Ruminations on Reincarnation in Cloud Atlas

Between its curious narrative structure and myriad themes, Cloud Atlas is a highly thought-provoking read.  Mitchell’s novel managed to jump-start some serious cognition in my midterm-addled brain–no small feat.  Most especially, I would like to reflect on the notion of reincarnation.

Let me first state that my own beliefs regarding reincarnation could best be described as flexible.  I have no strongly held convictions on the matter; rather, I try to keep an open mind and enjoy exposure to new and varying views, discrediting none.  This state of mind, I believe, pairs nicely with the portrayal of diverse forms of reincarnation in Cloud Atlas.

What do we first think of when we hear the word “reincarnation”?  Most people’s immediate thoughts, I wager, include some permutation of a deceased person’s soul being “reborn” in a new physical form.  Certainly, this is the hallmark definition of reincarnation.  It is the one that is faithfully believed in, staunchly rebuffed, or simply, by those like myself, contemplated.

The rebirth of the soul is strongly alluded to in Cloud Atlas; though different readers will undoubtedly draw varying conclusions as to meaning.  Reincarnation of the soul is suggested primarily through the presence of a different character in each chapter who possesses a distinct birthmark, having the shape of a comet and located between the collarbone and shoulder blade.

This alone may not be considered adequate evidence for the reader to infer anything about reincarnation.  However, certain subtleties found in the novel may be understood as further suggestions that the hand of fate is at work.  For example, in the chapter titled “Letters from Zedelghem,” Ayrs has a foreboding dream.  He speaks of a “nightmarish café, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out.  I’d been dead a long, long time.  The waitresses all had the same face.  The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather” (79).  This vivid scene, visited in a dream in 1931, is eerily similar to the Papa Song’s franchise of the distant future as described in “An Orison of Sonmi-451.”  Somehow, this nightmarish vision of the future comes to Ayrs in his dreams centuries before it is to be realized.  Another hint is that Sonmi herself possesses the unique birthmark, despite the fact that no other fabricants have birthmarks.  The novel is riddled with little details such as these that seem to support the notion of reincarnation.

Is this, then, a pro-reincarnation work, advocating belief in the rebirth of souls?  Mitchell himself has said of the book: “All of the [leading] characters are reincarnations of the same soul … identified by a birthmark.”  Case closed?

Not quite.  Curiously, another interview with Mitchell yielded the following:


You’re evidently interested in reincarnation—in Cloud Atlas there’s the suggestion that each new chapter contains a character from a previous chapter reborn in a later era. And in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, there’s the suggestion that one of the principal characters, Dr. Marinus, has been reborn again and again. Do you actually believe in reincarnation? 


I would love to believe in reincarnation, but the answer is no. There is solace, however, in the carbon cycle, in the nitrogen cycle. Biochemically, at least, reincarnation is a fact. Donate your ashes to a fruit farmer. 

From this, we can see that Mitchell’s personal beliefs differ from the pro-reincarnation views espoused in his novel.  The author himself declines a belief in reincarnation.  Does this undermine its portrayal in his novel?

I don’t believe it does, because the topic at hand is simply too subjective.  Though one can argue that the concept of reincarnation after death is, in my opinion, strongly suggested by the novel.   Ultimately, however, the slight ambiguity leaves the final conclusion to the reader.

Mitchell’s musings on the carbon cycle and biochemical reincarnation in the excerpt serve as a perfect segue into an important aspect of the novel: the existence of other forms of reincarnation.

The Phoenix, traditional symbol of rebirth and renewal  (image credit)

Just as the Phoenix is represented in many different cultures, that which this mythical bird represents can be applied to many different areas of life.  Earlier, I mentioned the novel’s portrayal of diverse forms of reincarnation.  Although I’ve spent the majority of this post examining it, the rebirth of the soul is but one form of reincarnation found in the novel.

I could go on about the others for just as long, but I think that’s a discussion best saved for another day.  For now, it should suffice to say that Mitchell does not limit his application of reincarnation to souls.  He lends its cyclical and adaptive properties to literature and society, among other areas.  Regarding literature, the reader is prompted to consider how past documents are imbued with new cultural meaning and relevance by following societies, a form of rebirth.  Regarding society, the narrative structure and plot of the novel practically beg an examination of the establishment, decline, and rebirth of civilizations/societies as a form of reincarnation.

Heavy stuff, and a lot to think about–too much, perhaps, to fit into a single lifetime.  Then again, maybe it doesn’t have to.



~ by vanderbiltblog on March 2, 2012.

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