Analysis

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Kurt Vonnegut distances his readers from the novel’s grim vision through his Rabelaisian humor, but zany as the book is, its underlying disenchantment with society and its various institutions is ubiquitous and inescapable. Even the narrator’s adopted Bokononism views itself as nonsense, but this cheerful admission is made in the process of revealing that most human organizations and institutions are granfalloon, or false karasses with meaningless beliefs, much like the cat’s cradle, string wound around fingers of human hands, having nothing to do with either cats or cradles—an appropriate symbol for the novel’s nihilism.

Like many novels and plays written in the early de-cades of the Cold War era, Cat’s Cradle uses varieties of the absurd to articulate its existential theme. Many of its characters are physically, emotionally, or mentally abnormal or deficient. Dr. Hoenikker, a scientific genius, has no feelings and reacts to his children’s pain by stringing together a cat’s cradle of noninvolvement. Others express themselves in seemingly incongruous ways. The gangly Angela, for example, plays the clarinet with consummate skill and haunting beauty. Others are emotionally crippled by their pasts, as is von Koenigswald, formerly a doctor at Auschwitz, who attempts a Sisyphean atonement for his past by saving lives at San Lorenzo’s House of Hope and Mercy.

Vonnegut’s plain style and understated expression complement the narrator’s stoic resignation. Even after he becomes personally involved in the events, John records them with the dispassionate detachment of a reporter, without judgment or blame. Presumably, the discourse reflects the Bokononian que sera sera serenity of John, whose recounting of the events is made in the wake of the cataclysmic disaster, when he knows that his effort is futile and that the book he set out to write can never be published or read.

The matter-of-fact tone of the novel counterpoints its oddball characters and their unusual lives. Vonnegut shows his great inventive power both in creating such a bizarre assortment of human misfits and in drawing them together as a karass, in which their lives intertwine with Bokononian inevitability.

Not all the characters belong to John’s karass; some simply play a role and disappear. An example is Dr. Asa Breed, a hostile, distressingly normal character who discloses information about Dr. Hoenikker and ice-nine vital to John’s research and the reader’s understanding. Most of the developed characters are around at or near the end of the novel. These include some, like the Crosbys, whose sense of belonging in the surviving group is based on a false premise, a Bokononian granfalloon. In Vonnegut’s wonderfully farfetched Bokononian world, even the lives of those outside a karass can merge, like parallel lines that defy all mathematical logic and somehow converge.

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Critical Context