Life of Pi, a novel by Yann Martel, focuses on Piscine Molitor Patel’s journey in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat. With no contact with the real world, he is left to his own devices after the sinking of the ship. In the beginning of the novel, Pi recalls the difficulty of sharing the lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. However, each of these animals later adopts an individual persona as part of Pi’s defense mechanism. When faced with death and hunger, Pi is forced to abandon his morality and the teachings of his religion that once taught him to be kind to animals in order to survive. Psychology plays a large role in the novel Life of Pi and its film adaption as it addresses Pi’s behavior when surviving in the lifeboat which is seen in Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow’s theories.
Psychologist Sigmund Freund first proposed the theory of the unconscious mind. Freud was an Austrian physician in the early 1900s who argued that behavior is motivated by the inner unconscious forces where an individual has little control (Understanding Psychology). According to this psychoanalytic theory, the conscious plays a small part of the psychological makeup and experience while the unconscious is the part of a personality that contains memories, feelings, urges, beliefs and instincts the individual is not aware. Not only does the unconscious unveil the instinctual drives, but it also provides a “safe haven” for recollections of threatening events (Understanding Psychology). Freud specifically focused on the anxiety and stress that was produced as a result of threatening events. Anxiety is a danger signal that threatens the ego, a part of the personality that balances the instinctual urges and the realities of the outside world (Phebe Cramer). While the id consists only of primitive and instinctual cravings, the ego operates on the reality principle in which it makes executive decisions, controls action and maintain the individual’s safety.
As anxiety is clearly unpleasant, Freud believed individuals possess the ability to deal or cope with it known as defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are part of the unconscious that reduces anxiety by distorting reality and concealing the source of anxiety from themselves (“Defense Mechanisms”). It also protects the individual and enhances their self-esteem while fostering unrealistic self-illusions (Mark Dombeck). One type of defense mechanism is called projection which occurs when an individual’s unwanted thought or emotion is attributed to something or someone else. An example of projection is when an unfaithful guilty husband suspects his wife of cheating (Understanding Psychology). The guilt develops anxiety to which he then projects it to his wife.
The defense mechanism is effectively laid out in the novel Life of Pi and its film adaptation. Projection is seen during the comparison between Pi’s first story and the second story. Pi is on the lifeboat with the Bengal tiger, zebra, hyena, and an orangutan in the first story. All of these animals and Pi are packed into the lifeboat and immediately the animals turn violent when the hyena “reached over and gathered a fold of skin in its jaw… pulling out coils of intestine and other viscera” (Martel 125) from the zebra. However, this scene is quite similar to the second story when he explains to the Japanese officers of the cook’s actions. The cook decided to amputate the sailor’s bad leg to use as fish bait, however, the dead skin was too decayed to hold onto the fishing hook. With the sailor dead, the cook butchered him and cut “every inch of his intestines” (Martel 307). Pi and his mother responded in fear and “rocked with pain and horror” from the awful actions by the cook. Not only did the cook brutally slaughtered the sailor, but he decided to eat him like an animal. It is no surprise that the hyena represents the cook as it inflicts similar violent actions towards its victim, the zebra or the sailor in the earlier story. The orangutan represents Pi’s mother as she was described as “floating on an island of bananas in a halo of light, as lovely as the Virgin Mary” (Martel 111). The orangutan’s presence relaxes Pi, providing him a comfort, soothing and maternal feeling that Pi wants.
The second story is arguably the more realistic, true story. The first story is the result of Pi using his defense mechanism in concealing the traumatic event. Being shipwrecked in the middle of the sea is already frightening enough, but witnessing the cook butchering the sailor’s body can be further traumatic and stress inducing. These threatening events lead to Pi projecting the human qualities to animals in a way of protecting himself. He distorts these traumatic perceptions in order to fit his definition of familiarity by inducing animal-like behaviors. By seeing people as animals, it makes it easier for Pi to understand the situation and save his own mental sanity. As a result, Pi uses projection as a defense mechanism to escape from reality and the severity of the situation.
The second psychological theory that shows up in both the novel and film is Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation. In 1943, the US psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation,” stating that individuals had five sets of needs in a specific order (BBC News). As each level of needs is completed, the desire to fulfill the next continues on onto the final stage. Maslow’s theory is often interpreted as a pyramid showing a hierarchy from the most fundamental biological needs to the higher ordered ones.
The first level of the pyramid is the physiological needs which include the need for water, food, sleep, and sex (“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”). In order to move up the hierarchy and satisfy the safety needs, the individual must meet the physiological needs first. Maslow suggests that individuals need a safe and secure environment to function effectively. The third level is the need to obtain and give affection in order to be a contributing member of a society. The need to develop self-esteem or self-worth is the fourth level where it is the result of properly understanding that others recognize and value an individual’s competence. The final level of the pyramid is self-actualization, a state of “self-fulfillment in which people realize their highest potentials in their own unique way” (Understanding Psychology). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is important as it highlights the complexity of human needs while emphasizing the notion that an individual must meet their basic biological needs in order to be concerned with the other higher order needs. An example of this reasoning is when an individual is hungry, their first interest will be getting food and not be concerned with other needs like love and self – esteem.
Abraham Maslow’s theory is seen in the film and novel when Pi abandons his religious teachings and morality to survive in the sea. Due to his religion, he cannot eat any form of meat as it goes against the Hindu religion. With a limited amount of supplies including food and fresh water, Pi begins to look for other sources. A school of flying fish leaps over them and in the midst of it, Pi grabs a fish and tries to make himself kill one. Due to his religion, he states to the readers, “a lifetime of peaceful vegetarianism stood between me and the willful beheading of a fish” (Martel 183). Despite his unwillingness to kill a living thing, his hunger wins out as he quickly consumes the fish as shown in the film. The need to survive drives him completely as he eats a flesh of a dead human being later on in the novel. He states, “I will further confess that, driven by the extremity of my need and the madness to which it pushed me, I ate some of his flesh” (Martel 256). These events are clear examples acknowledging Maslow’s theory of human motivation. Food is a necessity in order to survive and is located in the first level of the pyramid. Pi needs to satisfy the basic physiological needs before he can move up the pyramid. As a result, he abandons morality and his religious teachings that includes of not harming a living thing and eating meat. By eating the fish, he is able to satisfy the physiological needs, motivating him to continue on to function.
The psychological components of Freud’s theory and Maslow’s theory ring true in the Life of Pi and its film adaptation. When faced with a traumatic and horrendous situation, there is little doubt that Pi used his defense mechanism to survive. Without employing his defense mechanism of projecting familiar animal-like behaviors in the lifeboat, the anxiety and stress would threaten the ego, preventing him from making central and rational decisions. He would not have his mental “safe haven” and quite possibly died in the lifeboat. By abandoning his religion and tending his physiological needs, he is able to continue to live.