Primacy of Survival in Life of Pi

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The idea of the primacy of survival, or the desperate need to survive at all costs, is depicted in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi through the character Pi and his unwavering determination and bravery. Pi, a Hindu boy, is on a voyage to Canada with his family and their zoo animals. However, their journey takes a disastrous turn when their boat sinks in the Pacific Ocean, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat.

However, Pi is not alone on the raft; in his presence are a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and a fearsome Bengal tiger. Pi realizes that he cannot give up on his life after understanding what happened. The desire to survive is demonstrated by analyzing the innate danger posed by animals, the cruel actions humans are willing to take for survival, and the loss of moral values when threatened. In Pi’s early life, his father teaches him that all animals are inherently dangerous.

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Pi’s father, the owner of a zoo in India, cautions Pi about getting too comfortable around the zoo animals, as they could harm him if they feel threatened. Pi’s father emphasizes the concept that “Life will defend itself no matter how small it is. Every animal is ferocious and dangerous” (Martel, 41), highlighting the importance for Pi to recognize that seemingly harmless animals can turn vicious due to their innate instincts.

Despite Pi’s father explaining the consequences to him, Pi remains unconvinced about the dangers of becoming too comfortable with the animals. To prove his point, Pi’s father takes Pi and his brother to the zoo’s big cats section. There, they encounter Mahisha, a massive 550 pound female Bengal tiger, known as the king of the jungle. Pi’s father reveals that Mahisha has not eaten for two days and declares, “I want you to remember this lesson for the rest of your lives.” He then throws a live goat into the tiger’s cage (Martel, 47).

Mahisha, in a sudden display of agility and strength, swiftly obliterated the goat with one powerful strike. The goat’s demise resulted in blood splattering, causing Pi and his brother Ravi to be overcome with disgust and shock at the harrowing sound. Pi himself exemplifies his father’s belief that “Life will defend itself no matter how small it is.” (Martel, 41). As a frail Hindu youth, Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and tiger, devoid of any means to defend himself. Throughout his perilous journey, the constant presence of death never eludes his awareness. Despite the imminent danger, Pi remarkably succeeds in safeguarding his own existence.

In certain situations, the primacy of survival can create a strong urge to do anything to stay alive, both for animals and humans. This drive to survive can lead to cruel and unimaginable actions. Pi faces this cruelty when the boat he is on with his family starts sinking, and crew members throw Pi onto a lifeboat. Initially, Pi is grateful for their help, thinking that being on the lifeboat would keep him safe. However, he soon realizes that he is not alone on the lifeboat.

An adult hyena that had escaped its cage ended up on the same lifeboat as Pi. Pi soon realizes that the crew members did not place him on the lifeboat to save him, but rather as a means of attracting the hyena. Pi is shocked and exclaims, “They were using me as fodder. They hoped the hyena would attack me and that somehow I would get rid of it and make the boat safe for them” (Martel, 121). This demonstrates the extreme measures that humans are willing to take in order to survive, including resorting to human sacrifice. Later in Pi’s journey, he unexpectedly encounters another lone survivor on a different lifeboat.

During this stage of Pi’s journey, his body is extremely dehydrated and starting to deteriorate, resulting in his loss of vision. The other man on the raft is also blind. However, when Pi engages in conversation with him, he recognizes the man’s French accent. Similar to Pi, the man has also been without food for several days and is famished. In a desperate bid for survival, the man tries to attack and kill Pi in order to feed himself. Pi is convinced that his life is about to end, as he senses the man moving towards him and even placing his foot on the boat’s floor. In a panic, Pi pleads, ‘No, no, my brother! Don’t!’

“We’re not-‘ ” (Martel, 283). Just before the man tries to attack Pi, Richard Parker, the strong but weakened Bengal tiger on Pi’s lifeboat, attacks and kills the man. Without Richard Parker’s intervention, the man would have undoubtedly killed and eaten Pi in order to ensure his own survival. It is sickening and cruel to kill someone of the same species, but to do so for the purpose of eating them is completely insane; something only an animal would do. The truth is that “We’re animals. We’re born like every other mammal and we live our whole lives with disguised animal thoughts.” (Morace, 1).

Humans, although they are essentially animals, will go to any lengths to stay alive when faced with the prospect of death. Not only are humans capable of unimaginable acts in order to survive, but their morals also become insignificant in the face of a desperate craving for self-preservation. Pi, the protagonist, witnesses this firsthand when a zebra is attacked and injured by a hyena on the lifeboat. Initially horrified, Pi soon realizes that his empathy is overshadowed by a relentless fear for his own life: “When your own life is at risk, your ability to empathize diminishes as a result of an overwhelming selfish instinct for survival.” (Martel, 133).

Human instinct is a natural phenomenon that arises effortlessly within us. Later, Pi starts to feel regret for the zebra, which contrasts with his initial reaction. However, his natural instincts potentially saved his life as he chose to hide when the hyena attacked instead of witnessing and mourning the zebra. Pi even understood that this occurrence was normal and possibly beneficial for his survival. Prior to embarking on his journey across the Pacific, he gained knowledge about this inherent instinct for survival. It is said that “All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it’s part and parcel of the ability to adapt.”

According to Martel (45), every species relies on instinct for survival. However, there is a misconception that humans are exempt from this natural tendency when they feel threatened. Nevertheless, Dominic (143) argues that society is the force that inhibits our animalistic instincts. Without the societal structures that sustain us, we naturally revert to a primitive state guided solely by basic instincts. When Pi separates himself from society entirely, he adopts an animal-like demeanor driven by instinct and focused solely on necessities for survival. Pi’s instinctual nature enables him to endure and prevail.

Despite appearances, Pi does not just witness acts of human cruelty and loss of morals; he also suffers from the loss of morals and engages in extreme cruelty himself. From his earliest memories, Pi adhered to a strict vegetarian lifestyle. However, when he becomes stranded on a life raft, he realizes he must abandon his old habits and consume meat to survive. Pi quickly discovers that he cannot be selective about the food available to him. Faced with severe hunger, he resorts to eating raw fish eyes and turtle blood. Pi even confesses, “I attempted to consume Richard Parker’s feces.”

“(Martel, 237). He immediately discovers that tiger feces is not appropriate for human consumption and never tries to eat it again. Despite the disgusting nature of his action, he had limited alternatives. Following these incidents, it is mentioned that “Pi also starts to acknowledge, much to his dismay, that his own actions are becoming more akin to those of an animal” (Dominic, 143). When Pi finally realizes that he is merely surviving based on his instincts, he surprisingly finds contentment within himself.

Although Pi is on the verge of death, he resorts to a highly questionable action in order to stay alive. It is hard to imagine anything worse that Pi could have done during his journey, yet he engages in cannibalism. When Richard Parker kills the man Pi encounters at sea, Pi actually consumes some of the man’s raw flesh. Pi admits, “Driven by the extremity of my need and the madness to which it pushed me, I ate some of his flesh.” (Martel, 284). Having gone without food for almost 12 days, he even says that “they slipped into my mouth nearly unnoticed.” (Martel, 284).

In numerous instances of Pi’s journey, the primacy of survival is thoroughly expressed. This cruel, sickening, and unacceptable act demonstrates our unwavering determination to do anything and everything in our power to survive. What better exemplifies the will to survive than a teenage boy alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? However, this survival story becomes even more remarkable when a giant Bengal tiger is also onboard. Pi’s journey becomes the ultimate tale of survival as he confronts hunger, thirst, and death while sharing his space with the king of the jungle.

During his journey, Pi acquired knowledge about the inherent danger of animals, the capacity for cruelty within humans, and the erosion of morals under threat. There may be those who argue that Pi’s actions to ensure survival were morally reprehensible and cannot be condoned. Nevertheless, Pi managed to endure an unprecedented 227 days on the treacherous Pacific Ocean before his expedition reached its conclusion. From Pondicherry, India, to Tomatlan, Mexico, Pi had to carry out numerous unpleasant tasks that underscored the importance of survival instincts in animals.

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Primacy of Survival in Life of Pi. (2016, Aug 01). Retrieved from

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