Examples of Paradox in Life of Pi

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

While it may appear absurd at first, a paradox challenges us to think harder and sometimes dig deeper to find the hidden truth. In this lesson, we will look at examples of paradox in ''Life of Pi'' that make us look below the water's surface, as it were.

What is a Paradox?

Though you might not realize it, you are probably already familiar with the concept of a paradox. From ancient philosophers to modern pop culture, creative minds are always presenting us with different examples of paradoxes to get us thinking.

A paradox is an absurd statement that seems to contradict itself, common knowledge, or common belief, but on further examination, turns out to be logical. Often, especially in literature, it will lead to an understanding of a deeper truth.

Ever heard of a catch-22? Schrödinger's cat? Or the T.A.R.D.I.S.? All are examples of a paradox.

Still not sure? Consider this example from Plato. In The Republic, Plato quotes Socrates as saying, '~I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.'' How can he know one thing and nothing at the same time? That is the paradox. But if we think a little harder, it makes sense, and it leads us to a deeper truth about how we should approach knowledge. By knowing that he knows nothing, Socrates is telling us to keep our minds open and continue learning all we can. Only then will we be truly wise.

While not all examples of paradox will lead us to an unexpected truth, the ones found in literature typically do. Usually, the truth hidden in the paradox will support the story's themes or philosophical questions. Let's look at some examples from Life of Pi and see if we can make paradoxes less paradoxical.


Within the first pages of the book, Pi presents us with an interesting paradox. While discussing the three-toed sloth he studied in Brazil, he says, ''How does it survive you might ask. Precisely by being slow.''

Very slow
cute sloth

Huh, you might have thought while reading that statement. That makes no sense! But Pi goes on to explain how the sloth's slothfulness is the paradox that keeps it alive. Most of us would consider speed to be the best protection from being eaten. Just look at the gazelle or the flying fish that Pi sees dashing through the water. However, the sloth's glacial pace, Pi explains, allows it to avoid detection by looking more like ''a nest of white ants or squirrels, or like nothing at all but part of a tree.''

This paradox also teaches us a deeper truth that we will see throughout the book. Just as speed isn't the key to survival for the sloth, we will see Pi make slow, deliberate movement throughout the story to survive the predators on the boat and the ordeal itself.

Do You Know Which is the Most Dangerous Animal in the Zoo?

Chapter 8 starts with the paradox, ''We commonly say in the trade that the most dangerous animal in the zoo is Man.''

Were you a little surprised when you read that? Maybe a little outraged. Did you think about the lions, tigers, and bears you have seen at the zoo? All those teeth and claws. How could you be more dangerous than those beasts? Pi gives us two logical reasons. First, humans are undeniably the apex predators. We are the hunters, not the hunted. We have conquered all of nature. Second, Pi gives examples of how humans have harassed and mistreated zoo animals by feeding them razors, nails, and other hardware or by physically harming them.

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