Thursday, 29 May 2014

Anthropomorphism, by definition, is “the attribution of human form or behavior to a deity, animal, or object’’ (, Collins English Dictionary). In the novel Life of Pi, we see several accounts of anthropomorphism due to the circumstances of the main character Pi.  In this story, the main character Pi, who is the son of a zoo owner in India, recounts a story of how he was stranded at sea in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena and a large carnivorous feline.  This large carnivorous feline is a Bengal tiger by the name of Richard Parker.  Richard Parker is anthropomorphized several times throughout the novel, including being given a human name.  In Pi’s telling of the story, he is constantly exposed to the animals.  This allows for many examples of anthropomorphism to take place.  Anthropomorphism, as mentioned above, not only applies to characterizing animals with human qualities, but also gods and other objects as well.  This is also seen in the novel.  In Life of Pi, the author Yann Martel, frequently uses anthropomorphism as symbolism to add a deeper meaning to the story.

Some of the main and most predominant examples of anthropomorphism in the novel include: Pi’s description of the animals’ behavior, Pi’s description of his environment, and Pi’s comparison of the animals to people he knows.

Pi’s description of the animals

In one section of the novel, Pi remarks that Orange Juice the orangutan was “bearing an expression profoundly sad and mournful” (Martel 156).  This quotation is an example of anthropomorphism in the sense that Pi interprets typical human facial expressions as relaying emotion in an animal.  Being mournful is a human emotion and is not necessarily attributable to an animal’s state of mind.  Pi goes on to often remark the facial expressions or posture of an animal as representing a human emotion.  All these remarks are examples of giving human-like qualities to the animals.

Pi’s description of his surroundings

Pi often attributes and describes his surroundings using characteristics specific to human beings.  “The Tsimtsum did not care” (Martel 125) is a quotation from Pi describing the ship he is on.  This is an example of anthropomorphizing the ship because in reality a ship, which is an object, cannot feel emotion or care.  However, describing his surrounding with human attributes helps paint a picture in the mind of the reader as to what the Tsimtsum ship was like.  Pi also uses this to describe his surroundings such as the weather, Meerkat Island and the lifeboat.

Pi’s comparison between human and animal

In this novel, Pi often describes animals as acting or behaving like humans.  An example of Pi anthropomorphizing animals is when he first encounters a sea turtle while aboard the lifeboat.  He anthropomorphizes the turtle by depicting the turtle’s facial expression as “haughty and severe, like that of an ill-tempered old man who has complaining on his mind” (Martel 154).  This characterization of an animal as having human form or behavior is just one example of Pi anthropomorphizing an animal.  This theme of comparatively anthropomorphizing animals occurs frequently and more so with the animals on the lifeboat such as Richard Parker, Orange Juice and others. When he is studying Orange Juice while aboard the lifeboat, Pi even remarks, “It is a particularly funny thing to read human traits in animals, especially in apes and monkeys, where it is so easy” (Martel 152).

Alternate Story

The majority of the novel is set in a lifeboat and is from the point of view of the protagonist Pi.  Pi often refers to his company on the lifeboat as animals.  However, at the end of the novel, Pi retells his story twice.  The first time he retells the story of being stranded at sea with animals, the same story that the reader was familiar with. The second time he shares his story, he claims that he was on a lifeboat with humans consisting of his mother, an injured sailor and a chef.  The reader might choose to interpret the story in these different fashions.  Some might believe that this latter version is the ultimate use of anthropomorphism because Pi gives all the animals in his story specific human names and roles in his own life experience.

In this version of Pi’s account, Orange Juice, an orangutan would have been the animal that Pi felt most closely resembled his mother, due to the similarities between them. Both Orange Juice and his mother were caring and nurturing, displayed mother like qualities, and both immensely cared for their offspring.  Both also die in the same fashion in Pi’s stories. 


The zebra would have represented a young injured sailor because the zebra is a quiet animal as was the Taiwanese sailor who spoke a different language, therefore limiting his ability to communicate.  The zebra is considered to be strong, as would be a young male sailor.  Both were also killed in similar ways in Pi’s stories.

The hyena would have represented the unappealing and loud chef, because it too has these traits.  A hyena is also an animal that will eat anything and is considered dirty and vile. The chef was also seen as being dirty and willing to eat anything in Pi’s human version of his story.  

As for the Bengal tiger, he would have represented Pi himself.  Both can be calm in nature as well as dominant with basic animalistic instincts to eat and kill.  Both also showed compassion.  Both were also vying to be the leader and both killed off the hyena/chef. 

After reading an article on anthropomorphism, I learned that “books that use animals as people can add emotional distance for the reader when the story message is powerful or painful” (Carolyn Burke, Joby Copenhaver, Animals as People in Children’s Literature,  This is a very interesting perspective and may be the explanation as to why Pi, in his mind, disguised the true reality of the humans on board the lifeboat with animals instead. What he would have been going through with the human passengers on board would qualify as both powerful and painful so perhaps Pi was doing what many authors do and using animals instead of people in his stories and in his mind.

Text to World

The following link tells the story of a Brazilian man and his family and their seven pet Bengal tigers. This family allows the tigers to do human activities such as swimming with them, eating in the dinning room and lounging in the living room. T his family believes they are helping the tigers and that the tigers genuinely enjoy doing these human activities with them.  This is an example of anthropomorphism because they treat the animals as though they were human and attribute human feelings while doing human social activities with them.  The father of the family claims “you have to show the animals respect and love, that’s how you get it back from them.” The belief held by the father is that the same outcome is gained by interacting with animals as you would with humans.  This is not an uncommon belief that many animal lovers hold.   Although it may true that caring for the needs of animals and treating them well can result in good animal behavior and companionship on a certain level, the traits of respect and love are human traits and should not be interpreted as such in animals or equated with obedient animal behavior.  Certainly this type of anthropomorphism seems more common with domesticated animals, but is less likely with non-domesticated animals like the Bengal tigers.

In relation to Life of Pi, Pi wishes to and sometimes feels like he connects to Richard Parker on a human level just like the Brazilian family.  Unlike the example above, Pi realizes that Richard Parker is a wild animal and he cannot project his own feelings onto the tiger.  This is important for Pi’s personal safety because he realizes that Richard Parker can act on instinct and harm him despite feeling as though they have a relationship.  They are after all trying to survive and must sometimes rely on each other for that survival.  But in the end, once they reach shore, despite Pi’s sense of connection and maybe even gratitude, Richard Parker returns to the wild without a care beyond his own instinctual needs.

This link tells the story of a pet monkey lost at Ikea in which we see several examples of anthropomorphism.  In Life of Pi, Pi regards the people on the lifeboat as animals.  The owner of the “Ikea monkey” regards her pet as a son.  Both of these are examples of anthropomorphism.  In this video we see that the owner of the monkey allows it to dine, sleep, shower and shop with her. T his is similar to the first video with the Brazilian family who allow their tigers to do human activities with them as well.  Similarl to the Brazilian family, the owner of the monkey believes her monkey loves doing human activities with her.  Again, this is an example of anthropomorphism because she treats her monkey as though he was human and she attributes human feelings to him while doing human social activities.  The owner also dresses her monkey in human clothes, which is another example of her anthropomorphizing her pet.

There is another interesting comparison to the story Life of Pi and the life of this lady and her monkey.  In the book, Pi explains that many animals they receive for their zoo are animals that were kept as pets when they were young but became too big and dangerous for the owner to handle as the grew older.  In the video clip, they explain that the woman would not have been able to keep her monkey for long because it would have grown too big, dangerous and hard to manage as it aged. Therefore the owner of this monkey reminded me of the people Pi spoke of in the story who thought that if they raised an animal like their son our daughter, the animal would always behave and show affection – an example of anthropomorphism.  The people in the story turned out to be wrong and realized animals do not always behave and relay the same emotions as human.  They realized they couldn’t treat an animal as human and expect it relay human qualities. The owner of this monkey did seem to realize this however as she is still trying to bring her “son” home.

In general, we see anthropomorphism everywhere around the world in many different cultures and places.  We see anthropomorphism in our entertainment very frequently.  For example cartoons such as Looney Tuns use anthropomorphism in the sense that the animals in the show have human qualities such as speaking human languages, having human emotion and behavior and even wearing human attire.  In children’s books such as Cinderella we see many animals anthropomorphized and in some stories such as Beauty and the Beast we see objects anthropomorphized such as candlesticks and clocks that can walk, talk, and behave in the way that humans do.

  Anthropomorphism is also apparent in many religions worldwide and throughout history.  Greek gods and goddesses were anthropomorphized because they appeared in human form, spoke human languages, and behaved like humans.  Many other religions worship god’s that are anthropomorphized and take some human form as well.

Fun Fact:

The Greeks came up with the word anthropomorphism. “The word comes from two Greek words:  anthropos (man) and morphe (form)” (Matt Slick, God relates to us in human terms, Carm, Research Ministry).

Text to Self

I express anthropomorphic views almost everyday.  Having a pet in my household since I was born has given me many opportunities to anthropomorphize animals. When I was younger I always liked to believe, and maybe even did believe, that my dog Bailey could understand what I was saying, and when she lifted her eyebrows or made a facial expression I would take it as a reply as to what I was saying.  I also pretended that my stuffed animals or toys had feelings and was careful not to offend them.  Both of these are examples of anthropomorphism.  Sometimes I would also dress my pets and style their hair, which was very unfortunate for them.  This was also an example of anthropomorphism because I was applying human attributes and qualities to my non-human dogs and bunny. 

In my everyday life I’m also exposed to anthropomorphic shows, movies, books and stories, such as those mentioned above.

Not only have I been exposed to anthropomorphism by entertainment but I have also expressed anthropomorphic views, as have many other people I am exposed to and in general people all over the globe.  I believe this is a good thing and anthropomorphism is important to many different aspects of human life such as entertainment, religion and etc.  In some cases, such as the two video clips, I believe matters can be taken too far however.  I think people should be careful not to anthropomorphize animals to an extreme because large misinterpretations of animals, especially wild animals, can be dangerous.  Other than these extreme cases I believe anthropomorphism is a natural part of human belief.  It makes us feel connected and helps us to better understand animals. 

Works Cited 

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi, a novel. Random House of Canada, 2002. Print
Anthropomorphism,, Collins English Dictionary
Matt Slick, God relates to us in human terms, Carm, Research Ministry