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This is a "Wild Mass Guess" entry, where we pull out all the sanity stops on theorizing. The regular entry on this topic is elsewhere. Please see this programme note.
Life of Pi
Another reason this story will "Make you believe in God"
You can't tell, using only facts, whether or not God exists, just as you can't tell whether the animals in Pi's story existed. However, since the story with the animals/God existing, as opposed to God not existing or the animals being people is considered by Pi to be a more interesting story as to how things happened, why not choose to believe in that one?

Why this story will "Make you believe in God"
Spoilers ahoy. Think of the version of the story where all the animals are replaced by humans, and the story gets even more gruesome. Unreliable Narrator used to its finest extent; everyone who's read this book is disgusted or at the very least made uncomfortable by this re-interpretation of everything we just saw. That is exactly Pi's point. Pi hates agnostics for how they live constantly in the midst of doubt. The second version of the story, where Humans Are Bastards is exploited for all that it's worth is meant to disturb you and make you wish that it was just as simple as a boy and a tiger, but at the same time leave the reader unable to choose which. It forces the reader to realize how awful doubt is, and choose a side one way or the other - and theoretically the reader, like the Japanese investors, will pick the version with the tiger - and then to take the fact that Pi survived at all as proof of God's existence. Hence, this story will make you believe in God.
Theoretically.

Both versions of the story are true
.

Warning: Epiletic Trees beneath.

When the Tsimtsum sank, there were a cook, a hyena, a soldier, a zebra, Pi and a gestalt entity that was the mixture of the orangutan and Pi's mother. When they realised that there was a hyena in the boat, the cook fled right away, and took the soldier with him. The orangutan/Pi's mom gestalt entity self sacrificed to destroy the hyena, but in the process it altered Pi's mind, making him aware of his basic animal pragmatism before starvation settled in. Through most of the first parts of the oceanic journey, Richard Parker was a metaphor - perhaps invisioned as real by Pi's unstable mind, but fundamentally unreal.

The story takes a radical shift in tone when the surviving cannibal comes into play. Said cannibal was the french cook, who awoke Pi's primal fears. This was enough to make Richard Parker real, who then proceeded to eat the cook. Soon after in the story, Pi stops being blind and regains his vision; in actually, while his eyes got better, they also opened a gate to the world in his inner mind. This manifested as a weirdass island filled with insular meerkats, presumably born of his need for freshwater, sugar and docile prey. Richard Parker, having also been born from his mind, consumes the meerkats, thus basically symbolising the recycling nature of his reality. In turn, the island wants to consume him, making it an obvious metaphor for his primal instincts trying to consume his ego. Fortunately, the soldier saved Pi, self-sacrificing himself by allowing the island - possibly enhanced by his own id - thus the tooth in the fruit.

When Pi reaches the shore, Richard Parker is on the loose, which completly represents the loss of his primal instincts, making him a purely enlightened human, devoid of animal needs. This purification was aided by the two self sacrifices that saved him from himself - and from the hyena and the cook.

The first version of the story actually happened, but not because of God; because the factual events on the boat could only be followed by the first story, tigers and all.

Fact: Pi's family was transporting zoo animals on the ship, which had escaped onto the deck during the storm.

Fact: All of Pi's family was in their bedroom, asleep or not, during the storm. None of them were seen getting out of bed to follow Pi, nor seen on the deck interacting with the crew.

Now, which events seems more likely?

That an assortment of scared animals on the deck, panicking and mistakenly taking refuge below the tarp of a lifeboat, would stay hidden during the storm while Pi was tossed on and off again, and not coming out until the next morning,

OR:

That Pi's mother (without mentioning the rest of the family once to Pi), the cook, and the soldier would all hide below the tarp while Pi and another Japanese crew member tried to lower the boat by themselves and him getting blown off in the process, staying there until next morning where Pi was genuinely surprised to see all of them.

The first scenario, definitely. Plus, the book mentioned that the entire reason Pi was being let on the boat first was so the hyena would be distracted by him and get him instead. If it had been the cook, the crew wouldn't have been scared and the cook would've waited to eat Pi until after the storm.

If the crew believed in an actual hyena, this means that the rest of the animals were there too, and the first story was true.

  • You're not considering that Pi could have lied about what happened to his family, or just didn't know. For what we know, the family could have woke up with all the noise and the fact that Pi left the room and tried to escape, and only the mom made it. About the hyena, it's the only animal mentioned by the crew, the crew believed in the hyena but apparently not in the other animals.

The supposed "atheist side" (the second version of the story) actually contains more unlikely mental coincidences than the spiritual version of the real events.

At the core of the entire story is a boy and a tiger surviving in a life raft in the Pacific Ocean. The whole time the story is being told, Richard Parker is treated in the realistic, cautious way a regular carnivorous zoo tiger would.

Pi remembers advice from his father, survival books and school about how to deal with a real tiger, and he uses the skills assertively with the results being how a real tiger would react.

He goes out of his way to recognize that the tiger is an entirely separate being, a different species with different skills that Pi wouldn't have been able to do. He even saved Richard Parker by using real materials to help him get back in the boat. Pi also started training him to fear sticks, harsh whistles and shouts, and to go where the stick tapped to expect meat.

If the tiger was just a hallucination, a representation of his animal pragmatism, then there would be no need to avoid him, save him, or train him. They arrived on the island and Richard Parker started eating the meerkats on his own while Pi ate the roots, and was already far away in the boat when Pi discovered the water turned to acid.

All of these events suggest that while it is possible for Pi to be hallucinating the whole thing, the presence of an actual tiger and how it was handled in the first story is far more logical than the explanation of "it was all an illusion."

  • What's more is that the way the story was written, it was believable as it could possibly be with the elements given. If Pi was just making the story up because he wanted an "ideal" version, why would he bother to make it so believable? Richard Parker behaves exactly as a real tiger would, his behavior is never off for his species.

    • The fact that the story is incredibly detailed and realistic doesn't really mean that it's true. He knew about tigers, he could have made all of that up if he wanted to. Also, if Richard Parker symbolizes Pi's animalistic side, he's not going to embellish it, even if he wanted to, he came to accept the nature of humans and animals.

    • The first story contains a realistic tiger. It also contains an unrealistic carnivorous island. What are we to make of this? Meanwhile, the second story is pretty realistic all the way though.

In the second story, Richard Parker is Ravi, not Pi
. Aside from the initialism (Richard Parker to Ravi Patel), there are some earlier connections between the tiger and Pi's older brother. For starters, after witnessing a tiger devour a goat at their zoo, Ravi claims that the next time Pi tattles on him, Pi will be the goat to Ravi's tiger. This means Pi's entire family, except for his father, made it into the lifeboat, with Pi's mother sacrificing herself for her sons to survive. Orangutan, tiger, and goat. This is also why Pi's diary entries include the individual actions of RP (if Pi was Richard Parker, his entries indicate that he was pretty far off the deep end at that point). Ravi was the one more willing to eat the other passsengers (not to the same extent of the cook), so when the boat landed he fled and Pi, in honor of his brother, claimed that he was the tiger of the first story to spare his brother's reputation and memory as a cannibal.

Neither version of the story is true.
In reality, Pi just got to the lifeboat all alone in the first place, surviving with whatever supplies it had and the fish around him, and managed to remain reasonably sane by writing on his journal (which still got swept away by a storm), thinking about god, and imagining more interesting things to happen. He did not tell it this way to anyone and locked it away deep beneath his most secret memories, and instead fabricated other ones to replace it - because if the first story represents God and all his wonders, and the second science and reason, then this third one is the horror that we are all alone in the universe, nothing means anything, and even science will ultimately doom us when it opens the true madness of the surrounding nothing upon our eyes.
  • This theory is superfluous. The second version of the story doesn't represent science and reason. The first version of the story encapsulates both the wonder of God and of faith, and the way that the human animal can triumph when he understands the world and manipulates it to his will. The version with the humans, that's the nihilistic one where the people abandon all law and all faith.

The first story is true.

Consider...

If Pi made up the first story to make himself feel better, why would he bother telling it to the Japanese insurance men?

Second, the story with the tiger is said to represent an "idealized" version, but it's really not. The murder and cannibalism of humans in the second story is supposed to be what makes it so horrifying and unpleasant, yet, murder and cannibalism of a human happens in the first story too, with the Frenchman.

Third, the first story is written in a way that is as believable as it could get with the elements given. Why would Pi go so far out of his way to make the story believable? It's already pretty fantastic story and he knows people won't believe it, so why not just go all the way? And as an above WMG noted, Pi goes out of his way to establish the tiger as a separate entity. If the tiger was just a part of himself, why would he need to train it or do anything else? If the tiger is supposed to be his pragmatic, animal instincts that help him survive, that doesn't make sense either. Early on in his journey, Pi accepts his willingness to kill and eat meat to survive. So why would he need to continue to be careful around Richard Parker and avoid him?

Also, the meerkat bones in the boat. The Japanese insurance men suggested that they were just rat bones, but that wouldn't make any sense. Where would they come from? Even if they came off the Tsimtsum, why would Pi leave them there during the whole trip?

  • The purpose of adding realistic details to the fictional story was to make it more believable, so people would accept it and thus they wouldn't have to learn the horrible truth. Likewise, Pi told the fictional story to the Japanese businessmen to (a) convince them it was real so they wouldn't have to learn the truth, and (b) convince himself it was real so he wouldn't have to dwell on dark memories. Or that's the theory, anyway.

  • Don't forget the rat either. We have to assume one story is a truth and one is a fable representative of the truth. The rat falls victim to two different people in each version. Making it a hole to prove one's screwed up. In the book this would make us think it's story 2, as Pi seemingly takes a few minutes before he starts talking the second story, making it seem him overlooking that detail is a give away. The film however doesn't do that and appears Pi's story telling time happens before the investigators come, making story 1 seem the made up one where Pi doesn't remember who ate the rat until the truth hits him. I assume it may be intentional that it is a small insignificant animal that is used to hint that the more detailed one is probably the truth in the book, the movie kind of screws up that life boat though.

Most of the story is true...
But various aspects of the island were hallucinations. He really did reach an island and stay there for a while, but ate some hallucinogenic plants that distorted things and made him believe that the rats on the island were meerkats, and that the island was carnivorous.

Both stories are true. The explosion was caused by a tear in the fabric of time and space.
During the voyage, the ship sailed too close to a weak point in the fabric of time an space, causing a tear. The energy released from causing this tear was the explosion that caused the ship to sink, and in the process formed several smaller tears nearby. When Pi stepped outside, he unknowingly passed through one of these tears. This had two effects: 1. An unstable bubble universe was created and 2. A duplicate of Pi, Pi-2, was deposited there.

The original Pi, Pi-1, left on a boat with humans and Pi-2 left on a boat with animals. This went on normally for a while, but as the universe slowly repaired itself the bubble universe containing Pi-2 began to collapse. The closer it came to it's collapse the more it's governing rules broke down as well, as seen with the floating carnivorous island and the "dream sequence". Pi-1 and Pi-2 arrived at their destination just as Pi-2's universe finished collapsing, and they were merged again into a single being with a shared memory.

Pi himself found the story of Pi2 to be the more interesting one, and less depressing than the story of Pi-1, so this is the one he tells. The only proof that the bubble universe ever existed is the fact that bananas now float.

The truth is even worse than the second story.

Partway through the book, Pi (apparently) hallucinates a conversation with Richard Parker. He asks if Richard Parker has ever killed a human. The tiger says that he's killed two, a man and a woman. Then Pi falls asleep or goes unconscious, then the episode with the Frenchman in another lifeboat happens. The Japanese insurance agents seem to conflate the two events, and attribute the two murders to the Frenchman/ship's cook/hyena.

But it was Richard Parker, who is Pi, who committed two murders. Here's how this troper made sense of that:

Pi is on a lifeboat with three other humans. He and the cook eat most of the supplies. The sailor dies of his wounds. The cook isn't someone who discovers a capacity for cannibalism, Pi is. His mother is shocked and furious, and assaults Pi. He kills her. The cook realizes that he's stuck on a boat with a bonafide lunatic, fights Pi, and is also killed and cannibalized. The kind, human part of Pi can't tolerate what he's done and externalizes most of it onto the cook. The animal story and Richard Parker is another layer of mental dissociation. When Richard Parker runs into the jungle, Pi is symbolically freed of the part of himself that murdered people and goes on to live a relatively normal life.

But Pi slips a couple of times when telling his story to the Japanese insurance agents. He says Richard Parker admits to two human murders. He says that the cook openly cannibalized the sailor, but then threw his mother's body overboard, which doesn't make sense. Pi might have thrown her overboard (or buried her at sea, if you want to see Pi in a better light), or he's deceiving himself about that too. If you're willing to see Pi as a very creative deceiver of himself, the episode with the island could be the only way he can handle memories of cannibalizing his mother. His mother's teeth are the only part of her that he couldn't get some kind of nutrition out of.

This troper is now going in search of Brain Bleach.
  • It's worth noting that in the animal version, Richard Parker does eat part of Orange Juice even though it was the hyena that killed her - considering that the tiger represents Pi and Orange Juice represents his mother, I've always thought this implied that Pi was forced to cannibalize his mother if the human version were true, and part of why the Japanese businessmen were so overwhelmed with sympathy. (In the book, it's just her head the cook throws overboard, but that was too gruesome to even imply in the film for the PG-rating, which ... there's not much meat on the head, so I can see a cannibal tossing it.) Even if Pi wasn't the main aggressor as posited in this guess, that's pretty tearjerking and horrifying.
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