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Cloud Atlas: Reincarnation and Human Coexistence

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In the novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, the most significant theme that strengthened connection between the contrasting sections through the former life recognition of various characters of six stories. However, the main characters of the six stories are not reincarnations of each other. The main characters are distinguished from another characters as they have a comet shaped birthmark on their bodies that is used as a visual illustration by the author to give evidence to the reader that one character in one period is a reincarnation of another character in another time period throughout the novel. For example, Ewing, Frobisher, Luisa, Cavendish, and Meronym all have comet shaped birthmarks. A very few characters such as Zachry and Luisa believe in reincarnation and actively explore its consequences in their current time period. Apart from the symbol of the comet shaped birthmark, there are many other aspects of the character’s and soul’s connection via reincarnation that are clearly illustrated by the author and remarked upon the belief that with the passage of time, soul will rebirth in another human character, for example Luisa’s reaction to seeing Ewing’s ship. The occasional “déjà vu” strengthens the overall theme of reincarnation especially by the character of Zachry who believes in reincarnation or “rebirth” and its effects on a faith-based society. The characters are bound to each other through the past, the present and the future.

This theme is most prevalent through the reincarnation of souls throughout the novel. The reincarnated soul is marked with a comet-shaped birthmark below on their body. It is insinuated that the universe follows the same patterns repeatedly. When Robert Frobisher commits suicide, he does so believe that he will be reincarnated. The time transcending soul’s journey and human coexistence conveyed through the symbol of a comet-shaped birthmark is explored with the novel’s embedded narrative structure. The symbol of a comet-shaped birthmark symbolizes a cyclical return of the soul, which incarnates into different characters that are connected throughout different historical period.

The novel begins with the “First half of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” and sets in the Chatham Island in the year 1850. It tells the story of an American notary Adam Ewing, who while waiting for his ship’s repairs witnesses the cruelty of slavery and is diagnosed with a fatal parasite rapidly weakening his health. The next story “Letters from Zedelghem” is set in Belgium, Zedelghem in 1931. It tells the story in the form of letters by a young bisexual musical genius Robert Frobisher who becomes an amanuensis to a composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who is suffered from sexually transmitted disease known as Syphilis. In letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, the protagonist Robert Frobisher mentions finding a “half of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. The following story “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a mystery/thriller novel set in a fictional city Buenas Yerbas, California in 1975. A young journalist Luisa Rey investigates a new nuclear power plant only to find out that it is unsafe. She meets Rufus Sixsmith, who was working as one of the scientists of the power plant, but was forced to quit due to his safety report concluding the power plant to be dangerous. The fourth story in the novel ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” sets in present day Britain, wherein Timothy Cavendish, a 65 year old publisher is threatened by the brothers of his previous client. The protagonist is put to the retirement home by his own brother and cannot escape. He mentions reading a manuscript of “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” and ends up plotting an escape together with other residents. The fifth story “An Orison of Sonmi~451” is set in a dystopian future state in South Korea run by technocratic capitalist corporation Nea So Copros. The story’s protagonist Sonmi~451 is a genetically crafted fabricant of a fast food restaurant like many others. She becomes self-aware due to the members of rebellion and becomes their leader. She describes watching a film excerpt of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”. The sixth and the central story of the novel “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ after” is the only uninterrupted story of the novel. Zachry, an old man and the protagonist, tells the story from his youth to children. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Big Island of Hawaii inhabited by peaceful Zachry’s people called valley folk and the savage cannibals – Kona tribe. The valley folk worship the goddess named Sonmi and recall the fall of civilization that has led them to primitivism. The island is occasionally visited by technologically advanced people and anthropologists known as Prescients who study the valley folk and trade with them. One of the anthropologists, Meronym reveals Sonmi’s history to Zachry which he finds hard to believe.

The novel seems to attract two main readings to itself. A number of critics focus on the aspects of history, human nature and character connections, while others tend to focus more on the narratological aspects of the novel. Mitchell explores human condition in different places and times to suggest patterns that transcend historical circumstance. The characters are bounded with one another in different time periods. Readers observe an idea of butterfly effect that signifies that if one character did a specific thing might affects another character in the future. There are many instances that indicates connection between different characters through a butterfly effect. For example, in the story of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, Cavendish got signs on a contract by Hoggins over the copyright of the book for his profit but later on he was threatened by the Hoggin brothers and demanded money of the book sale. This proves a connection when Cavendish was caught in a nursing home known as Aurora House where he signed a contract where it was clearly mentioned that he is a resident in the house and can’t leave the Aurora House.

The most prevalent theme of the novel is the theme of rebirth expressed through a birthmark shaped like a comet which a number of characters share such as Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi ~451, and Meronym. The birthmark that connects the characters implies that they are different incarnations of the same soul. In fact the relations between the stories and the characters gradually emerge, for example, Luisa Rey meets Rufus Sixsmith – Frobisher’s lover, and Meronym leads Zachry towards the truth about Sonmi-451. Moreover, from this it can be inferred that author might make these connections so that society believes in faith and the religious facts of reincarnation so that people will do good things not sins so that no other soul in the future will suffer from the past lives sins that are done by the other characters.

The symbol of a birthmark is shaped like a comet “She plays with the birthmark in the hollow of my shoulder, the one you said resembles a comet” (Mitchell 85). The comet shape symbolizes a cycle because many comets have circular orbits and reappear every few years in the sky. In this case the comet birthmark stands as a symbol of some sort of return; in the novel, the return of a soul, which is expressed in Zachry’s son’s speech “…. in his loonsome old age he even b’liefed Meronym the Prescient was his presh b’loved Sonmi, yay, he ‘sisted it, he said he knowed it all by birthmarks an’ comets’n’all’ (Mitchell 324). From the quotation it is evident that Zachry, the protagonist of the central story, is aware of Sonmi’s reincarnation as Meronym. This infers that Zachry believes in reincarnation of a soul. This can be a one reason that Zachry didn’t kill Meronym on the way to Mauna Kea even when Old Georgie threatened Zachry to cut rope when they are climbed over the mountain. At that time, Zachry thought about the dream of Sonmi where she said, “hands are burnin’, let the rope not be cut’.

From this perspective it can be said that the novel explores different incarnations of the same soul and its journey throughout different time period. Mitchell explores the time and space transcending human connections through the symbol of a comet-shaped birthmark, which a number of characters share. The symbol of a comet signifies a cyclical return of a soul because of the comets’ circularized orbits. Like a comet, the soul reappears throughout different historical epochs and incarnates into different characters, who all share the similar roles of a prey.

Works cited

  • Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. Vintage Canada Edition, 2012.

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Cloud Atlas: Reincarnation And Human Coexistence. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
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