Art, Books, Characters, Gender, Writing

Female vs. Male Narratives in Cloud Atlas

If you haven’t read/seen Cloud Atlas, you’ve probably at least heard of it (but beware the SPOILERS). I wrote a review of the movie about 9 months ago, when it first came out (it’s kind of a disaster, especially in the make-up department), and recently finished reading the book, which is far better than the film (though still nowhere near excellent). There’s a lot I could say about Cloud Atlas, but for today, I just want to focus on the qualitative differences between the male and female narratives, and how they reflect greater cultural trends around male vs. female stories.

Before I get into this, I think it’s important to note that I’m not saying the author, David Mitchell, is a misogynist. At least, not in the intentional, mustache-twirling sense. It’s just that he’s fallen into the same patterns of value judgment that exist across Western media, and his book happens to be a particularly good illustration of these issues because it puts so many stories immediately alongside each other. I’m not picking on him specifically so much as using him as an example. Just so we’re clear. That said, I did not particularly enjoy Cloud Atlas, so I might take occasional unrelated pot shots at it. If you like Cloud Atlas, that’s great! Good for you. But let’s remember to criticize what we love. Okay, now let’s talk about gendered narratives in Cloud Atlas.

First of all, the basics. Cloud Atlas is the compilation of six different narratives, each nested inside another so you get a (super contrived) Russian doll effect. Each story has its own protagonist, and they are, in order, as follows:

1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing –> Adam Ewing, an American notary in the 1850s, is nearly killed by a false friend while on a trans-Pacific journey from New Zealand to America. His story is told in first person, in the form of his personal travel journal.

2. Letters from Zedelghem –> Robert Frobisher, disenfranchised Englishman, takes up an apprenticeship with an aging musician in Belgium, 1931. His story is also told in first person, in the form of letters he writes to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith.

3. Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery –> Luisa Rey, California journalist in the 1970s, stumbles upon a nuclear power conspiracy after a chance meeting with Dr. Rufus Sixsmith. Her story is told in third person, in the form of a mystery novel written by a third party who never appears in the overall narrative of Cloud Atlas (but is later revealed to be male despite the name Hilary), and the story often shifts narrative point of view to follow other characters in her story line (Rufus Sixsmith, Joe Napier, Alberto Grimaldi, Bill Smoke, Isaac Sachs, Fay Li, Lloyd Hooks, Hester Van Zandt, Milton the Native American [no, really, that’s how the story refers to him], and Megan Sixsmith–a 7:3 ratio in favor of men).

4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish –> Timothy Cavendish, hapless vanity publisher in semi-modern-day London, gets trapped in a countryside elder home and must break out. His story is also written in first person, in the form of a personal memoir, with an eye toward one day getting it adapted for the screen.

5. An Orison of Sonmi~451 –> Somni~451, a cloned indentured slave in a corporation-run dystopian future Korea, is the first of her kind to gain self-awareness, and she becomes the spark that starts the fabricant revolution. Her story is told partially in first person, in the form of a mandatory interview conducted by a nameless historian before she is permanently dismantled. I say “partially” because while she is speaking for herself, the trajectory of the story is monitored and controlled by the (male) historian interviewing her, who often interrupts with his own comments.

6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After –> Zachry Bailey, a goat herder in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, plays tour guide to the much more advanced Meronym, before his tribe is wiped out by a neighboring tribe. His story is also told in first person, in the style of an oral narrative that he is telling to (presumably) children in the future when he is much, much older.

Just from reading those summaries, two things should be immediately apparent:

  1. Male protagonists outnumber female protagonists two to one.
  2. While the men are all speaking for themselves and for their own reasons*, both women’s stories are told either by a third party or at the behest of a third party.

*you could argue that Zachry is telling his story at the behest of his child listeners, and he does address them specifically a few times, but at no point do they interrupt, co-opt, or in any way direct the narrative.

Luisa’s story in particular stands out as a deviation from the pattern, because not only is it the only one told in third person, but it is also the only one that shifts view points, away from Luisa and to other people in her life. The first woman’s story in this novel is repeatedly hijacked, mostly by men, because of the format in which it is told.

There is no reason for this. In fact, the narrative is going out of its way to take the story out of Luisa’s hands. Luisa is a journalist, investigating the big scoop that will put her on the map. It would have been a much more natural choice to write her story as a memoir reminiscent of those usually written by journalists about their first big stories. Writing her into a questionably non-fiction mystery novel only serves to distance us from her as a narrator, and leave space for other (mostly male) characters to insert themselves into her story. Why take the narrative thread away from her? What is the logic there?

Again, I’m not saying that Mitchell did this intentionally in order to silence his female characters. I’m just pointing out that he chose, likely unconsciously, to talk over his female characters and not his male ones. It would have been just as easy to let Luisa tell her own story, or even to give Zachry’s story to Meronym if you wanted an even gender balance of protagonists, but he didn’t. Most likely, he didn’t even realize what he was doing. It seemed perfectly natural and normal to take voices away from the female characters.

The third issue that arises when you look at these stories next to each other is a question of story scope. All four male characters are telling their own personal stories: Ewing is documenting his travels and his near-death experience, Frobisher is tracing his life and affairs while living with the musician, Cavendish is relating a comical anecdote about his encounter with his own personal concept of hell, and Zachry’s story is largely concerned with his relationships and interactions with those around him, and the loss of his family to the Kona tribespeople. In all four narratives, the men are their own driving forces, and their choices direct their stories, which are very small and individualized.

The women, on the other hand, get stories that are much larger than themselves. Luisa is uncovering a vast nuclear power conspiracy that could have a devastating impact on thousands of lives, and we are repeatedly reminded that she considers her own life inconsequential in the face of the story she is uncovering. Similarly, Sonmi~451 is not an individual person so much as a revolutionary idea; she exists to stand as proof of the wrongs done to fabricants, and her own personality is far less important than the symbol that she will become–an idea that she, herself, endorses. Additionally, Sonmi~451 is even robbed of agency. She does not direct the plot or choose where she goes within it. Instead, she is directed by the people around her. For both women, their own lives and individual selves are specifically labeled as less important than and even irrelevant to the larger narrative.

This is important. It is important because Cloud Atlas wants to be Literature–wants very badly to be held in high esteem in academic circles and admired for its tenacity and scope and depth–and these are the stories that it chooses to convey its message so that it is taken seriously. Small, personal stories about men; large, sweeping stories about society that happen to have female protagonists. No small, personal stories about women. This is a value judgment about women’s stories, and its a judgment that appears over and over again across Western media.

I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with giving women stories that are larger than themselves. Instead, I want to point out that in this particular narrative–one that purports to be an epic tale of the interconnected-ness of people throughout human history–the women were not allowed to tell their own stories. Unlike the men, their personal insights and growth as human beings were not big enough to be considered literary, and so they had to be supplemented with grand, external tales.

Why were their personal stories not deemed big enough? Because, sadly, personal stories about women in our culture get labeled as “chick lit,” or even “rom coms,” which are both synonymous with “frivolous.” A wannabe literary classic like Cloud Atlas can’t risk association with chick lit, or else it risks not being taken seriously. Think about the last story you read/watched that focused on a woman’s personal struggles and her interactions with other people. I would bet you good money that book/movie was in the romance or chick lit/flick section of the store, probably right next to the parenting and dieting guides (gotta love sexist marketing strategies, right?). Never mind that Cavendish’s story is essentially a Monty Python sketch; it’s women’s stories that have to be bolstered so that Cloud Atlas can be taken seriously.

Is this reading a lot into something that the author probably didn’t intend? Yes, absolutely. But things like this don’t happen because authors actively choose to silence women’s voices. They happen because silencing women’s voices has been normalized in our culture, because women’s experiences are deemed less important or even irrelevant, and so these choices all seemed like natural ones to make. Authorial intent is not relevant in this case. The qualitative differences between male and female narratives in Cloud Atlas are blatantly clear, and they reflect a larger cultural trend that says women and their experiences don’t matter.

I would appreciate it if people started paying closer attention to these tendencies, because they are bullshit and they need to change.

Silently yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“I know! I know!” -Mr. Meeks, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, Cloud Atlas

P.S. Obviously in this post I am focusing on gender, but it is also very worth pointing out how incredibly anglo-centric these stories are. Sonmi~451 is the only explicitly non-white protagonist in the book, and she is also the only one who lives in a non-English speaking place, but she is entirely robbed of cultural trappings by virtue of being raised as, essentially, a robot. The only other recurring, explicitly non-white characters are the freed slave Atua in Ewing’s narrative, and Meronym, who is specifically described as dark-skinned as a result of an intentional genetic alteration rather than actual racial heritage (in the movie, Luisa is black, but the book implies that she is white, or at least light-skinned enough to pass for Sixsmith’s niece). I am going to stop there because racial and cultural blindness in this novel is a whole other subject I don’t have the time or expertise to talk about right now, but let’s just say that for a book that claims to be about the interconnected-ness of the human race, Cloud Atlas is awfully picky about whose stories are worth telling.

2 thoughts on “Female vs. Male Narratives in Cloud Atlas”

  1. Hey Morgan, nice article. Enjoyed reading it very much! The only point I’d raise is maybe it’s more familiar for Mitchell to write from male/western perspective because that’s what he knows, being a western male, thus maybe he felt it was ‘safer’ (conciously or not) rather than to make assumptions on the part of the other characters. I’m certainly not saying genders think so starkly differently that a solid author cannot express them, but could this be a possible a factor? Not read the book, just throwing some fuel on the fire. Your points stand regardless!

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Well, yes, it would be easier for him to write from a perspective that resembles his own. The problem I have with that kind of argument as a defense of lack of complex female, minority or non-Western characters is that, usually, these authors are not writing about themselves or their own experiences in any other aspect. Mitchell isn’t living on a ship in the 1850s or fighting tribesmen in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, but he has no problem exploring and communicating the worlds and lives of those characters. Is it really that much harder to properly research a female or minority perspective? Because I don’t think it is.

      Again, it’s not that I think he’s actively trying to bury non-cis/white/male perspectives. It’s that it has never occurred to him, or most other people, that he should be seeking out other ones. Most of the stories in Western culture (and I specify ‘Western’ because I’m not familiar enough with other traditions to speak to them–not because they’re necessarily better balanced) are written from a cis/white/male perspective, so that’s the default position when a writer sets out to write something. Hell, I make that mistake, and I’m female. It’s the lack of questioning those instincts that I take issue with, and this book is a particularly good illustration of the common trends.

      Also, hi. I didn’t know you read my blog. Every time I find out about someone else I know who reads it I get all self-conscious about it, even though that’s really silly. *scurries away*

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