Critical Evaluation

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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 beings in Cat’s Cradle is perhaps more frightening because it arises from the seemingly innocent human traits of curiosity and playfulness. Felix Hoenikker, the scientist who engineers both the atomic bomb and ice-nine, is an absentminded tinkerer who “plays” with whatever happens to interest him at the time—atomic bombs, turtles, ice-nine—with no conception of the moral consequences of his inventions. The word “sin,” applied to the atomic bomb by a scientific colleague, has no meaning for Hoenikker.

Rich in religious symbolism, Cat’s Cradle is also a satirical critique of organized religion. Through his invention of Bokononism, a religion admittedly founded on lies, Vonnegut calls into question the many contradictory religions that claim to present the truth. However, the novel reaches beyond parody to an expression of Vonnegut’s underlying humanism, for the only thing holy in this invented religion is humanity itself. Despite his self-admitted trickery, Bokonon becomes, perhaps against his will, a holy fool whose lies may be more helpful than the truths of science. The quotation from The Books of Bokonon that serves as an epigraph to Cat’s Cradle advises people to live by the foma, or lies, which make them brave and kind, healthy and happy.

When John accepts the presidency of San Lorenzo, he contemplates reforms that include making Bokononism legal, but he soon realizes that the island’s lack of resources makes poverty and misery inevitable. If Bokonon’s lies, including the shared drama of his outlaw status, provide the islanders with escape, then why not allow them that escape? Religion may be the opiate of the people, Vonnegut seems to suggest, yet its opposite—the soulless pragmatism represented by Felix Hoenikker’s science—can lead only to emptiness...

(This entire section contains 851 words.)

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and death.

Narrated entirely from John’s point of view in 127 brief chapters, Cat’s Cradle has a narrative simplicity that belies the complexity of its ideas. The novel does not challenge readers with the confusing time shifts of Slaughterhouse-Five. Instead, the story seems to amble along, as aimless as its narrator, a self-described hack. However, what seem to be amusing digressions, such as a visit to the hobby shop where young Frank Hoenikker had spent his time building model cities, turn out to be significant as the story progresses. In undeveloped San Lorenzo, Frank attempts to build a real-life version of his model city, yet what he builds is still no more than a model, a facade of progress. Without the humanizing influence of his mother, who had died early, Frank, like the rest of the Hoenikkers, had grown up warped, raised by a father who was interested in things and ideas, but not people.

The “cat’s cradle” of the title, a child’s string game, figures in one of the few interactions between Hoenikker and his younger son, Newt. Hoenikker’s clumsy attempt to play with his son only terrifies the child and leaves him with a sense of emptiness that he later conveys through his dark, grotesque paintings. The image of the cat’s cradle and others like it recur in the novel, underscoring Vonnegut’s critique of science without soul, progress without compassion.

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