An iconic American fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut is a rarity in American letters: a cult figure known for his radical and experimental novels who also achieved widespread popularity. Vonnegut, a World War II veteran who survived the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, began writing short stories after the war while working as a publicist for General Electric.
Many of Vonnegut’s early stories and novels contain science fiction, dystopian, and satirical elements; he questions developments of contemporary society, such as the trend toward mechanization, but also pokes fun at timeless human folly. Cat’s Cradle, published just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, pulls together all these elements to form a quasi-realistic story that incorporates actual historical events, such as the development of the atomic bomb. In its mingling of science fiction and historical fact, Cat’s Cradle presages Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the novel most often acknowledged as Vonnegut’s masterpiece.
Cat’s Cradle begins with a telling line: “Call me Jonah.” By styling himself Jonah, for the biblical prophet who was swallowed by a whale, Vonnegut explicitly connects his story to a biblical tale of disaster and redemption. The line also is an homage to Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” the famous beginning of Moby Dick (1851). John begins the novel explaining that he is trying to write a book about the figurative end of the world—the dropping of the atomic bomb. He ends the novel, ironically, by writing his own story as one of the few survivors of a far greater apocalypse.
Rather than ending in fire, the world in Cat’s Cradle ends in ice. Whether by atomic fire or by the blue-white death of ice-nine, the result is the same: massive death and planetary devastation. While the destruction of the Pequot in Moby Dick is driven by Captain Ahab’s obsessive hatred, the destruction of nearly all living...
(The entire section is 851 words.)