Year

2017

Degree Name

Master of Philosophy (Creative Arts & Communication)

Department

School of the Arts, English and Media

Abstract

This dissertation performs a close textual analysis and political reading of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in order to elucidate its political and philosophical stance. Mitchell’s novel engages explicitly and implicitly with a number of Left–Right dichotomies across its six sub-narratives, spanning from the South Pacific of the 1850s around the globe and back to the Hawaii of a far-flung post-apocalyptic future. In each story, antagonists espouse what this dissertation terms a kind of Right-aligned ‘atavistic individualism,’ while protagonists largely enact or adopt an opposing left-wing counterdoctrine. In line with much right-wing thought, the ideology of atavistic individualism fetishises the notion of ‘the natural’ to cast individuals as free-willed competitors without an ethical obligation to others, and to perpetuate existing power structures by configuring challenges to the orthodoxy as doomed attempts to fight ‘against nature.’ The left-wing counter-doctrine, conversely, problematises notions of ‘naturalness’ as culturally bound; shows individualist free will to be limited by interpersonal connectedness, social determinism and causality; and calls individuals to action by cleaving to principles and acting from awareness.

The dissertation begins by examining atavistic individualism as it appears in the novel. Using close textual analysis, the explicit professions of several antagonists fetishising an arbitrary notion of ‘the natural’ are examined to demonstrate how they justify a conception of humans as separate individuals competing for self-gain, whose fates are determined by meritorious exercise of free will. It then discusses the novel’s portrayal of the effects of such a philosophy, namely an ‘atomising impulse’ that sunders self from other and cause from effect, and the engendering of cynicism and stasis.

Having explicated Cloud Atlas’ depiction of the nature and effects of atavistic individualism, the dissertation turns to the novel’s answer to this ideology: its ‘concatenating impulse’ showing the connectedness of self/other and cause/effect; the arbitrariness and contingency of ideas and beliefs in general and notions of ‘the natural’ in particular; the place of causality and social determinism in defining the fates of individuals; and the novel’s exhortations for readers to defend ethical principles to strive for change through optimism and activism.

In analysing Cloud Atlas through a Left–Right political frame, this dissertation is able to resolve discord surrounding the interpretation of the text and clarify its position as one that resonates with Mitchell’s six other novels, contributing a new coherence to the understanding of the author’s interconnected oeuvre.

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