Summary and Analysis Chapters 90–91: The Frenchman

Summary

First Richard Parker and then Pi go temporarily blind. The cause is not clear, but the result is that madness begins creeping in for Pi. No longer able to see, Pi has a long conversation with an unknown companion about their desire for food. Pi speaks at length about his longing for figs, potatoes, cabbage, spicy lentils, and stuffed eggplant. The other voice craves food, too, but wants to substitute things like the pancreas and brain of a calf for some of Pi’s main ingredients. Pi is at first outraged by the idea of eating flesh and eventually asks if there is anything the disembodied voice won’t eat. When the voice replies that a carrot is something completely inedible, Pi realizes that he has been talking with Richard Parker. He is relieved that he hasn’t gone mad but is puzzled by the animal’s French accent.

Pi then hears another voice. It is a Frenchman on another lifeboat who has also lost his sight. Both clinging to life and sanity, he and Pi tell each other nonsensical stories about bananas and discuss their survival methods. Pi is overjoyed to have a human companion and invites the Frenchman onto the lifeboat, calling him “brother.” As the man boards Pi’s lifeboat, he sets on Pi to kill and eat him. At the last minute, the man is killed by Richard Parker.

Pi regains his eyesight and observes the carnage. He is disturbed, but practical. He eats some of the flesh and uses a severed arm for fishing, but ends his account of the episode by declaring that he prays for the man every day.

Analysis

The novel has little dialogue up until these chapters. Most of the talking occurs within the sections in which Pi tells his story to The Author. The sudden influx of dialogue in these chapters causes a swift shift in form and content—and reveals how close Pi is to becoming truly insane. Again, though, Richard Parker “saves” Pi. The tiger’s presence allows Pi to project the other half of his dialogue onto him and wonder at only his French accent. Without Richard Parker, the conversation would have marked Pi’s descent into madness.

The events in these chapters also revive Pi’s vegetarian morality, first with Richard Parker and then with the Frenchman. Listening to Richard Parker wishing for calf brains and raw beef, Pi is disgusted—even though he himself has been drinking turtle blood and expertly killing fish—and becomes sickened. This revulsion is soon echoed in Pi’s exchange with the Frenchman, who offers Pi a boot to eat. The Hindu in Pi holds cows sacred, so the offer repulses him.

Pi has been clinging to his humanity with lists, writing, routines, and his relationship with Richard Parker. What Pi has been missing is culture, conversation, and any contrast between himself and another person. Thoroughly anthropomorphizing Richard Parker by giving him language and speech and engaging in a true exchange with the Frenchman, let Pi redefine himself and refute the identities he has taken on during his journey. The direct interactions in these chapters allow Pi to reassert his vegetarianism, his morality, and his need for affection and companionship.

Pi’s reassertions are short-lived, of course, because they are based on illusion. Richard Parker is not speaking, and the Frenchman is not looking for a brother. Pi, however, clings to this latter fantasy even after the man has tried to cannibalize him. Burdened by so great a need for a true human connection, he refers to the Frenchman’s lifeboat as “my brother’s boat.”

Pop Quiz!

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

Q&A

I found the word unwonted in a book I'm reading. Is that a typo, you think?

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