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Survival of the Fittest in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” Term Paper

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Updated: May 16th, 2020


Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi is a must-read tale that presents great tribulations and the fight for survival in difficult circumstances. The masterwork is an account of the life of a shipwrecked young boy named Piscine Molitor Patel who is commonly nicknamed as Pi. In the novel, the young boy Pi is the only survivor after the ship that happens to be carrying him together with his family sinks because of bad weather. What follows in the aftermath of the shipwreck is an ordeal of survival that takes 227 days before the young boy gets to the show when he is finally rescued. In many ways, the survival of Piscine Molitor Patel is a classic example of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is mainly referred to as the survival of the fittest. Indeed, it is evident that by the end, only the fittest category makes to the shore so that they can live to tell the story (Speringer 34).

This paper draws immensely from the events of the 227 days that Pi was in the sea. It also presents his survival story. The goal is to show why Yann Martel’s work is a good example of Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory.

Definition of “Survival of the Fittest”

In the mid-1800s, a scientist by the name Charles Darwin advanced the idea of evolution. In what came to be known as the theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin asserts that animals and plants alike have evolved over time to their current state through the natural selection process, which explains the subject of animal and body adaptation and specialisation (Darwin 13). In explaining the natural selection, Darwin views organisms as having important traits that guarantee their survival at any given period during their existence. According to the method, the traits that are important for the survival of the organism are preserved and passed on to future generations, while the traits that are not important are eliminated together with the organisms.

For instance, if a prey animal such as antelope must survive, it must be able to outpace the predator. In such a scenario, only the fast antelopes stand a chance to survive for long by passing on their genes or traits to the next generations. On the other hand, the predator will catch the antelopes that are not fast enough. Hence, they end up dying before they can pass on their traits to the succeeding generation of antelopes (Crawford and Krebs 23).

In other words, they will be selected against by nature. Gradually, only the fast antelopes will exist since they have an advantage over the prey until another trait or changes in the demands of nature will require better traits to ensure further survival. For example, the predator must also adapt to the status of the prey. In the above illustration, if the predator cannot adapt to catch the antelope, assuming it is the only source of food, it will die of starvation. Such adaptations and specialisations are geared towards ensuring that the organisms with the best traits survive while those with inferior traits die, or are selected against by nature.

The selection of the best survival traits is what Darwin refers to as the survival of the fittest. In this survival of the fittest feat, nature is viewed as unpredictable based on its ability to throw many situations that threaten the very survival of an organism in its given environment. The ability to adapt to these natural events determines whether an organism can survive or not (Kaila and Annila 55). Creatures that have important traits for surviving through the specific event are likely to adapt easily and endure the situation while those that are not well equipped with the necessary traits die out (Gregory 157). Borrowing from the Darwin’s survival of the fittest, the story of the Life of Pi is an entire survival account where the best and the fittest are seen surviving the events that they find themselves in. Such events can be viewed as a life and death situation that lasts for more than 227 days in the ocean.

The Background to the Life of Pi and its relation to Survival

When the family zoo can no longer adequately support the family, Pi’s father does what he thinks is best for his family. He seeks greener pastures in Canada. The journey to the new land separates the family from their new dream life. The ship accommodates Pi’s family members together with some of the animals that were initially in the family zoo, which Pi’s father plans to sell once the family arrives in Canada. Pi’s childhood is like that of ordinary children in his native country. He attends public school just like other ordinary children. However, from an early age, Pi shows a great desire for knowledge. This desire is evident when he seeks to study various religions, which include Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. Further, he also has a great desire to learn about science. Hence, he questions the atheist teachings of his biology teacher, Mr Kumar (Shmoop par.1).

All the exposure to science and religion offers important lessons and approaches to life that will prove very important in his survival quest later in the story. In addition, he learns how to swim as an important skill, which he is the only one who has it in his family. The skill will prove very important on his survival as opposed to his family members. From an early age, his father had exposed Pi to the danger that is characteristic of animals such as the tiger, which despite it appearing seemingly docile still had its animal instincts of killing (Stephens 41). Such experience to danger at an early age exposed Pi to the concepts of fear and danger, all of which are important aspects of survival in difficult situations. While studying the behaviour of animals in zoos, Pi is exposed to the psychology of animals. He learns important lessons about why some animals attack people, despite them seemingly receiving the best treatment. To him, some animals attack people or escape from the zoo because they are not able to re-adapt to the new environment. Others do not feel safe at all. Such a danger is a threat to their survival and hence their attack on humans or outflows from the zoos. The lessons that the reader learns from this masterpiece are important when it comes to handling animals.

They will prove important for the survival of Pi while at sea. Once the journey begins, there is no return. The family is excited that it is going to have a new life at last. However, the joy is short-lived. The ship runs into bad weather. Unfortunately, it is broken down because of weather issues. From the beginning of the tragedy, the struggle for survival begins. At this point, the survival instincts of Pi are set in motion. For the next 227 days, Pi has to make important decisions, as well as use his instincts to ensure his survival.

Survival During and the Aftermath of the Shipwreck

“In the aftermath of the bloody killing of Zebra, A foul and pungent smell, an earthy mix of rust and excrement, hung in the air. There was blood everywhere, coagulating to a deep red crust” (Martel Life of Pi 159)

The above statement from the novel is reflective of the environment where killing and struggling to live have been the talk of the day as each character fights for its life a few days after the journey had begun. After several days on the voyage, Pi and his family members are awoken by loud noises from the ship. The ship is now heavily tilting from a massive storm that has caught them in the middle of the ocean. He moves to the deck to see what is happening and realises that the situation is very dire and that he is in imminent danger of becoming shipwrecked. When he tries to go back and warn his family, he finds that the corridors to the rooms are already waterlogged. Hence, he cannot access them. He then runs back the deck with the intention of asking for help from the crew members who are in the deck (Shmoop par.2).

Instead, he is thrown overboard with a lifejacket and onto a lifeboat. While on the lifeboat, he sees animals drowning and instinctively sets himself to rescue the tiger, Richard Parker, onto the lifeboat. On the boat are other seriously injured animals that include zebra that has a broken leg, a hyena, and a tiger that is Richard Parker. However, as soon as Richard Parker gets onto the lifeboat, Pi realises his mistake and the obvious danger that he (Richard Parker) poses to the survival of the rest of the group, including Pi himself (Cloete 314). He has to flee from the boat and onto a provisional raft, which he makes to float away from the lifeboat while still tied onto the lifeboat. The battle for the fittest has already begun. In the next 227 days, only the fittest will survive and live to tell the story.

When thrown onto the lifeboat by the Japanese crewmembers, Pi later realises that they have used him as bait for the hyena, which is already in the lifeboat. The Japanese crew team has realised the possibility of being shipwrecked and hence has to take the necessary steps by lowering the lifeboat in preparation for any eventuality. However, when a hyena beats the people to the boat, they are torn between jumping, waiting to drown as the ship sinks, and/or being eaten by the Hyena (Street 179). As a response to the survival instinct, the Japanese crew people have to make important decisions.

In this case, they have to sacrifice Pi to distract the hyena as a way of ensuring that they have a safe landing on the boat, as the hyena will be contented. However, fate conspires against them. Before they can jump onto the lifeboat, the ship sinks. Pi is frightened by the loss of his family, as he witnesses the unbearable situation of the ship going down. However, he realises that he is the only person and with him on the boat are the hyena, zebra, and an orang-utan that are taking refuge in the lifeboat (Ketterer 81). When he sees the tiger, Richard Parker, swimming towards the boat, he encourages him until he gets onto the lifeboat.

Once Richard Parker is on the lifeboat, Pi impulsively realises the danger he has put himself in together with the animals on the boat. Darwin’s presumption of the “survival of the fittest” is evident when Pi flees the boat in fear. According to the theory of evolution, through natural selection, fear is an important survival instinct since it allows organisms to flee, rather than face danger. Fleeing a dangerous situation allows an organism to avoid a confrontation that can lead to injuries or death. In the battle between Pi and Richard Parker, it is evident that Parker has an advantage since he is fashioned to kill and hence the reason why fleeing because of fear is the only alternative for Pi. Pi being a human being, has a better reasoning capacity relative to the other animals. Using his intelligence, which is a major survival trait, makes a temporary raft.

He ties it onto the boat away from the tiger. His thoughts when he realises the presence of the tiger on the boat after coming to his senses following the initial shock of the events of the previous night of the sinking of the ship are well captured when he says, “There was a tiger on the lifeboat. I could hardly believe it, yet I knew I had to. I had to save myself” (Martel Life of Pi 195). After fleeing the boat, his reasoning and intelligence are evident in the activities that he undertakes to make the raft. He takes the life jackets and the ropes from the locker to make a raft. Unlike the animals that are in the boat, he can think rationally and/or be driven by reason. Such actions are not strange when a person in danger does them. Indeed, they are very important indicators of a person who can reason. The reasoning is an important survival instinct that Pi will use on many occasions during his stay in the ocean (Martel How I Wrote Life of Pi par.1).

However, the animals in the boat, including the Hyena, Zebra, and the Orang-utan, have no other way out other than sticking onto the boat. Only the fittest animal among them will survive the ocean tribulations.

The situation in the boat is characterised by chaos. It is a battle for the best to survive. Firstly, the hyena is very voracious. It does not hesitate to make a meal out of the other animals. He begins with the injured zebra where he tears off the injured leg at first. In this contest for survival, the zebra is at a disadvantage. It is weak to compete with the strong hyena that has sharp carnivorous teeth that can tear bones and meat with ease. Even in these circumstances, the animals do not show normal behaviour (Dwyer 13).

For instance, a hyena is known to eat large quantities of food in one sitting, yet in this case, he takes time tearing off the injured leg of the zebra first, as if he is planning on the next part to tear. He seems to know that tearing off the injured zebra’s leg will not lead to death and that the longer the zebra stays alive, the longer the food will be available in this journey, which they find themselves in. However, the zebra’s stay is short-lived. The hyena moves swiftly and kills it, an event that to Pi is very stressful and difficult to comprehend. For the first time, Pi understands the wildness, voraciousness, and animalistic tendencies of the hyena, which while in the zoo did not reveal its wild side. It is evident that the battle for survival has taken one soul and that it is unstoppable. In noting and justifying hyena’s ruthlessness, Pi says,

“But even wild animals that were bred in zoos and have never known the wild, that is perfectly adapted to their enclosures and feel no tension in the presence of humans, will have moments of excitement that push them to seek escape. All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive” (Martel Life of Pi 51).

In hyena’s madness, it is evident that he still has the instinct of killing. In fact, he executes the skill with precision by killing the zebra and getting food for himself for the next few days.

After the death of the zebra in the jaws of the voracious hyena, the next animal to be devoured is the orang-utan. To Pi, the orang-utan represents a motherly love. She expresses human traits. In fact, when she first comes on-board the lifeboat, Pi describes how she seems sick and tired. He says, “The poor dear looked so humanly sick! It is a particularly funny thing to read human traits in animals, especially in apes and monkeys, where is so easy” (Martel Life of Pi 152). When the hyena manages to kill the orang-utan, a major fight ensues between the two. Who will win the fight? In terms of capturing the fight between the hyena and orang-utan, Pi points out that the orang-utan had managed to eat the hyena hard and that the fight seemed to be going in her favour. However, the hyena easily outmatches her when it swiftly goes for her throat, thus killing her on the spot.

The ruthlessness of the hyena shows the quest for survival and/or how animals are dangerous and merciless (Duncan 168). With reference to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, it is evident that the hyena, which has traits that offer an advantage over other animal characters, outshines the orang-utan and the zebra. The zebra is an obvious prey for the hyena, especially now that he is injured. Hence, he (zebra) is a great disadvantage. He becomes an easy prey because he is helpless. On the other hand, although the orang-utan tries to defend herself, the sheer strength of the hyena means that the battle already has its preferred winner. Hence, although the death devastates Pi, it is expected eventually, especially when the battlefield is in the confines of a small lifeboat. Recounting the scene, Pi says,

“Orange Juice lay next to it, against the dead zebra. Her arms were spread wide open, her short legs were folded together and slightly to one side, she looked like a simian Christ on the Cross. Except for her head…She was beheaded. The neck wound was still bleeding. It was a horrible sight to the eyes and the killing to the spirit” (Martel Life of Pi 135).

After the bloody ordeal that occurs on the boat, Pi can see from his raft that the situation is a matter of time before he faces the hyena on a life and death battle. The hyena has proved himself the most ruthless and eager to survive in the lifeboat, even if it means killing all the other characters in the lifeboat. However, it is evident that even in such circumstances, the hyena has few options and that his animal instinct is all focused on survival. It takes advantage of the weak animals or those that have lesser survival traits based on the circumstances that are in the sea (Morace 56).

As Pi contemplates how to best attack and fight the hyena, Parker, the tiger, emerges from the tarpaulin, pounces on the heartless and ruthless hyena, and kills him instantly to Pi’s relief. The turn of events is an important indicator of the survival of the fittest doctrine at work. From the start of the journey in the lifeboat, the hyena has already shown his bloody and ruthless side and his ability to survive, especially at the advantage of the weaker animals, which include the zebra and the orang-utan. Pi, who is almost oblivious of the presence of the hyena, is preparing to fight the hyena. As the situation stands, the hyena is the only danger to his survival. Ideally, the hyena is battle-ready. He is ready to kill to survive. So far, he has had immense success (Thorn 6).

However, when Richard Parker emerges from the tarpaulin, he kills the beastly hyena instantly. It is evident that there is a more powerful survival force in the lifeboat. Richard Parker represents a major obstacle and a threat to the survival of Pi. Pi has to think, reason, and come up with approaches to taming the beast. Pi is aware that the raft will not last for long. Eventually, he will have to face Parker in what he believes will be a battle of life and death.

Survival with Richard Parker

After the death of the other animals that include the zebra, the hyena, and the orang-utan, it is now Richard Parker and Pi who will be battling for survival. Initially, Pi was aware that he stood no chance with Parker since he (Parker the tiger) can kill and that he can be ruthless. Pi knows this fact too well right from his childhood when his father taught the entire family a good lesson after he threw a live goat into Parker’s cage, which was devoured with unimaginable ruthlessness by Parker. Further, the way he kills the hyena with so much ease is evident that he can easily kill Pi (Thomas 183). In response to these thoughts, Pi has fled the boat.

He currently floats on a raft, which he deems is at a safe distance from the lifeboat where Parker is. He has carried some supplies from the lifeboat. Besides, he is aware that the resources can only sustain him for a few days. However, he does not forget to plan on how to handle Parker. Indeed, through reasoning, which is a major survival instinct and an advantage that Pi has over Parker, he comes up with five major plans on how to handle Parker (De Cunha 235). The plans do not reach the execution level because any plan will mean confronting Parker. Based on reasoning, indications are that Parker may triumph. The sixth plan involves Pi killing Parker, although the execution strategy is the main problem. How will he kill Parker? He has no adequate tools to kill the animal. In any case, the probability of being seriously injured or even killed is very high. Hence, it is better to postpone any confrontations for as long as possible.

After staying on the raft for as long as it took, exposure to salty seawater makes Pi develops sores and boils, which are unbearably painful. The raft is also giving into the waves and corrosion of the seawater. It becomes apparent that a confrontation with the tiger is inevitable and hence the reason why he has to come up with the final plan. Initially, his plan to kill tiger seems very valid since instead of confronting the tiger, he thinks the best approach will be to let the tiger die a slow death from hunger and thirst (Duncan 169). However, such thoughts are short sighted. When he thinks about such an approach, he realises that Parker can swim and that the raft is not beyond his (Parker) reach. In recapping his thoughts and fears upon realising the imminent danger that he might face if Parker decides to swim across to the raft, Pi says,

“I have read that there are two fears that cannot be trained out of us: the startle reaction upon hearing unexpected noise, and vertigo. I would like to add a third, to wit, the rapid and direct approach of a known killer” (Martel Life of Pi 331).

To avoid such a situation where Parker has to make Pi his last meal, Pi decides that the seventh plan will involve taming Parker using the skills of handling animals that he obtains while working at the family zoo with his father. The plan is for Pi to establish himself as the alpha using skills other than fighting, which he is sure he cannot win. Using the strategy of taming the tiger, which he has in store, he manages to enter the lifeboat to establish a demarcation zone where the tiger has his area while Pi has his other area, each on the opposite side of the boat. He says that he had no option but taming Parker to stay away from the threat of being killed any time (Spall 14).

In this case, it is evident that Pi realises that instead of living in the fear of Parker or without him at all by killing him, it will be better to tame and coexist with him in this predicament, which only the fittest have survived so far. In the boat, Pi has a reason to live and that is keeping Parker alive for as long as possible. If he keeps Parker alive, he knows that Parker will not have to kill him because he will be getting enough food and water. The situation is a tough challenge, especially when he notes that getting food and water is the biggest encounter. Indeed, getting water to drink appears to be the biggest immediate challenge. In the beginning, Pi uses water rations that are available as part of the survival supplies that are available in the lifeboat (Dwyer 12).

Because he is a person with reason, he focuses on ensuring that the food and water last for as long as possible since he is not sure of how long the remaining journey will take. He also knows that Parker is not a completely tamed animal. Hence, by not providing food and water to him, he may be killed. Instead, Pi focuses on using seasickness and a whistle to demand compliance or subordination of Parker. With time, Parker learns to associate the whistle with seasickness. This way, Pi can easily control Parker with a whistle. He can easily maintain his territory while Parker keeps his region. From the above events, it is evident that the fact that Pi has a higher intelligence is a major advantage. He is able to use it to tame and control Parker and consequently establish himself as the alpha. However, he does not forget that such an advantage can only remain valid if Parker is not hungry and hence the reason why he makes deliberate efforts to ensure that he is well fed.

In all his life, Pi has developed strong religious values, which uphold the importance of life. Indeed, he is a vegetarian. Hence, he has a difficult time trying to abandon his beliefs to become a meat eater. However, survival demands cannot allow him to remain a vegetarian for long (Nilsen 115). He has to learn to kill not only for himself, but also for Richard Parker whose only meal is meat. The struggle between his beliefs and his demands for survival is evident when he encounters the flying fish feast.

Although he manages to catch several fish flying overboard, he feels very guilty for taking away the life of the fish. He regards the act of assassination as killing a rainbow or butchering an innocent creature. Under the circumstances that he is in, he knows that there is no other option. To survive, he has to make this decision. He has to learn how to kill, and most importantly, how to overcome his ‘vegetarianist’ beliefs. Hence, he has to eat meat since it is the only way to survive for him and for Parker. He notes that under the circumstance, an individual can become evil and get used to it. He says, “The scary truth about evil is that, one can get used to anything” (Markel 185). His turn around from vegetarianism to a sworn hunter is a major triumph for the survival instinct and a major indicator of Darwin’s theory of survival. An organism will do anything in its capacity to survive. Consequently, Pi’s actions are a clear indicator of this major shift and the desire for survival (Gregory 158).

Following his first killing, Pi becomes a ruthless hunter who does not feel disgusted to kill. In this process, apart from his survival, he is aware that he must kill enough to keep Parker alive for his safety and survival as well. At the end and after overcoming his initial fears of killing, Pi’s declaration that a person can get used to any evil makes him a ruthless killer. He is no longer disgusted. He no longer appears to struggle or be troubled with killing fish or any other creature that comes his way. His killing becomes the norm. Indeed, it does not seem to be an issue of major concern in the story. He mentions the volumes of food and the varieties together with the brutal methods that are deployed to get the food. For instance, to show his level of brutality, he points to a case where he kills a turtle and drinks its fresh blood, which can be equated to becoming a bloodthirsty individual who is almost equal to an animal. He captures his situation well when he says,

“You may be astonished that in such a short period of time I could go from weeping over the muffled killing of a flying fish to gleefully bludgeoning to death a Dorado. I could explain it by arguing that profiting from a pitiful flying fish’s navigational mistake made me shy and sorrowful, while the excitement of actively capturing a great Dorado made me sanguinary and self-assured. But in point of a fact explanation lies elsewhere. It is simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything even killing” (Martel Life of Pi 234).

The flying fish that pounds the lifeboat area is blessing for Pi and Parker. For the first time, Pi is actively involved in catching and eating as many fish as he can get. In describing the moment, Pi says that the tiger appeared stronger compared to him when it came to getting the fish. Parker is able to get many of them because of his energetic body and malicious character, especially when he sees a prey (Morace 34). Indeed, the behaviour of Parker and the way he ravages the fish is a clear reminder that he still has his animal instinct, a fact that only acts to ensure that Pi is determined to ensure that Parker is well fed.

Another important aspect that emanates from the event relating to Parker’s destructive nature is that Pi seems to admire how Parker is a devastating animal. In his mind, it is a battle of whether he should become as ravage as Parker or retain his morality and humanity. He chooses the latter option. However, this goal can only be achieved by keeping an active diary where he notes the events of his journey as it progresses. He writes on a daily basis until he runs out of pens. It is only through his ability to write to keep memories of his journey that he can at least distinguish himself from Parker, the animal (Dwyer 16). Otherwise, he is not different from Parker in terms of his brutality and his eating habits, which involve eating raw meat and drinking fresh blood from the sea creatures that he manages to catch.

When they are pushed ashore on the carnivorous island, it is a good feeling, especially in the plenty of food that is available in the mysterious islands. The island is full of meerkats, as well as fresh water. In response to their hunger and thirst, Pi and Parker begin a serious eating session where they kill and eat many meerkats. A good case in point of their ruthlessness is evident when Pi tries to sooth his legs with the blood of several meerkats that he kills in the island. When the nightfall comes, Pi and Parker soon realise that it is not just an island, but also a carnivorous one, which consumes all animals that are unlucky to be on the surface. The lucky animals flee to trees while Parker has to flee to the lifeboat.

The events of the carnivorous island are also an important example of survival of the fittest. Animals that have the necessary traits to climb trees or run out of the island as Parker did are the ones that escape being eaten. Pi has climbs on a tree. The following day, Pi has to make an important decision to proceed with his journey because it is not the place he would wish to stay without civilisation, although the island is full of food and fresh water. He says,

“By the time morning came, my grim decision was taken…I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous Island” (Martel Life of Pi 357).

Although the decision may seem misplaced to many people, it is indeed a triumph of reason over survival. Human beings are social beings. Hence, staying alone in this island is a wrong decision. Pi and Parker have already survived in the open sea. Hence, it appears only logical to know that they will survive again until the time they will be swept onshore or get spotted by a ship and be taken to safety. When they are finally spotted and rescued on the shores of Mexico, it becomes evident that only the fittest characters have survived. It takes more than just the survival instinct, but also reason, for Pi and Richard Parker to last for 227 days in the ocean.


The novel Life of Pi is indeed a tale of survival of the fittest. Survival of the fittest is a term that was coined in relation to the theory of evolution through natural selection by Charles Darwin. The theory holds that only organisms that have the right and advanced survival traits for a given situation in the environment survive while the others die. At the start of the Life of Pi and immediately after the shipwreck, very few animals together with Pi can survive. Hence, the battle for survival begins. The zebra is the first to die followed by the orang-utan, all in the jaws of the voracious hyena. It is evident that the hyena is fit for the battle at that stage, although Richard Parker, the tiger, later kills him.

On the other hand, Pi has to find ways of dealing with Parker. Using reason, which is a major survival instinct and an advantage, he is able to tame and control Parker. Survival demands make Pi overlook his beliefs that relate to life. He becomes a killer. In fact, he abandons his vegetarianism ideology to safeguard his survival and that of Richard Parker. He is aware that it is only by keeping Richard Parker fed and quenched that he stands a chance to live. If Parker gets hungry, the beast can easily eat him. At the end of the story, Parker and Pi are the only survivors because they have proved the fittest in the life and death situation that has prevailed in the lifeboat.

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IvyPanda. "Survival of the Fittest in Yann Martel's "Life of Pi"." May 16, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/survival-of-the-fittest-in-yann-martels-life-of-pi/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Survival of the Fittest in Yann Martel's "Life of Pi"." May 16, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/survival-of-the-fittest-in-yann-martels-life-of-pi/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Survival of the Fittest in Yann Martel's "Life of Pi"'. 16 May.

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