The effect of imagination in literature

Modified: 11th Apr 2017
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Imagination in Robinson Crusoe and Life of Pi

“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”(Chapter 7, pg 31). How do we prove our beliefs about occurrences that take place in life? What confirms the fact that anything we remember of and think about actually happened? The human imagination is seen as being an extremely powerful tool, and only few answers remain to answer many of the fundamental questions about creativity and imagination. Imagination can be defined as the ability to produce ideal creations consistent with reality. Life of Pi, a novel by Yann Martel is the story of the son of a zookeeper who, since childhood, has an encyclopaedic knowledge about animals and a fervent love for stories. Readers realise that Pi has a vivid imagination and a superb memory for details. On the other hand Daniel Defoe’s novel, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is a moral tale which demonstrates that it is important to repent for one’s sins and be grateful to God’s miracles.

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Life of Pi is a tale with difference, though to some, it echoes The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In 'The author's note" of Life of Pi, the author says "If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams."(Author’s Note, xi). Here it can be said that even the author, Yann Martel finds his masterpiece an imagination. Another point of review of Pi's imagination or reality can be depicted when the latter finds himself at sea with a 450-pound tiger. In the words of the poet Wallace Stevens, “We say God and the Imagination are one...” Martel gives us two stories, one is a beautiful, imaginative and adventurous and the other is a grim tale of survival. I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.(Chapter 22, pg 36). Spoken by Pi, this quotation in its entirety emphasizes the important distinction between facts and imagination, the crux of the entire novel. Previously, in chapter21, the author used the phrases “dry, yeastless factuality” and “the better story” after a meeting with Pi in a café; the repetition highlights this dichotomy. Religion is aligned with imagination, while lack of faith is linked to accurate observation and rationalism. In short, Pi is giving us a simple, straightforward explanation for the variants of his own story: the one with animals and the one without. Imagination is triggered in The Life and Adventure of Robinson Crusoe when Robinson sees a footprint on the sand. He feels insecure and starts to image things:

“innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself” (Chapter 11, pg 87)

Sometimes, he “fancied” the “devil”. When he discovers the footprint, his imagination turns on him and threatens to devour the rational man of faith he thinks he has become. The fact that he has frightening imaginations upon the sight of the footprint may be considered as an effect of human isolation or even delirium. The truth is that the footprint belongs to Friday. Robinson has fear-haunted imaginations. Robinson, himself fears being eaten. The cannibals transform him from the consumer into a potential eatable element. Life for Robinson always illustrate this ‘eat’ and ‘be eaten’ philosophy, since even back in Europe, he is threatened by man-eating wolves. Eating is an image of existence itself just as being eaten signifies death for Robinson.

“How true is that necessity is the mother of invention, how very true.” (Chapter 50, pg 76). We note that during his journey at sea, Pi has an encounter with a voice. The voice could be interpreted as one of God/Providence who acts as a support for Pi. They speak about food, animals and others. At first, Pi tries to ignore the voice by giving unconcerned replies. At one instance, he mistakes it to be that of Richard Parker's: "Yes? came Richard Parker's voice faintly". (Chapter 90, pg 133). Here, Pi imagines Richard Parker trying to speak. However, it was not the case. It was truly a Frenchman who was lost at sea. Imagination is what enabled Pi to take what was an awful tragedy, a horrific experience and a living nightmare to turn it into an endearing tale of survival, friendship and endurance. The harsh reality that Pi had to deal with, i.e., the brutal, violent loss of his mother in front of his eyes, having to survive with a cannibalistic mad-man on raft, and then fight to death for his own survival was just too much to endure for someone his age. Any person faced with such brutality and harsh circumstances would want to escape, would want to deny reality and find a coping mechanism that would allow them to survive with the least amount of damage possible. Pi’s faith helped him to create an alternate reality. He was prone to believing great stories, based on faith and that helped Pi to believe in his own story with animals. Pi also prayed everyday on the lifeboat and had a firm grasp of what forgiveness meant and did not feel alone because of his faith in God. Pi’s faith enabled him to make it through his ordeals without feeling totally alone and desperate.

“[W]ithout Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story.”(Chapter 57, pg 89)

The presence of Richard Parker though initially terrifying, eventually soothes Pi and saves him from utter existential loneliness. Taming and taking care of Richard Parker fills up Pi’s long days, staying busy helps time pass. Furthermore, in the creation of Richard Parker, Pi is able to cope with the fact that he had to violate many of his beliefs and morals in order to survive. In the context of the story with animals, Pi himself is the tiger. Pi must embrace aggression. Richard Parker doing those things which are against his principles, like killing the cook, who might have otherwise killed him, was understandable and expected. Pi created a story where it was plausible to be Richard Parker as he struggled to survive. In crediting Richard Parker’s existence, Pi acknowledges that it is animal instincts that protect him from death. For Robinson, the notion of imagination and faith is observed in the part where he learns from the angelic figure that comes to him during feverish hallucination and says:

“seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die.”(Chapter 6, pg 50)

Robinson believes his major sin is his rebellious behavior towards his father, which he refers as his “original sin” just like Adam and Eve first disobedience of God. Biblical reference suggests that Crusoe’s exile from civilization represents Adam and Eve expulsion from Eden. After repentance, Robinson complains much less about his sad fate and he views the island positively. Robinson comes to believe strongly in God and providence by the end of the novel.

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Pi’s quest for god is a beautiful tale, but like any story rooted only in imagination, it fails to satisfy the curiosity of the readers. The readers are not really sure about the ending as each one is given the possibility to have their own point of view. They are not really sure of which story is the truth themselves. "'So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?' Mr. Okamoto: 'That's an interesting question?' Mr. Chiba: 'The story with animals.' Mr. Okamoto: 'Yes. The story with animals is the better story.' Pi Patel: 'Thank you. And so it goes with God.'"(Chapter 99, pg 178). Robinson being very religious had Puritan beliefs which considered imagination to be related to Satan. "Thus my fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence ...” (Chapter 11, pg 88). Readers can observe that parts where imagination is talked about have mostly been written when he was still a teenager. Most of his writings have been rectified as he grew up to cater for his beliefs. Both novels are seen to have similarities and differences between them. The major similarities are the fact that both protagonists are shipwrecked. They both keep journals to keep track of their daily activities, develop survival skills and train animals. As time goes on, both men fall ill, hallucinate and encounter cannibals on the island. The differences in characters we see are very important. While Robinson seems incapable of deep feelings, Pi embraces them, bouncing back from the deepest levels of sorrow at the loss of his family and his difficult situation to great heights of joy at the thoughts of rescue, food and God. Though Pi tries to train his classmates to pronounce his name correctly, his dominance extends primarily over Richard Parker. Robinson, on the other side, takes this mastery one step further and enters into a master-slave relationship with Friday, a victim of the cannibals whom he rescues. Pi is eventually the more appealing protagonist of both as he is connected to and caring about the world and others in a way that Robinson never does.

If Martel’s dream were not believed upon, then his novel would not have attained such remarkable success. Thus, the idea of imagination presented by him gives out a positive message, believe in your imagination and try until you succeed. Defoe also gives a new aspect to literature with his shipwreck story and civilisation among cannibals. These innovative views helped to shape literature and become what it is now known to be as.


  1. Daniel Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
  2. Yann Martel, Life of Pi.


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