The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Cat’s Cradle has a convoluted plot that develops with all the apparent chaos of a crazy quilt. The main character of the novel is its narrator, John, whose last name is not known; the novel, however, centers not on him but on ice-nine, the invention of a genius named Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Even in infinitesimal quantities, ice-nine freezes and transforms to ice-nine any liquid it contacts. The novel recounts how the world ends in an ice-nine chain reaction.

At the novel’s opening, Dr. Hoenikker, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and one of the creators of the atomic bomb, is already dead. The narrator, nominally involved in writing a book about the day the first bomb was dropped on Japan, conducts several interviews with Hoenikker’s associates and family. He inadvertently pieces together the facts about ice-nine. After Hoenikker’s death, his three offspring had divided up the small sample of ice-nine their father had developed as a means of solving the problems that mud posed for the military. Hoenikker’s children prove to be poor guardians of the substance. Newt Hoenikker, a midget, gives his ice-nine to his lover, Zinka, a Ukrainian midget and dancer who married Newt only to get his ice-nine for the Soviet Union. His ugly sister, Angela, is bilked out of hers by her handsome, philandering husband, Harrison C. Conners. Franklin Hoenikker intimates that Conners married Angela only to gain possession of her ice-nine for the U.S. government....

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Cat’s Cradle

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

The narrator of Cat’s Cradle, John, who calls himself Jonah, sets out to write a book called The Day the World Ended, a fictional account of what various people were doing on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. In the course of researching this book, he becomes involved with the peculiar offspring of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a brilliant but emotionally detached physicist whose crowning achievement was the discovery of ice-nine, a form of ice that has a melting point of 114.4 degrees and freezes anything it touches. Hoenikker’s children, Angela, Franklin, and Newt, have divided the only existing sample of ice-nine among themselves. As Angela and Newt barter their portions for the love of, respectively, a handsome industrialist and a Russian midget, Franklin trades his for a post on the cabinet of “Papa” Monzano, military dictator of the island of San Lorenzo, a stereotypical banana republic.

Jonah goes to San Lorenzo to write an article about Julian Castle, a philanthropist who has founded a hospital on the island. There the narrator learns of the ongoing conflict between Monzano and Bokonon, the island’s outlawed religious leader. Bokononism is a sham religion that admits it is based on foma, or “harmless untruths.” Monzano’s opposition to Bokononism is also a sham. Conveniently for the dictator, the continuing struggle between church and state provides the impoverished people of San Lorenzo with a grand spectacle to distract them from their own misery. All of this comes to an end, however, when Monzano kills himself with the ice-nine provided by Franklin. The dictator’s body accidentally falls into the sea and instantly freezes all the oceans of the...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Some critics have dismissed Cat's Cradle as a thin summation of the three books preceding it, but technically the novel marks some...

(The entire section is 93 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Cat's Cradle, published in the wake of the Cold War weapons buildup and the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis, focuses on man's...

(The entire section is 96 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Most obviously, Cat's Cradle uses the Book of Jonah and Moby-Dick (1851). This levianthic motif is broadened by references to...

(The entire section is 103 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Boon, Kevin, A. Chaos Theory and the Interpretation of Literary Texts: The Case of Kurt Vonnegut. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Extending the scientific theory of chaos to literary criticism, Boon uses words and phrases such as “strange attractors,” “fractals,” and the “micro/macro connection” to describe certain aspects of Vonnegut’s prose. A somewhat offbeat but astute analysis of Vonnegut’s work.

Broer, Lawrence. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. Broer offers an in-depth analysis of individual novels by Vonnegut, including Cat’s Cradle. His study gives the reader a unique perspective on the common themes that run throughout Vonnegut’s work.

Goldsmith, David H. Kurt Vonnegut: Fantasist of Fire and Ice. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1972. For a study of Vonnegut’s early novels, including Cat’s Cradle.

Mustazza, Leonard, ed. The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Critical essays present a detailed study of Vonnegut’s various works, including Cat’s Cradle. A biographical introduction as well as a selected bibliography make this a valuable resource.

Reed, Peter J., and Mark Leeds, eds. The Vonnegut Chronicles. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Presenting a series of interviews and critical essays on Vonnegut’s writing, this volume offers a broad variety of opinions and observations from scholars and journalists. A good source of information that helps the reader see more clearly the unique characteristics of individual novels against the wider context of Vonnegut’s work.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991. A revealing look at Vonnegut’s life. This collection of Vonnegut’s essays examines both the personal issues and social events that shaped his distinctive writing style as well as his view of modern culture. Vonnegut offers a rare glimpse of his heart in this intimate self-portrait.