Student Question

What's a good essay topic for Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle?

Expert Answers

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A worthy topic of discussion when dealing with any well-known and highly regarded novel is this: why, precisely, should this novel be well-known and highly regarded?  What, in other words, makes the book worth reading and worth recommending to others?  Even more specifically, how and why is the book well-written?  In other words, how does it use language in ways that make it memorable, provocative, intriguing, and successful (if, indeed, it is any or all of these things)?

One way to deal with such a topic might be to focus on a particular small but representative section of the book, such as the very first chapter or the very last chapter. The first and last chapters of any novel are likely to be especially important, and one reason for closely examining the first chapter of a book is simple: if the first chapter is not successful, a reader may never even want to proceed to the last.  Your thesis statement, then, might be something like this: Many of the elements that make Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle a rewarding piece of writing are evident in the novel's very opening chapter.

You might, then, do a very close analysis of the opening chapter of Cat’s Cradle, paying particular attention to its phrasings – the specific words Vonnegut uses and the specific ways he organizes them into sentences and paragraphs.  Here, for instance, are some questions you might ask yourself about the opening chapter:

  • What is the significance of the very opening sentence? How does this sentence allude to the famous opening sentence of a very well-known American novel?  What is the tone of this sentence, particularly in relation to the two sentences that immediately follow?
  • Why might it be significant that the narrator is named John rather than having some other, highly unusual name?
  • How does the first sentence of the second paragraph allude to another very important text? In general, how and why is allusion important in this book? After reading two paragraphs, what is already your impression of this narrator?  How does he view himself? How does he view others? How does he view the world?
  • How and why is the third paragraph significant?
  • By the end of the first page, how would you characterize the style of the book? How is the style engaging or appealing?  Is there anything about it that is potentially unappealing?  How does the style of the book contribute to the tone of the book?  For example, what is suggested about the tone of the book and the nature of the narrator simply by the sentence that follows?

When I was a younger man – two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago . . .

In short, you might want to move slowly and carefully through one small portion of the book and ask yourself the following questions: what makes this portion of the book worth reading, and how is this portion typical of the book as a whole?  When dealing with any novel with a first-person narrator, it is always interesting, too, to examine what the narrator reveals about himself (or herself) while describing everyone (and everything) else.

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