Study Guide

Cat's Cradle

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Cat's Cradle Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cat’s Cradle is a remarkably discursive book, full of loose ends, unexplained events, and characters who appear in focus for a moment only to vanish without apology. It does center, however, on one single object: the sliver of ice-nine created by Dr. Felix Hoenikker and divided after his death by his three children, only to bring about the end of the world almost simultaneously with the end of the book.

In Vonnegut’s theory, ice is only one of the many possible ways in which water can crystallize. If there were other ways, ice of different kinds would be created, including a kind which would melt not at 32 degrees Fahrenheit but at as high as one hundred degrees or 130 degrees—in the case of ice-nine, at 114.4 degrees. Furthermore a single seed of this ice, introduced to ordinary water in crystalline form, could act as a catalyst, instantly freezing the entire body of water with which it came in contact. The purpose of such an object (a Marine Corps general suggests) would be to eliminate mud, and allow the United States Marines to fight in relatively congenial circumstances. The side effects, however, would be that anyone who touched ice-nine would freeze solid instantly; while, furthermore, any crystal not scrupulously isolated could, in one single chain reaction, freeze solid all the oceans of Earth and bring life almost immediately to an end. The basic plot of Cat’s Cradle is that a journalist...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Cat's Cradle Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cat’s Cradle is narrated by “Jonah,” or John, who originally intends to write a book about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima called “The Day the World Ended.” The book he ends up writing is the present one, which could have the same title, although it is about a different apocalypse. John sets out to interview “Newt,” the son of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “’Fathers’ of the first atom bomb.”

There are three Hoenikker children: Frank, the oldest; Angela, a tall musician; and the diminutive Newt. The father has left each of his children a vial of crystals of ice-nine, a compound that turns water to ice at room temperature. Angela has used hers to buy a “tom cat husband” who turns out to be a United States agent, Newt has turned over his to a tiny dancer from the Bolshoi Ballet who is a Soviet agent, and Frank uses his to gain his position as chief adviser to Papa Monzano, dictator of the island of San Lorenzo, where most of the plot is set.

Also on San Lorenzo is a fugitive preacher named Bokonon, founder of a religion called “Bokononism,” which has been invented as a panacea for the population of an island so destitute that no economic system can possibly help them. Bokononism is outlawed but practiced by virtually everyone on the island. Its tenets are contained in the Books of Bokonon, which begin, “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Vonnegut, the former anthropology student, obviously enjoys inventing this religion, parodying the way religions are shaped to fit the needs of particular times, places,...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Cat's Cradle Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

John, a cynical freelance writer, describes a journey that began with his attempt to write a book that he wants to call “The Day the World Ended.” John’s subject is the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. His research leads him to Newton “Newt” Hoenikker, son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the bomb’s chief scientists. Newt shares memories of his father, a brilliant physicist who had seemed completely detached from humanity.

John then travels to Ilium, New York, where Hoenikker had lived and worked, and interviews Dr. Asa Breed, a fellow scientist and former colleague of Hoenikker. Breed tells him about ice-nine, a theoretical project Hoenikker reportedly had been working on near the end of his life. Originally conceived as a way to keep soldiers from having to fight in mud, ice-nine rearranges the molecules of water so that it freezes, even in extreme heat.

Though Breed insists that ice-nine remains only a theory, it turns out that it actually exists. Hoenikker had been playing with a chip of ice-nine on the day he died, and his three children divided the chip between them. John’s investigations suggest that the Hoenikker siblings, all unpopular outcasts as children, have used the precious substance to buy themselves status and companionship. Gawky Angela has acquired a handsome husband; Newt, a “midget,” had a brief liaison with Zinka, a Ukrainian dancer later revealed to be a spy; and Frank, a high school dropout whose only talent seems to be model making, becomes Major General Franklin Hoenikker, the minister of science and progress with the Republic of San Lorenzo.

Assigned to do a story about Julian Castle, a millionaire who had founded a free clinic in San Lorenzo, John flies to the island nation. On the airplane, he meets Angela and Newt Hoenikker; Horlick Minton, the U.S. ambassador to San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire; and H. Lowe Crosby, a bicycle manufacturer who plans to start a factory in San Lorenzo, and his wife, Hazel, who takes a liking to John because they both are Indiana Hoosiers.

John tells his story from the perspective of Bokononism, a frankly false religion invented by Lionel Boyd Johnson, a World War I veteran who, along with a U.S. Marines deserter named Earl McCabe, had been shipwrecked on the island of San Lorenzo. McCabe had set himself up as the island’s ruler, and Johnson, known as Bokonon in island dialect, had styled himself a religious prophet. Although Bokononism is now outlawed on San Lorenzo, it is practiced by nearly everyone there, including Miguel “Papa” Monzano, the dictator who had replaced McCabe as ruler.

A central tenet of Bokononism is the formation of the karass, a group of seemingly unrelated people brought together by God to accomplish...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)

Cat's Cradle Extended Summary

The narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle invites his readers to call him Jonah, although his parents called him John. He explains that he used to be preparing a book about what “important Americans” did on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The book was originally intended to be factual, but he has since learned the “bittersweet lies of Bokonon” and has adopted Bokononism as his religion. The title of his original book was to be “The Day the World Ended.”

The first part of Cat’s Cradle takes part in Illium, where Felix Hoenikker, now deceased, worked on developing the atomic bomb. Felix has three children that survive him. The oldest child, Angela, took care of the family after Felix’s wife died. After a difficult adolescence, the middle child, Frank, left home. Newton Hoenikker, the youngest, is a midget who has gained a measure of notoriety for his affair with a Russian midget who turned out to be a Russian spy. The narrator writes Newton, or Newt, asking for any anecdotes that he might be able to share about his father, particularly those related to the day that America dropped atomic bombs on Japan.

Newton writes back that he remembers that his father, Felix, was playing with string on the day that the bomb was dropped and that Felix also made a cat’s cradle. Felix asked whether Newt saw the cat and the cradle. Normally, Felix Hoenikker had no use for rules and games that others made up. When he received the Nobel Prize, Hoenikker explained that he

never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old....Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn.

Newton shares that his father actually asked him to play cat’s cradle with him, but his father’s cigar smoke smelled like the “mouth of hell.” In that moment, Newton saw his father as the ugliest thing he had ever seen and ran outside.

Newt shares another story from that day. His reaction to his father’s cigar smoke and appearance, Newton’s sister Angela would later claim, was hurtful to Felix. However, Newton explains that he was not convinced of that because Felix Hoenikker was never interested in people. For example, when he ran away from his father, he went into the backyard and found his brother, Frank, who was capturing bugs and forcing them to fight in a glass jar. When Angela caught her two brothers, Frank punched her in the stomach. Although Angela tried to call upon her father for help, when Felix looked out the window and saw his children crying, he remained disinterested and returned to his study.

The narrator later interviews Dr. Asa Breed, who was Felix Hoenikker’s supervisor at the General Forge and Founder Company. Breed explains that his team had always done “pure research.” However, when the narrator asks him questions that “implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul,” Dr. Breed disagrees. General Forge and Founder Company offers its scientists the freedom to do “pure” research, and he explains that there is great value in knowledge. After all, “the more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” Breed urges the narrator to explain how Felix Hoenikker had the ability to approach problems with a fresh perspective.

Take “ice-nine” for example. When ice-nine touches water, it becomes a “seed crystal” that causes the molecules to turn to a unique form of ice—ice that remains solidified while at room temperature. Although it was never produced, ice-nine was a perfect illustration of how Felix Hoenikker responded originally to conventional problems. The problem, in this case, was that mud was a great irritation for the American military. Soldiers hate to march in mud, so why not create a substance that would eliminate the mud and create a smooth solid path? The marines would be able to march much more easily. The solution, Hoenniker suggests, is ice-nine.

However, the narrator points out that ice-nine would rearrange the molecules of water to the point that all of...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear