Critical Context

Cat’s Cradle has faint connections, through places and named characters, with Vonnegut’s earlier works Player Piano (1952) and The Sirens of Titan (1959). In Cat’s Cradle, however, Vonnegut may be seen approaching the theme which obsessed him from 1945 onward, but which he was only to articulate freely in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). This is his own gruesome experience as a prisoner of war caught in the firebombing of Dresden, one of the most appalling, if least intended, atrocities of this or any century. It could be said that the question which Vonnegut had to ask again and again was simply: How do people manage to do such things to one another? The answer is a complex mixture of carelessness, thoughtlessness, and a channeled curiosity—a mixture that contains surprisingly little in the way of deliberate cruelty.

Cat’s Cradle is thus one of many works written in direct response to the problem of human behavior as revealed in World War II: One could compare, for example, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) or Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960). The special achievement of Cat’s Cradle, however, lies in its style. The arch flippancy of Vonnegut’s writing, with its short paragraphs, ambiguous sayings, snippets of nursery rhyme, and rejection of all intellectualizing, had a powerful effect on the youth movement of the late 1960’s, in which Vonnegut had a considerable following. Vonnegut’s novels have, however, withstood the test of time much better than have those of many 1960’s gurus. There are two main reasons for this enduring appeal: an evident sincerity in attempting to get to the bottom of real events, both personal and historical, and a concern with intellectual issues that remains perfectly perceptible beneath a surface of fantasy, detachment, and humor.