Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle (1963) is a satirical sci-fi novel by American writer Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007). The story of a writer who discovers a world-ending weapon is Vonnegut's backdrop for exploring the dogmatic thinking of religious and scientific communities. Cat's Cradle was written at the height of the Cold War and uses humor to warn about the dangers of nuclear conflict. Keep on reading for an analysis and more.

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Contents
Table of contents

    The novel title comes from an old children's game that involves the player looping a string around their fingers and hands in increasingly intricate patterns.

    Cat's Cradle, String game, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Vonnegut uses a simple children's game to investigate the shortcomings of science and religion.

    Cat's Cradle: Summary

    The book's narrator, John, tells the story's events retrospectively. As a journalist, John set out to write a book called The Day the World Ended about the bombing of Hiroshima. While researching the book, he contacts the family of scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikker. A Noble Prize winner and one of the creators of the Atom bomb, Hoenikker died as a reclusive and mysterious figure. John interviews Hoenikker's youngest son, Newt. Recalling the day of the bombing, Newt remembers playing with his toy truck as his father was transfixed in a string game known as cat's cradle.

    John talks to Newt's sister, Angela, who tells him about her father's final project. Hoenikker had been developing a compound known as ice-nine for military use. The powerful element alters the molecular makeup of water, instantly freezing it and modifying the particles into the ice-nine structure. Intrigued by such a devasting weapon, John continues to interview Hoenikker's friends and colleagues. He learns that the third Hoenikker child, Frank, can not be located.

    One year later, John travels to the Caribbean island of San Larenzo on a writing assignment. On the plane ride there, he meets Newt and Angela. They are on their way to meet their estranged brother Frank who has become engaged to the daughter of the island's dictator. During the journey, John is given a guidebook to the island's culture and history and learns about the native religion known as Bokononism.

    The fictional island of San Lorenzo is a poor Caribbean nation that has suffered from colonization for centuries. In the 1920s, Earl McCabe, a deserter from the American Army, and a brilliant young man from Tobago named Lionel Boyd Johnson arrived on the island hoping to create a utopia. After realizing that no existing political or religious belief system would be able free the people of San Lorenzo from grinding poverty and harsh colonial rule, Johnson created the religion of Bokononism. The name Bokono comes from the San Lorenzian pronunciation of Boyd Johnson.

    Cat's Cradle, Major Religions, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The world's major religions claim to be the ultimate truth of living, whereas Boknonism acknowledges its falsity.

    Bokononism is a highly self-aware religion and fully acknowledges the artificial nature of its founding. The core principle of Bokononism is "foma," which means "harmless untruths" or comforting lies. The followers know it is a parody yet still embrace it as their belief system because they have nothing else. The Book of Bokonon is written in short, catchy musical verses. The absurdity of religion is summed up by its major practices, which involve two people lying on their backs and rubbing their feet together to achieve harmony.

    The founder of Bokononism proudly embraces Karl Marx's sentiment that "Religion is the opium of the masses."1 Bokonon argues that people need faith to cope with life's struggles, and if they must believe in something, it should at least be fun!

    The passengers are met at the airport by the dictator, "Papa" Monzano, and his beautiful daughter Mona. Monzano informs the group that he has terminal cancer and has appointed Frank his successor. Reluctant to take over as the leader, Frank eventually convinces John to take the position, promising that Mona will become his wife.

    Papa's condition deteriorates, and he commits suicide by swallowing an ice-nine particle. The dictator is instantly frozen solid. The Hoenikker children admit to John that after their father's death, they discovered lumps of the compound and have held onto them.

    During John's inauguration ceremony, a squad of fighter jets flies over in celebration. One of the jets malfunctions and crashes into the palace, knocking Papa's frozen body into the sea. The world's oceans immediately freeze, and deadly tornadoes rage across the planet. John and Mona manage to make it to a bunker under the palace and wait out the storm.

    A few days later, they emerge to find a mass grave. Under the direction of Bokono, the island's entire population has killed themselves by ingesting ice-nine. A grieving Mona follows suit and kills herself by swallowing a particle. A grief-stricken John wanders the wasteland and eventually finds Newt and Frank. The group lives together in a cave for several months. As John loses hope, he begins to embrace the teachings of Bokononism. John encounters Bokono as he sits by a roadside trying to write the ending for The Book of Bokonon. Bokonon informs John that if he were younger, he would write a book about human stupidity, place it on the island's highest mountain, and then eat some ice-nine.

    Cat's Cradle: Characters

    Here are the key characters in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.

    John

    The novel's narrator and protagonist is a journalist working on a book about the end of the world. Depicted as an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, John often merely observes and records the surreal events of the novel rather than drive the plot along with his actions or decisions.

    Nothing in this book is true."

    As the novel's foreword shows, John is an unreliable narrator. Though he begins the story as a dedicated and detail-focused journalist, he has embraced the Bokononism philosophy of harmless untruths by the end.

    An unreliable narrator is a character who tells the story's events from a highly subjective and personal viewpoint. Rather than focusing on objective and detached observations, unreliable narrators infuse the story with their thoughts and opinions.

    Bokonon

    Bokonon is the mysterious leader of Bokononism. Born Lionel Boyd Johnson in Tobago, he arrived on the island of San Lorenzo attempting to build a utopia for the impoverished population. After realizing the impossibility of his mission, Johnson created Bokononism to provide the people with some relief and escapism. Bokonon is a significant figure in the novel; often spoken of, he only appears once at the end when John encounters him in the wasteland.

    Angela Hoenikker

    The eldest child of the Hoenikker family, Angela, raised Newt and Frank after their father's death. On the surface, Angela appears to be happily married to her heavy-drinking husband. However, this relationship is distant and based on a lie. Angela used her sample of ice-nine to attract her husband, a military scientist. She is fiercely protective of her father's legacy and sees him as an underappreciated genius.

    Frank Hoenikker

    Frank is the middle child of the Hoenikker family and is shown to be detached and isolated. Like his father, Felix, Frank is skilled at building things and solving logical problems; however, he cannot interact with other people on any meaningful level. Frank is often uncomfortable during conversations and uses cliches and stock phrases rather than engaging in the interaction. As Papa Moranzo's bodyguard, Frank offers technical and scientific advice but cannot lead.

    Newt Hoenikker

    The youngest member of the Hoenikker family is also the most human and likable of the siblings. While his sister Angela is abnormally tall, Newt has dwarfism. After being kicked out of Cornell, Newt started an affair with a Ukrainian dancer who turned out to be a Russian spy trying to steal Newt's share of ice-nine. A talented painter, Newt's works often revolve around the symbol of the cat's cradle.

    No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's . . . No damn cat and no damn cradle." (Ch. 74)

    Cat's Cradle: Themes

    Vonnegut uses the novel to explore the dangers of scientific progress and religious beliefs.

    Technology and Science

    In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut deals with the dangers of focusing on scientific progress without considering the more significant social implications. While scientific discoveries may be beneficial in some regards, Vonnegut warns that they can also be morally ambiguous or outright dangerous.

    Scientists like Dr. Hoenikker or his assistant Dr. Breed are shown to be concerned only with the idea of progress and achieving a new discovery. They care little about their work's impact on ordinary people. Vonnegut based the scientists on his experiences working for General Electric's public relationships department. He would interview career scientists who were only concerned about the research process and seemed disconnected from any moral implications their work might have.

    'You,' he said to Frank hoarsely, 'you—Franklin Hoenikker—you will be the next President of San Lorenzo. Science—you have science. Science is the strongest thing there is.' (Ch. 66)

    The dictator of San Lorenzo, Papa Moranzo, places an almost religious faith in science and sees Frank as the island's salvation.

    Religion

    Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.” (Ch. 4)

    Vonnegut uses Bokononism to explore the dangers of faith and dogma. While the world's major religions claim to present the absolute truth, Bokononism is open about the fact that it is based on a lie. In fact, in Bokononism, pretty much everything is based on a lie. It argues that people need lies to believe in to get through life.

    The creator of Bokononism acknowledges this need and builds it into the principles of the faith. He asks the country's leader to ban the religion because he knows people will be more attracted to something illicit. San Lorenzo is, on the surface, under a Christian dictatorship, and any practice of Boknonism is punishable by death. However, this rarely happens, and as John finds out, even the dictator secretly practices Bokononism.

    Cat's Cradle: Analysis

    In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut warns the reader about the dangers of science and religion. In the case of science, he is warning against separating discovery from morality. Written during the Cold War, the novel clearly warns about the dangers of the nuclear age and humanity's potential to destroy itself through faith or science.

    While the discovery of Atom energy and the development of the atom bomb is progress from a technical standpoint, it also endangers the world. Vonnegut shows Dr. Hoeniker, one of the creators of the atom bomb and the man behind ice-nine, as a genius but also an uncaring man who was distant from his children. He believes in pure research and is utterly separate from the human element of his work.

    Vonnegut is not simply criticizing all scientific discovery and progress, he is skeptical of development while considering its impact on humanity.

    Cat's Cradle, Nuclear Button, StudySmarterFig. 3 - During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear warfare was a daily reality worldwide.

    Science is controlled and driven by people, and while it strives for objectivity, it contains humanity's inherent flaws. Vonnegut makes a similar point about religion. He sees faith as something that can bring hope and meaning to people's lives, no matter how absurd its practices may be. However, he uses Cat's Cradle to warn against blindly following religious dogma. For example, the entire island population commits suicide at the behest of Bokonon. Instead of making up their own minds, the citizens simply obey.

    Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."

    (Foreword)

    To most, science and religion are at odds, but to Vonnegut, each can be blindly dogmatic and dehumanizing. Religion, at its worst, offers comfort with no progress. Science, at its worst, can bring about improvement without considering humanity.

    Cat's Cradle: Literary Devices

    In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut uses various literary devices to craft a simultaneously humorous and horrifying story. By employing devices such as symbolism and satire, Vonnegut highlights critical social issues.

    Symbolism

    The novel's most important symbol is a children's game known as the cat's cradle. Several characters interpret the game in different ways. Newt sees it as a symbol of the utter meaninglessness of life, as it is only a string and contains no actual cat or cradle. He sees the game as an example of lies, while others see it as an example of man's ability to invent and imagine.

    Some interpret the cat's cradle as a warning about the dangers of treating scientific discovery like a game. After all, as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, one of its inventors, Dr. Felix Hoenikker, was mindlessly playing a children's game. In this scene, Vonnegut reflects the dangers of separating science from morality. If scientists are not aware of the impact of their inventions or discoveries, the results could be disastrous for all humankind.

    Satire and Irony

    Many of Kurt Vonnegut's works balance humor with the bleak existential problems of death and war. Cat's Cradle is a prime example of Vonnegut's ability to use irony to point out the absurdity of life and satirize self-important institutions.

    Satire is when an author employs humor to point out an individual or institution's hypocrisy or failings. By making powerful targets appear ridiculous, satire helps readers to think differently about established social orders.

    Bokononims is filled with ironic contradictions. While most religions claim to contain the absolute truth and meaning of life, Bokomonism is open about its fakeness. Instead of absolute truth, this faith is founded on lies and acknowledges its failings, and embraces them as a core value.

    The ridiculous nature of Bokononism (its foot bonding ceremony) is Vonnegut's satirical comment on all major world religions. In his view, they are based on lies and manipulation and often practice ceremonies that make little sense. As well as being humourous, Vonnegut's satire makes a serious point. Ultimately, the people of San Lorenzo are led to their deaths by the teachings of Bokononism.

    Vonnegut also satirizes science and technology. While the stated goal of scientific discovery and development is to make the world safer and better, by developing ice-nine, scientists have essentially caused the end of the world. Papa choices Frank as his successor because he places his faith in science. He believes his nation's problems can be solved by ice-nine, yet it ultimately causes the death of his people and the end of the world. Like nuclear weapons, this development represents a massive leap forward in science and a terrible risk to humanity.

    In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut satirizes the claims of science and religion to represent absolute truth. With Bokononism, followers blindly adhere to the faith without question and end up dead. With science, the quest for progress is viewed as the quest for truth and, therefore, morally correct. In Cat's Cradle, the philosophies of science and religion are shown to be obsessed with the search for truth, yet their quest for truth ultimately leads to death.

    Cat's Cradle - Key takeaways

    • Cat's Cradle (1963) is a satirical sci-fi novel by Kurt Vonnegut.
    • The novel's narrator interviews the family of one of the atom bomb creators and discovers a dangerous new weapon known as ice-nine.
    • Vonnegut uses the novel to satirize religious and scientific institutions.
    • The novel was inspired by the Cold War climate and the threat of nuclear war.
    • The novel's title is taken from a children's string game.

    1 Karl Marx, Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, 1843.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Cat's Cradle

    What happened at the end of Cat's Cradle?

    After the ice-nine particle freezes the world's ocean, John finds Bokonon, who is working on the end of The Book of Bokonon.

    What is the main conflict of Cat's Cradle?

    The main conflict in Cat's Cradle is the danger of the ice-nine particle being released and causing the world's end.

    What is the irony in Cat's Cradle?

    Vonnegut includes many ironic situations in Cat's Cradle. The main irony is the failure of both science and religion to provide any absolute truth.

    What is the theme of Cat's Cradle?

    The main themes in Cat's Cradle are science and religion. Vonnegut satirizes both using humor and irony.

    What does cat's cradle symbolize?

    Vonnegut uses the cat's cradle to symbolize several ideas. It can symbolize man's ability to invent and use imagination, but it can also symbolize a lack of any truth. 

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    In Cat's Cradle, the native religion of San Lorenzo is __________. 

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