books, carnivorous island, discussion, life, life of pi, movie, movies, religion, religious, richard parter, second story in life of pi, stories, symbolism, symbolism in life of pi, two stories in life of pi, what does the carnivorous island mean, writing, yann martel
Before I begin this little discussion, I will be discussing the movie Life of Pi and there will be spoilers. For those who have not read the book or seen the movie, it’s advised to not read this post further.
I watched this movie when I was in The Netherlands in February earlier this year. Many months have passed and I didn’t have the urge to write a little discussion piece until now. My partner recently asked me what I thought the ‘carnivorous island’ meant in the second of the two stories told in Life of Pi.
For those who are familiar with the story, there are two stories. One which is rather fantastical and requires the audience to stretch their imagination. After the shipwreck of the boat that was taking Pi and his family to America, Pi finds himself on a boat with a collection of animals, one of which is the tiger, Richard Parker. The other animals die early on in the film and he has to survive along with a tiger for 227 days until the boat arrives on the shores of Mexico.
The second story he tells is where the animals on the boat represent different people. The orangutan, his mother. The hyena, the cook. The zebra, the Buddhist sailor. The tiger, Pi. The hyena kills the zebra first and then the orangutan (his mother). Where the tiger (Pi) soon kills the hyena.
I personally preferred the second, much darker story. Richard Parker (the tiger) representing Pi’s darker side as he seeks revenge for the death of his mother. The acting in the movie was also what gripped me during that scene. As a psychology student, maybe it was the idea of this fantastical story represents a darker, repressed trauma which appealed to me so much.
I left the cinema thinking on the events. It wasn’t until a few days ago that my partner asked me, ‘what do you think the carnivorous island symbolised, if anything?’ He had found a forum where they were discussing the topic. I was kinda shocked. I never thought about it. I loved the scene with the carnivorous island because it was so morbidly fascinating.
Even for those people who wanted to believe that the first story was the real one, where the animals were just animals and no murders were committed, it was nearly impossible for even THOSE people to accept the idea of a carnivorous island in the middle of no where. For those, like me, who believed in the darker tale, the island symbolised Pi eating the flesh of the corpses to survive. Whose corpse did he eat? In the movie (I haven’t read the book and I’m ashamed!), the island is in the shape of a person (woman?). Did he eat his own mother?
It’s a ghastly thought and makes even me want to believe in the first fantastical story. But I’m also enthralled by how dark that subplot would be. Pi finds that someone had been consumed previously on this ‘island’. Pi doesn’t stay on that island for long and it’s from that point in the movie does he realise he must move on and find land. Does it symbolise losing oneself to madness? Dying out of shame? I like to think it’s when he realises that the darker side of him, Richard Parker, would consume him and send him into madness if he stayed in this sick state. What makes it ironic is that Pi had always a vegetarian, isn’t it a sick twist that he would eat human flesh?
When Pi lands on the shores of Mexico, Richard Parker (the tiger) just walks into the jungle without a backward glance of acknowledgement. That always rubbed me the wrong way. Was I just a little nostalgic that Pi and the tiger had survived nearly a year on open water and the tiger just didn’t care? But with this new understanding (and my personal interpretation of the movie), it represents the more sinister side of Pi leaving. Never to return. And that, makes me relieved.
The whole film transforms into one of survival. Into what we do in extreme, dire circumstances. How we all have good and evil inside of us.
I enjoyed the movie but I wasn’t wowed by it. It wasn’t until the second story revealed itself near the end was I impressed. Looking over the overlapping stories and delving deeper into the symbolism and subtleties, I am wowed. Very impressed. It makes me wish I had read the book first. I’m not the religious type (actually, I’m an atheist for those who don’t already know). It was what made me hesitant to watch this movie to start because everyone talked about it being ‘religious’. But it was very spiritual and I loved how he was a Christian, Muslim, and a Hindu. A message we rarely get (combining the best of religions). It’s the best ‘religious’ movie I’ve watched! Very positive messages without pushing one specific religion or damning another.
This made the movie, in retrospect, jump from a 3 out of 5, to a 4.5 out of 5. On story complexity alone. I love stories that make me think, doubt, and re-evaluate. A story must encourage discussion!
For those who want to believe the more positive story, continue to do so (I’m probably the only one with the twisted mind who loved the darker one better :P). This post isn’t meant to change anyone’s opinion. I just needed to get it off my chest and see if anyone else picked up on it. What did the carnivorous island symbolise for you? Which story did you choose to believe? What did you think of Life of Pi?
– Ermisenda Alvarez
Here is what Yann Martel said about what the carnivorous island:
[…] The island, ah, the island. The most frequently asked question: What does the island mean? It means what you choose to see in it. My narrative strategy in writing this book was to write a story that was progressively harder to believe. Will you believe that a boy could survive with a tiger? Yes? Good. […] Now will you believe in this crazy carnivorous island? I figure most readers will not believe it. Their suspension of disbelief will break down and readers will start making excuses for Pi: He’s starving and hallucinating. In other words, reason will kick in. That’s fine with me. But I hope that when readers get to Part Three of the novel and read the other story, the one without animals, that their revulsion at that story will be such that they, like the investigators, will choose the first story as the BETTER story. But I wanted that better story to have something unbelievable about it. I wanted it to get beyond the reasonable and the plausible. BECAUSE every great thing in life — be it religion, love, any ideal — has an element of the unreasonable to it. We are not computers. We need the pull of the unreasonable to get us through life. The island represents that unreasonable element in the first story.