Study Guide

Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

Robert Frobisher

Bittersweet Symphony

Robert Frobisher is a tragic, romantic, bisexual composer, and also the author of the "Letters from Zedelghem" that comprise Parts 2 and 10 of Cloud Atlas. He's maybe the most complex character in the novel, partly because of who is he is, and partly because we only see him through his own clever, well-chosen words. Here's a quick run-down of a few defining traits.

1) Frobisher's got daddy issues. There's a cold front in Belgium, and it's because of the chilly relationship between Frobisher and his father (Frobisher only calls him "Pater," which is a ridiculously Latin way to talk about your pop). We get the feeling that Frobisher feels he has never lived up to his father's expectations, and that he constantly resides in the shadow of his brother, Adrian, who died at war. Even though he won't admit it, Frobisher's very concerned about his reputation, and this is ultimately what Ayrs uses to threaten him.

2) Because of said daddy issues, Frobisher fears rejection. At the end of a long letter, he throws in, as an afterthought: "Best news of all: started composing on my own account again" (2.4.13). And that's all he has to say about it. It's like if he doesn't get excited about it, then he won't feel any failure if he doesn't succeed.

3) He's a disgruntled employee. His business relationship with composer Vyvyan Ayrs is dicey at best. Frobisher feels he's doing all of the work for none of the credit. "Ayrs won't cut me in for my ideas that went into 'Todtenvogel'—enjoying its twentieth public outing since Warsaw—I'll just have to reimburse myself" (10.2.7). And instead of taking a stapler, he takes priceless manuscripts and sells them for cash.

4) He's a romantic. He tries to tell us: "I've never loved anyone except myself" (2.9.3)—but we don't believe it for a second. He's just trying to hide his feelings because of that fear-of-rejection stuff we mentioned earlier. If you act invulnerable, you can't be hurt, right? Even though he separates love from sex (and uses sex to his advantage), he's still a big believer in romance and love. In his last letter before his suicide, he tells Sixsmith: "Was infatuated by Eva Crommelynck for a blink of an eye, but we both know in our hearts who is the sole love of my short, bright life" (10.8.7).

5) He's a genius: not only is Frobisher the creative brains behind his partnership with Ayrs, but his solo effort, Cloud Atlas Sextet, is revolutionary. "In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?" (9.2.4). And he's only twenty-four, too. Hmm, the same thing might be said about the book itself, and we'd have to go with the former.

6) He's fated to kill himself. Frobisher's suicide is tragic (it cost us a whole travel pack of tissues... sniffle), but we saw it coming from miles (okay, pages) away. In the very first letter, he says that rather than ask his father for money, he "[w]ould rather jump off Waterloo Bridge and let Old Father Thames humble me. Mean it" (2.1.5). And thinly veiled suicide references are dropped in almost every other letter thereafter. Even his paper-airplane-throwing (called darts because they didn't have airplanes back then) foreshadows his demise: "Instead of soaring high, my dart fell out of sight in a moment" (10.2.12).

Played Like a Fiddle

As we said, Frobisher spends a lot of time trying to make himself seem cold and invulnerable. It's all a defense mechanism to protect himself from being hurt. He does let his guard down occasionally. He has high hopes for his composing, hoping that "people in the future will be studying this music" (2.3.8). And he fights with Ayrs because: "I want the old bugger to admit to himself that he needs me more than I him" (2.8.6). Hmm, there are those daddy issues again...

The problem is that by opening himself up creatively to Ayrs, he makes himself vulnerable. When Ayrs admits that he and his wife, Jocasta, have been using Frobisher, it's devastating to him. Ayrs threatens Frobisher's fragile reputation, and even though he won't admit it, this affects him. Being publicly rejected by Eva at the party is just the cherry on top of this rejection sundae.

However, this rejection causes Frobisher to hit bottom, and before he shoots himself, he composes his legacy, Cloud Atlas Sextet. "I'm a spent firework, but at least I've been a firework," (10.8.8) he says. Would he have finished this revolutionary work if he hadn't been so emotionally wounded?