Pi and Sethe

Darnelle Charles
ENG 4U1
May 3, 2005
Viktor Frankl once said, ” Man is a being who can get used to anything”(Frankl, Man Search for Meaning) in reference to the millions of men and women who survived the Concentration camps during the holocaust. Was Frankl correct to assume that people are able to adapt to their surroundings, even in the most difficult of situations? The idea that human beings can assimilate to their condition is evident in two award winning novels: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The main characters from these novels, Pi and Sethe, not only learn to adjust to their surroundings throughout hard times, they also discover themselves along the way. Pi discovers himself and sorts out his religious questions while drifting in a life raft on the Pacific Ocean and Sethe adjusts to freedom after a life of slavery. Life of Pi and Beloved not only show two great examples of adaptability; they also show the development of religious and identity issues. These two tales of two very different people who have the ability to evolve as individuals prove that human beings can find themselves, even in the worst of times.
Many people today are astounded at the atrocities that the prisoners of the Nazi Death Camps survived; I can presume what my fate would be if I were ever forced into such a situation. Similarly, it is hard to imagine surviving a shipwreck in the middle of the largest ocean, but that is what Pi Patel did. On his way to Canada with his father and a shipment of a variety of large zoo animals, Pi’s journey on a large freight is ended due to an accident, and a new one begins on a life raft. Pi and a Bengal Tiger, named Richard Parker, are the last survivors on the lifeboat, and Pi manages to survive despite the elements and shark infested water. “It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose form that I’ve made none the champion,” Pi describes of his 227 days at sea. The experience at sea was not only horrific because Pi struggled to save his own life, but also because he witnessed the death of his mother and father, as well as his beloved zoo animals. The sinking of the freight carries great symbolism because Pi’s entire life as he knew it was sank along with the ship: “I looked about for my family, for survivors, for another lifeboat, for anything that might bring me hope. There was nothing. Only rain, marauding waves of black ocean and the flotsam of tragedy.”(119) The idea of being stuck at sea with no family, food or help for over 200 days cannot even be closely compared to a adventure, it is nothing short of a traumatic experience.
While the holocaust was an enormous tragedy that can never be changed, it can be compared to the hundreds of years that Africans were enslaved in America. Both the Jews and the Africans were forced against their will to work with no compensation and in unbearable conditions. Beloved describes the horrific experiences that slaves, such as Sethe, were subjected to. “Tell me this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take? Tell me. How much?”(235), Paul D. says to Sethe about all the pain and suffering that their people were put through. The novel takes place at a time when blacks were just beginning to see freedom in America, and Sethe barely made out of slavery alive. For a time, Sethe was not too badly off, living under the best of the worst conditions for a kinder slave owner, Mr. Garner. That is until he sold the plantation and “without Garner’s life each of theirs fell to pieces”(220). She escaped from her plantation, but only after being beaten by her new master and raped by his nephews. In the novel Sethe faces the same atrocities that many slaves faced in that time, and the suffering that she endured changed her life forever, even after she witnessed freedom.
After finding freedom in Cincinnati Sethe was forced to confront her soul. Beloved focuses on the effects that slavery had on former slaves, and on the entire Negro race as a whole. Sethe was one of the many slaves who had to get their life on track as a free person. While discovering herself, Sethe learned that she was not created to be at the service of white people, and that she was a human and not merely an animal or sex toy. It was difficult for her to understand that she was entitled to desires and troubles, like all other human beings. At times it was difficult for her to overcome and fight injustices, when it seemed much easier to endure unfairness. “No more running-from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth. I took one journey and I paid for the ticket, but let me tell you something, Paul D Garner: it cost too much!” Sethe says to a fellow former slave who tries to encourage her to fight for her rights. With no personal identity, or even a surname, Sethe’s challenge to find herself was almost as hard as her battle to freedom, but eventually she is able to stand apart from the other Negroes in her community. She learns to accept her past which include murder, rape and a the life of a slave, and she finally stops “beating back the past”.