The Characters

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It is entirely characteristic of the wry tone of Cat’s Cradle that its two most important characters should either never appear or appear only on the last page, to utter a total of twenty-three words in direct speech. The two characters are antithetical. The one who never appears is Dr. Hoenikker, though he is pervasively present all through the book in the form of memories of him recounted by his children, associates, and enemies (he has no friends), all obsessively recorded by the narrator. These recollections present Hoenikker, in brief, as a monster of scientific curiosity and human detachment: He tips his wife thirty-eight cents for giving him coffee as he leaves to collect his Nobel Prize, having forgotten who she is. Only once, the reader is told, does he ever try to play with one of his children—the game is cat’s cradle—and then he terrifies the child into flight. Hoenikker is in a way a devil of the modern mythological imagination: a scientist whose curiosity has entirely devoured his conscience. People, the reader is told, were not “his speciality.”

Bokonon, by contrast, is an idealized guru-figure, present almost entirely by way of his recorded sayings. His philosophy defies summary but is in essence gentle, humorous, anarchic, and skeptical. To the Bokononist, only man is sacred; there is no such thing as coincidence; the Communist Party, the General Electric Company, the notion of a “Hoosier,” all rank with all nation states as examples of the granfalloon, in other words, something that looks like a unit but is in fact completely meaningless “in terms of the ways God gets things done.” Bokonon, one learns, is not by any means a nihilist. He is, however, no admirer of organization or of convention.

The action of Cat’s Cradle could be described as a movement from Hoenikker to Bokonon, though this would be partly misleading in that the narrator is a Bokononist by the time he starts writing. This narrator, however, is the most prominent character actually present in Cat’s Cradle; though once more, with typical paradox, he is relatively characterless, seeming at times to be a projection of the author (both were born in Indianapolis, both went to Cornell University), at others to represent the doubts and incredulity of the reader.

Around him, finally, there orbits a gallery of grotesques: Newt, Hoenikker’s midget son; Angela, Newt’s gigantic sister; “Papa” Monzano, the lunatic president of San Lorenzo, given to impaling opponents on hooks; H. Lowe Crosby, a bicycle manufacturer from Illinois; and many others. Logical connection between these characters is almost always rejected: They form (according to the philosophy of Bokonon) a karass—in other words, the opposite of a granfalloon, a team designed to do God’s will without ever knowing exactly what they are doing or, in many cases, so much as recognizing one another. The oddity and eccentricity of his linked characters are very much part of Vonnegut’s overall design.

Characters Discussed

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John, the narrator. John, a Cornell-educated journalist, spends the course of the book interviewing the friends and children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker for a book about the day the atom bomb was dropped. John is always perfectly gracious and objective in his interviews, even when his subjects are hostile and impute ulterior motives to his writing. His research takes him to the island nation of San Lorenzo, where he unintentionally becomes president and witnesses the unleashing of ice-nine, which freezes the world.

Dr. Felix Hoenikker

Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel Prize-winning atomic scientist and creator of ice-nine. He already is dead...

(This entire section contains 684 words.)

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as the book opens, but much of his later life is uncovered by the narrator. Fascinated by the puzzles of nature, Hoenikker has very little interest in people. He had no interest in the human implications of the atom bomb he helped create, nor in the potential human harm his invention of ice-nine may cause. The novel ends with Hoenikker’s invention freezing, and thus destroying, the entire earth.

Newt Hoenikker

Newt Hoenikker, a midget, the youngest child of Dr. Hoenikker. Newt is a cynical young man whose one-week marriage to a Ukrainian midget named Zinka apparently was a ruse designed to obtain the secret of ice-nine for the Soviet Union. An incident from his childhood explains the name of the novel: On the day the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, Dr. Hoenikker dangled a string in the form of a “cat’s cradle” in front of six-year-old Newt, causing the boy to cry.

Angela Hoenikker

Angela Hoenikker, later Mrs. Harrison C. Conners, Newt and Franklin’s sister, the eldest of Dr. Hoenikker’s children. Tall and homely, Angela dropped out of high school in her sophomore year to take care of her father and brothers after her mother died. Her only diversion was playing the clarinet. After her father died, she lost much of her purpose, until she met Harrison C. Conners, a handsome researcher in her father’s lab. They were married shortly after meeting. She paints a storybook picture of her marriage, although Newt asserts that her husband is unfaithful. Franklin implies that Conners married her only to get the secret of ice-nine for the U.S. government.

Franklin (Frank) Hoenikker

Franklin (Frank) Hoenikker, the middle child of Dr. Hoenikker. He is a major general and minister of science and progress in the Caribbean republic of San Lorenzo. An immature-looking twenty-six-year-old, Frank went to San Lorenzo after escaping the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sought him for smuggling cars to Cuba. As an adolescent, Frank was ignored by classmates, who called him “Secret Agent X-9” because he kept to himself. His time alone was spent building models, though near the end of the book he reveals that he had not always been alone: He had an affair with his boss’s wife.

“Papa” Monzano

“Papa” Monzano, the dictatorial president of San Lorenzo. A native of the island republic, Monzano is the handpicked successor of Corporal Earl McCabe, an American who began the current regime on San Lorenzo in the 1920’s. Like McCabe, he pretends opposition to Bokonon. Tiring of a system based on lies, Monzano, now in his late seventies, brought Frank Hoenikker to San Lorenzo as a way of turning to science. Learning from Frank the secret of ice-nine, Monzano commits suicide by swallowing it, thereby freezing himself and, by contact with him, all the water on earth.

Lionel Boyd Johnson

Lionel Boyd Johnson, called Bokonon, a philosopher and opponent of Monzano. Born on the island of Tobago in 1891, Johnson washed up on the shores of San Lorenzo in 1922, along with U.S. Army Corporal Earl McCabe. McCabe became the island’s ruler and, discovering that he could not relieve its poverty, sought to make its people happy with harmless lies. Johnson (“Bokonon” in the native dialect) created a new religion, which McCabe pretended to suppress, playing the evil dictator while Bokonon became the good holy man in the jungle. His religion, Bokononism, is based on the principle that all religions are foma (harmless lies), including Bokononism.


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John, the novel's narrator, opens by echoing Moby-Dick (Melville, 1851) with the line, "Call me Jonah," an allusion that connects him with the Biblical story of rebellion and suffering as well as with Melville's Ishmael, a prophet tempered by affliction. Like Melville's narrator, John's function is to observe, and he remains after the apocalypse to tell the tale.

Other characters in the novel exhibit various forms of deception. Dr. Hoenikker epitomizes self-deceived intellect untempered by human feelings. His misshapen children (the amoral Franklin, the horse-faced giantess Angela, and the dwarf Newt) are love-starved indications of his disinterest in humans. Dr. Asa Breed is a spokesman for the spirit-crushing marriage between science and industry that transforms truth into commodity. Papa Monzano, San Lorenzo's brutal dictator, threaten Bokononists with torture and death, but secretly works with Bokonon, a cynical American named Lionel Boyd Johnson who established his phony religion as a means of controlling the people.




Critical Essays