Richard Parker, Dudley, and Stephens: the Other Story in Life of Pi
A Story in Need...
A man cannot survive without four essential needs: food, water, shelter, and a story.
While the first three are coherent, it is the fourth need that sounds out of context despite its importance. It could be better identified as the need for a purpose, a bigger picture that can help us make sense out of the daily random events that occur to us. The problem is that when we fail to find a story, we – maybe without even knowing - create one for ourselves.
In Yann Martel’s masterpiece Life of Pi, we follow the unbelievable journey of the young Indian boy-of-many-religions titular protagonist who finds himself stranded in a lifeboat amidst the ocean after the freighter that carried his entire family along with the animals of the zoo they owned failed to survive a brutal storm, leaving him as the sole human survivor of the wreck.
To make all the odds against Pi, four animals survive along with him: a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker which has some sort of a past with Pi and which outlasts the first three, mainly because of his advanced rank in the food chain.
A Binary Choice
The story is told in the first person perspective through flashbacks with multiple layers and parts; it is established from the beginning that Pi has survived the ordeal, and we follow him as he tells it to two investigators who are sent by the Japanese Ministry of Transportation to question him regarding the incident.
The deeper we delve into the story, the more we root for Pi and even the tiger itself sometimes despite the tension between them both that never grows any easier, which is another point to admire about the novel since Martel never tried to construct a fantasy friendship between the two. It was always either a battle for dominance, a silent agreement of mutual benefits, or a truce when the tiger was not hungry enough.
As we reach the end of his 227-day-long journey, however, the two investigators bluntly announce that they don’t buy it. In response, Pi, as if he was expecting it, tells them an alternative brief darker version of the story.
The second version of the story goes as follows: the four animals are replaced with four human beings this time (Pi’s mother, the ship's cook, a sailor with a broken leg, and Pi himself). The cook chops off the sailor's leg to use it as fishing bait and kills the sailor then Pi's mother for food, before he himself is killed by Pi who eventually feeds on him to survive. The End.
After finishing, Pi gives them the choice to believe the story they want, and the investigators – as well as most if not all of the readers – choose the one with the animals, “and so, it goes with God," Pi responds.
There are multiple reasons we can find so as to answer the question “why did we pick that version?” For instance, it is much less darker, it is told in details that made us get involved emotionally with it, and, most importantly, it makes more sense and it seems relatively more realistic than the other version... or does it?
R v Dudley and Stephens
On July 5th 1884, an English yacht called Mignonette was heading to Sydney when it sank and left its four crew members to face the unknown on its lifeboat with no fresh water and no supplies other than two turnip tins.
The survivors start to take one desperate measure after another to survive, from killing a sea turtle and literally eating it to the bone to drinking their own urine as seawater was believed to be deadly back then (strange logic, but that’s what desperate times call for).
As more days passed on with no apparent signal of rescue, three of the crew members (the captain Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens and Edmund Brooks) reluctantly decided to draw lots to decide which one of them will sacrifice himself to feed the others while the fourth and youngest crew member became ill and eventually fell in a coma.
In order to survive and return to their families, the three older members decided on July 25th to kill and feed on the already-dying orphan sailor boy whose name was - and this is true - Richard Parker.
After being rescued on July 29th , the three members were accused of murder in the criminal case known as R v Dudley and Stephen. The case – and the then-deranged three sailors – gained the public opinion’s attention and sympathy and it is considered one of the most controversial cases of all time.
And this was not even the only case of its kind in history. So, in terms of relativity, Pi’s second version of the story was actually more realistic, albeit darker.
Yann Martel, probably on purpose, leaves us at the end of the book with a thought that gets scarier the more you shuffle it inside your mind: We often pick the story that captures our emotions or the story we want to believe over the one that makes the most sense. This is scary because, after all, a lie is not a good lie if you don’t want to believe it.
What do you think of Life of Pi? Which version of the story did you end up believing?