“Sunt lacrimae rerum”: A structural analysis of Cloud Atlas

by Imandi Mudugamuwa


 Post-Enlightenment Western society relies upon narratives of progress and civilization to cultivate hope that humanity has risen above its primitive foundations (Bayer 346). In his third novel, Cloud Atlas (2004), David Mitchell rejects such a “deterministic view of History as progress” (Machinal 135) as “reconfigurations of the same patterns” are seen across six unrelated narratives in six different settings and time periods (Kucala 109). Prior literature on this text has focused on the novel’s structure as being either a palindrome or matryoshka doll model, or alternatively, as an application of Nietzschean theories of eternal recurrence. This paper, however, explores how Nietzschean or opaque similarity, (as discussed by Kucala, and J.H. Miller, where the contrast between two formulations generates similarity) enables a matryoshka doll structure to better represent the cyclical model of time supported by principles of eternal recurrence, referring to the idea that all events repeat over time. Through the aforementioned palindrome structure, mise en abyme embedded narratives, narrative metalepsis, and remediation, Mitchell depicts how narratives of greed and oppression recur organically across time and space. Such audacious postmodern structural choices encourage the novel’s reflexivity as a metafiction, as a self-awareness of its own fictionality and textuality highlights rather than obscures the stories and individual lives within.           

Palindromic Structure, Opaque Similarity, and Non-Linear Models of Time

In Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, the third story of Cloud Atlas, Isaac Sachs describes a model of time, “an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments”, which is, reflexively, an apt description for the unique palindrome structure Mitchell employs in this novel (Mitchell 409).Six narratives, each set in a different time and place, are arranged in chronological, and subsequently in reverse chronological order to resemble a palindrome or matryoshka doll. On a superficial level, this destabilizes readers by exploding the deterministic, linear models of time and progress integral to post-Enlightenment Western society, creating a sense of chaos which is thematically congruent with the ideas of human greed and savagery central to Mitchell’s message.

However, the palindromic structure is predominantly utilized to establish an alternative, cyclical model of time rooted in Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. Eternal recurrence postulates that “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more” (Nietzsche 273). This principle loosely underpins the cyclical temporality Mitchell suggests in his novel, underscoring the inevitability of human greed through opaque (or Nietzschean, as coined by Gilles Deleuze) similarity across narratives.

Opaque or Nietzschean similarity is a concept postulated by J. H. Miller  as where “meaning is generated by the echoing of two dissimilar things” (9). Similar narratives of greed, savagery and oppression “ceaselessly recycle” into different forms and contexts, with this concept of Nietzschean similarity perpetuating an extended metaphor of reincarnation of souls, and thus, interchangeability of identities across time (Kucala 111). This is established through the repetition of the comet birthmarks on each protagonist, the Cloud Atlas sextet (which appears in multiple narratives and contexts), and the motif of reading one another’s narratives, which connects the protagonists’ stories, as all of them (excepting Ewing) are exposed to the previous narrator’s narrative, building inexplicable feelings of déjà vu. This last motif complicates the matryoshka doll structure to build contrasting notions of separation and unity that once more hints at reincarnation of souls and identities.

Mitchell depicts the “rise of the individualistic ethos of capitalism” during the industrial revolution, its development into a consumer society where power is concentrated within powerful corporations and suggests an inevitable collapse when unchecked scientific advancement precipitates dissolution of government structures into anarchy (Machinal 136).As the same exploitative tendencies are repeated from the 18th century Pacific Islands to modern-day London back to dystopian Hawaii, Mitchell reinforces the belief that the supposed evolution of man over time is a myth. The connections between protagonists’ stories are strengthened by Mitchell’s metaphor of reincarnation, especially through the comet motif, demonstrating the “development of one mode of civilization at the expense of previous” (118).

Consequently, there is an emphasis on mutual interdependence and connectivity, even in stories of exploitation, with this recurrence of human greed exemplified in the throat-slitting motif in Letters from Zedelghem and Sloosha’s Crossin’. Zachry, in Sloosha’s Crossin’, feels a strong urge to kill a sleeping enemy Kona soldier, who belongs to a tribe that pillaged his village, with Mitchell stating that “a vein pulsed in his Adam’s apple what was left white b’tween two lizardy tattoos. You found me, yay, so slit me, whisped that throat. Blade me [sic]” (315). By describing the vein pulsing in the warrior’s Adam’s apple, Mitchell emphasizes the warrior’s living, mortal form, while the Adam’s apple “b’tween two lizardy tattoos” evokes connotations of a hardened warrior as tattoos are often used by people “to assert their own definitions of maturity and autonomy” (Kang and Jones 43). The reptilian imagery of “lizardy” implies the Kona warrior is malicious and cunning while the parallelism in “you found me, yay, so slit me […] blade me” creates a rhythm through repetition. This highlights the violence Zachry is pondering, reinforcing the unearthly, animalistic pull implied by the personification of the sleeping warrior’s throat; it suggests that a preternatural force is influencing him, as a throat does not have consciousness. 

Later, in Letters from Zedelghem, Frobisher states:

A blue vein throbbed over Ayrs’ Adam’s apple and I fought off an unaccountably strong urge to open it up with my penknife. Most uncanny. Not quite déjà vu, more jamais vu. Killing, an experience that comes to few outside wartime [sic]. (Mitchell 476)

The phrasing describing how “a blue vein throbbed over Ayrs’ Adam’s apple” mirrors Zachry’s language, with the verb “throbbed” underscoring the corporeal, delicate form of Ayrs’ body, particularly in juxtaposition to Frobisher’s “strong urge to open it with [his] penknife” The violent connotations of this diction, especially the verb “open,” reminds readers of the frailty of humans as individuals in the face of larger external forces which provoke instinctive human impulses such as greed and savagery. This language echoes how Zachry’s thoughts encourage him to slit the Kona warrior’s throat, with Frobisher’s “unaccountably strong urge” strengthening connotations of mystical intervention, as the adjective choice reveals his lack of autonomy in summoning such thoughts.

Image by @marekpiwnicki in unsplash

Describing the entire experience as “most uncanny” further evokes ideas of supernatural intervention and magic. Frobisher distinguishes it is “not quite déjà vu, more jamais vu”. Mitchell’s choice of language connotes at the supernatural, as it is impossible for a future occurrence in Zachry’s lifetime to recur here, especially as Frobisher and Zachry have no personal connection. The suggestion of parallelism between these moments without clear delineation hints at déjà vu by denying its possibility. Moreover, the repetition of this throat-slitting motif carries connotations of betrayal, violence, and duplicity, as both Ayrs’ and the Kona warrior were asleep and would have been unable to fight back. In Zachry’s story, the violence and pain the Kona tribe have caused his family and the Valleysmen might somewhat justify his act, but the same is not true in Frobisher’s, as Ayrs’ injustices towards him are significantly less severe. Hence, the use of palindromic structure highlights the opaque similarities across narratives as the same human impulses and actions are repeated in different contexts. Through this, Mitchell hints a cyclical temporality, once more suggesting the interchangeability of the protagonists. He postulates they are reincarnations of the same soul, or that there is an overarching supernatural force being exerted on both characters. This is demonstrative of how Mitchell utilizes a cyclical model of time to underscore the recurrence of greed and exploitation in human conflict.

Similarly, in the second half of Half-Lives, after Luisa, having read Frobisher’s letters, obtains his Cloud Atlas sextet, she describes how “[Its] sound is pristine, riverlike, spectral, hypnotic…intimately familiar. Luisa stands, entranced, as if living in a stream of time. “I know this music,” she tells the store clerk, who eventually asks if she’s okay” [sic] (Mitchell 425).

The use of a simile likening the sound of the music to a river emphasizes the sinuous, elegant nature of the piece, highlighting its capability to mesmerize, with the adjectives “spectral”, “hypnotic”, and “entranced” connoting its powerful and unearthly nature. Describing Luisa as “entranced, as if living in a stream of time,” Mitchell utilizes the flowing, lithe connotations of a stream to insinuate Luisa’s experience occurs in a dimension where time is meaningless, suggesting supernatural intervention. Since no one can stand fixed in the linear path of a stream without being affected by it, this simile highlights the flaws in a linear understanding of time. Luisa’s claim that the music was “intimately familiar” strengthens these ideas, as it is impossible for Frobisher’s music, which she has never heard before, to be familiar in a linear model of time. Mitchell therefore posits that experiences can transcend temporal boundaries, and hints at mystical intervention, as well as the reincarnation and transmigration of Frobisher’s identity in Luisa. Emphasizing cross-narrative opaque similarities employs a cyclical model of time to portray how the same human impulses recur in varied contexts across time and space.

Mise En Abyme Embedded Narratives: Fragmentation and Revision of Character Identity

The use of mise en abyme, the formal technique of placing a copy of an image within itself, is employed by Mitchell to emphasize the reflexivity of diegetic levels through reduplication across a multitude of narrative frames (Genette 235). This boomerang structure destabilizes conventions of traditional embedded narratives, as each story is antedated by its frame narrative, rather than followed by it, preventing the neglect of any narrative frames as unimportant as readers are “forced to travel up and down the narrative hierarchy” (Rados 7). Mitchell “pushes the limit of how far we can sustain the open-ended,” manipulating readers’ need for closure by interrupting each narrative at its most climactic point (Parker 205). In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell employs the suspended endings inherent in such embedded narratives to create an extended metaphor for the corrosive, instinctive nature of human greed, and its parasitic manifestation within capitalism. The structure emphasizes relationships across narratives and time frames, establishing the authenticity of these stories. Mitchell thus highlights the chains of oppression depicted, and how they provoke alternative ones of ethical obligation, as seen in The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing when Ewing first meets Dr Henry Goose searching for teeth, saying:

In days gone by this Arcadian strand was a cannibals’ banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak. The teeth, they spat out, as you or I would expel cherry stones. But these base molars, sir, shall be transmuted to gold & how? An artisan of Piccadilly who fashions denture-sets for the nobility and pays handsomely for human gnashers. (Mitchell 3)

 Using the word “cannibal” highlights Goose’s perception of the indigenous tribe as savage and animalistic, and fellow Westerners such as Ewing as comparatively superior. Goose’s language describes these tribes as predatory and brutish, with the juxtaposition between “strong” and “weak” highlighting a primitive attitude. Referring to them as “cannibals” who “engorged themselves” reinforces these connotations by connoting greed and gluttony. While Ewing argues that the indigenous people are fundamentally different to Westerners, Goose himself uses these teeth to make “denture-sets for the nobility,” commodifying the waste product of literal cannibalism into a product. The act of metaphorical cannibalism exemplifies the extractavist nature of capitalism, similar to the portrayal of the production of Soap in the Sonmi-451 narrative. The cannibals’ teeth and Goose’s characterization symbolize the persistence of instinctual human rapacity in even the most sophisticated contexts, with Mitchell alluding to the underlying complexity of Goose’s character through this conflicting characterization. Since it is not revealed that Goose is poisoning Ewing until the end of the narrative, and tension is created by the suspended endings inherent in embedded narratives, final judgement in any narrative is postponed, drawing attention to readers desire for self-gratification. Hence, this structural device serves as an extended metaphor for the exploitative and parasitic nature of humanity.

The role of mise en abyme in depicting humanity’s impulse towards greed is again exemplified when Luisa obtains the rest of Frobisher’s letters:

She removes one of the yellowed envelopes, postmarked 10 October 1931, holds it against her nose, and inhales. Are molecules of Zedelghem Chateau, of Robert Frobisher’s hand, dormant in this paper for forty-four years, swirling in my lungs now, in my blood? [sic]. (Mitchell 453)

Mitchell appeals to readers’ sense of smell through synaesthesia, defined as the association of a sense in terms of another (“synaesthesia, n.”). He mentions that she “holds [the envelope] against her nose, and inhales,” as this emphasizes the smell of yellowed paper through visual imagery (453). This is strengthened by the tactile imagery of the “molecules of Zedelghem Chateau, of Robert Frobisher’s hand” (Mitchell 453). Emphasizing the corporeal form of Frobisher’s body and the chateau’s edifice makes the physical setting of his narrative vividly real within Luisa’s. She questions whether “molecules […] [are] swirling in my lungs now, in my blood?”  highlighting the tangible nature of the particles from the chateau and Frobisher’s body, which travel into her lungs and bloodstream, and are now physically inside her (Mitchell 453). Embedding Frobisher’s narrative more vividly within Luisa’s world, Mitchell uses mise en abyme to reinforce the authenticity of a contrasting and complex view of time, and the constant revision of character identity implicit within the multiplicity of narrative frames involved. Through this, the author strengthens allusions of reincarnation, suggesting the identities of the protagonists across time and space are interconnected, and possibly interchangeable. Mitchell is once more reinforcing that humanity’s perceived development and civilization is a myth through a cyclical model of time.

Diegetic Levels: Metafictionality Through Narrative Metalepsis

 Another major structural technique used by Mitchell is narrative metalepsis, which highlights the ubiquitous nature of human greed by forcing readers to inhabit multiple perspectives at once. Narrative metalepsis, defined as “any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe [..] or the inverse, produces an effect of either comical or fantastic strangeness by pushing the narrative act further as a means of transition between levels (Genette 234-35). This transgression of diegetic or narrative levels, defined as a level “at which the narrating act and the narratee are situated in relation to the narrative story”, “serve to destabilize, rather than reinforce, an ontologically coherent conception of the novelistic universe” (Rados 7; Hopf 118). “Any event recounted in such a narrative is at a diegetic level immediately higher than the level at which the narrative act producing this narrative is placed” (Genette 228). In Cloud Atlas, a narrator from an intradiegetic level intrudes onto a diegetic level, creating an effect of strangeness that alludes to a supernatural or uncanny influence. For instance, in Frobisher’s narrative, Ayrs wakes up one night, stating:

‘I dreamt 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. The music in the café was,’ he wagged an exhausted finger at the MS, ‘this’. (Mitchell 80)

The hesitancy created by an ellipsis at the beginning of the description indicates the transgression of textual boundaries through metafictionality, alluding to something abnormal and uncanny, while the use of asyndeton encourages pauses which amplify audience suspense, reinforcing connotations of a supernatural influence. Ayrs’ dream of a diner is eerily similar to Papa’s Song’s diner introduced to readers at the start of An Orison of Sonmi-451, with Mitchell stating it was “a sealed dome about eighty metres across. […] [In the Hub] the diners ordered their meals; we input their orders, debited their Souls on the tellers, then trayed their meals” (187).

The server fabricants “genomed” identically “imbibe [their] sacs of Soap” in the “dormroom” at night, which mirrors Ayrs’ dream, where “the only food was soap, the only drink cups of lather” (Mitchell 222, 188-189). The barren, mechanical characterization of fabricants is exacerbated by the fact consumers “debited their Souls”. The homonym “Souls” describes computer chips implanted into people’s hands, providing citizens with basic rights and ability to pay for goods and services, with the inherent double entendre commenting on the deterioration of consumers’ morality and spirit. Through mechanical listing as Sonmi-451 recounts how “diners ordered their meals; we input their orders, debited their Souls on the tellers then trayed their meals”, Mitchell emphasizes the automation of the fabricants’ work and its mundane nature. Ayrs words echoes this, as “the waitresses all had the same face”. These techniques highlight the mass production characterizing the hyper-capitalist society of Nea So Copros, and the exploitation of fabricants, who are treated as machines rather than human beings. They are capitalist producers in life, and essentially capitalist produce in death.

The use of metalepsis amplifies opaque similarity between Ayrs’ dream and Sonmi’s narrative, suggesting the reincarnation and interchangeability of souls, and thus identities, across narratives. Violating the boundaries between diegetic levels creates an effect of fantastical strangeness, as the implications of Ayrs’ dream foretelling Sonmi’s reality are paradoxical, suggesting a supernatural influence. Through its depiction of the parasitic nature of capitalism, this furthers Mitchell’s exploration of whether greed and exploitation are impulses inherent to human nature, doomed to be recur across time and space. The fact that such visions dominate Ayrs’ dreams is evidence of such ubiquity.

Moreover, when Luisa leaves her hotel room on Swanekke Island in the first half of Half Lives, Mitchell writes that “a swarm of déjà vu haunts Luisa as she stuffs her belongings into her overnight bag. Robert Frobisher doing a dine and dash from another hotel [sic]” (Mitchell 142). The author’s use of intertextuality compares the two characters and their respective narratives, connoting her departure is rushed to escape possible danger, making it risky in nature. This comments on the unreliable nature of human subjectivity, as she experienced “a swarm of déjà vu” although she has never had a similar experience, encouraging comparisons with Frobisher’s frequent escapes. By forcing readers to inhabit both Luisa’s and Frobisher’s perspectives at once, Mitchell again utilizes metalepsis to depict the repetition of the same conflicts throughout history, providing evidence of humanity’s inability to rise beyond their instincts through a multifaceted, non-linear model of time.

picture by @jplenio in unsplash

Remediation: Hypermediacy and the Textuality of Narratives

Mitchell employs remediation through a variety of textual forms to draw readers’ awareness to the reflexivity and inherent fictionality of narratives, questioning how this might impact their significance to readers’ lives. Recycling a concept prominent in visual arts and photography into the context of literature, Bolter and Grusin defined remediation as “the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms” (273). Mitchell employs hypermediacy, a type of remediation, which increases reader consciousness of the medium involved and its fictionality (Bolter and Grusin  273). With each successive text, a remediation of the reader as subject occurs, with new information about familiar characters introduced through “a process of continual re-framing and re-contextualizing that encourages the reader to adapt to new subject positions with increasing ease [sic]” (Hopf 118). As characters must exist at once in multiple frames of reference, these metafictional tendencies destabilize readers, but also leads to more organic and thought-provoking characterization.

Through hypermediacy, Mitchell emphasizes the dynamic nature of characters’ lives and identities, as constant fragmentation and revision of characterization occurs. The persistence of instinctual tendencies towards greed and corruption despite changing circumstances is evidence that Mitchell is suggesting such impulses are fundamental to the human psyche, supporting Nietzschean theories of eternal recurrence as previously described, rather than the linear narratives typical of modern Western society. This is exemplified when Frobisher comments on Ewing’s journal, saying “[Ewing] puts me in mind of Melville’s bumbler Cpt. Delano in Benito Cerano, blind to all conspirators—he hasn’t spotted his trusty Dr. Henry Goose [sic] is a vampire, fueling his hypochondria in order to poison him, slowly, for his money” (Mitchell 64). Until this section, Ewing and Goose are depicted positively, based on Ewing’s journal, so Frobisher’s description is a stark contrast. The intertextuality of comparing Ewing to Captain Delano in Benito Cerano, a resourceful but naively optimistic man highlights his gullible nature, with the language of “bumbler” amplifying this through connotations of clumsiness and stupidity.

Similarly, Mitchell’s use of metaphorical language in describing Dr Goose as a vampire draws attention to previously unseen qualities in Ewing. Thus, Frobisher depicts a character previously sympathetic to readers as a traitorous, selfish “vampire”, using remediation to underscore the presence of greed and selfish instincts in even the most unexpected circumstances. While continuous revision of character identity occurs, drawing attention to the textuality of the narratives themselves, and the lives they represent, the presence of human greed and exploitation is constant, strengthening Mitchell’s argument that it is a fundamental inclination, and humanity’s perceived development and progress is a modern myth.

Moreover, this idea is exemplified when Cavendish reads the second half of Half-Lives, stating:

The day after my miracle recovery I picked up Half-lives and, ye gods, began wondering if Hilary V. Hush might not have written a publishable thriller after all. I had a vision of The First Luisa Rey Mystery in stylish black-and-bronze selling at Tesco checkouts; then a Second Mystery, then the Third [sic]. (Mitchell 373)

The use of colour imagery in “stylish black-and-bronze at Tesco checkouts” employs connotations of wealth and luxury to illustrate the lucrative nature of the endeavor for Cavendish, and how it will be so popular that it would even be sold at grocery stores. Moreover, Mitchell suggests consumerism in the middle classes, through cheaper products leads to wealth in upper classes, with the sale of a non-edible product in a grocery store typifying the combination of metaphorical and literal consumption combined in the mass consumerism of capitalism. The use of amplification in stating he “had a vision of The First Luisa Rey Mystery […]; then a Second Mystery, then the Third” highlights Cavendish’s expediency in imagining possible sequels, suggesting an inherently avaricious nature, as he is exploiting Hush’s artistic work to advance his own ambitions and personal gain.

Mitchell perpetuates reader consciousness of the textuality of Half-Lives showing a level of self-reflexivity characteristic of metafiction. Remediation of the reader as subject occurs as Half-Lives is discussed by Cavendish, underscoring the textuality and fictional nature of the narrative. Through this technique, Mitchell reflects on the many different interpretations of one text to different parties, suggesting that despite the diversity of options, humans are most likely to be incentivized by the prospect of material gain. Emphasizing Cavendish’s greed revises his characterization, with Mitchell using this technique to depict the ubiquity of greed within humanity despite shifting circumstances.  


Ultimately, the most ambitious achievement of Cloud Atlas lies in how its structure echoes and represents its thematic focus. Combining a matryoshka doll structure with suggestions of cyclical temporality and Nietzschean eternal recurrence simulate how human lives are “imperfect simalucrums” of each other repeating across time and space (Mitchell 409). This provides readers with a unique experience through exposure to a variety of different frames and perspectives at once. Mitchell’s postmodern leanings are perpetuated through the fragmentation and revision of a kaleidoscope of differing perspectives and characters through remediation and metalepsis. In contrast, the mise en abyme structure maintains the coherence and integrity of the narrative, balancing the destabilizing effects of metalepsis, although both are metaphorical representations of humanity’s fundamentally rapacious nature. By exploring characters’ motivations in their disparate lives as the same conflicts and sins are depicted in broad strokes across time and space, Mitchell posits to readers the lingering question — “is this the entropy written within our nature?” (528).


Imandi Mudugamuwa ‘“Sunt lacrimae rerum”: A structural analysis of Cloud Atlas’ Alluvium, Vol.9, No.2 (2021):n.pag.Web 19 April 2021. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.2.03

About the Author

Imandi Mudugamuwa is a Commerce and Laws student at the University of NSW, Sydney. With a passion for mathematics and economics, she hopes to specialize in Econometrics and work in either international law or corporate law in the future. However, an avid interest in English literature during high school motivated her to pursue academic research separate to her tertiary studies, with her research focusing on contemporary postmodernist fiction. The challenges of new and diverse multimodal formats and the hyperconnected digital environments we live in today are shaping and changing the way we tell stories. Her research focuses on the interrelation of such themes with structural devices in the novelistic form.

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Wallhead, Celia., and Marie-Luise Kohlke. “The Neo Victorian Frame of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: Temporal and Traumatic Reverberations”, Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma: The Politics of Bearing After-Witness to Nineteenth Century Suffering, edited by Kohlke, Marie-Luise and Christian Gutleben, vol. 1, Rodopi, 2010, pp. 217-252., Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2010, pp. 217-252.

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