Animal Symbolism in Life of Pi

Everyone can pick an animal that they believe describes themselves or symbolizes themselves, but in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi he takes those characteristics to a new level. The symbolism of a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger all contribute to the characteristics of Pi and his journey through the sea, together, on a life boat. A zebra can symbolize many things; from yin and yang to individualism. With symbolism it becomes the reader’s choice to decide what a symbol becomes and symbolizes. In the Life of Pi the zebra symbolizes individualism and the dangers of passivity.

Being an individual is something that all people hold themselves firmly to be. Zebras are individuals in their characteristics whether it’s their coloring or their demeanor. From the beginning of the book Martel describes Pi’s religious beliefs and how he shies from the norm. He practices the Christian belief, the Hindu belief, and Muslim belief all in some way. Whether it be reading the bible, or praying on a prayer mat. Pi tells of the horrors that the “the poor zebra […] went through” and “hav[ing] not forgotten” (151) about it, ever. The zebra lies in the boat passively, never “thrashing about” (133) to defend himself.

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Being a symbol to Pi that he can’t just sit and allow himself to perish away for Richard Parker to kill and eat. Motherly and hopeful, are two symbols that the orangutan, Orange Juice (O. J. ), carries in the novel. Pi sees the orangutan as a savior as she “[comes] floating on an island of bananas” (139) toward the life boat. As a symbol of hope and faith she comes “in a halo of light,” much as an angel might. She reminds him of his mother, much as his own mother had two sons, himself and his brother, Orange Juice also was a “mother of two fine boys. (140) She gives him hope that he can get through the tragedy that he has just gone through and instills faith in him that salvation may come, much as she came. The hyena though is quite the opposite; he is a symbol of evil and hatred. He kills and eats both the zebra and the orangutan. Though the life boat is large and seemingly spacious Pi feels there isn’t “much room left for a hyena. ” (142) He has killed his symbol of hope, his mother, and the poor, innocent zebra. His hatred for the animal is seen when he wishes for “a gun [to] be found to kill the hyena and put the zebra out of its misery. (141) He is describing killing both animals but seeing the hyena is evil he wants to murder it, though when speaking of the zebra he wants to ease its pain. Richard Parker, the tiger, is a symbol of Pi himself. Pi directly correlates himself with Richard Parker. If Richard Parker “give[s] up” (121) then Pi is giving up. When swimming toward the life boat Richard Parker “look[s] small and helpless” (121) much like Pi actually is. Next to the tiger, zebra, and hyena Pi is small and feeble; he has no way to defend himself against the other animals.

Pi egging Richard Parker on, toward the boat; “keep[ing him] swimming” (122) shows Pi’s resilience for survival; determined for Richard Parker to survive, which is actually his determination to survive. It is often mistaken in the novel as to whether Pi is speaking of himself or of Richard Parker because they could be the same being. Whether is be the individualism of a zebra, the hope of an orangutan, the hatred of a hyena, or the determination of a tiger symbolism can be determined for any character. Pi’s journey obtains symbolism for each animal and a story of faith for himself through the sea and the rigors that he and the animals endure.