Cannibalism, Colonialism and Apocalypse in Mitchell’s Global Future


David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a novel intent on blasting open the classical unities of time and place. On publication in 2004, its unusual structure made it a talking-point for reviewers and readers alike. It was an unexpected crossover hit, winning critical acclaim and also finding popular appeal.1 For a novel with clear global ambitions, the decision to begin and end in the often overlooked and liminal region of the Pacific Islands, rather than in the culturally and economically more dominant spheres of Europe, America or Asia, is no accident. In this essay, I suggest that Mitchell’s novel can be read as a (re)staging of the perennial conflict between Hobbesian and Rousseauian conceptions of nature and humanity’s place within it. I will argue that Mitchell’s use of cannibalism as a trope for savagery raises questions about the myths of progress and linear time that underlie Western thought. This mythological aspect at the heart of Western culture is echoed in the novel’s temporal structure that resembles an ouroboros, the snake or dragon eating its own tail, which Jung so aptly suggested functions as an archetypal symbol of both destruction and renewal.

Read Article On Muse