Themes and Meanings

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It could be argued that the meaning of Cat’s Cradle is to prove that life is completely without meaning or purpose. Though the narrator, quoting Bokonon, often speaks of “God’s will,” the last advice he receives from Bokonon himself is to go to the top of the highest mountain in San Lorenzo, lie on his back, thumb his nose at God, and in that position touch his lips with a crystal of ice-nine—at which moment the narrator will freeze into an everlasting statue of rejection and defiance. This gesture sums up a feeling always present in the book, that in reality (as in fantasy) human aspirations are continually thwarted both by a seemingly hostile fate and also by the poor qualities of humanity itself, summed up in people such as Hoenikker—or indeed Crosby the bicycle manufacturer and his “Hoosier”-obsessed wife.

The theme of meaninglessness is further reinforced by the image of the cat’s cradle. This was the game that Dr. Hoenikker was playing on the day that the atom bomb was dropped. It has also become to some anthropologists (Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago) a model in miniature of human culture: Both are complex, absorbing, and passed on from one generation to another. Both also, it could be said, lack any immediate point except to entertain the people whose time they occupy. Newt Hoenikker, whose father tried to show him the game when he was six, takes this connection further. Cat’s cradle, he says, like most aspects of human culture, is a cheat. There is no cat, and no cradle; it is all merely string. Adults tell children what to look for in what they call cat’s cradle, and impressionable children believe them. Exactly the same is true, he says, of religion, marriage, human relationships, and most of what people teach one another. One might sum up by saying that Newt Hoenikker believes that human culture not only is a game but also is a very dull one, and that most human institutions grossly abuse the confidence which people place in them.

There is, however, a strongly affirmative streak also present in Cat’s Cradle, to which many readers have responded—so much so, indeed, that certain Bokononist concepts have enjoyed some slight currency even outside the world of the book. If one sees the institutions of State and Church as being so much string, Bokonon suggests, there are still useful ways for people to live. They can love one another without sexual exploitation, for example, by the Bokononist rite of boko-maru, a sort of foot massage. They can form relationships with people of different races, ages, sexes, and incomes, as it were, against the grain of organized society. They can tell one another stories or write calypsos. They could accomplish much, in short—if it were not for ice-nine.

Ice-nine is a clearly symbolic concept. It destroys the world. It is the product of Dr. Felix Hoenikker. It also sprang from the desire of a general to abolish mud. Mud, though, is a traditional image of humanity—though English Bibles prefer the more dignified word “clay.” Nevertheless, when Dr. Schlicter von Koenigswald (once a physician in Auschwitz, with centuries of kind deeds to do to balance his account) offers the last rites of Bokonon to the dying dictator Monzano, he begins with the words “God made mud.” In the Bokononist liturgy, the “mud” then sits up and appreciates its moment of consciousness before lying down again, content, having rehearsed a little playlet of the good life and death. The equation is absolutely clear. Humanity is only...

(This entire section contains 708 words.)

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mud, but harmless mud, and mud with some potential.Ice-nine destroys mud, but at the cost of destroying everything else as well. Ice-nine becomes, then, an image of destructive science, weapons technology, contempt for humanity, and perhaps above all of the over-organization and wholly false complexity which Vonnegut sees in much of his own society. Perhaps the most telling point in Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut’s skillful connection of such impossible figures as Dr. Hoenikker with perfectly recognizable and mildly comic ones such as H. Lowe Crosby. Both share the same intellectual errors. The spirit of ice-nine is real.

Themes

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In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut brought together themes from his first three novels: the threat of technology from Player Piano, the question of free will from The Sirens of Titan, and the problem of communication from Mother Night.

The overriding theme of Cat's Cradle is the narrator's warning that if technological advancement continues without a concurrent growth in ethical aware- ness, annihilation of the human race is a real possibility. This, of course, parallels the biblical story of Jonah who so vividly prophesies the destruction of Nineveh that the city repents and is spared by God. As in other books, Vonnegut shows that intellect harbors the temptation to rule over life, death, and nature, and he hopes that his novel will have the cautionary effect of Jonah's prophecy.

The confrontation between technology and morality is represented in the book by the two primary settings: Ilium, New York is the city of science, a world of materialistic absolutism in which scientists create in a moral vacuum; San Lorenzo is an island of belief, a tyrannic and hopelessly impoverished island nation in which the religion of Bokononism has been created to provide "dynamic tension" that will distract the people from the oppression and material suffering that mark their lives.

The book also shows how lies can overcome truth. Bokononism's purpose is to "provide people with better and better lies," lies that will keep them from seeing the Hobbesian truth, that "life was as short and brutish and mean as ever." This view justifies fiction and art, yet Vonnegut cannot easily resolve the "cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it." The uncertainty of truth is emphasized in the Biblical parallel, for when God spared Nineveh he made Jonah's prophecy a lie.

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