The Strings That Form Cat's Cradle

The end of the world has never been put into words more eloquently than in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The legendary author Kurt Vonnegut wrote many satirical science fiction novels, but no novel of his quite stacks up to Cat’s Cradle. “Cat's Cradle' is an irreverent and often highly entertaining fantasy concerning the playful irresponsibility of nuclear scientists. Like the best of contemporary satire, it is work of a far more engaging and meaningful order than the melodramatic tripe which most critics seem to consider 'serious' (Southern 1).

The novel was received well by readers and boasted outstanding reviews time and time again. While Vonnegut has more commercially successful novels such as Slaughter-House Five, and The Sirens of Titan, the lesser known novel Cat’s Cradle is often considered the better story for a myriad of reasons. One reason would be the characters, no other novel by Vonnegut boasts such a personality-rich and diverse cast of characters. Vonnegut does a fantastic job at making these characters feel incredibly real, so real in fact that many readers have mistakenly thought that fictional characters in the novel are based on real people.

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Originally published in 1963, Cat’s Cradle has received incredible praise and worship for Vonnegut’s creative storytelling and character building. “Call me Jonah” (Vonnegut) is the first thing the narrator of Cat’s Cradle says “John's request to be called Jonah is basically an attempt to say that a force is guiding his journey” (Shmoop Editorial Team) This information so early on in the novel shows the reader that the novel will deal heavily with religious themes.

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The use of this name Jonah and the line following his introduction leads the reader to believe the lines refer to the biblical story of Jonah. In this story God himself tells holly man, Jonah to travel to a nearby city to preach the word of God, Jonah refuses and flees by see, God then sends a whale to swallow him whole. This biblical story does relate to the novel in some ways. The character Jonah appears as a reflection of Kurt Vonnegut himself. Jonah in the novel is a writer working on a book about what famous people did on the day the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs in Japan. Kurt Vonnegut was a writer who often would write and satirize the development and use of atomic bombs.

Confronted by an incredible show of fate that makes him question his reality because a name on a tombstone in New York shares what happens to be the same odd, non-Americanized, German last name as Jonah’s. While the novel never reveals Jonah’s last name, Vonnegut himself has an odd, non-Americanized last name. Vonnegut obviously wants the reader to picture him as the narrator. Vonnegut makes the narrator similar to himself so he can still voice his opinions on the events that occur in the book. Because of this, it can be assumed that all of the opinions the narrator holds are shared opinions with Vonnegut himself. Jonah and Vonnegut’s philosophy that most abundant in the novel is that just because something can be accomplished with science does not mean that it should be carried out. “Vonnegut's early books, such as 'Player Piano' (1952) and 'Cat’s Cradle' (1963), express fears of dehumanization in the face of technological advancement. In Vonnegut's view, modern society threatens to turn humans into machines.” (Ginger 1)

Jonah and Vonnegut seem to resent scientists and condemn technological advancement as a whole. “The central theme in Vonnegut's fiction from the 1960s is the irrationality of governments and the senseless destruction of war.” (NPR 1) a theme that does not seem to go away when discussing Vonnegut’s views is his anti-war sentiments. While most other characters do not have a real-life counterpart they still are worth analyzing. A character not physically in the novel but present none the less is Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker, the father of three important characters in the novel Frank, Angela, and Newt. However, he fathered two other more dangerous objects, the atomic bomb, and ice-nine. Ice-nine is a highly volatile substance that turns all the world’s water into ice in the novel. Hoenikker in the novel was incomprehensibly intelligent yet dimwitted at the same time. “The miracle of Felix… was that he always approached old puzzles as though they were brand new.' (Vonnegut) he is depicted as a sort of idiot savant, with more savant than idiot. Although being the father of his children he does not possess the qualities a father should. In fact, his daughter Angela becomes somewhat of a mother to the family including her father at only sixteen when her mother dies while delivering the third Hoenikker child, Newt.

All of this information might make one think that Hoenikker aside from building superweapons really means no harm and is a good man, but many others would strongly disagree. Some would even say that Dr. Hoenikker is the closest thing to an antagonist the story has even though he is dead when the book takes place. Because he invented and curated ice-nine, the substance that ultimately causes the end of the world/ conflict of the story, one can assume that this event would never happen if he did not create the substance. while he never interacts with the characters of the novel his presence is felt none the less. The only main characters of the novel that have experience and personal knowledge of Dr. Hoenikker are his children. Every Hoenikker Child gets used by someone to obtain the secret weapon ice-nine. This weapon, developed by their father, Felix Hoenikker can turn all of earth’s water into ice. The oldest and possibly saddest of the three Hoenikker Children, Angela Hoenikker seems to never get a break. Following the death of her mother, her father pulled her out of high school at sixteen to take care of the family. In a way, she became the fill-in mother of the Hoenikker Family.

She took her job very seriously treating all members of the family the same. In short, having to take care of her family affected her later in life. Just weeks after her father died, she got married to a man named Harrison Conners. She needed to feel apart of a family again but this family turns sour. Harrison Conners only married Angela to get ice-nine. Conners abused his wife and drank often, despite all of this Angela would still try to keep up outward appearances. The other two Hoenikker children, Frank and Newt also lead similarly dreary lives. The Hoenikker family believed that Frank was dead before the events of Cat’s Cradle. Frank disappeared after the death of his father and ended up on the island of San Lorenzo. On this island the seemingly friendly dictator, Papa Monzano takes Frank under his wing. He makes Frank feel important and gives him the responsibility of building a paradise on a completely fruitless island. With this feeling of trust, Papa Monzano somehow acquires ice-nine.

The final child of Felix Hoenikker, Newt has a very fitting name. Newt is a midget and constantly is belittled for his size. After the death of his father, he finds love in a Russian midget dancer. They spend a week at his father’s cottage in Cape Cod then she steals his portion of ice-nine and presumably gives it to the Russian Government. These melancholy children of the famed Felix Hoenikker play key roles in the novel and also play into the symbolism. Religion is a theme discussed heavily in the novel. The novel within the first pages invites the reader to think what the real purpose of religion is, the novel then replies with a simple answer “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.”. The novel also states that the first words in the books of Bokonon, the very holy text of this religion are “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” (Vonnegut).

So it may come as a surprise when learning that the entire island of San Lorenzo practices this religion and center their whole lives around it. The narrator of the story finds comfort in Bokononism when he finds himself married to the woman of his dreams, but she is a Bokononanist, this requires her to love all equally. After Jonah converts, himself he realizes the beauty in it and regrets never finding this way of thinking sooner. Considering that all taught by Bokonon are self-proclaimed lies one would think this religion would not have such profound effects on someone. Another prominent theme found in the novel is science and technology. Vonnegut is very against the philosophy of Felix Hoenikker and Asa Breed “Characters like Asa Breed and Felix Hoenikker consider their research distinct from the way the world decides to use it” (Shmoop Editorial Team).

The belief that science is without sin and that humankind is the evil is not without truth but is also flawed. While people like Felix Hoenikker and Asa Breed may not ever do any physical harm themselves they literally lay out the blueprint for people who will. Science is not inherently evil but causes a large amount of evil thing to happen. The third prominent theme in the novel is the philosophy of humanism. Vonnegut showed much passion for the philosophy of humanism by serving as the president of the “American Humanist Association”. Humanism is the belief that human needs should be valued more than divine beliefs and concerns. Vonnegut expresses his philosophy often The novel attempts to get its readers to see beyond political, national, economical, and social borders.” he urges his readers to look at the humanity in the world and think less of non-important petty matters (Shmoop Editorial Team).

Characters who are the complete opposite of humanist thinkers are Felix Hoenikker and his second child, Frank Hoenikker. They are shown giving a cold shoulder to humankind, and not caring what effect their work has on the rest of the world. There is a reason why it is Felix Hoenikker and Frank Hoenikker with their anti-humanist mindset that brings upon the end of the world, it is because Vonnegut wants to advise against having this mindset. An ideal world in Vonnegut's mind is a world in which every person is content. Cat’s Cradle is a novel that has and will continue to be remembered for its compelling story and excellent characters. The similarities between the narrator, John and the author of the novel, Vonnegut are uncanny and provide a way for the Author to communicate his opinions through the narrator. The characters in this novel have Extraordinary depth and personality. The creative use of symbolism and themes makes this novel memorable and rich with meaning. Cat’s Cradle is a spectacular show of literary mastery that will continue to be read for years to come.

Works Cited

  • Rodriguez, Ginger. “Kurt Vonnegut.” Kurt Vonnegut, August 2017, p. 1. EBSCOhost, Accessed 6 February 2019.
  • Southern, Terry. “Cat's Cradle.” Review of Cat's Cradle. The New York Times, 1963, Accessed 6 February 2019.
  • Shmoop Editorial Team. 'Cat's Cradle Themes.' Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 November 2008. Web. Accessed 6 February 2019.
  • Shmoop Editorial Team. 'Cat's Cradle Characters.' Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 November 2008. Web. Accessed 6 February 2019.
  • Vitale, Tom. “Kurt Vonnegut: Still Speaking To The War Weary.” NPR, NPR, 31 May 2011, Accessed 6 February 2019.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. Accessed 6 February 2019.
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The Strings That Form Cat's Cradle. (2022, Jan 13). Retrieved from

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