Cloud Atlas: Themes
Capitalism and corporatism are present throughout Cloud Atlas. In Adam Ewing’s time, the preacher on the isle makes the natives addicted to tobacco so they are forced to buy from his store. Luisa Rey spends her story fighting Seaboard Incorporated, a company that will stop at nothing to stage an atomic explosion for pure profit. They are willing to kill to protect their secret. Tim is running a publishing company and is obsessed with making money. Sonmi’s age has been wholly taken over by consumerism, even making living fabricants for the cause. By the time Zachary’s story enters the stage, the Fall has already happened, and most of the world is forced back into barbarism.
This theme is most prevalent through the reincarnation of souls throughout the novellas. The reincarnated soul is marked with a comet-shaped birthmark below their shoulder blade. It is insinuated that the universe follows the same patterns over and over again. When Robert Frobisher commits suicide, he does so believing he will be reincarnated. Humanity rose with capitalism, and then consumed itself and fell again. Even the structure of the book mimics a cycle, starting at the beginning and ending at the beginning.
In the earlier times, enslavement takes the familiar form of conquering. In Luisa’s time, there are no slaves by race, but the company treats its member as slaves, blackmailing them to do its will. Sonmi is a slave of the corporations – a living being that exists only to serve a company and the purebloods. They are born, serve, and die never even seeing the outside world. When they die they are recycled to make more fabricants. In Zachary’s time, slavery has taken its most barbaric form again, as shown when the Kona enslave Zachary’s village.
During Adam’s journey, he witnesses blacks being treated as subhuman. Initially, he thinks nothing of it, but when Autua saves his life he vows to join the Abolitionist movement. Prejudice survives the ages and is still present in Sonmi’s time, as prejudice against fabricants. Purebloods do not even think of fabricants as human, and they treat them as such. Meronym teaches Zachary not to be prejudiced against someone because of their race or the color of their skin, coming to the same conclusion that Adam does.
Scars / Birthmarks
Throughout Cloud Atlas, there are numerous mentions of scars and birthmarks. Robert, Luisa, Sonmi and Meronym all have the comet-shaped birthmark on their left shoulder-blade. However, other characters have scars, as well. Tim has a scar on his back that he can’t see, and Joe has scars from the grenade Luisa’s father saved him from. The scars serve as a reminder, something that persists through the years, or reincarnations, suggesting that wounds never truly heal, no matter how many lifetimes have passed.
Dreams and Memories
There are many odd dream sequences throughout the novellas. Arys dreams of Sonmi’s world where all the waitresses are identical, and that is where he bases one of his compositions off of. Robert’s Cloud Atlas Sextet, as well, was based off dreams. When Luisa reads Robert’s letters, she has vivid memories of life in Zedelghem, memories that could not possibly be hers. When she passes the Prophetess, she has a strange dream sensation and her scar throbs. Zachary is haunted by Old Georgie, who tells him information and tempts him. The dreams move back and forward in time and aren’t limited to the linear line of time.
Escaping and Running
All six of the main characters are escaping or running from something. Adam from his disease, Robert from debt collectors, Luisa from the company, Tim from mobsters, Sonmi from enslavement, and Zachary from Old Georgie. These characters suggest that humans, no matter the time or place, are always escaping or running from something. That something may be inside them, such as Adam’s parasite, imaginary, such as Old Georgie, or idealistic, such as Sonmi’s wish for freedom. It is just in humanity’s nature to always be escaping limitations.
There is a lot of philosophical talk about truth throughout Cloud Atlas, however, every story seeks the truth. Adam learns the truth of slavery, and of the deceit of Henry. Robert captures his truth in his sextet, and this truth is so complete he kills himself because he has nothing left. Luisa seeks to reveal the truth about the company. Tim tries to convince the owners of Aurora House of the truth that he was put there by accident. Sonmi, as an intellectual, wants to know the truth of the whole world. Zachary wants Meronym to tell him the truth. In every story truth is essential, and never certain.
Forms of Writing and Media
Each story is a different type of recording medium. Adam’s is a journal, Robert’s is letters, Luisa’s a novel, Tim’s a movie, Sonmi’s an interrogation, and Zachary’s an oral story. Every story except for Luisa’s is in the first person format, and they all draw from different styles. They also cycle through different technologies: handwriting, mass-produced books, movie, advanced recording, and finally speech. History isn’t recorded in one medium, and the way humans record the world changes from generation to generation.
The Number Six
This number is present throughout Cloud Atlas. There are six main characters, Robert’s sextet has six sections, Rufus’ last name is Sixsmith, when Rufus meets Luisa he is 66 years old, Sonmi completes secondary school in 6 months… the list goes on. Symbolically, the number six can stand for balance, harmony and truth. Biblically, the number six stands for evil. The most prominent use of the number six, however, lies in Roberts Cloud Atlas Sextet, which mimics the structure of the novel exactly.