Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part I
By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2012
Although Ewing is taken in by Goose’s charms, the doctor (?) gives us a clue to his true nature on the very first page of the book. He talks about how in days gone by, “the strong engorged themselves on the weak.” Goose is talking about archeological finds, but as he becomes more and more involved in Ewing’s day-to-day life, we learn more about his inclinations and beliefs. When the two men are reciting bible verses in church, Ewing chooses one that celebrates the fact that his ship survived a perilous storm. Goose chooses Psalm the Eighth, which reads, “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air and the fish of the sea and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.” Goose is a big believer in supremacy, whether it is man versus animal, stronger tribe versus weaker tribe, or superior man (himself) versus victim (Ewing). Frobisher later sees through him while reading the journal, and his hunches prove to be correct (scoundrels recognize their own, after all).
While anyone who has seen the trailer for Cloud Atlas can ascertain that a major theme is lives being interconnected and repeated over and over again in different ways, Adam Ewing’s Pacific Journal also establishes the other significant idea that will carry from chapter to chapter throughout the novel. As elucidated through Dr. Goose, the idea that the powerful will dominate the weak is strongly evoked here. In the second portion of Ewing’s diary, Goose very specifically gives voice to his beliefs, not to mention a strong hint of his true personality, when he says, “The weak are the meat the strong do eat.”
Along with Goose’s beliefs, the journal also elucidates the conflict between the peaceful Moriori and the more combative Maori who live on the island. The Maori subjugate the Moriori, beating and killing any slaves who are disobedient or in any way rebellious. The Moriori, on the other hand, subscribe to the “turn the other cheek” philosophy.
The tribe is described thus: “Since time immemorial, the Moriori’s priestly caste dictated that whoesoever spilt a man’s blood killed his own mana – his honor, his worth, his standing, and his soul. No Moriori would shelter, feed, converse with or even see the persona non grata. If the ostracized murderer survived his first winter, the desperation of solitude usually drove him to a blowhole on Cape Young, where he took his life.”
Indeed, this prevailing theme of predation plays heavily into every single subsection of the novel, but Mitchell is also concerned with the long-lasting damage that occurs as a result of such supremacist behavior. In an interview with the Paris Review, the author noted, “What made us successful in Darwinian terms – our skill at manipulating our environment – now threatens to wipe us out as a species. This is a sentiment expressed very well by Agent Smith in The Matrix when he compares unthinking humans to viruses. He’s just trying to do this very worthwhile job of keeping these self-spawning life forms – us – under control, some semblance of control.”
Just as within the Matrix, those who are subjugated will eventually find a way to rise up, to protest their enslavement. In The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, Autua escapes his Maori masters to become free and eventually become one of the true heroes of the book – and he remains consistently true to his pacifist beliefs, never wavering. Adam, too, rises above those who would attempt to corrupt him, though not without difficulty and cost.
In the end, it all comes down to belief. “Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world.” In Adam’s case, it’s a belief in God, but he also has faith that through his own actions, he can effect real, valuable change in the world. Inspired by Autua, a self-freed slave, Ewing becomes an abolitionist. He feels strongly that one must fight against the “natural” order of things espoused by the likes of Goose, Reverend Horrox, and the leaders of the ship. He describes his revelation by saying, “…one fine day, a purely predatory world shallconsume itself… In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”
He goes on to clarify the importance of conviction:
“If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by the single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.”
Ultimately, Adam reinforces the prevailing themes, belief that supremacy can be defeated and humanity’s interconnectivity, by replying to his father-in-law’s skeptical comment, “Only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”
“Yet what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” Adam answers.