The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


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 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....

(The entire section is 684 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

John, the novel's narrator, opens by echoing Moby-Dick (Melville, 1851) with the line, "Call me Jonah," an allusion that connects him...

(The entire section is 153 words.)