Water, the Omnipresent: Significance of Water as a Symbol in the Life of Pi

life-of-pi-250-1024x554Through Life of Pi, Yann Martel presents two distinct versions of a story to the readers so that they can choose which one they wish to believe. The stories have distinct characters, plots and from time to time different settings. However, “in both stories the ship sinks, [Pi’s] entire family dies, and [he suffers]” (Martel 317). And above all, water is omnipresent. The water’s presence in both stories serves as a symbol to portray three distinct features that affect Pi until the end of his story: God, Pi’s moral conflict, and his identity. Through the symbolism of water in Life of Pi, Martel conveys that God is the leading force that guides people when they are in the midst of their moral conflicts to later form their identity.

Water symbolizes God’s trial as well as praise, glory, and honor – God’s working. The Bible says that “…for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith… may result in praise, glory and honor…” (New International Version, 1 Peters. 1. 6-7). Surely, Pi has suffered a great deed through his adventure. Yet he is also blessed to be in the ocean. Pi describes his journey as a “trial” (Martel 189). There are moments in his trial that are treacherous. “[His] clothes disintegrated,” (192) and “salt-water boils developed” (192). “[He] felt even [his] soul had been corroded by salt” (268). During the times of rain, he felt as if he is “at the centre of a great nest of angry snakes” (156). Pi is often driven to agony that made him confess “faith in God is… a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love” (208). However, through the treacheries that the ocean poses upon him, Pi is often times blessed by the presents that ocean provides him. The ocean gives Pi just enough resources to survive. When thirst and hunger attacks Pi, the ocean grants adequate rain and fish so that “at least [he] drank” (157) and “ate like an animal” (225). As he writes “I die” (240), Pi is introduced to a companion, the Blind French cook, who Pi relies greatly on to the point where Pi calls the cook his “dear brother” (250). When Pi is both emotionally and physically drained, he is given an island filled with unlimited supply of water and food where he even questions “what reason could I have to leave the island?” (279). Through both suffering and blessing, Pi manages to stay faithful to God. Pi admits that “despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression. I thank God it always passed” (209). He also cries out “Thanks be to you Jesus-Matsya” (221) when he is gifted with a dorado. These direct connections between water and God show that water, present all around Pi, portrays God and his workings. Finally, Pi’s suffering has resulted in glory. As Pi comes near the shore of Mexico, Pi tries his best pulling the boat. However, the natural waves carry the boat to and fro to finally reach the shore. This is directly compared to the working of Allah as mentioned by the imam, “If you take two steps towards God… God runs to you!” (61). This shows how Pi, until the last moment of survival, was under the control of water, God. Thus, his survival can be viewed as a gift, more so than the result of Pi’s own effort. Bible states that “the gift of God is eternal life in[a] Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans. 6. 23). When he reached the shore, he is no more vulnerable to sufferings that sea contains but is provided with more than enough of fresh water as well as other necessities. Pi rejoices his freedom to enjoy as much cookies as he likes and to rest as much as he needs. Even more so, when he arrives on the shore, “some women gave [him] a bath… and gave [him] food” (286 and “doctors and nurses cared for [him]” (286). Thus, all the care and resources that Pi receives on shore is his eternal life, salvation. Water has given both suffering and blessing to Pi on his journey. As written in the Bible and confessed by Pi, God intentionally puts one into suffering so that it will result in glory when all has passed.

Water also illustrates Pi’s innocence and cruelty. During his journey, Pi encounters an island. He also finds ponds that are abundant on the island. The ponds in the carnivorous island are innocent at first, fresh to cleanse all pains and sufferings from Pi’s body. Pi states that “The effect of bathing in pure, clean, salt-free water was more than [he could] put into words” (Martel, 268). He enjoys the pleasure that the pond offered him. “[He] soaked, allowing fresh water to dissolve every salt crystal that had tainted [him]” (268). However, as he investigates the island, he figures out that “at night, by some chemical process unknown… the predatory algae turned highly acidic and the ponds became vats of acid that digested the fish” (282). He describes the scene to be “sinister” (277). This cruel truth behind the innocent mask of water shows similar traits to Pi. At first, Pi cannot endure the sight of dead animals and is unable to kill a fish with ease. He calls out that “a lifetime of peaceful vegetarianism [stands] between [him] and the willful beheading of a fish” (183) as he struggles between survival and his integrity. Also, after killing the dorado, he not only “[weeps] heartily over [the] poor little deceased soul” (183) but also reproaches himself for being “a killer” (183). However, once his instinct of survival has won over his morality, Pi feels numb about death, and furthermore, about eating the dead. After his first killing, he rejoices his catching. For the first time in his life, he manages to gulp down a chunk of freshly dead fish. Then, he says to himself that “a person can get used to anything, even to killing” (185). Through this statement, he proclaims that he has relinquished his rectitude for the sake of his survival. Worse still, Pi confesses that he “ate some of [the blind French man’s] flesh” (256). Pi has committed cannibalism, the worst crime that he and his mother consider of the French cook. Like the ponds in the island, Pi has a disgraceful self under the innocent and religious skin. Like the pond, he has gotten used to the cruelty that he says to himself that “[he] set world record for sawing open the belly shells of turtles,” (225) a statement unimaginable for pure and pious Pi. The pond is the unseen violence in Pi. When Pi finds his innate cruelty, he falls into a moral dilemma. Pi is sure that his cruelty should be abandoned. It is clear that Pi regrets his diabolic deeds that he has committed in the course of his voyage. Pi confesses that “[he] must live with that [guilt]” (311). Yet, because Pi knows that his violence is what keeps him alive, Pi cannot discard it entirely without risking his life. If he does not kill his catching and get his hands dirty, Pi will eventually die of hunger. Hence, Pi decides to give up on his violence except for just enough malice to justify some brutal actions that are inevitable for the means of survival. This is again paralleled to Pi’s action toward water when he carries just enough pond water to survive the rest of the journey. However, at the end of the day, Pi “[turns] to God” (284). He Eventually, Pi decides to leave the island. He ventures off to the vastness of the ocean to be tested until his suffering concludes in glory. Pi is once again torn down by the sufferings that God has prepared for him that he shouts “[he] was… in the throes of unremitting suffering” (284). However, he still puts his expectations on God as he concludes that “the lower you are the higher your mind will want to soar… to God” (283). This shows how Pi, after realizing his terrible actions in water, decides to devote his remaining journey to accepting his suffering until he rejoices in his praise the honor and glory like how he chooses to endure the pain caused by sea in order to continue to find land in which he can be granted salvation. Pi’s act of reconciling to his moral values over his treacherous nature has led him to turn his attention to God, which later results in glory.

Water, as discussed above, represents Pi’s moral conflict. His internal fight later resolves in shaping his identity. Thus, water too represents Pi’s unique identity. In the beginning of the story, People around Pi, including his parents, are different from Pi especially in terms of their attitude toward water as well as religion. Pi clearly states that “my parents never took to water… Ravi was just as unenthusiastic” (Martel, 8-9). This is definitely unlike Pi who is named after a swimming pool, la Piscine Molitor, “a pool the gods would have delighted to swim in” (11). Also, Pi relates his name and memories of mamaji to the “pleasure of doing a stroke” (10) through his mother’s skeptical comment that “he nearly drowned [Pi]” (9). These pleasant connections that Pi has with water show the uniqueness that Pi has that isolates him from his family members. Pi’s extraordinary attitude toward water surprisingly parallels his religious identity that no other member of society accepts. Pi is a young man who “just [wants] to love God” (69). After meeting Gods through the eyes of three distinct religions, he decides to follow all three religions, which include Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. However, society does not allow him to do so easily. First, his brother Ravi makes fun of his belief by mixing Hindu and Christian concepts and calling him a “Swami Jesus” (70). Also, the religious advisors who were highly respected by Pi are brought down to earth when they insult each other’s religion with words that are hard to believe to be of a pandit’s, a priest’s, and an imam’s. They state that “[Pi] must choose” (69) among the religions, denying Pi’s belief. Finally, Pi’s parents too do not agree with his belief. They both are not religious to some degree. Pi describes his father to be “Rich, modern and as secular as ice cream” (65) and his mother to be “mum, bored and neutral on the subject [of religion]” (65). They too reject Pi’s love for the religions by declaring that “[he] must be either [Christian] or [Muslim]” (72) and mocking Pi by saying that Pi “thinks he’s the reincarnation of Sri Ramakrishna” (74), a respected guru who devoted his life to religion. This social discrimination that Pi suffers is reflected through his unusual preference of water. Furthermore, mamaji introduces the joy of swimming to Pi by saying that “[it] is [his] gift to [Pi]” (9). This moment compares to Pi’s statement on how people meet God. Pi says that “[people] are all born… without religion, until some figure introduces [them] to God” (47). The fact that Pi was introduced to swimming by mamaji further proves how the formation of Pi’s hydrophilic identity equated to Pi’s belief and his identity filled with religion. These parallels show how water represents Pi’s identity. At the very end of the story, it is revealed that “[Pi’s] the tiger, [Richard Parker]” (311) and his desperate self. Richard Parker’s real name is Thirsty. Out of all the desperations that Pi has in his travel, Richard Parker emphasizes Pi’s necessity of water. This shows that Pi’s innate quality yearns for water, God. Uniqueness of Pi and the representation of Richard Parker shows that Pi’s identity consists majorly of God. Yet, Pi’s identity is still simple in a way that he cannot explain his belief in variety of religion. This is shown when Pi presents awkward behaviors as he explains his thoughts. His actions of “[looking] down, red in the face” (69) shows how uncertain Pi was even as he was saying that he loves all God. As Pi goes through his journey, his identity complicates and is now confidently derived by his own thoughts and experiences. As discussed before, Pi starts to understand the working of God symbolized by Pi’s experience of both the treachery and the benevolence of the Pacific Ocean. Pi also encounters several moments of moral conflict during his journey in which Pi independently decides which path to take. These show how during his journey, Pi starts to complicate his definition of water as well as God. Unlike before the journey, Pi now understands that water is not only confined in swimming pool and is static but is also dynamic and sometimes life threatening. Similarly, Pi realizes that God is also capable of making his subjects suffer, while also understanding that the suffering exists to result in salvation. This new complex understanding of God can be categorized as Pi’s development of his identity.

It has been proven that water symbolizes God, Pi’s moral conflict, and his identity. Through water, Martel conveys that God is the driving force that shapes identity as well as the return point in which everyone can reside on after a moral conflict. Pi during the midst of moral conflict has to decide between his probity, which also relates to Pi’s belief and loyalty to God, and easier means of survival. There were moments in the travel where he gives his faith up to use amoral values to justify his violent actions. Also, the sufferings that God poses on Pi also make him difficult to choose God in times of conflict. However, eventually, he chooses to live by his faith, “so it goes with God” (317). Thus, because Pi was able to choose God over his cruel self, he is saved from the suffering that seemed eternal. This process of moral and spiritual fight is represented by water. He is for the most part in the realm of ocean. Yet, Pi looks for alternative source of water such as rain. At the point where Pi finds the algae island, Pi even considers leaving the sea. However, he soon finds evil in fresh water and ventures on the ocean. Eventually, Pi leaves the ocean. This leaving unlike the previous leaving should be interpreted as salvific since Pi is then provided with unlimited supply of fresh water which does not show traits of violence instead illustrates the benevolence of the poor people who took care of Pi. Also, Pi builds his identity through the spiritual as well moral conflict. Before the journey, Pi’s identity is simplistic. It is during the journey that Pi questions God as well as understands the property of God better. Pi, by going through the suffering that God has set up for him, is better able to improve his simplistic identity, given by his environment, into a complicated ego that he is able to control. This as well is symbolized by water. At first, Pi learns about water only by mamaji when Pi is swimming. However, going through the journey, Pi understands the quality of water better while also encountering new aspects of himself. It is through the hardships that ocean imposed on Pi that has forced Pi to realize these new perspective. Thus, with the book, Life of Pi, Martel says that God drives people to both conclude their moral disputes and formulate and develop their identity

Water is omnipresent in the Life of Pi. It represents God, his identity, and his moral conflict. Pi throughout his journey searches for ways to get away from water, like how he tried to find an answer to his religious problem of suffering, his conflict with society for his identity, and his fight between his survival and morale. In some sense, he has successfully escaped the treachery of the ocean and has found a guide through the answers to the problems that he had. However, like how he still needs water to drink, he will never be able to entirely escape the problems. Likewise, God and faith, as Martel argues, is inescapable. Instead, God, from birth of mankind, has driven people through their conflicts and has complicated people’s ego.

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