[Check out this post about Life of Pi for more of my rambling about what the ending might mean.]
Life of Pi didn’t seem at all preachy or dogmatic to me, but that’s not to say that it was particularly subtle. It seemed to have a character on hand to explicitly recap the major idea of each scene, and to spell out every possible conclusion we were supposed to take from the story. I thought it was a nice story, well told.
After seeing complaints online — one that the ending was terrible, and another that the movie was too heavy-handed — I started to wonder whether my initial take on the “message” really did cover everything the movie had to say. Considering that I didn’t find the movie all that subtle, it says something that I’m genuinely not sure whether I’ve got an insightful interpretation of the story, or whether I’m simply giving a more prosaic recap of what the movie says explicitly.
In either case, this will have tons of spoilers for the movie and (I’m presuming) the book. I’d really recommend not reading it until after you’ve read or seen either one.
More than anything else, the feeling I got from Life of Pi is one of inclusiveness — it completely disregards the borders between nationalities, languages, and religions, instead following a character who wants to learn and to understand everything. Pi comments on the novelty of an Indian family on a Japanese freighter headed to a new life in Canada, and much of the story and conversation focuses on Pi’s status as a Canadian Indian Catholic Muslim Hindu, who teaches a course on the Torah. I think the story would work well if it were simply an ode to universalism: encouraging all of us to see ourselves as living creatures united in a world we don’t understand, each of us with his own path to enlightenment.
But then comes the ending, which makes this more than just a facile, straightforward parable about finding faith. It brings that theme of universality home, by suggesting that there’s not an uncrossable divide between faith and reason. It explains to the rational members of the audience exactly why there’s such a powerful, almost innate draw to spirituality among the faithful. And it explains to the faithful why blind belief without reason is unsatisfying. Even better, it uses the format of the story itself to deliver the message.
To a person who’s driven completely by reason — if such a person actually exists — the “truth” of the story would be completely straightforward: it’s the version he told the insurance company representatives. Pi watched the cook kill the Japanese crewman and Pi’s mother, then killed the cook himself. Because the reality was too horrible, he made up a fantasy in which he was the only survivor, and the others, along with his own killer instinct, were all represented by animals.
To a person who’s driven completely by faith, the “truth” is almost as obvious. Everything that Pi first described is the “truth.” The story told to the insurance representatives was made up for their benefit, to have a more plausible account. Since they can only believe what they see, they wouldn’t have been able to accept all the fantastic things that happened to Pi, or appreciate how meaningful the experience was for him.
The beauty of Life of Pi is that neither one of those is completely satisfying. In the first account, we’re denied a resolution. Pi’s journey showed him more of the world than he could ever have imagined, and he grew to understand how every living creature is connected. But in the end, the tiger didn’t look back. Pi had become convinced that Richard Parker had a soul, and what he saw in the tiger’s eyes was more than just a reflection of his own understanding. But there was no acknowledgement of their shared experience, no definitive conclusion to the story.
With the second account, we’re denied a purpose. The boat sank for reasons unknown, and Pi was the only survivor. The “moral” of the story is nothing more than that some people act purely out of self-interest, and that bad things happen to people for no reason. If there’s any metaphor involved, it’s the acknowledgement that without the trappings of civilization, human beings are ultimately no more and no less than any other animals. The version with the bengal tiger is unquestionably a better story, whether it’s plausible or not.
There’s no single right answer. While the story obviously favors the “Pi’s Ark” version, it deliberately avoids advancing either one as the objective truth. A rational mind would say that there is an objective truth, even in a work of fiction. But Pi was the only survivor of the ship, and he was the only one who could give an account of his entire time lost at sea. Any conclusive evidence that one or the other is “true” has been lost forever. So is there actually an objective truth, or is there only Pi’s personal version of what happened? How can anyone else tell him what’s the truth or what it means to him, and what would be gained by proving him wrong or right?
I’ve seen so many over-simplistic, facile descriptions — and I’ve made several over-simplistic descriptions myself — of the importance of rationality and the importance of faith. I’ve seen militant atheists call religion a “lie,” or dismiss it as a story, a book, or pure imagination. I’ve seen people dogmatic in their faith claim that non-believers are living incomplete lives without meaning or purpose, and insist that they’ve found the true way and the one path to enlightenment.
What I like about Life of Pi is that it dismisses both extremes as ultimately futile. Belief (or confidence in rational explanations) is completely personal. Conclusive, definitive answers simply aren’t going to come in our lifetimes. Both versions of Pi’s story are true: having faith without being able to acknowledge the natural order of the world will get you no closer to understanding. And rejection of the fantastic or implausible denies the fact that human beings need good stories to make sense of what’s happening to us.
I think the conclusion of Life of Pi encourages us to concentrate most on the things we have in common. Instead of convincing ourselves that we’re right and anyone who believes differently is just fooling himself, we can be humble enough to admit that we just don’t know everything, and we’re all finding our own way to make sense of our existence.