Anthropomorphism in literature is a common theme throughout the ages. While many tales about animals are directed toward children, simply because adult writers feel that young people are better able to connect with animals or simply because they feel that involving too many human characters would be overwhelming. Despite the host of possible reasons for why so many animal stories exist for children, it is important to also consider the way these stories continue to affect adults.
As one of the main themes in “The Life of Pi” that lies under the surface, the anthropomorphism complicates the task of reading. While many adult readers would feel “demeaned” reading an animal tale since it is associated with low-level reading, the fact remains that adults still retain the tendency to anthropomorphize. The only difference in this act of projecting human characteristics onto animals in adults is that their greater life experiences change the ideas they project.
Generally, when in terms of anthropomorphism in literature, one images that children are likely to impose more basic traits on animals (imagining them speaking in strange accents, seeing them as equals, feeling the ability to communicate) adults project “big issues”. Given the fact that so many adults deny their capacity and inherent tendency to anthropomorphize, it seems strange so that so much literature involving human and animal relationships is devoted to children.
One of the exceptions to this idea—that a book about such relations must be confined to children—is “The Life of Pi“. While this is in many senses an adventure/animal story for younger readers, it is filled with some of the most provoking adult themes; the quest spirituality, truth, the meaning of life, and many others. In some ways, through the use of anthropomorphism in “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, recognizing the tendency across age groups to anthropomorphize, accepts this and even encourages readers to engage in projecting human traits on the animals.
Throughout the history of storytelling—from the oral traditions of primitive peoples to the canon of modern literature—animals have been represented extensively. Fables employed animals to present moral lessons and animals have also been depicted in a more postmodern sense to glorify or mourn this “loss of touch” with the natural world. Most importantly, the role of animals is especially prominent in children’s literature. For some reason, adults tend to confine themselves to tales of the everyday and consider animal tales to be strictly a part of a child’s intellectual world. On the same note, animals are still a vital part of the cultural life of many adults, serving as pets and the objects of less literary entertainment (zoos, sophisticated nature programming, etc). The question becomes, why are animals confined, in the mind of many adults, to the children’s literature genre? What is it about animal and human interactions that are not suitable for the adult world?
In addressing this question about anthropomorphism in literature, adult fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin observes, “it appears we give animal stories to children and encourage them to be interested in animals because we see children as inferior, mentally ‘primitive,’ not yet fully humanized, thus pets and zoo animal stories are ‘natural’ steps in the child’s way up to adult, exclusive humanity—rungs on the ladder from mindless, helpless babyhood to the full glory of intellectual maturity and mastery” (Le Guin, 2004). While Le Guin addresses the somewhat condescending nature of devoting animal stories to children, she recognizes one of the deeper truths about children and their relation to animals—they have not yet learned that animals don’t really speak or communicate, not because they are mentally inferior and underdeveloped, but because they still proudly display the empathetic connection with the animal world while adults are more likely to dismiss the idea that animals are similar to us and are capable of mirroring our darkest secrets. Along with this idea, it is also important to discuss the role anthropomorphism plays in literature for children and more specifically, how this transposing of human characteristics on humans should be just as meaningful and useful for adults as for children.
One of the most pertinent modern examples of human and animal relationships in literature is Yann Martel’s novel, “The Life of Pi” This work offers young readers a familiar foray into the world of animal and human encounters by presenting anthropomorphism in “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, while still balancing the very adult themes of seeking and maintaining spirituality and contemplating the grand order of life. In short, the novel follows a teenage boy through his life in India (told initially in retrospect by an author who is interviewing an aged Pi) and his quest to explore religions that will help him grow closer to God. During this quest, he becomes Catholic, Muslim, and is already Hindu thus proving himself to be accepting of the love of God in all its many forms—remaining free of the dogma that dominates the lives of adults who attempt to persuade him that he must only choose one religion to practice. This spiritual quest forms the backdrop for much of the foreshadowing of Pi’s eventually loss at sea with a Bengali tiger as his only companion. As the tale winds on, Pi and the tiger, named “Richard Parker” due to a clerical error at the zoo, must survive adrift on the ocean for 227 days. While the story of their survival is not one filled with the sentimental human-animal bonding one would typically associate with children’s literature, they do make a connection even if it is based on survival instinct and knowledge of behavior. The adult themes of religion in “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel make this an animal story not confined to children and children are engaged by the story of survival and close communion with the animal world.
The use of anthropomorphism in “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel is almost endless once Pi leaves normal society. With a potentially dangerous tiger as his only companion (aside from God) Pi and the tiger almost trade places. While the tiger is always thought to be the savage one, it is actually Pi who turns to savagery for survival. This is almost like a case of double anthropomorphism since Pi attributes human characteristics on the tiger while at the same thinks of himself in animal terms. At one point, after killing fish and other ocean creatures to survive, Pi remarks on this anthropomorphic reversal in one of the more important quotes in ‘Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “It became an unmistakable indication to me of how low I had sunk the day I noticed—with a pinching of the heart—that I ate like an animal. That this noisy-frantic-unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate” (Pi 225). In terms of crossing the line (in terms of its status as an “animal story) between the adult theme of man as animal and the children’s literary theme of physically associating so closely with animals and speaking with them (although Richard Parker doesn’t speak back) this makes “Life of Pi” an animal tale that is readable to both children and adults, much in the same way Kipling novels such as “Jungle Book” were read across age groups.