Summary and Analysis Chapters 1–15: Names, Titles, Reality

Summary

The novel’s first fifteen chapters relate Pi’s various transformations—the most important being Pi’s name itself. Pi Patel was born Piscine Molitor Patel, but because Piscine sounds like “pissing” and he was teased and humiliated at school, he changed his name to Pi.

Pi speaks at great length about the relationship between humans and animals. Pi’s father feeds a goat to a tiger to illustrate how completely wild the zoo’s animals truly are and that they are not to be thought of as pets or people. But the most dangerous animals, Pi’s father believes, are humans. The existence, morality, reality, and consequences of zoos are discussed at length. Pi’s experience informs his dual majors of religious studies and zoology.

Pi is mentored by two men with the same name: Satish Kumar. These early chapters introduce the first, a biology teacher who is an atheist and a communist. His influence on Pi is not insignificant and for Pi cements a relationship between science and faith, which are usually thought of as diametrically opposed ways of thinking and being.

Analysis

This first section introduces the theme of transformative and conflicting realities. The first hint of this theme is Pi’s choice to pursue both religious studies and zoology. Pi’s slow and lengthy explanation of these seemingly mutually exclusive interests expands into a discussion of what a person’s name means and how a person accepts his or her reality.

Pi’s birth name, Piscine Molitor Patel, is transformed into Pi Patel. Even before Pi gets his nickname, his formal name has undergone a transformation, changing from the name of a swimming pool in France to the name of a child. The pronunciation of his real name changes, too, from Piscine to “pissing,” and so it is changed again. Pi goes from class to class writing, but not saying, “My name is Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as Pi Patel ‘π = 3.14.’” The number pi is full of contradictions and transformations. It is an irrational number; it cannot be expressed by any combination of rational numbers. The number pi is a direct metaphor for the story of Pi Patel. Pi the number is irrational; the two stories of what possibly happens to Pi the character are also irrational and conflicting.

Another transformative way of thinking occurs in chapter 8. Pi’s family owns a zoo, but instead of discussing the nature of animals with Pi and his brother, Pi’s father makes human nature the focus of their zoology conversation, thereby switching the assumed roles of humans and animals. According to Pi’s father, humans prey on all life. Pi’s father even goes so far as to hide a mirror behind a curtain with a sign that reads do you know which is the most dangerous animal in the zoo? Visitors to the zoo, assuming that an animal is behind the curtain, draw it aside to see themselves reflected in the mirror. Ultimately Pi’s father is attempting to get the zoo’s visitors—and his sons—to change their way of thinking about themselves.

Pop Quiz!

How do the inspectors from the Japanese Maritime Department react to the story Pi tells them?

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