Book Review: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Religion and spirituality lie at the heart of Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. This is no surprise as the Author's Note at the beginning of the book claims that this is a story that will make you believe in god. The immediate question then becomes, how does a story about a shipwrecked boy trapped on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a Bengal tiger attempt to make the reader believe in god?

*Warning: This review contains spoilers. 

The main character, Pi Patel, is the son of a zookeeper who runs a small zoo in India. Despite his family's ideas of modern secularism, Pi is drawn to religion. In his adolescence he adopts not only the beliefs of Hinduism, but Catholicism and Islam as well. Each religion gives Pi something that he felt was missing in his spiritual life. He never feels compelled to choose one belief system over the other, although he does keep his worship secret from his family, and from each of his religious leaders, as long as possible.

Though Pi's family is largely secular in practice, they are Hindu in tradition. As such, Pi was first introduced to Hinduism and describes it as the religion of his birth and a deep part of himself. For Pi, Hinduism is not a religion to be left behind when he discovers another, but rather the intrinsic framework of his own spirituality. When he discovers Catholicism, he studies it through curiosity for what it entails, not because of any dissatisfaction with his current understanding of Hinduism. The same is true when he later adds the religion of Islam to his quilt of spiritual beliefs.

While Pi is comfortable with his firm belief in three seemingly disparate religions, the leaders of these religions are not happy when they learn of his expanded view of religion. As chance would have it, Pi's priest, pandit and imam all happen upon Pi and his parents at the same time. The ensuing conversation captures current religious discord as all of the religious leaders agree that Pi cannot be Hindu, Catholic, and Muslim at the same time. Despite their prodding, Pi insists that he simply wants to love god and will not choose between religions.

During his adolescence, Pi also discovers atheism through his biology teacher, Mr. Kumar. Though Pi greatly respects Mr. Kumar, and calls him his favorite teacher, Pi is not comfortable exploring the ideas of atheism or seeing how science holds its own beauty without need for a deity. He decides that atheists are his "brothers and sisters of a different faith", but it is not a belief that he understands or chooses to explore. In fact, the concept of atheism frightens him. Pi, who asks many questions when presented with other religions, is silent when Mr. Kumar offers some of his atheistic views. Pi explains, "It wasn't for fear of angering Mr. Kumar. I was more afraid that in a few words thrown out he might destroy something that I loved."

Yet all of this religious discussion takes place well before Pi is set adrift in a lifeboat filled with wild zoo animals. It is the groundwork that shapes the rest of the story, the story that is meant to make listeners believe in god. Part two of the book begins the tale of Pi's shipwreck and subsequent survival.

When Pi is 16, his family decides to sell the zoo and emigrate to Canada. They will get a better price for many of the animals in America, so the family and several zoo animals begin their journey on a Japanese cargo ship. When the ship sinks, for unknown reasons, Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and an adult Bengal tiger. There are no other human survivors, and it is not long before the animals do away with each other, leaving Pi and the tiger alone in the lifeboat.

The book continues with a fantastic tale of taming a tiger while surviving on the open sea for 227 days. When Pi eventually washes up on the shores of Mexico, and the tiger dashes off into the jungle never to be seen again, he is nursed back to health by locals. While Pi is recovering, two men from the company that owned the Japanese cargo ship come to visit him. They are looking for answers about what might have caused the ship to sink.

Pi tells them the fantastic tale that was presented through the book and the men do not believe him. They are upset and tell Pi that they want to know what really happened. After some discussion, Pi agrees to tell them another story, a story that does not involve animals. His second story involves a handful of human survivors, including one who kills the others (including Pi's mother). Pi ultimately kills the killer and is left as the sole survivor. Neither story sheds any light on why the ship might have sunk.

Before the men leave, Pi asks them which is the better story, since neither provides factual information that they can use. The men agree that the story with the animals was a better story. This is the point of the book. It is the reason why readers are supposed to now believe in god. When it comes down to a choice between realism and fantasy, or science and religion, which is the better story?

Religious minded readers may find comfort in the notion that it is better to believe in an uplifting story over more believable, but less entertaining facts. However, this argument is unlikely to be persuasive to atheists or encourage them to believe in god.


  1. The most revealing sentence was the obscure for me, from my atheistic point of view. It is:
    Pi explains, "It wasn't for fear of angering Mr. Kumar. I was more afraid that in a few words thrown out he might destroy something that I loved."
    As I see this as the truth not meant to be the conclusion. Pi knows deep inside that his "beliefs" are all spiritual up-lifters with the sole purpose of making him feel warm and fuzzy inside. The atheist with hard facts and science, could indeed have crushed the belief if a debate had ensued.

    Great story and as always, nicely written.
    Thanks. :)

  2. Thanks, Kenny! I think that's what puzzles me most about this book. The Author's Note at the beginning clearly says that Pi's story is supposed to make the reader believe in god, yet when confronted with atheism, Pi refuses to explore the idea for fear that it will easily end his belief in god. So does Pi feel that belief in god is a necessary self-delusion?

    The book was an interesting read with some thoughtful passages (mostly before he ever gets on the boat, imo). However, I walked away with two impressions: 1. I don't understand how this book claims to make readers believe in god. 2. Just reading about being lost at sea is enough to make me slightly seasick!

  3. I found this book to be very interesting and a great read for atheists and religious alike.
    It helps understand the viewpoint of the religious, the spiritualists, and etc. May help us understand some of our more controversial beliefs, even within the realm of science or our daily lives. The thesis is very honest and doesn't contradict atheism or realism - in fact, it sort've validates it.
    What I take from the book is there are some things none of us know for certain; and we can choose which we believe.

    To the point of the book's claim; the book doesn't truly claim that - the story and the author don't, anyways - the publishers do =)

  4. I kind of thought Pi was idiotic, especially in saying: "To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."

    People who do not believe in god don't arbitrarily choose doubt as a philosophy - they choose pragmatism and logic. And there's the very real fact that some religious folks doubt logically proven things such as dinosaurs, moon landings, homosexuality, evolution and so on.

    1. Actually, Pi attacks agnostics not atheists in the quote mentioned. He says that atheists, like religious people, take a leap of faith towards their logic and that agnostics are the ones who live in doubt.

    2. But atheists live in doubt too. We don't take a leap of faith - we require proof before we believe stuff. That is at the heart of atheism. The doubt in agnosticism is purely based around the idea of a god - in everything else, agnostics are atheists.

      In Life of Pi, this is simply ignored and basically thrown out with not even a hint of a rationale. I cast the book away shortly after the point it said, "To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation." After this, there is no point in reading further, as I felt the author is not serious about his subject. I considered that it was just the character of Pi saying this, but it seems clear that Pi is basically the author's mouthpiece.

    3. I feel sad for you, Ian-- to cast a book aside without evidence of its proof is... frighteningly unscientific. LIFE OF PI is a beautiful story, and I assure you-- you have nothing to be threatened by. At worst, you'll have a deeper understanding and perhaps even appreciation for those who choose to believe in their own story [which has tangible, cultural benifits]. My... I sound like a Latter Day Saint!

  5. The "make you believe" statement was, to me, ironic. As in "force", like with a gun to your head. You will believe in god the same way Pi ends up believing in god; the truth about what he really did to survive is just too horrible.

  6. I am only beginning to notice that my take on this book and movie are unlike most others. If anything, I saw the overall perspective to be largely atheistic, rendering religion as stories that we choose to believe despite the fact that they are clearly not literally true. The whole final chapter seemed to declare - for both the animal story and religion in general - "well, OF COURSE it's not actually true, but which story do you prefer?"

    The degree to which it "makes you believe in God" is the degree to which it convinces you to choose a fabricated story that helps one cope with the harsh realities of existence over the harsh realities themselves. Am I guilty of simply overlaying my own preferences on the story?

    1. Bingo..we believe, or create, our own belief system. You pick the God you want.

    2. I think that you've stated the essence of the book's greatest insight. "And so it is with God" is not so much a declaration of faith as much as it is an affirmation of living within the state of nature. During his voyage at sea, regardless of which of the two stories posited one accepts, Pi comes to grips with the tiger within himself (a carnivorous, survivalist, self-interested being that must kill to stay alive). Pi affirms the power that stories offer to give meaning to life in the face of the starkest reality. He does not ask the novelist which story he believes is true, but which story he prefers--"and so it is with God."

    3. I agree with you, in a way. The point of the book does seem to say that religion is clearly not true, but rather something people choose to believe because it is "a better story." However, I wouldn't call that an atheistic view, as the atheists I know prefer truth in life over pretty fictions.

      In fact, I often have a hard time deciding whether I'm more bothered by religious fundamentalists (who actually believe that every implausible thing in their religion is true) or the many more people who choose to believe simply because it's a better story than facing reality.

  7. I am amazed that on many of the forums discussing "The Life of Pi" that there are always a few people who have read the book and seen the movie that still ask: Is the book a true story? I think this question from readers may be as revealing about the human condition as anything that is revealed in the book about God, Man and Religion.