Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

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About the Author

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 - April 11, 2007) is best known for his edgy, fatalistic novels that still manage to come across as profoundly human. Educated at Cornell University, he majored in Chemistry and was very active in the student newspaper. He was a soldier in World War II, during which he survived the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. This event, along with other war flashpoints, served as a driving influence for many of his most enduring books. After returning from the war, he attended the University of Chicago, where he wrote "Cat's Cradle" as his thesis project. Vonnegut went on to teach writing at the University of Iowa. It was during this time that "Cat's Cradle" tasted its first fame. Vonnegut died in New York City in 2007.

Summary of Plot

This tale follows the madcap journey of John, a writer who is captivated by the story of atom bomb scientist Frank Hoenniker and his three children. Juxtaposing what starts as traditional journalistic research with an increasingly off-the-wall introduction to an absurd religion call Bokononism, John travels the globe to discover what made and makes the Hoennikers tick. John finds out that the brilliance of the Hoenniker patriarch was countered by an apparent lack of familial emotion and interaction. All of Frank Hoenniker's vital energies were exhausted on solving large and small technical problems. One of these was the atom bomb that was ultimately used to defeat the Japanese at the end of World War II. Another of his supposed triumphs was the clandestine development of "Ice Nine," a concoction with the initially useful qualities of turning swampy ground into solid footing for mired soldiers. Upon Frank Hoenniker's death, each of his adult children (Newt, Frank, and Angela) commandeer a vial of Ice Nine, not quite sure if or how it will have any impact on their future lives. John follows their trail to San Salvador, a primitive tropical island ruled by ailing Papa Mozano. The inhabitants of this island are immersed in the contrived dynamic of Bokononism. This religion is outlawed by the king for the sole reason of intensifying the population's illicit belief in it. Upon the death of Papa Mozano, John, by default, becomes king of the island. A cataclysmic event involving Ice Nine reduces San Salvador's population dramatically, leaving John to reflect on the fate of his subjects and mankind in general.


Lauding his rascally critique of human nature, literary critics have been quick to pick up on Vonnegut's role as a sort of "literary moralist." Readers are drawn to him because modern times often parallel the cynical vibes that characterized his stories (Morse 718). Somewhat paternal in style, "Cat's Cradle" talks about the bleakness of the future. It extrapolates on the path that nuclear science and warfare in general is have taken, and points out that a fine blend of human carelessness and bad luck are all it takes to initiate a catastrophe (Mayer 779).

Vonnegut had strong beliefs about the values people place on human welfare and moral standards. He was the president of the American Humanist Association. His role as a commentator shares equal billing with his skills as a storyteller. He acknowledges that human society has the potential to very quickly veer off into a hopeless direction. Vonnegut doesn't claim to have all of the answers; he simply presents his findings and allows readers to draw their own conclusions (Niose 22).

Vonnegut is also widely known as a "Black Humorist." He has a knack for setting his sights on somber subjects and crafting zany characters into and around them. Some argue that Vonnegut and other famous authors get pigeonholed into a category like "Black Humorist" (Gale 2). Once an author has critical and commercial success with a formula, the masses expect that formula in the rest of the author's work. Vonnegut's formula hinged on his wry accounts of the missteps in human history (May 27). This consistency of purpose and the ability to somehow present his case in a steady flow of fresh voices and scenarios places Vonnegut in a writing class by himself.

In "Cat's Cradle," there is a recurring treatment of religion and its relevance when faced with the wonders and horrors of science. Religion is presented as the more valuable of the two disciplines, in terms of overall peace-of-mind. "Cat's Cradle" blatantly showcases the shaky points of religion. "Bokononism" is a faith based almost entirely on lies ("untruths") and rhymes. Yet, this religion is viewed in a positive light by the islanders. They are drawn to the hope that the rhymes inspire, and are better off for being clueless to the authenticity of the origins of the religion's doctrine. Science, though the compelling destructive force in the plot, is pushed to the side as a compilation of hard facts that are worthless in the long run.

Historical Context

While much of Cat's Cradle seems outlandish, Vonnegut apparently drew on his own education in Chemistry and that of his brother, Bernard Vonnegut, who was famous in his own right for contributing to the process of seeding clouds with ice to encourage rainfall. With this background, Vonnegut is better able to offer "Ice Nine" as a phenomenon that is not as far-fetched as one would initially suppose. As extraordinary and unrealistic as the ideas of splitting atoms and making rain had been, so too is the reader's initial contemplation of "Ice Nine" (McBride 814).

First published in 1963, "Cat's Cradle" focused on the tensions of a peacetime "war" and how an accident could trigger a catastrophe with worldwide repercussions. This book was Vonnegut's warning during the Cold War that the wonders and creations of the human mind are still at the mercy of another human trait: its inclination toward unpredictable frailty (Faris 1).


Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" hinges on the dual nature of human intellect. There are those among us with the gift of conquering the most daunting tasks imaginable. This fact is punctuated with the reality that all of the perceived gains achieved by these problem solvers are still at the mercy of human frailty and imperfect execution. This scenario is evident in seemingly-brilliant Hoenniker's tinkering with the mud issue. He solves the problem, and, in doing so, creates a larger problem with worldwide consequences.

At face value, the religion in this book is preposterous. If most of today's world religions were stripped down to their origins and looked at with a fresh eye, some of them would seem to be just as outlandish as Bokononism. This is Vonnegut's way of saying that religion is, at best, a contrivance that tries to make sense of a puzzling world.

Hoenniker finds inspiration in children's games. They are the catalysts for his breakthrough discoveries. They are simple sparks that give way to the roar of complexity and ultimate danger. "Cat's Cradle's" apocalyptic ending hints at the world being destroyed and reduced to the simplicity of a child's string game. In his decision to name this book "Cat's Cradle," Vonnegut is stating that most pursuits, including religion, are best when left at a childlike level.

In other Vonnegut books, the dilemmas are presented in a similarly far-out yet touching manner. The protagonist tries to come to terms with how men and nations treat each other. In "Cat's Cradle," John never figures it out. Vonnegut seems to be raising his hands, admitting that he doesn't know how things will end. At the end of this book, readers are treated to the much-anticipated sighting of Bokonon. Asked by John how things are going, "he shrugged and handed me a piece of paper." For all practical purposes, that image of Bokonon echoes the same role that Vonnegut holds as a novelist and commentator. Vonnegut seems to be saying that he's gone over all of this material again and again, and he still hasn't figured it out. Handing the reader his latest papers, in the form of his novels, Vonnegut shrugs with a "This is what I've got. Get what you can out of it. Good luck."


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