The Plot

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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. Franklin, the middle sibling, is a major general and minister of science and progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo, an island country in the Caribbean. He gives his ice-nine to San Lorenzo’s president, “Papa” Monzano, who wears it as an amulet in a cylinder on a neck chain. Because he is terminally ill, President Monzano swallows the ice-nine to end his suffering and destroy the world. His aim is fulfilled when his frozen remains are accidentally dumped into the Caribbean.

While introducing the reader to a series of eccentric characters, John also reveals that he is a disciple of Bokononism, a quasi-religious philosophy he adopts after flying to San Lorenzo. Many of the other characters belong to John’s karass, the Bokononian term for a team of people who are bound together to work the will of God without being conscious that they are doing so. John’s karass is fated to destroy humanity.

As the novel proceeds toward that end, John becomes increasingly involved in the events that bring about the end of the world. Beginning as a passive observer-writer, he turns into a major player. Shortly prior to the book’s finale, he replaces the dying “Papa” Monzano as president of San Lorenzo and marries Mona Aamons Monzano, the exquisitely beautiful native woman of his febrile dreams. Unhappily for John, thanks to the destructive designs of his predecessor, his triumph is short-lived, and at the end of the book he, Mona, and the other survivors of the ice-nine cataclysm resign themselves to their own and humankind’s extinction.

Cat’s Cradle

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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...

(This entire section contains 719 words.)

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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 world, ultimately destroying all life on earth.

Impact

Cat’s Cradle combined the wild playfulness of The Sirens of Titan (1959), Vonnegut’s second novel, and the darkness of Mother Night (1961), his third, to launch Vonnegut into the mainstream of popular culture and set the stage for the later success of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut took aim at all the major institutions of American life: religion, politics, and especially science. Ice-nine symbolizes the destructive potential of scientific discovery, and Dr. Hoenikker represents the apparent indifference of many scientists to the ways their discoveries are used.

Related Work

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) uses a fictional religion comparable to Bokononism to create its own form of social criticism.

Bibliography

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.

Literary Techniques

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Some critics have dismissed Cat's Cradle as a thin summation of the three books preceding it, but technically the novel marks some significant changes for Vonnegut. The fragmentary effect of 127 chapters, short units of prose often structured as three-line jokes, marked the beginning of Vonnegut's subsequent method.

It is also a book marked by irony. The book is cautionary, even prophetic, but it also makes fun of prophets. In keeping with its warning to beware of the ascendancy of lies, the novel ends with the statement the "Nothing in this book is true."

Social Concerns

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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 ability to destroy life on earth. The narrator sets out to write a book, The Day the Earth Ended, about the Hiroshima bombing, but soon his background research into Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the creators of the atomic bomb, and his family, shifts the focus of the story to the new apocalypse brought on by his discovery of ice-nine, a substance that causes any water it contacts to freeze at 114 degrees Fahrenheit.

Literary Precedents

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Most obviously, Cat's Cradle uses the Book of Jonah and Moby-Dick (1851). This levianthic motif is broadened by references to Hobbes and in descriptions of the landscape — the highest mountain in San Lorenzo looks like a "blue whale." Some critics have compared the novel to prophetic works such as Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell (circa 1790) and Swift's Tale of a Tub (1704), and others have concentrated on its place in the tradition of dystopian literature. However, Cat's Cradle is also a mock-apocalyptic novel that reacts to the popularity of books such as Seven Days in May (Knebel and Bailey, 1962) and On the Beach (Shute, 1957).

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

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