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A Slice of Life, A Slice of Pi

Life of Pi was a pretty recent film. It’s about the life of a boy, Pi. You may have heard about it; it won the most (four) Academy Awards in 2012. You may have watched it. Don’t worry, there’s no spoilers in this post. Or perhaps there is, if you’re planning to see the film; but if you haven’t yet, there’s a good chance you won’t. The spoilers don’t really spoil anything, since this essay isn’t about Life of Pi, and Life of Pi isn’t about its plot

It’s about its meaning.

I always thought that Life of Pi’s ending was a religious statement—just like believers, the novelist had to have faith in Pi, that his story was true. Although reason and psychology may steer one to believe otherwise, faith transcends both. People who value ‘order’ will automatically believe in the metaphoric story with ‘real’ humans—this denies a whole range of fantastic (in a bad way) possibilities, showing logic’s corrupting influence over the flexibility of faith. Furthermore, faith is unique to each person, as are meanings (interpretations!).

Yet, few seemed to agree. Most posts online simply followed the novelist’s connect-the-dots from ‘actual humans’ to their ‘animal representations’. So too did I think, but something was off, it was too obvious. I mean, in the film itself, the novelist explicitly STATES all of these connections! What kind of serious literary work TELLS you its meaning?

Ah.

That exposes a preconception in our minds: that serious literary works’ meanings are to be found and not given. This is the notion that leads to ‘overanalysis’, when we ‘think too hard’ about something which has an ‘obvious meaning’.

But how do we find this meaning when nobody agrees? Does one meaning to any literary work actually exist? Do any meanings exist at all?

It’s late, but it’s still Tuesday. Any thoughts?

6 responses

  1. The Kenosha Kid

    It’s a story, through and through. So the story in which it’s about the ‘actual humans’ is no more real in this world than the story in which it’s about the animals. I do think it was originally intended as a statement about religious belief, but the novel’s (didn’t see the film, but will at some point because I like Ang Lee) status here in this world as a fictional work means that it can be interpreted somewhat differently: the story about the animals is a fiction both here and in the frame story. So if we concede that anything about Life of Pi—whether it’s the animal story, or the ‘actual human’ story—can have any sort of relevance for us (even as a work of fiction that never happened in any way at all), then this makes it possible for the fiction to have relevance to the characters within the fiction even as a fiction—that is to say, even if nobody actually believes it in the way one would usually hold a religious belief.

    Though (to carry this to its logical conclusion) the way the story analogizes the animal-story to Pi’s religious beliefs raises (to me, at least) the following possibility: the idea that religions (or, if you prefer, myths) can have relevance to us even if we don’t believe them. Or, heck, we can ‘believe’ them without ‘believing’ them, in a sense—can hold the content/meaning of a myth (or any fiction) as being literally, powerfully true even if some part of us acknowledges that the story that delivers it never quite literally happened in the normal sense. Thus we can, as Pi does, adhere to multiple religions that would seem to conflict and contradict each other. And we (as in, us personally) could (though might not want to) pick any goddamn story we please—even one about some kid in the ocean with his tiger buddy.

    Overinterpretation? Sure. Just occurred to me and I haven’t bothered to flesh it out more, but the obviousness of the ending always sorta bugged me a bit, and I always sorta preferred the animal story—it’s more real anyway, so who are those otherfictional dudes to tell me that their story’s supposed to be better? And the funny thing about this little overinterpretation is that it’s only really possible because of the obviousness of the ending—it becomes as blatantly fictional to the characters as the book is in our hands. And it makes the book’s status as a book a part of the book! And I really dig that sort of reflexivity.

    Apologies for the wall of text, but I figured somebody might find it interesting. Or could correct me.

    2013/04/04 at 23:34

  2. The Kenosha Kid

    Whooo sorry about the bad tags there I sure goofed. Derp.

    2013/04/04 at 23:35

  3. Bubble Sort is not as good as the mighty Quick Sort.

    What you have there is a very valid point, one which I was trying to get at a bit with my poetry post. What makes people think that the meaning has to be this hidden thing the author snuck in there. When making this assumption, I think the most important thing they are forgetting it that on average PEOPLE ARE NOT THAT SMART two write an ENTIRE STORY and somehow have this pervasive hidden meaning slowly carrying along. Can you imagine how hard that would be?

    If not, here is another check. Over the course of their lives most people have written or made up some kind of story at some point. When making that story, did you oh so stealthily add in some hidden context that could only reveal your true intention through analysis? I dare say you did not. I would however say, that it would be far more likely that sometimes if you tried to put some clear meaning in, your intended reader would miss it. They might have found it through analysis. Does this mean you hid it and the reader should analyze your work to find your meaning? Surely this means that your writing is merely on a different level that requires heightened insight! Not really. It more likely means you are a bad writer, and poor at getting your point across to your intended audience.

    I think that is what lots of these hidden meanings boil down to.

    I saw the Life of Pi in theaters a while ago. I thought it was an interesting film until he got on the boat, and then the rest was quite boring.

    2013/04/04 at 23:53

  4. (Don’t worry, I ungoofed it.)

    Wow, I never thought about it that deeply before, especially the fiction story also seeming like a fiction to the characters (I only thought it from the audience’s perspective, lol) and the whole thing with Pi’s religious diversity connecting back in.

    The funny thing about overinterpretation is that it tends to only happen with literature that have ‘obvious’ meanings. Maybe if we ardently believed the obvious ending over all other interpretations, we’d consider your wall as overanalysis, but the cool thing is that, like the whole religious meaning, we can also pick any interpretation we want. Actually, the really cool thing was that that somehow connected back to my post, lol.

    2013/04/13 at 05:54

  5. Ah! That first paragraph is very very very very interesting because it covers authorial intent and I was just going to write about that. Which I will next week. The cool thing about analysis is being able to find meanings the author doesn’t put in; in fact, I’d wager that most authors are kinda like this SMBC comic. Which would be pretty cool.

    2013/04/13 at 05:57

  6. The Sort of Inexplicable Shame

    I realize that I was pretty tired when I made that post, and I may have thought I was constructing a list at one point, but that is no excuse for my misuse of “two”.

    Also I liked that comic, because I love to make fun of that story on occasion.

    2013/04/13 at 23:38