Sunday, March 29, 2009

Yann Martel's Carnivorous Island

After more than one hundred days at sea, Pi stumbled upon an island unlike any other--a floating nest of algae miles in diameter with an enormous colony of meerkats inhabiting it. This “island” is obviously very symbolic and Yann Martel (the author) did an excellent job of subtly making that clear as the chapter (chapter 92) developed. It took much consideration, but now the symbolism all makes sense; the Carnivorous Island represents religion. Throughout the entire chapter Mr. Martel gave clever hints about the true meaning of the island which, after contemplating, make it see fairly obvious.

The island--Pi noted--was green, very green, and green is the color of Islam; to many Muslims it represents safety and home. Pi even said, “Green is a lovely colour,” on page 323. I didn’t take too much notice to it the first time I read it, but after further review, it should have immediately put up symbolic flags in my mind. It could have been incidental, because what other color would an island be? But if that were the case, Martel wouldn’t have put such an emphasis on its color.

Religions can be supportive during the worst of times; nobody can deny that. For generations, religions have been offering people guidance. So, it’s not surprising that Pi came across the island during his most negative state; we must remember that in chapter 90 (two chapters prior to the carnivorous island), Pi witnessed the death of another lone sole stranded in the pacific ocean, and in chapter 91 he couldn’t stop crying. If Pi had not found the island (religion) or if the island had not found him, he would have surely died.

All religions offer shelter and food to their followers. That’s exactly what the island did for Pi. He ate pounds of algae every day, and occasionally meerkats; he slept in a tree, and for the first time since the start of his endeavor, he felt safe. That is, he felt safe until he discovered the truth.

While I was reading chapter 92, I was regularly asking myself “why are there meerkats on an island made of algae in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?” Well, meerkats are just Martel’s way of saying “loyal followers,” or sheep, if you will, of the island. The meerkats lived by the islands rules; they were happy and innocent and friendly and they abided by everything the island asked of them. In this case, the only rule was to stay off the island during night. That’s why the meerkats climbed up the trees, because the island scolded anything that touched it during night. Pi later discovered teeth wrapped in leave--all that was left of a human. He knew that the island was carnivorous, and would eventually kill him.

As most people are aware, all religions have a down side. In many ways, religions are just designed to control the population. Followers are usually punished for disobeying, sometimes cast away. Pi, however, decided that there’s more to faith than rules.

One night during Pi’s stay on the island, there was a major storm. “I would have trusted staying on it during the worst hurricane,” Pi stated on page 341. “It was an awe inspiring spectacle to sit in a tree and see giant waves charging against the island, seemingly preparing to ride up the ridge and unleash bedlam and chaos--only to see each one melt away as if it had come upon quicksand.” Pi claimed that the island was very Gandhian is this respect. Religions can protect you from a storm in your life; religion is a place anyone can turn when it’s all going wrong, and religion can protect you. It seems like obvious symbolism to me.

The island had no land beneath it. It was not tied down and freely drifted the Pacific Ocean. On hot days, the algae’s weave became tight; on cold days, the opposite occurred. This is to say that the island changed over time, as do religions. Almost no religions have had the same rules for the entire time they have existed. Christianity, for example, has so many different branches that you couldn't count them on two hands; undoubtedly, it's changing over time.

Chapter 92 may seem completely obscure and random as you read it, but Yann Martel had a reason for adding it. The Carnivorous island was tremendously symbolic and important; it represented religion and, in the context of the story, made a great statement. Don't trust your life entirely with a floating island of algae--religion.


  1. Greg, having just finished the book, I hadn't yet begun thinking about the symbolism, but I find this very interesting. It's definitely true that Chapter 92 is extremely important, and I really like your take on it. We'll have to find some more time, sometime soon, to talk about Pi more. Great book!

  2. Great post! Why do you think Pi left the island? Because following the allegory of the island being religion, that would mean that Pi also left religion. What do you think Richard Parker eating the meerkats represents? What about the dead fish that appear? Sorry for all the questions, it's just such a interesting topic. Looking forward to your reply!

  3. My take on RP killing the meerkats without them resisting is that if you follow a religion blindly you become unable to think for yourself and recognize danger. I don't think Pi necessarily left religion. He took what he needed from it and was wise enough to know when it was time to strike out on his own again. Remember, he actively practiced three religions. So, it wouldn't mean that he gave up on god -- just that he couldn't trust fully in one religion. He also had to think for himself and take active steps to save himself.

    1. I took Pi and Richard Parker taking provisions from the island as taking some of each religion and applying it to him self.
      When Pi found the islad--or the island found him-- he was at his lowest of lows. The act of finding the island is innocent, he tries to take refuge in the island for provisions and shelter. I see all of that with innocence and then conflict. When he leaves, he has all that he needs to survive and is settled in a sense.
      In the other story before Pi is saying he hates God and is angry at him, in my belief innocence precedes anger, I say that loosly though. Only when you have no way out of what situation you are in. Like Pi being out at sea, there is no possible way to escape that. After Pi is angry at God he does find his own sense of peace with the religion battle with in him.

  4. Did you notice in the movie that the island was shaped like a sleeping Buddha?

  5. Yes, I did notice that. It was the same shape as the idol Pi was praying to earlier...

  6. I've wondered if the island represented Eden, with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

  7. I haven't read the book and just watched the movie adaptation a few days ago. And, I got the idea that the Island represent 'the idea of heaven' in religion and Pi surrendered himself. And how this idea in a real struggle can be carnivorous.

    So when I wonder whether I got it right, I google it and found this blog, analyze it based on the book. It seemed the movie didn't stray much from the book since both of us, from different media, got almost similar thing.

  8. Ah, I thought the human form of the island was from what it ate: a human, but looking at it as the same as his earlier deity, now I see, that your theory makes perfect sense for the representation of the island.