If there has ever been a fictional poster child for the benefits of constructivism and narrative therapy, Pi would have to be it. Pi not only uses his multi-layered story as a way of easily avoiding traumatic memories but also uses it to deal with traumatic events as they happen. As Pi survives on the raft, he simultaneously creates and lives in his animal-filled reality.
Pi connects his tale to objectivity for the reader through his diary. It is not till Chapter 73 that he mentions it, but because it is the only log of the story as it happened, it is perhaps the most informative artifact of the raft. Interestingly, Pi tells the reader what he wrote in his diary, saying, “I talked about what you might expect: about things that happened and how I felt, about what I caught and what I didn’t, about seas and weather, about problems and solutions, about Richard Parker. All very practical stuff” (208). Upon the first reading, this passage seems understated but not particularly noteworthy. With a tiger on a boat, it would be troubling if Pi did not write about it. Knowing the ending, though, raises some questions about this passage. If the story with Richard Parker is not the story that factually happened in reality, then what can be made of Pi describing his diary? The reader has three separate choices. First, the reader may begin to accuse Pi of trickery. This choice is not unwarranted. Pi, at times, is extremely mischievous to his audience. However, this choice seems unlikely when the diary passage is taken within the context of the larger story. It would be absurd for Pi to share his life-changing story just to trick his audience.
Second, the reader may believe that Pi has simply subconsciously misremembered what he wrote in his diary in an attempt to repress trauma. This choice is more consistent with the bulk of the novel. It could be that Pi is an unreliable narrator because of psychosis. However, Pi gives his audience actual entries from his diary. One reads: “Prostrate body and soul. Will die soon. R. P. breathing but not moving. Will die too. Will not kill me” (239). How can one explain Pi’s mention of Richard Parker in his diary if Richard Parker is a creation of his subconscious with the purpose of aiding Pi in the retelling of the story?
The third option is that Pi creates Richard Parker while on the raft. If understood in this way, Pi’s relationship with the animals becomes multidimensional. As the only rational thinking being on the raft, he becomes the master of his story. It is also no wonder Pi feels he must keep Richard Parker alive. Richard Parker is not just a stand-in for Pi; he is also Pi’s link to sanity and (in a very Jungian sense) his animus. Thus, Pi renarrates his story to himself as it is happening, empowering him to make difficult decisions and, ultimately, to survive.
Before I forget I want to say a couple of words about Pi’s relationship with his audience. Dr. Bianco brought this up when I met with him last, and I wanted to make sure I got some ideas down about it. The thoughts haven’t fermented yet, so I want to just post some sporadic thoughts.
First, Pi, unlike the other narrators I’m going to be considering, seems to acknowledge the presence of his audience. Partly, this is because the frame for the book is Pi telling his story to a writer. But I think it’s more than that. Pi sets up his story in a very specific way to tell a very specific tale. This is why we get mini chapters about agnosticism. This is why we get admissions from Pi that he doesn’t “quite mean it literally” that he saw the Virgin Mary (63). He’s recognizing the skeptical reader. This is important because it sets up a trust with the reader that sets up the surprise ending. Without Pi drawing us into his narrative and his perception, the ending is not nearly as effective.
Second, Pi has a habit of communing with his audience. He continually makes dinner for the fictionalized Martel. Also, when he tells his story to the Japanese men, a very complicated thing happens with cookies. Throughout the interview, he asks them for cookies. But he doesn’t eat them. In fact, one of the men notes that “they’re right there beneath his bedsheet” (292). Pi saves them so that he can offer them to the Japanese men before they leave. This behavior is extremely curious, but it does two things. First, it offers Pi a way to commune with the men. Second, it leaves them thankful for things they already had in a way they weren’t before. I’m not sure what to make of this last one just yet.
Part of the mystical quality surrounding Life of Pi is Pi’s ability to claim one part of a dichotomy for the other. Reality becomes a part of myth, for instance, rather than its opposite. Many of these conflations deal directly with agency and communion. Pi’s treatment of religion exemplifies this tension. Religion, for most, is communal. It brings people together and connects them to something bigger than themselves. Agency is usually set up in opposition to these sorts of concepts. Pi, however, thwarts this binary. For him, religion is a tool and is, in that way, a very agentic sort of thing.
While religion is very important to Pi in the first part of the novel, it is forced to the background while he is on the lifeboat so that themes of survival and struggle can take its place. Chapter 74, however, deals with religion in the foreground. For this reason, it is illustrative of Pi’s raw feelings on religion. “I practised religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances,” Pi says (208). The word “adapted” is a strong one, implying that Pi has ownership of the rituals. Pi inverts the typical understanding of religion. Religion, typically understood, is bigger than man and so therefore connects man to things beyond himself. For Pi, though, religion is man-made and perhaps smaller than man but is just as important. Pi would probably argue that it is more important in this adaptable way. Once religion has been taken down from its pedestal, it becomes even more meaningful to people because it meets them where they are. They are able to adapt it for their own lives and situations. Thus, through an agentic act (adaptation), Pi makes a communal thing (religion) even more communal.
The first turning point on the raft is much like Pi’s turning point in the first part of the novel. Just as he goes from a passive observer in the classrooms that bastardized his name to an active participant who demands a rebaptism, so does he move from a silent occupant of the raft to the hero of it. When the hyena kills the orangutan, Pi decides it is time to kill the hyena. This decision is notable for the confidence with which Pi executes it. There is no inner dialogue about the merits or possible outcomes of such a decision. It is treated as a fact of nature. Pi’s attack of the hyena is inextricably linked to the hyena’s attack of the orangutan: “It [the fatally wounded orangutan] was a sight horrible to the eyes and killing to the spirit. Just before throwing myself upon the hyena…” (132). This is the only discussion of the attack we get because it never actually happens. Instead, Pi is stopped by the realization that Richard Parker is still on the boat. Richard Parker, then, becomes tied to Pi’s agency. Pi’s first real act of survival on the lifeboat is halted by Richard Parker.
This pattern is repeated throughout the second part of the novel. When Pi realizes that he has a powerful will to leave, for instance, Richard Parker is there: “Richard Parker started growling that very instant, as if he had been waiting for me to become a worthy opponent” (148). As Richard Parker prepares to kill the hyena, Pi prepares a mini-raft so that he can get off the lifeboat and presumably to safety. These two actions are linked together. The narration switches back and forth from Pi’s tasks to Richard Parker’s posturing. Just as Pi is about to finish the raft (he “only had to hitch the other end of the rope to the raft”), Richard Parker attacks the hyena (150). Thus, Pi and Richard Parker work at parallel tasks that ultimately ensure Pi’s survival.
Agency is central to Life of Pi, and Pi begins using strong forms of agency early in the novel. In Chapter 5, Pi goes into a lengthy discussion of his full name (Piscine) and how it was often mispronounced. Out of shame and a fear of ridicule, Pi comes up with an ingenious solution: he will control the destiny of his name. Instead of waiting for his name to be mispronounced, Pi takes a more proactive approach. The process he goes through to rename himself is illuminating as a study of Pi’s agency.
The first solution Pi mentions is to simply be known as “Ravi’s brother.” This solution is ultimately thrown out because “following in someone’s shadow wasn’t my escape” (22). By naming himself in relation to someone else, Pi recognizes that he loses part of what it means to be an individual.
The plan he comes up with–to creatively show teachers he wants to be called Pi–requires a lot of action. His fear of humiliation drives him, on the first day of class, to go to the board and write on it without being told to. This event, however, does not only represent an extremely agentic first day of school. It also represents the beginning of Pi taking control of his story. With the success of his plan, Pi has successfully renamed the main character of his story.
Life of Pi is not a generic story, and Pi is not a generic individual. Pi goes above and beyond what McAdams would deem “taking control of one’s narrative identity.” He imbues his story not only with characters, plot, and setting but also with archetypes, myth, allegory, and symbolism. Pi is definitely the author of his story, but he is also something more–he is, in some cases, quite literally creating his own reality.
Several times throughout the first section, Pi hints at his more fluid type of storytelling. Myth and reality are going to be blurred, Pi warns his readers. For instance, at the end of Chapter 20, Pi describes an experience he had where he saw the Virgin Mary. He situates the experience long-after the main plot of his story, distancing it from the main story’s mythical qualities and implying that reality-making is something that the adult Pi continues to do. What is unique about Pi’s account of this religious moment is not that it is unrealistic. This moment is unique because Pi recognizes it’s unrealistic nature without weakening his belief in it. He says, “When I say I saw her, I don’t quite mean it literally, though she did have body and colour. I felt I saw her, a vision beyond a vision” (63). By saying this, Pi makes the occurrence less concrete (he didn’t actually see her) while attaching to it a heavier kind of reality (it was “a vision beyond a vision”).
This play between the duality of reality and myth occurs again only a page later. Pi spends a short chapter explaining a difference between atheists and agnostics. For Pi, the atheist still has a chance at religious salvation. When presented with God at death, the atheist believes because s/he has not been so much skeptical as s/he has been committed. The agnostic, by contrast, remains skeptical till the very end and is thereby unable to ever have faith. Pi articulates this problem by saying that agnostics “lack imagination and miss the better story” (64). The “better story” for Pi can only be achieved through imagination, a function not normally associated with reality and science. It is almost as if Pi recalibrates meaning-making around myth and imagination rather than truth and reality. The result is striking.
Continued writing on Chapter 23 tonight. It’s a little harder than I expected it to be, but it’s going well overall.
Something that I discovered tonight that I probably should have noticed sooner: Dan McAdams only uses imago in reference to the self. This doesn’t matter a whole lot when you are talking about actual people because the identities they assume are usually imagoes. It matters a great deal, however, when you are talking about how people narrate other people. In other words, when Pi flattens characters, he is simplifying them into archetypes, maybe, but not imagoes. Imagoes are reserved for the self. I wonder if that needs to be changed in my first chapter.