A Circular Nature
So this is pretty late, but I was really determined to finish Cloud Atlas before writing about it, and I accidentally left it at school. So I’m just getting to this now, but it’s fresh on my mind and here are the thoughts I have on it, having finished it.
I know that somebody has already talked about cyclical time in relation to the book, but I want to expand on the idea of cycles, especially in narrative progression. There’s a lot of parallelism in the structure of Cloud Atlas, that much is obvious just from the way the stories are set up. But there’s also a very cyclical nature not only to the individual stories, but to the overarching plot. Even as time progresses, humanity rises and falls in a circular motion; from Adam Ewing to Sloosha, we get a panorama of culture and society that ultimately culminates in a place similar to where it began.
And how does this help us understand Cloud Atlas, or what it’s trying to say? Perhaps that for all our advancements and technologies, it reminds us of our origins and our nature, that the “return to nature” after the plague is more than just a literary device. We saw this kind of motif in several other works that we’ve studied: most prominently, Gattaca and Brave New World. In Gattaca, humanity’s recognition of the natural is used in contrast to the technologically dominant society of their time. In Brave New World, the “Savage” cultures are used as a preservation of humanity in its “base” state, with no outside influence. In Cloud Atlas, we get Zachary’s story right after Sonmi’s – Sonmi, who lives in a world where the natural is both rejected and tightly controlled by technology. The placement of Zachary’s story is not only to provide a contrast to Sonmi’s and call back to Adam Ewing’s tribal setting, but also to show that the evolution of human society is not a linear path. There is no pinnacle to society’s development- there are only stages, and those stages often repeat.
There are other hints to the cyclical nature of the story. For example, the comparison between souls and clouds. Clouds are a transitional element within the water cycle, just as the floating soul can be seen as a transition between stories – one soul reborn within different times and during different struggles. That these souls will continue to fight. That evolution is not about being better, or constantly moving forward, but about adapting to the situation that one is in, whatever it may be. That even if the circumstances surrounding one’s life are uncontrollable, the best that one can do is to survive and keep moving on.
The second half of the novel also illustrates circularity by how it folds in on itself to the very end. The endings of each story lead into the second half of the previous one, giving the novel a spiral loop-like structure. Even while one story closes, it sets the groundwork for another. This helps contribute to the overall hopeful mood of the story. It reminds you, at its very core, that the end of one life, even if it is the protagonist’s, is not the end of the world. As Adam Ewing writes, “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”