Study Guide

Cloud Atlas Power

By David Mitchell


Peace [...] is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience. (1.5.19)

If your neighbors don't shares your ideas and values, they may see peace as a weakness to exploit for personal gain.

Et si vous nuisez a ma reputation, eh bien, il faudra que je ruine la votre. (2.6.11)

Translation: "If you harm my reputation, well, I'll have to ruin yours." Reputation is a big deal, and people who control your reputation have power over you. This is the main way Ayrs and his family manipulate Frobisher.

[Corporations] can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying 'guest fees' to leader writers, or just buying the media up. (3.26.1)

This is a pretty startling way to think about power, especially when you consider the fact that some people say the entire media may be controlled by six corporations: how easy is it to cover something up, especially if someone like Luisa Rey isn't around to rock the boat?

"Power. What do we mean? 'The ability to determine another man's luck.'" (3.29.2)

This is a very succinct definition of power from Alberto Grimaldi, the man who assassinates, covers up, and blackmails at will. It also shows how in this book, power is often defined by one person's ability to control someone else; it often has little to do with morality, education, or self-perfection.

Once any tyranny becomes accepted as ordinary, according to Veronica, its victory is assured. (8.1.56)

This harkens back to the slave-maker ant metaphor we mentioned in the "Slavery" section. It also kind of makes us think of the ol' lobster in a pot analogy. If you gradually turn up the heat, the lobster doesn't realize he's being boiled until the last second. Power might work that way, too, by gradually wearing people down until the power's absolute.

"When a man aspires to power, I ask one simple question: 'Does he think like a businessman?'" (9.49.7)

Why does this man want to know if a man aspiring to power thinks like a businessman? Is it because, if so, he will find a way to profit from it?

"I ask three simple questions. How did he get that power? How is he using it? And how can it be taken off the sonofab****?" (9.49.8)

Why does Luisa ask these questions? Is it because, as a journalist, she wants to know both sides of the story, or is it because she just doesn't want to be exploited by a man with power?

"Reputation is everything. Mine [...] is beyond reproach. Yours, my disinherited, gambling, bankrupt friend, is expired." (10.5.7)

Sadly, Frobisher doesn't just have to deal with monetary poverty; he's socially poor, too. Reputation is currency in his world, and those who have the social connections have the power. That's why Frobisher is at the mercy of Ayrs and other rich, well-connected (but very often despicable) people.

All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so. (10.6.2)

Frobisher is able to put this theory to the test in his composition, and his power over the art form leads him to compose his masterpiece. However, he's unable to transcend the conventions of capitalism that keep him on the run from his debtors, maybe because it's inconceivable to think of living any other way.

"Only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" (11.15.11)

Adam Ewing's father doesn't believe in doing anything if you don't have total control over it. If everyone lived by his philosophy, the only people with power would be the ones who already have it. That's why they have this opinion—they don't want to be challenged.