Reincarnation, the most connective theme in the text, enhances the bridge between sections through the past lives of the characters. Not all of the main characters are reincarnations of each other. Most have a comet shaped birthmark on their bodies used as a visual representation by the author to indicate to the reader that the character in question is a reincarnation of another character within Cloud Atlas. For example Ewing, Frobisher, Luisa, Sonmi-451, and Meronym all have comet shaped birthmarks. Cavendish also has a birthmark but he appears to be the odd man out concerning the sequence of reincarnations considering his timeline and Luisa’s overlap and his birthmark is not in the shape of a comet. Cavendish offers an outsider’s view of reincarnation in the text calling it implausible; whereas most of the other characters, especially Zachry and Luisa believe in reincarnation and actively seek its influence in their current life cycle. Aside from the image of the comet birthmark, aspects of the character’s connection via reincarnation is noted by the reader and remarked upon in passing by the characters, for example Luisa’s reaction to seeing Ewing’s ship. The occasional deja vu enhances the overall theme of reincarnation and is strengthen by sections like Zachry’s that explore, in depth, the belief of reincarnation or “rebirth” and its effects on a faith-based society.
Nothing is as it seems in Cloud Atlas at first glance. The protagonists sift through the deception of other characters in repeated patterns from Goose’s betrayal of Ewing to Lyson’s betrayal of the Valleymen. Lies, misdirection, and corruption litter the novel. Some are obvious deceits like Seaboard’s corruptive behavior and Aurora House’s misuse of power. The subtler deceptions of the protagonists themselves are revealed over time as is the case with Frobisher who thieves from his hosts and Sonmi-451 who lied during her interview. The protagonist’s deception have consequences such as when Cavendish’s affair with his brother’s wife resulted in his imprisonment at Aurora House. Similarly Zachry carried the guilt of his lie about his father’s death into adulthood. His deception helped shape his character and manifested a consciousness in the form of Old Georgie. No matter their motivation, each deception tarnished the soul of the character in some capacity.
Each of the main characters face the possibility of their own death in drastically different ways. Ewing, Luisa, and Cavendish almost die at the hands of others. Frosbisher kills himself, after finishing his sextet. Zachry faces his death by the Kona and dies at the end of his narration of undisclosed causes. Sonmi-451 is similarly executed after her narration ends. More important than death or the threat of death, is the character’s acceptance or rejection of it. Sonmi-451 refuses to die like her sister fabricants who are butchered for meat. She wants her death to have meaning and gladly accepts it after her “Declarations” are broadcast. Frobisher’s death by his own hand is also greeted with acceptance as he, like Zachry, believes in the possibility of another life. Ewing, Luisa, and especially Cavendish struggle back from the brink of death not because they necessarily fear it but rather they are unwilling to accept death just yet. The characters who chose death, who were not afraid of it, died by the end of their narrations. Those who rebelled against their deaths reclaimed their lives.
Each of the main characters is a seeker of truth. Their methods and circumstances differ but the six protagonists share an innate drive to find the truth of themselves or their surroundings. For example Frobisher’s need to validate his talent and Zachry’s inner struggle with the temptations of Old Georgie, illustrate their need to find the truth within themselves. Luisa and Cavendish seek the truth of their situations in order to find solutions to their dilemmas. Ewing and Sonmi-451 share both the desire for inner truth and a need to share their findings with the intention of influencing others. Sonmi-451’s ascension from slave to prophet is a journey of truths and Ewing, who begins and ends the text, seeks both the truth of himself and a larger truth of what he can do to change the world.
An underlining theme in Cloud Atlas are references to religion and faith. The novel begins with Ewing, who is not necessarily devotedly religious but is Christian and encounters the missionaries on two islands. The juxtaposition of the Christian faith and the ideology of the aboriginals becomes visceral when Ewing falls and finds the hidden icons of the Moriori. The faith of the Valleymen mirrors the Moriori with their own set of icons but their faith is a mix of Christian overtones and primitive ideology in good vs. evil. They worship Sonmi as their God and believe in the reincarnation of souls. The word “judas” is repeated in several sections, referring to the Apostle Judas of the Bible, famed for his betrayal of Jesus Christ. Sonmi-451 and the Valleymen use the word “judas” to mean betrayer. The connecting thread of terms such as “judas” or the appearance of Buddha, the Abbesses, the pseudo-Christian worship of Papa Song and his Six Catechisms combine to question the longevity of religion vs. the sustainability of faith in a higher power.
The dominance of one person or group over another is a prevailing theme in all of the sections of Cloud Atlas and most evident instances of slavery. The dominance of one person over another repeats itself in each section in several ways. Domination through violence usually involves minor characters such as Nurse Noakes and Mr. Boerhaave who use fists, drugs, and rape as their weapons. Dominance of the mind, as in Old Georgie’s influence over Zachry, offers the characters an opportunity to overcome those who try to rule them. It is the subtle instances of dominance by deception that impact the main characters most. Goose’s betrayal of Ewing and Ayrs’ emotional thrashing of Frobisher, leave the main characters reeling and unable to rebound without intervention.
The combination of dominance by violence, mental minupulation, and deception is most apparent in slavery, the largest form of domination of one group or corporation over another. The enslavement of the peaceful Moriori by the cruel Maori is mirrored by the Kona’s conquer of the Valleymen. On a smaller scale, Zachry fears being enslaved because he is aware of its horrors. Sonmi-451 did not know she was a slave until Hae-Joo opened her eyes to the awful truth and she in turn spreads the knowledge of that truth through her “Declarations” questioning the very social structure on which her country stands. Ewing concludes the novel by vowing to dedicate his life to the irradication of slavery, believing it to be a blight on the soul of humanity.
A disturbing theme in the novel, cannibalism does not appear in each section of Cloud Atlas but is notable for its literal and figurative representations. Ewing’s section includes the conquering of the Moriori by the Maori. The violent Maori quickly enslave the peaceful Maori and in some instances actually ate them. Dr. Goose begins the entire novel searching for teeth of the victims of cannibals in the sands of the Chatman Islands. His theory “the weak are meat, the strong do eat” serves both as a perverse explanation of natural order. This explanation extends to corporations like Seaboard and Papa Song’s who falsify the dangers of their products in order to make more money. Seaboard, for example, sold energy whose properties would have resulted in the development of cancer (a cannibal in itself) in the people of Buenas Yerbas. Papa Song’s butchered the fabricants and fed their remains in the form of Soap to other fabricants and to unsuspecting consumers.
Cloud Atlas Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Cloud Atlas is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.