Study Guide

Zachry Bailey in Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

Zachry Bailey

Won't You Come Home, Zach Bailey?

Although many of Cloud Atlas's characters remind us of other characters in other timelines (there's that whole reincarnation thing), Zachry Bailey is unlike anyone else. Perhaps this is because, aside from Adam Ewing, he's the only character without that mysterious comet-shaped birthmark. In fact, it's his traveling companion, Meronym, who has the birthmark. But if you want to hear about her, go to her character page. This one's about Zachry.

Zachry's one of the most conflicted narrators in Cloud Atlas. He's so filled with inner conflict that the conflict seems to manifest itself in the form of Old Georgie, a Satan-like figure who pops up from time to time to taunt Zachry. We're not sure if Old Georgie is real or not, but he's real to Zachry, and that's all that matters.

On the first page of Zachry's story, Old Georgie gives him a choice: "Is it Zachry the Brave or Zachry the Cowardy?" (6.1.6). Well, Zachry chooses the latter, and he tends to use this self-chosen fate of his as a crutch, blaming decisions he regrets on being "Cowardy." However, this guy just has really low self-confidence. This comes from watching his dad get murdered right in front of him. We don't want to be too hard on him, but, dude, you were nine years old. You couldn't have done anything to stop it.

Still, from that moment on, Zachry's wracked with "[g]uilt 'cos [he] always s'vived an' 'scaped despite [his] dirtsome'n'stony soul" (6.1.303).

Zachry doesn't realize that many of his subsequent actions are totally the actions of Zachry the Brave. He climbs Mauna Kea with Meronym despite hearing rumors about soul-eating beasts living there. After the Kona raid, he searches for his family, even though the village is swarming with enemy warriors. And he and Meronym ride horseback right through the enemy camp to get to their escape boat. Maybe he's just being modest.

Full Circle

Even though he's the only character who wholeheartedly believes in reincarnation, Zachry might be the one character who isn't a reincarnated soul from a previous character. We wonder if his tribe has a word for "irony."

Zachry's belief in reincarnation gives him a lot of respect for life in general. He believes that "murderin' was forbidded by Valleysman law, yay, if you stole another's life [...] your soul was so poisoned you may give 'em a sickness" (6.1.311). This echoes the philosophy of the Moriori, which we learned way back in the Adam Ewing section. They didn't kill, either, and they became slaves to the Maori.

Tragically, history repeats itself for Zachry's people. The Kona take over the Nine Valleys, taking many of Zachry's kin as slaves. Zachry escapes with Meronym and, from the conclusion of his tale, their civilization seems to be doing okay. But what does it mean that, after the fall of man, history repeats itself? Are we doomed to forever make the same mistakes? If this is what eternal recurrence really is, then count us out.