Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
It could be argued that the meaning of Cat’s Cradle is to prove that life is completely without meaning or purpose. Though the narrator, quoting Bokonon, often speaks of “God’s will,” the last advice he receives from Bokonon himself is to go to the top of the highest mountain in San Lorenzo, lie on his back, thumb his nose at God, and in that position touch his lips with a crystal of ice-nine—at which moment the narrator will freeze into an everlasting statue of rejection and defiance. This gesture sums up a feeling always present in the book, that in reality (as in fantasy) human aspirations are continually thwarted both by a seemingly hostile fate and also by the poor qualities of humanity itself, summed up in people such as Hoenikker—or indeed Crosby the bicycle manufacturer and his “Hoosier”-obsessed wife.
The theme of meaninglessness is further reinforced by the image of the cat’s cradle. This was the game that Dr. Hoenikker was playing on the day that the atom bomb was dropped. It has also become to some anthropologists (Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago) a model in miniature of human culture: Both are complex, absorbing, and passed on from one generation to another. Both also, it could be said, lack any immediate point except to entertain the people whose time they occupy. Newt Hoenikker, whose father tried to show him the game when he was six, takes this connection further. Cat’s cradle, he says, like most aspects of human culture, is a cheat. There is no cat, and no cradle; it is all merely string. Adults tell children what to look for in what they call cat’s cradle, and impressionable children believe them. Exactly the same is true, he says, of...
(The entire section is 708 words.)
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