3.14 Ways to Stylistically Analyze The Life of Pi

by Matt Goldberg


A certain emptiness made itself felt. I touched my belly. It was a hard and hollow cavity. Food would be nice now. A masala dosai with a coconut chutney—hmmmmm! Even better: oothappam! HMM-MMM! Oh! I brought my hands to my mouth—IDLI! The mere thought of the word provoked a shot of pain behind my jaw and a deluge of saliva in my mouth. My right hand started twitching. It reached and nearly touched the delicious flattened balls of parboiled rice in my imagination. It sank its fingers into their steaming hot flesh… It formed a ball soaked with sauce… It brought it to my mouth… I chewed… Oh, it was exquisitely painful!          (words: 114)    


                                                    Martel, Yann. (2001). The Life of Pi. Novel.

                                         Pg. 143-144. Middle-end of chapter 51.


The passage above is presented halfway through The Life of Pi, a fictional novel by Yann Martel about the son of a zookeeper who, after being shipwrecked, finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. After the tiger eliminates all but our hero, Pi, we follow the unlikely pair as they drift through the Pacific Ocean, struggling to maintain sanity, avoid starvation and survive. A careful analysis of the linguistic techniques composed throughout the passage provided exemplifies aspects such as: brief sentences containing powerful word choice, meticulous use of the obstruent phonetics stops and affricates, as well as unconventional grammar and punctuation to exemplify an urgent tone and a theme of delusion in order to unite the reader and speaker as one.

Since The Life of Pi deals with the wrath of surviving the elements, the tone of the novel is quite urgent. Throughout this passage, short sentences carry a hurried quality in order to exemplify agitated hunger. For instance, as the Visual Layout Appendix provided exemplifies, the first four sentences of the passage are short statements, less than a line in length and contain no internal punctuation. The absent punctuation within the sentences reflects an absence of food within the character’s stomach, while the short sentences reflect the urgent tone connected to starvation. The opening lines of the passage are presented abruptly, virtually staccato in nature, in order to exemplify the rapid change of thought affixed to life or death situations, where living moment to moment is pertinent to survival. Martel uses short sentences in order to fully encapsulate the reader and build tension as brevity complements urgency; the passage’s conciseness reflects the character’s exigency for survival.

Along with short sentences, the graphology of capitalization in the passage also develops tone in showing insistence and importance for certain words and interjections. For example, the interjection, “HMMMMM!” comes up twice in the passage, but is only capitalized on the second use. Subsequently, the word “IDLI!” is the only food pronoun capitalized, but is also the last food mentioned in the list of meals Pi imagines eating. The placement and use of capitalization in the passage illustrates a sense of rising excitement and desperation felt by the speaker as he imagines devouring meals like, “oothapam” or “parboiled rice”. The rising excitement is delivered even further with the author’s fastidious use of end punctuation. Sentences 5, 6, 8 and 13, along with the two capitalized interjections in sentences 7 and 9, end in exclamation points. The exclamation marks are placed in nearly half of the sentences in the passage in order to emphasize the strong emotional and physical reaction Pi holds in his yearning to eat a hot plate of food. However, Martel also uses incomplete sentences to further exemplify urgency. Sentences 6 through 8 are all fragments which help the fluidity of the passage, allowing the rhythm of the words to mirror the quick-paced rhythm of the topic of starvation. Undoubtedly a conscious decision by the author, the use of incomplete sentences also reflects the fact that the passage is told from the narrator’s inner voice and not spoken aloud. The short, fragmented lines help to exemplify the disjointedness of the character’s thoughts and reflect the way the human mind jumps from one idea to the next, with no time to pause for conventions of grammar or syntax.

Similarly to the ways in which the author illustrates an urgent tone through words that encompass and envelope its readers, the theme of delusion is also presented through Martel’s scrupulous word choice and description. For instance, in sentence 10, the word “thought” helps determine the fictitious qualities of the passage by suggesting that the food only exists in Pi’s mind, while the phrase “a deluge of saliva” helps determine the factitious qualities of the passage by suggesting that Pi’s mouth is full of nothing but his own saliva. As Pi imagines eating “masala” and “dosai” the dynamic imagery is written so fluidly that the reader envisions the plates of food in the same manner as the speaker; a figment of imagination. However, Martel goes one step further in showing delusion through contradictory lexical sets. The collocation of words like, “exquisitely painful” suggests that, since the food only exists in the narrator’s imagination, the thought of food is exquisite, but the fact that he cannot consume it makes it painful. The narrator’s mind consumes him, as he spends the entirety of the passage only finding pleasure in what is not there, in order to avoid the pain consumed by what actually exists, the miserable reality of impending fate. The allusion of yearning for the desirable, yet unattainable food, bonds the reader and speaker together as one, both enacting in delusion and experiencing a mirage—a common occurrence for those starving and stranded. However, the elements of the passage blending speaker and reader together cannot merely be attributed to word choice or phonetics; much of the amalgamation is accredited to the fact that the passage is written in past tense. For example, in the final sentence of the excerpt, the words, “sank”, “formed”, “brought”, “chewed” and “was” determine tense and allow the passage to be read factually and literally. Regardless of the fact that the passage is describing something as fictitious as eating made-up meals, the theme of delusion reoccurs as the reader is once again united with the speaker in their attempts to distinguish fantasy from reality. 

It would be a travesty if the author’s use of phonetics in this passage were not paid attention to. In its accomplishments in demonstrating the tone and theme of the passage, urgency is exemplified with the prominent use of stops. Since stop consonants prohibit airflow through the vocal tract, words containing the stops,  /t/, /p/ or /d/ result in words, and ultimately sentences, that are difficult to get through for readers. The physical or oral involvedness needed for reading words like “emptiness” or “parboiled”, that contain multiple stops, is reflected with Pi’s difficulty in surviving the elements and avoiding starvation. The reader is placed alongside the protagonist, each attempting to overcome the obstacles of advancement.

While stops help determine the urgent tone, affricates help establish the theme of delusion. The author uses the affricates /ch/ and /j/ in order to conjure up the imagery of eating. The author chose the affricate consonants consciously because their sound is representative of the meaning or message of the passage. For example, words like, “jaw”, “chutney” or “chewed” are provided because their consonant sounds are reminiscent of the physical sounds of chewing—the character’s action. In addition, if the sound of the word is not reflective of the words meaning, but is placed in the text for the purpose of employing imagery or emotion, the reader absorbs such imagery unconsciously. The additional words containing affricates supply the reader with the same audible connection to the character’s action of eating that previous affricate consonants provided, but their imagery also offers a connection to the narrator’s delusion. For example, words like “touched”, “reached” and “twitching”, like all affricates, contain a very physical and natural timbre. These words are made up of sounds that are reminiscent of crunching leaves, broken twigs and sounds not typically associated with the ocean (the setting of the passage). However, their purpose in the text is not to place the reader in the setting, but take the reader out: diverging from the ocean the way Pi’s delusional mind, consumed with mirage, departs from thoughts of dreary fate to lavish gorging.

For a compelling novel about personal strength and overcoming adversity, this middle passage from The Life of Pi offers the reader a connection to the narrator, each swiftly wadding through interspace in hopes of finding solitude, even for a moment, despite how dismal or dreary the reality outside their minds can be. Readers will experience a break; a moment of pleasure by reading the playful imagery and word choice betwixt an otherwise bleak juncture in the novel the way Pi finds a moment of pleasure in his own thoughts and imagination.