Life of Pi

Life of Pi

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Boundaries Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Survival Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Boundaries Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Life of Pi, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Boundaries Theme Icon

The situation of much of the novel is a contradiction between boundaries and freedom. Pi is surrounded by the boundless ocean and sky but is trapped in a tiny lifeboat, and within that lifeboat he has his own clear territory separate from Richard Parker. Pi marks his territory – the raft and the top of the tarpaulin – with his urine and “training whistle,” and Richard Parker has his territory on the floor of the lifeboat. From the very start of his tale Pi muses on the nature of animal territories, especially regarding zoos, as his father is a zookeeper. Pi explains that animals love rituals and boundaries, and they don’t mind being in a zoo as long as they accept that their enclosure is their territory. As a castaway at sea, Pi then uses his zoological knowledge to “tame” Richard Parker, presenting himself as the “alpha” of the lifeboat and keeping himself safe.

This idea of boundaries moves into the psychological realm with Pi himself, as he (possibly) creates the character of Richard Parker as a way of dealing with the darkness and bestiality within himself. By making his brutal actions belong to a totally different being, and not even a human being, Pi sets a clear boundary in his mind. Richard Parker disappears when Pi first crawls ashore, showing that the tiger (if he is fictional) was a part of Pi that existed only on the lifeboat, where he needed to do terrible things to survive. Pi is then able to move on with his life – he goes to school, gets married, and has children – because of that boundary between himself and Richard Parker. He kept himself sane and human by symbolically cutting off the animal part of his nature.

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Boundaries ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Boundaries appears in each chapter of Life of Pi. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Boundaries Quotes in Life of Pi

Below you will find the important quotes in Life of Pi related to the theme of Boundaries.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students – muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright – reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the author begins to interview Pi, the protagonist of the story. Pi explains that as a young man he was an excellent student: he studied both zoology and theology at university. Curiously, Pu thinks that theology and zoology aren't really that different--they're both about respect for the mysteries of the universe, whether the mystery of life (zoology) or existence itself (theology).

Pi is a thoughtful young man, adept at seeing the beauty in unfamiliar things and breaking down boundaries between seemingly disparate world-views. He can translate the strangest of phenomena into an intelligible, wondrous form. Pi doesn't try to "explain" the phenomena that he sees (here, for instance, he doesn't seem to try to break down the sloth's life into its biological explanations)--rather, he embraces the sloth in all its strange glory.


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Chapter 4 Quotes

Don’t we say, “There’s no place like home”? That’s certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure – whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium – is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pi tries to defend the concept of zoos from critics who suggest that zoos are like prisons for animals. Pi claims that all beings on the planet need a familiar territory--they all need a home (he even quotes from The Wizard of Oz to make his point, reinforcing his novel's fantastic qualities). Therefore, it's not cruel at all to put an animal in a smaller-than-usual environment, provided all its needs are met--the animal appreciates its new boundaries and its new territory.

Pi's argument is especially interesting because it foreshadows his own time on the ocean, during which he'll have an incredibly small, limited set of boundaries (thanks to the presence of the tiger, Richard Parker). Pi has lived by his own argument: he's truly come to believe that people, as well as animals, need boundaries. As we'll come to see, Pi learns to embrace his own boundaries and find freedom in the "territory" of his mind and spirit.

In the literature can be found legions of examples of animals that could escape but did not, or did and returned… But I don’t insist. I don’t mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.
The Pondicherry Zoo doesn’t exist any more. Its pits are filled in, the cages torn down. I explore it now in the only place left for it, my memory.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pi continues to defend zoos (but also denies defending them) from accusations of cruelty and imprisonment. Zoos do not, he insists, imprison animals at all--rather, they at least protect them and allow them to live relatively normal lives by making them safe and giving them a stable, unchanging environment in which they can develop a new territory for themselves.

The passage is interesting in that it makes an analogy between zoos and the belief in God. Those who dismiss zoos as cruel and backwards are the same kinds of people, Pi suggests, who dismiss God. Just as God is the being who gives people boundaries and rules by which to live, the zoo gives animals boundaries in which they must survive. It's easy to dismiss God as a "tyrant," just as it's easy to say that boundaries of any kind are imprisoning--and yet Pi claims that some boundaries are vital to happiness and, ironically, to freedom.

Chapter 13 Quotes

So you see, if you fall into a lion’s pit, the reason the lion will tear you to pieces is not because it’s hungry – be assured, zoo animals are amply fed – or because it’s bloodthirsty, but because you’ve invaded its territory.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Pi puts forth more theories about animals and territories, further setting the scene for the "territory" he will inhabit on his lifeboat. Pi claims that in zoos, dangerous animals like tigers or lions would attack people only because they perceive people as invading their territory. Boundaries are a sacred right for all animals--an animal reacts immediately when someone starts to steal its space and upset the regularity of its life.

The passage reinforces the points Pi has been making about the value of boundaries. Most people would say that confining a person to a limited set of places is a form of imprisonment. Pi, on the other hand, sees such acts of confinement as a liberation. An animal, or a human being, embraces its home and its space, and indeed, it will defend its space from invaders of all kinds.

Chapter 23 Quotes

The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose…”
“Hmmm, Piscine?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”
“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Gita Patel (speaker), Gita Patel , Santosh Patel
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this rather comedic scene, Pi--here, still a young man pre-shipwreck--goes with his parents to speak with his various religious leaders, who are concerned that Pi has dabbled in too many religions at once. Worried, the religious leaders insists that Pi must choose between them: Pi has been practicing as a Muslim, a Christian, and a Hindu all at once! Pi shyly insists that he sees the beauty in all religions, and just wants to love God--so why shouldn't he embrace them all at once?

Who's right here, Pi or the religious leaders? Most people choose one religion because it's enough to give them a sense of satisfaction and peace with regards to the universe's mysteries. Pi seems to have a looser, more experimental relationship with religion and truth, one based more on storytelling than fact. Pi recognizes that the stories of the various world religions have spiritual truth, even if they're not literally true. By the same token, Pi finds that he can embrace many different religions, looking past their literal rules to find true spiritual value. In short, Pi is a mystic and universalist who refuses any single identity--but he's surrounded by people who try to force him to choose one identity, thus excluding all others.

Chapter 49 Quotes

To be afraid of this ridiculous dog when there was a tiger about was like being afraid of splinters when trees are falling down. I became very angry at the animal. “You ugly, foul creature,” I muttered. The only reason I didn’t stand up and beat it off the lifeboat with a stick was lack of strength and stick, not lack of heart.

Did the hyena sense something of my mastery? Did it say to itself, “Super alpha is watching me – I better not move?” I don’t know. At any rate, it didn’t move.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Richard Parker , The Hyena
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

In this interesting passage, Pi comes to realize that his problems are bigger than he thought. There's a huge tiger, Richard Parker, in his boat, hidden beneath a tarp. The tiger is an enormous, dangerous animal--the other animal on his boat, a hyena, is tiny and pathetic by contrast. Pi begins to despise the hyena, and even imagines beating it away with a stick out of pure anger and disgust.

The passage shows Pi beginning to master his surroundings. Paradoxically, his awareness of a greater danger--the tiger--helps him gain more control over the smaller, more manageable dangers in his life, such as the hyena. Critics have interpreted Pi's boat as a metaphor for the human consciousness (a fact signaled by the original cover art for the book). Thus, one could say that Pi, the rational human, being learns to master his own anxieties and neuroses (the hyena) by accepting the fact of his own inevitable death (symbolized by the tiger).

Chapter 80 Quotes

For two, perhaps three seconds, a terrific battle of minds for status and authority was waged between a boy and a tiger. He needed to make only the shortest of lunges to be on top of me. But I held my stare.
Richard Parker licked his nose, groaned and turned away. He angrily batted a flying fish. I had won…
From that day onwards I felt my mastery was no longer in question, and I began to spend progressively more time on the lifeboat… I was still scared of Richard Parker, but only when it was necessary. His simple presence no longer strained me. You can get used to anything – haven’t I already said that? Isn’t that what all survivors say?

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Richard Parker
Page Number: 222-223
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Pi faces off against Richard Parker, and wins. Having just caught a dorado (fish) that jumped into the boat, Pi stares Richard Parker (who's suddenly gone into attack position) in the eyes, knowing that there's a good chance he could be killed and eaten in competition for the fish. Yet Pi's reckless bravery and willingness to sacrifice his life intimidates Richard Parker into submission, reaffirming Pi as the "alpha" on the lifeboat.

Pi here further learns to control the "territory" of the lifeboat, dominating Richard Parker with his own confidence and bravery. By the same token, Pi learns to master his own fears and anxieties, again transcending death by accepting death. The passage closes by reinforcing something we already knew: Pi is the ultimate adapter. He embraces multiple religions at once, and learns to control Richard Parker because of his fundamental desire to survive. In short, Pi learns to carve out a place for himself in the universe, rather than accept defeat and die.

Chapter 82 Quotes

It came as an unmistakable indication to me of how low I had sunk the day I noticed, with a pinching of the heart, that I ate like an animal, that this noisy, frantic, unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Richard Parker
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Pi again reaches a moment self-awareness. He's been fighting against Richard Parker throughout the novel--but here, he realizes that he is becoming Richard Parker. In other words, Pi is becoming an animal--wild, selfish, violent, etc.--in the process of trying to survive.

It's important to note that Pi's "sins" don't seem all that bad. Pi hasn't hurt anyone or threatened anyone. The change he's describing is mental and psychological, not external. The broader irony here is that Pi has learned to dominate Richard Parker by showing that he's not afraid of death--yet in the process, he's fallen to Richard Parker's level (and in one interpretation, he's always been Richard Parker). Pi holds himself to the highest standards, even when he's stranded at sea; he refuses to accept his own inner greed, even when a little greed seems totally appropriate.

Chapter 99 Quotes

“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Tomohiro Okamoto (speaker), Atsuro Chiba (speaker), Tomohiro Okamoto, Atsuro Chiba
Page Number: 317
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Pi has revealed a surprising twist: the story of the animals (i.e., the book we're almost finished reading) was never exactly "true." In other words, the story of Pi and Richard Parker may have been a metaphor for what literally happened--Pi was stranded on the lifeboat with a group of other people, who turned to increasingly violent and dangerous means to survive. It's possible that Pi was so disturbed by what he's witnessed on the boat, and by his own actions, that he transforms his experiences into a more satisfying story of animals--i.e., creatures who aren't answerable to the law or to religion for their acts of violence.

In the true climax of the novel, Pi's interviewers are faced with a tough decision: print the story of how Pi came to be stranded in a boat with people, or print the story of how Pi survived with animals. In the end, they choose the story of the animals, because it is a "better" story.

What makes the story of the animals "better?" In the absence of total knowledge (i.e., the interviewers can't possibly know for sure which story actually happened, as Pi is the only survivor) they choose to embrace spiritual truth, with some redeeming religious value, rather than literal truth, which reveals nothing but the ugliness of human nature. The passage sums up everything the novel has been suggesting about the value of religion and storytelling. Reality is ugly and often depressing--stories, by contrast, have the power to inspire humans to achieve better and behave better. This idea of choosing to believe the "better story" is then intimately equated with religion, particularly in Pi's words--"so it goes with God."