customs, and in so doing, they transform societies and histories” (Gottschall 144). Giving slave-narratives as reference, Gottschall shows that through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe brought atrocities of Southern slavery into the consciousness of Northern citizens. Readers connected with Eliza’s character and empathized with her plight. Pi presented a case for relation and interaction with the animal world as means for survival.
Humans are social creatures. In absence of society, Pi’s “story” provides a sense of community with Richard Parker, Orange Juice, the hyena, and the zebra. Pi creates an animal society in avoidance of insanity, he said, “Things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, but what can you do? You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it” (Martel 91). Pi could not accept that the Chinese sailor was murdered and eaten by the French Cook, or that his dear mother stood up against inhumane cannibalism, also falling at the cook’s hand. Instead, Pi let the cook be a hyena, his mother Orange Juice, and himself Richard Parker. After all, a tiger is not afraid of a man. Better to be a tiger than a victim.
Truth alters along with the individual, and what is true for one now may not be true after experiencing a challenge or traumatic event. Truth – like humans – is victim to subjective encounter and interpretation. Pi’s truth is that he survived by any means necessary. Pi’s struggle was holding onto his humanness. “Storytelling” is a unique trait of humanity. Through art and literature, humans envision wonderful and terrible outcomes in efforts of lessening life’s struggle. Pi’s “story” encourages that the reader becomes their own tiger. Accept what one has but work towards creating the best scenario.
Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York:
Mariner Books, 2013.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. New York: Mariner Books, 2003.