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Pi's Name in Life of Pi: Meaning, Symbolism & Significance

Pi's Name in Life of Pi: Meaning, Symbolism & Significance
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  • 0:03 Meet Piscine Molitor Patel
  • 0:51 An Irrational Number…
  • 2:20 Pi at Sea
  • 3:04 Imagery
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

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

In this lesson, we'll discover the derivation of Pi's name, the titular character in ''Life of Pi.'' We'lll learn about how his given name and his nickname reflect larger themes in the novel, such as circle and water symbolisms.

Meet Piscine Molitor Patel

Piscine Molitor Patel, the protagonist in the novel Life of Pi, was named after a swimming pool. His father was close friends with a man named Francis Adirubasamy. Pi called him Mamaji (though Pi's brother, Ravi, jokingly called Mamaji 'Mr. Fish'). Mamaji was a champion swimmer. He told grand stories about swimming and competitions. One of those stories told of Piscine Molitor, an Olympic swimming pool built in 1929 in the Molitor district of Paris.

In French, 'piscine' literally means 'of or related to fish,' from the old word for swimming pool or fishpond. But there's actually more to the story than just that. If you're Juliet, you could ask, 'What's in a name?' But Pi would ask, 'How can one rise above a name?'

An Irrational Number: 3.14159265359...

While attending St. Joseph's School, Piscine had been given the unfortunate nickname of 'Pissing' Patel. In order to avoid carrying forward that same ridicule, Piscine takes a proactive approach upon enrolling at Petit Seminaire, a secondary school in Pondicherry.

'I got up from my desk and hurried to the blackboard. Before the teacher could say a word, I picked up a piece of chalk and said as I wrote:

My name, is
Piscine Molitor Patel,
know to all as
...Pi= 3.14

and I drew a large circle, which I then sliced in two with a diameter, to evoke that basic lesson of geometry.'

What's truly fascinating about Pi? For one thing, the number represents the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Mathematicians have been calculating this number for centuries, and the decimal places just keep growing, even when using supercomputers. That's what makes pi an irrational number; it can't be defined as a ratio (like one half or 0.5 represented as ½).

Piscine shows off his smarts when he brands himself as Pi. In fact, this erudite introduction of his new nickname starts a fad where other students choose monikers based on Greek letters. Soon after, Pi meets Sigma, Gamma, and so on. The plethora of nicknames also suggests the way humans refer to pack animals as alphas, betas, deltas and so on to indicate dominance and submission. As we soon find out, Pi rejects the notion that animals are submissive creatures.

Pi at Sea

Later in the story, Pi survives a shipwreck and must share a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. Pi survives the disaster because he's able to follow the rules set out in the survival manual. For instance, the survival manual warns, 'Do not drink urine. Or sea water. Or bird blood.'

That warning wasn't hard for Pi to follow. He says, 'No one called 'Pissing' in his childhood would be caught dead with a cup of pee at his lips, even alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific.'

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