“A Half-finished Love Affair”: Colonialism, Historicism, and the Decline of the World in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas seems to grab historicism by the throat, and show just how it can shape the world within it. David Mitchell, the award-winning and bestselling author, created the novel that features the reincarnation of one soul throughout time. While its six stories almost seem irrelevant to each other at first glance, a closer reading allows one to see that they each affect the others in small ways. The character Sonmi-451, seen as nothing more than a terrorist in her own story, is worshipped as a goddess in the distant future by a primitive society that managed to survive after the fall of the world. I find that the novel plays with the butterfly effect, which is a concept that small causes may have large effects. Speaking of Sonmi-451 again, her own story is slightly affected by Timothy Cavendish, whose story came before hers. His story has been made into a film by her time, and his triumph through his plight inspires her to continue through her own.

Colonialism also makes itself apparent within the novel, especially in the very first story, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” Taking place in the 19th century, the slave trade is at its peak, and Adam Ewing remains impartial to it until he has a chance encounter with a runaway slave, who convinces him to help him gain freedom. Throughout the story, we see both good and bad relations between the enslaved and their owners. Adam even witnesses slaves adopting the culture of their European oppressors, assimilating themselves in hopes of being viewed in a better light and pleasing their masters.

This essay explores Cloud Atlas in the context of colonialism and historicism. Though critics have noted the work as an atypical apocalyptic novel, I would like to explore more fully how colonialism and the decline of the world go hand in hand. Closer attention to colonialism and historicism in Cloud Atlas reveal that, rather than simply showing how it is an atypical apocalyptic novel, the author shows how it adds to the complexity of the story itself.

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