Life of Pi: Tsimtsum Allusions

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson, about the novel 'Life of Pi', explores the meaning and significance of the Tsimtsum, the name of the Japanese freighter that sinks in the Pacific, leaving Pi stranded in a lifeboat at sea. We will learn about the concept's meaning within Jewish mysticism and learn about how the concept can be applied to interpret the novel.

A Hero's Journey

Many myths and legends tell of the hero's journey out into the wilderness where he gains a respect for the natural world, the social order, and learns to locate the strength within himself. It's a common moral in many stories: One must experience the hardships of life in order to appreciate its wonders.

In Life of Pi, author Yann Martel draws on many of these quintessential mythical storytelling techniques. In exploring the relationships between humans and animals, humans and Gods, Martel imbues his characters and their world with mythic, religious, and symbolic importance with the use of allusions, calling something to mind with indirect or passing reference.

Part II (The Pacific Ocean) opens with the sinking of the Japanese freighter ship Tsimtsum. Pi, his family, and many of their zoo animals board the Tsimtsum in India for the trans-Pacific passage to their new home in Canada. But due to mechanical failure and an undisciplined crew, the ship sinks during a storm. That leaves Pi and Richard Parker, along with a hyena, zebra, and orangutan, drifting on a life raft.

In this lesson, we will explore the significance of the Tsimtsum in relation to larger themes of religion in the novel Life of Pi.

What's in a Name?

Many of the names in Life of Pi are highly symbolic. Pi's name recalls the importance of circles and reason, as well as his given name Piscine, which refers to the French words for both 'fish' and 'swimming pool'. Also, by giving the tiger a formal name (Richard Parker), Martel encourages readers to question animal-human relations, respect, and friendship.

The ship, Tsimtsum, is no exception to this rule. If you don't initially recognize the reference, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that Tsimtsum might be a Japanese word. After all, it's a Japanese ship. But Martel leaves the door open for readers to wonder about the ship's unusual name.

Tsimtsum is actually a Hebrew word. It refers to the reduction or contraction of God from the universe at the moment of creation. This is an important concept because it raises the question of free will vs. predetermination. In retreating from the world, God leaves room for human beings to express their faith and independence. But His departure also opens the space for human beings to sin and to give in to temptation.

Jewish Mysticism

From the beginning, the first page of the novel, in fact, Yann Martel infers to his readers the important role that religion will play throughout the book. Adult Pi mentions that he studied at the University of Toronto. His capstone project 'concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed.' By referencing the Kabbalah in the first paragraph of the novel, Martel hints that Jewish mysticism will be important for readers to keep an eye on. Isaac Luria was an important Jewish Rabbi and mystic recognized for authoring and popularizing the modern Kabbalah text.

Correggio, Portrait of a Man Praying, 1525

The Kabbalah is an ancient Jewish religious text written in Hebrew. Distinct from the traditional Jewish texts of the Talmud and the Torah, the Kabbalah is a book of mysticism.

Recalling this important reference to Jewish faith will help readers contextualize the religious discussion that surfaces later on as Pi talks about his Hindu upbringing and eventual adoption of Christian and Muslim belief systems. Even though Pi does not explicitly follow Jewish faith, he is open-minded about different religious customs, beliefs, and experiences.

Interpreting Religion in Life of Pi

The ship sinks at the beginning of Part II: The Pacific Ocean in chapters 37 and 38. These two chapters, in fact, could be interpreted as a retelling of the myth of the birth of creation. It's succinct, unromantic, scary, and loud.

'The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart.'

The image of a gigantic freighter sinking into the deep ocean during a storm should make readers shudder. And the prospect of finding oneself the lone survivor of such a disaster is just as compelling.

Francis Danby, Shipwreck, 1850

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