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Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle




Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was published in 1963. While Vonnegut felt that science fiction was too limiting a genre description, Cat'sCradle probably fits in that genre most accurately. It is an imaginative fantasy, in which the exact date and time are not clearly established, as is common with science fiction. The novel's plot reflects the cold war atmosphere of the early 1960s, when it seemed that any minute the escalating march toward larger and more deadly weapons might lead to war and the possible massive destruction of whole cities and populations. The title of the novel is taken from a children's game, for which there is no solution. This title reflects the novel's focus on the nature of so-called scientific progress, which puts the world at risk for annihilation. Vonnegut uses satire, irony, and parody to question the integrity and responsibility of scientists who create weapons with no thought to their destructive powers or how they might be used. He also parodies religion as a cure-all for the people and a means by which leaders are able to calm their subjects and allow them to exist happily amid poverty, disease, and destruction. Even the location that serves as a setting for Vonnegut's novel, San Lorenzo, is a parody of the island nations of the Caribbean that are ruled by ambitious wealthy men.

In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut's fourth novel, the careless use of ice-nine, a weapon capable of destroying all life, serves as a warning about the drawbacks of technology. Although Vonnegut's

1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, made him a bestselling author, Cat's Cradle has remained a favorite of readers, who find that in this novel, Vonnegut's warning that truth is only an illusion, captures the essence of 1960s social rebellion. Dial Press has begun reissuing Vonnegut's novels, including Cat's Cradle, which was reissued in 2006.


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., was a successful architect. His mother, Edith Sophia Lieber, was the daughter of a brewer. Vonnegut was the youngest of the family's three children. Vonnegut grew up not knowing that the family was originally from Germany. Even though they were fourth generation Americans, anti-German sentiment following World War I caused Vonnegut's family to hide their heritage. Vonnegut graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis in 1940. Although he wanted to study journalism in college, he enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as a biochemistry major. Vonnegut's father felt that his son would have a better future in biochemistry than as a writer. While at Cornell, Vonnegut became a writer and editor for the university newspaper. In the middle of his junior year at college, Vonnegut dropped out of school and enlisted in the army. It was 1942 and the United States was at war. Vonnegut was assigned to an infantry battalion and trained as a mechanical engineer. He returned home on Mother's Day 1944, to discover that the evening before, his mother had committed suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. Three months later, Vonnegut was sent overseas, and in December 1944, he was captured by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge. As a prisoner of war, Vonnegut worked in a slaughterhouse in Dresden. On February 13, 1945, Dresden was annihilated by a firestorm of bombs that killed 135,000 people in about two hours. Vonnegut and other prisoners of war survived because they were locked in a cold meat locker three stories beneath the slaughterhouse. After the night of bombing, the prisoners emerged from their shelter to discover that the city and all its people had vanished in the firestorm. Vonnegut spent the next several weeks helping to recover the burned corpses of Dresden's population.

When he returned to the United States in 1945, Vonnegut went back to college, studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. He married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, with whom he had three children between 1947 and 1954. In 1947, Vonnegut began working as a publicist for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He also supplemented his income writing short stories, the first of which was published in 1950 in Collier's magazine. Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. A second novel, The Sirens of Titan, was published in 1959, followed by Mother Night in 1961. Cat's Cradle, published in 1963, brought Vonnegut more attention than his previous works but not much money. After the publication of his fifth novel, God Bless You,Mr. Rosewater (1965), Vonnegut began a two-year residency at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. A Guggenheim Fellowship allowed Vonnegut to return to Dresden in 1967, where he began doing research for his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969. Vonnegut's master's thesis at the University of Chicago had been rejected by the Anthropology Department in 1947, but it was awarded in 1971, after he had become a successful and quite famous writer. He used Cat's Cradle as the subject for his anthropology thesis. Vonnegut published several more novels, collections of short stories, collections of essays and speeches, plays, and a variety of other works. Vonnegut's first marriage ended in divorce in 1979. He married Jill Krementz in 1979, with whom he adopted a child. In addition, Vonnegut adopted his sister's three children after her death from cancer. Vonnegut attempted suicide with sleeping pills and alcohol in 1984, but recovered. He died on April 11, 2007, from brain injuries sustained several weeks earlier in a fall at his New York City apartment.


Chapters 1-20

Readers are introduced to the narrator, John, in the first of 127 very brief chapters, most only a page or two long, that make up Vonnegut's Cat'sCradle. On the first page, John explains that when he was younger he began to write a book, The Day the World Ended, about the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. John explains that he was a Christian then, but he is now a Bokononist. Bokononism is a religion that is little known outside of one location, the Republic of San Lorenzo. Bokononism's followers believe that humanity is organized into teams who inadvertently, without either knowledge or intent, do God's will. Each of these teams is called a karass, which explains how strangers can become connected, even when there seems to be no explanation for how the connection was established. John will discover the members of his karass as the book progresses and the story is told. Bokonon, who founded the religion that bears his name, claims that people should not try to understand what God is doing; they are fools if they try to do so. John admits that this is true, but regardless, he intends for the book that he is now narrating, Cat's Cradle, to offer an explanation for what God is doing in the world.

John next explains that his own karass includes the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. John also explains how he became connected to the Hoenikker family. After he discovered that the youngest Hoenikker son, Newt, has pledged to his old college fraternity, John writes to Newt asking for his recollections of August 6, 1945, the day the bomb was dropped. When he replies, Newt tells John about his father playing with a piece of string the day the bomb was dropped. A man who was in prison had sent Newt's father a novel about a bomb that would destroy the whole world. There was string wrapped around the novel, and Newt's father began to use it to play the children's game cat's cradle with his son. Because his father never played any games with anyone, Newt was frightened of his father, who seemed very large and scary when he came that close. In his letter to John, Newt explains that his father was very hurt that his son was frightened and ran away from him. Newt also tells John that when he told his sister, Angela, that he hated his father and that he was ugly, Angela slapped him and told him that his father was a great man who won the war the day the bomb was dropped. In one of his many postscripts to this letter, Newt explains that he is a midget and his brother, Frank, who has disappeared, is a criminal wanted by the police. Chapter 8 ends with the information that Newt was in love with a forty-two-year-old Russian midget, Zinka, who rejected him.


  • Ice-9 Ballads, by Dave Soldier, was released by Mulatta Recording in 2001. The album features a selection of spoken text, some of it set to music, from Cat's Cradle.

A year later, John is traveling through Ilium, where the Hoenikker family lived, and decides to stop and ask about the family. There he meets a woman, Sandra, whom he describes as a whore, and who used to attend school with the middle child, Frank Hoenikker. While in Ilium, John makes an appointment with Asa Breed, Dr. Hoenikker's old boss at the Research Laboratory. Asa relates a story to John about how one morning on the way to work, Dr. Hoenikker had gotten tired of driving in traffic and simply abandoned his car in the middle of the road. After the police towed the car, the doctor's wife, Emily, picked the car up, and on her way home was in an accident. The injury from that accident ultimately led to her death in childbirth. This story is meant to illustrate Dr. Hoenikker's carelessness and his lack of concern for even his own family.

Asa next gives John a tour of the Research Laboratory, where one of the secretaries explains that she does not understand what she types, just that it is about a bomb that will turn everything inside out or upside down. When John finally sits down in Asa's office and begins asking him questions, Asa thinks that all of the questions are an attack on scientific discovery, especially the kind of discoveries that lead to bombs and other weapons. Asa then becomes angry at John's perceived attack on all scientists. Asa defends the scientists at the Research Laboratory as the only people who are doing pure research, simply seeking more knowledge for the sake of knowledge and not for commercial use. Asa explains to John that Dr. Hoenikker was asked to solve the problem of mud that bogs down Marines in combat. Asa hypothesizes that quite by accident scientists might discover a way to use a very small seed of some kind that would freeze the water in mud so that mud becomes solid. This hypothetical seed would be called ice-nine.

Chapters 21-40

In the first chapter in this section, Asa emphatically states that no such seed exists, but John is frightened, realizing that a seed of ice-nine could set off a reaction that would freeze all streams and rivers and eventually oceans, until all water on Earth was frozen solid. John's interview with Asa ends at that point, when an angry Asa almost throws John out of his office. The narrator, John, then briefly explains that Dr. Hoenikker had discovered ice-nine before his death. Before his death, he told his children about the discovery, which he had with him. When he died soon after this revelation, his children divided the sample of ice-nine evenly among the three of them. The narration then returns to John's contentious visit at the Research Laboratory. As he is being escorted off the property, John prevails upon his escort to show him Dr. Hoenikker's personal laboratory and office. John discovers that Dr. Hoenikker's laboratory remains exactly as it was at the time of his death, filled with cheap toys, typical laboratory equipment, and stacks of unanswered mail. The laboratory is very disorganized, representing Hoenikker's lack of interest in everything but his own scientific discoveries.

After he leaves the Research Laboratory, John decides to go to the cemetery and photograph Dr. Hoenikker's grave. Once he arrives, he discovers that the tallest memorial in the cemetery is in the Hoenikker family plot. The memorial is for the doctor's wife, Emily, with the word, MOTHER, carved on its surface. The doctor's monument is a simple cube, with the word, FATHER, carved on it. After he leaves the cemetery, John visits a local tombstone establishment. The owner is Marvin Breed, Asa Breed's brother. Marvin tells John that the Hoenikker children used the doctor's Nobel Prize money to buy the monument for their mother a year after her death. It never occurred to the doctor to put a monument on his wife's grave. Marvin also tells John that when they were in high school, he and Emily had dated and later became engaged, but then his older brother came back to town, stole Emily from Asa, and promptly married her. According to Marvin, though, Hoenikker had no interest in people and neglected his wife, never showing her any love. Marvin tells John that Frank Hoenikker walked out of the cemetery during his father's funeral, not even remaining until it was over. Frank moved to Florida, got caught up with a group of car thieves, and is presumed dead. Marvin also explains that while Newt might be a four-foot tall midget, his sister, Angela, is six feet tall. Dr. Hoenikker had forced Angela to quit high school at age sixteen and stay home to keep house for him. She had no friends and only an isolated, lonely existence in her father's home. As John is leaving the tombstone office, he asks about a carved angel on display and is told the story of how it was ordered many years earlier but not paid for, since the immigrant who bought it for his wife's grave was later robbed. The name carved on the bottom of the angel is John's last name, which is not revealed to the reader. The discovery of the angel, however, is further evidence of the link that John has to the Hoenikker family and Ilium.

Before he leaves Ilium, John stops by Jack's Hobby Shop, where Jack shows John the model of a small country that Frank Hoenikker created in the basement. The model is carefully detailed, the result of thousands of hours of meticulous work. Jack is heartbroken that Frank might be dead at the hand of some gangsters and all his talent lost. The great irony here is that Frank, who never cares how his actions might affect others, was having an affair with Jack's wife. This is John's last stop in Ilium, and after it is over he returns to his New York apartment, where he discovers that the poet who sublet the place has completely trashed the apartment, run up a huge phone bill, and killed the cat. Rather than be angry, John decides that the damage done by the poet is meant to turn him from his nihilistic beliefs, and so the poet has done John a favor.

An indeterminate period of time later, John notices a supplement in the Sunday New York Times. The supplement, which is meant to attract investors and tourists, promotes the Republic of San Lorenzo, which is undergoing a building boom. John immediately falls in love with the girl pictured on the cover of the insert. Mona is the daughter of the dictator, Miguel "Papa" Monzano, who is pictured on a page inside the supplement. John also notices that the man standing next to the dictator is identified as General Franklin Hoenikker, the Minister of Science and Progress of the Republic of San Lorenzo. The supplement explains that Frank is responsible for the revitalization and building plan currently under way in San Lorenzo. In a separate section of the supplement, Frank explains that he was lost at sea and starving when he was literally washed up on the shore of San Lorenzo. Because he had no passport, Frank was immediately jailed, but then "Papa" Monzano visited and asked if Frank was the son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Once he was identified as Dr. Hoenikker's son, Frank found that he was welcomed everywhere. Sometime later, John is assigned to write a story about Julian Castle, who abandoned his life as an American millionaire to build a free hospital in San Lorenzo.

Chapters 41-60

John quickly decides to fly to San Lorenzo, where he can meet with Philip Castle, the proprietor of the hotel and Julian's son. The bigger motivation for going to San Lorenzo, however, is Mona, with whom John has been in love since he first saw her photo on the cover of the Sunday New York Times supplement. On the plane trip to San Lorenzo, John meets the Mintons, an elderly couple so involved with one another that they manage to exclude John from even the most casual conversation. John also meets H. Lowe Crosby and his wife, Hazel, who are moving their bicycle business to San Lorenzo, where the government does not interfere as much in commerce. Crosby complains that back in Chicago, where their original business was located, the government interfered constantly and made it nearly impossible to run a business. Hazel is pleased that John is also from Indiana, since Hoosiers from Indiana are always the most successful people. John decides that Hazel is a granfalloon, a term that Bokonon applies to people who find false affinity to others based solely on some vague connection. Every single person who has ever lived in Indiana is connected, according to Hazel.

Hazel's husband admires the dictatorship in place in San Lorenzo, where there is absolutely no crime. There is no crime because the punishment, regardless of the kind of crime, is to be impaled on a giant hook and left to dangle from a gallows. While Crosby thinks that the hook might be a bit extreme for a democracy, such as in the United States, he does think that public hangings might work well to stop juvenile delinquents from committing crimes. Crosby tells John that Minton was fired from his last diplomatic assignment after his wife wrote a letter that was published in a newspaper, in which she was critical of Americans for being self-centered and egocentric. Minton was accused of being soft on communism, a label that Crosby agrees is accurate, since anyone who does not love America and Americans is clearly a traitor. Minton's reassignment to San Lorenzo is a punishment and demotion.

The Mintons encourage John to read a history of San Lorenzo that they have with them on the plane. This is when John learns about Bokononism for the first time. He learns that Bokononism claims that evil is necessary, since the conflict between good and evil creates a tension that is important because the existence of evil makes good so much better. A biography of the founder of Bokononism explains that Bokonon's real name was Lionel Boyd Johnson who, after many journeys, was washed ashore naked in San Lorenzo, where he re-created himself as Bokonon, the founder of a new religion. Also washed ashore was Edward McCabe, a marine deserter, who had been shipwrecked with Bokonon. While John is reading the book about San Lorenzo, he discovers that Angela and Newt Hoenikker have boarded the plane and are also on their way to San Lorenzo, where Frank is to be married to Mona. Angela and Newt are eager to share photos and stories about their father, whom Angela idolizes as a great scientist. Angela tells John that she married a very handsome man who heads a company that manufactures weapons. He came to Ilium and sought her out after the death of her father. They married within two weeks of their first meeting. John then returns to his seat on the plane and continues reading the book about San Lorenzo's history, which details all of the times that this small country has been conquered and the many rulers who have controlled it. San Lorenzo has never been independent, and the people, who live in terrible poverty, have always been exploited in some way. Although fictional, San Lorenzo is similar to any number of small countries in the Caribbean that are exploited by larger and wealthier countries. Countries like San Lorenzo are often referred to as banana republics.

Chapters 61-80

When the plane finally lands in San Lorenzo, John learns that Bokononism is outlawed in San Lorenzo. Anyone caught practicing the religion will be executed by the hook. Bokonon has disappeared, but there are posters seeking his capture, dead or alive. San Lorenzo is supposed to be a Christian country and no other religion is to be tolerated. Vonnegut describes the people of San Lorenzo as oatmeal colored, mostly naked, and very thin, with missing teeth; they are also very quiet. John then meets the dictator, "Papa" Monzano, who is obviously very ill. "Papa" names Frank Hoenikker his heir because Frank is a man of science. All of the passengers are then taken to their accommodations. On the way to the hotel, John learns the story of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy. This is the story of how, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, San Lorenzo declared war on Japan and Germany and drafted 100 young men, who with no real training were put aboard a submarine and promptly massacred in an attack by a German submarine in San Lorenzo's harbor. After Crosby insults Philip Castle and is in turn insulted by Philip Castle, Crosby insists that he and his wife must be given accommodations in the embassy. John, then, is the first and only person to stay at the hotel, where Philip is creating a twenty-foot high mosaic of Mona. It is obvious that everyone is in love with Mona, who is revealed to be a secret practitioner of Bokononism. Philip also believes in Bokononism, but as an American, he is exempt from the hook. John is no sooner shown his room than Frank calls and demands to see John, immediately.

John takes the island's only taxi to Frank's house, where he discovers Newt dozing on the Terrace. Newt has been painting and has created a childlike canvas of black marks that he later tells John is a picture of a cat's cradle. According to Newt, the cat's cradle is not real, since there is no cat and no cradle. This is true of many other things, says Newt, such as religion, which is only an illusion. Angela, who has been touring the free hospital that Julian Castle established, next arrives with Castle, who is an especially unpleasant man. Castle declares Newt's painting meaningless and throws it off the balcony. Castle explains to John that everyone on San Lorenzo is a Bokononist. The religion is all that gives them hope, in the midst of their miserable poor lives. Bokonon arranged with McCabe to disappear and have his religion outlawed, so that it would be more attractive and have more zest. Bokonon also suggested the hook as a punishment for anyone caught practicing his religion. For some time, McCabe played along with this game and staged ritual searches for Bokonon, which were more about bringing food to the exiled religious leader. The people were happy with this new arrangement, although they were still just as poor. Their belief in Bokononism, however, gave them hope and they forgot their hunger and disease. Eventually, though, Bokonon and McCabe forgot that they were playing a game and each became the prey and the hunter for real, and so finally each went mad.

Chapters 81-100

After Castle finishes his story, Angela and Newt rejoin them on the terrace, where Angela and Newt get very drunk. Once she is drunk, Angela begins to play the clarinet. Her playing is beautiful and frightening in its passion. After dinner, Frank has still not appeared, but he calls and tells John that Papa is nearly dead of his cancer. Frank also tells John that it is his destiny to continue to wait for Frank to return to his home. Soon a convoy of soldiers arrives and begins to build fortifications to protect the home of San Lorenzo's next president. Given the fear of the hook, it is not clear why the president would need protecting. John finally goes to sleep but is awakened in the middle of the night and discovers that Frank has returned. John and Frank walk to a cave to talk, and John quickly realizes that Frank only speaks in clichés. Frank explains that he realizes that he has no public persona, and so he offers John the job of president of San Lorenzo. The only catch is that the president must marry Mona, the woman with whom John has been in love since he first saw her photo.

Mona and John have their first meeting and perform boko-maru, the ritual touching of the soles of each person's feet by the feet of another. John immediately orders Mona not to perform this intimate ritual with another person, but she refuses and says she will not marry him if she cannot follow the rituals of her religion. John quickly agrees, and his first attempt to rule Mona is ended. The following morning, John and Mona are betrothed, and he is taken to see "Papa" before he dies, so that he can have the formal blessing of the former president. When he arrives at the president's castle, the first thing that John sees is the huge hook and the scaffold, which is designed to intimidate all visitors. John is escorted into "Papa's" bedroom, where the dying man lies with a small cylinder attached to a chain around his neck. Inside the cylinder is a sliver of ice-nine, although John does not know this yet. "Papa" tells John to try and kill Bokonon and to tell the people that science is truth. After "Papa" is given last rites according to the rituals of Bokononism, John begins to write his first speech as the new president and decides that, rather than reform San Lorenzo in any way, he will leave things as they are.

Chapters 101-120

At the reception to honor the Hundred Martyrs, where John will announce that he is to be the next president, everyone of importance on the island gathers to hear speeches and watch a display by the six Air Force planes that the United States has given to San Lorenzo. The food and drink are uniformly terrible. After John eats a piece of albatross meat he is violently ill and makes his way to a bathroom. He is stopped by Dr. von Koenigswald, who is hysterical. The doctor exclaims that "Papa" has committed suicide by ingesting the contents of the cylinder that hung around his neck. As soon as John sees "Papa's" body, he realizes that the cylinder contained ice-nine. Within minutes, the doctor also dies, after touching "Papa's" lips and then touching water, which when it comes into contact with ice-nine solidifies, thus quickly solidifying von Koenigswald as well.

This chapter begins with John accusing the three Hoenikker children of keeping ice-nine for their own use and risking the lives of everyone on Earth. Frank used ice-nine to buy his job on San Lorenzo, and he reminds his siblings that they each used ice-nine to buy what they wanted, whether it was a handsome husband for Angela or a Russian dancer for Newt. John immediately understands that the U.S. military has ice-nine, courtesy of Angela's husband, and the Soviet Union has ice-nine courtesy of Newt's Russian dancer girlfriend. The cold war standoff between the two countries is the only thing that has kept the world from self-destructing. As John and the three Hoenikker children clean up the mess of spilled ice-nine, Frank, Angela, and Newt tell how they divided up the ice-nine after their father died that Christmas Eve so many years ago. After the death scene in "Papa's" bedroom is cleaned, John rejoins the reception to honor the war dead, which has continued in his absence. The new ambassador is supposed to give a formal speech to honor the Hundred Martyrs, but instead begins to talk about the killing of children in war. Minton is referring to the young men who die as soldiers in times of war, and who are sacrificed by the stupidity of old men who do not go to war. After Minton completes his speech, everyone begins to watch the air show that is scheduled as the evening's entertainment. As the air show begins, one of the planes appears to have smoke billowing from beneath it. This plane crashes into the castle, and a large portion of the castle and the surrounding battlements collapse into the sea. The Mintons are among the first to be killed, and they disappear into the sea with dignity, standing upright and holding hands. In a moment, another section of the castle collapses into the sea, this portion containing the dead body of "Papa." Immediately, the sea becomes solid with the effects of ice-nine. Changing the seas from liquid to solid affects the weather patterns and soon terrible tornados fill the air.

As everyone begins to flee the castle, Mona takes John to the manhole cover that conceals an oubliette that leads into the dungeons under the castle, where they take cover in a carefully constructed bomb shelter. John decides that their forced isolation is the perfect opportunity to consummate his relationship with Mona. After seven days, John and Mona emerge from their shelter to find the world covered with ice-nine. They soon find stacks of dead people, all of them victims of ritual suicide. A note left under a rock explains that many of the local people had survived the freezing of the sea and the winds that followed. They had captured Bokonon and asked him what God was doing and what they should do. Bokonon told the people that God must want all the people dead, and so they should kill themselves, which they did. The note is signed by Bokonon.

Chapters 121-127

Although John is angry at what he reads in Bokonon's note, Mona laughs and explains that the people are better off dead. She then touches the ground, then her lips, and dies instantly. John is found by the Crosbys and Newt, and is taken to Frank's cave, which is all that remains of his former house. Frank has also survived, but Angela died when she attempted to play her clarinet, which had ice-nine on the mouthpiece. Julian and Philip Castle had also died as they tried to make their way through the tornados to their hospital. After six months, John feels that the small group of survivors is like the Swiss Family Robinson, carving out their survival completely isolated and alone in the world. As John ponders what he is supposed to do with his life, he sees Bokonon and asks the old man what he should do. Bokonon tells John that if he were younger, he would write a history of humankind's stupidity, climb to the top of the nearby mountain, thumb his nose at God, and kill himself with the poison that turns men to statues. The novel ends with Bokonon's words. Thus, it is not clear if John will take the religious leader's advice to kill himself.



Bokonon's real name is Lionel Boyd Johnson. After many journeys, he is washed ashore naked in San Lorenzo, where he decides that he can be reborn. He feels that San Lorenzo is his destiny. Johnson sees the poverty and disease on San Lorenzo and initially thinks he can turn the island into a utopia; when he sees that he cannot change things, Johnson reinvents himself as Bokonon. Bokonon realizes that there is no reality strong enough to combat the terrible existence of the people of San Lorenzo, and so he decides to create a religion based on lies. Although he is supposedly on a Wanted, Dead or Alive poster, no serious attempts have ever been made to arrest Bokonon. Likewise, although Bokononism is outlawed, nearly every resident of San Lorenzo follows that religion. Bokonon survives the disaster caused by the release of ice-nine. When asked by the people what caused this disaster, Bokonon tells them that God wanted all the people to die and that everyone who has not yet died should commit suicide. As a result of this statement, almost everyone in San Lorenzo commits suicide.

Asa Breed

Asa Breed was Felix Hoenikker's supervisor at Research Laboratory. He was also in love with Emily, the woman who would become Hoenikker's wife. John initially interviews Asa when he is planning on writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. When John learns about Dr. Hoenikker's work on ice-nine, he asks Asa if Dr. Hoenikker was successful in creating this weapon. Asa becomes very defensive and denies that ice-nine exists. Asa also takes offense at John's questions about the responsibility that scientists owe to mankind. Asa then throws John off Research Laboratory property.

Julian Castle

When he was younger, Julian Castle was like every other entrepreneur who moved to San Lorenzo. He planned to exploit the local labor and make himself even richer. Although he hoped to make money with his Castle Sugar Corporation, he never turned a profit. In fact, he lost money if he paid the local workers even the lowest wages. As a young man, Castle had been ruthless, had been married numerous times, and had exploited many people, whenever the opportunity to do so presented itself. He was also an alcoholic draft dodger who freely spent money without contributing to the world in any way. Then at age forty, Julian decided to build a free hospital in the jungle and named it the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle. For the next twenty years, Castle was a reformed multi-millionaire, who provided free medical care to the poor who lived in San Lorenzo. No reason is given for Castle's transformation from selfish millionaire to philanthropist.

Philip Castle

Philip is the only child of Julian Castle. Philip wrote a book about San Lorenzo's history, which John reads on the plane ride to San Lorenzo. Philip opens a hotel, but has no guests. Like everyone in San Lorenzo, Philip is in love with Mona and creates a twenty-foot mosaic of her in the hotel lobby.

Harrison Connors

Harrison Connors is described as a very handsome scientist and the head of a weapons company. He seeks out Angela after the death of her father and marries her within two weeks. Later in the novel, readers learn that he married her only to obtain ice-nine. After their marriage, he cheats on Angela. Although he does not appear in the novel and is only mentioned briefly, he is important because he provides the U.S. government with ice-nine, the same weapon that the Soviet Union also possesses, thus maintaining cold war equality between the two countries.

H. Lowe Crosby

John first meets Lowe on the plane to San Lorenzo. Lowe is traveling to San Lorenzo to investigate whether he can move his bicycle manufacturing business to this small country, where he can take advantage of the poverty and lack of government labor restrictions to make his bicycles for less cost than in the United States. Lowe is an opportunistic drunk, who is bombastic and insulting to nearly everyone. He and his wife survive the contamination by ice-nine. As one of the few survivors, Lowe becomes the primary cook for the small group.

Hazel Crosby

Hazel and her husband, Lowe, are fellow passengers with John on the same flight to San Lorenzo. Hazel is fixated on being a Hoosier, a native of Indiana, and insists that everyone else who is a Hoosier should call her Mom. She exemplifies the Bokononist idea of the granfalloons—people who think that they are closely connected to others, simply because they have a common interest, religion, or place of origin. Like her husband, Lowe, Hazel represents the worst possible image of Americans abroad as loud, obnoxious, and pushy. Hazel is one of the few to survive the end of the world by ice-nine contamination. She begins to sew an American flag after the end of the world and is determined that the United States will remain an important force after ice-nine kills almost everyone in the world.

Angela Hoenikker

Angela is the only daughter and the oldest child of Felix and Emily Hoenikker. She was taken out of school at age sixteen and turned into a full-time housekeeper, cook, and nanny after her mother died. Angela is described as six feet tall and having the face of a horse. She plays the clarinet very well, and uses music to escape the loneliness of her life. After her father died, Angela shared the ice-nine that her father invented equally with her two siblings. Within weeks of her father's death, the very lonely and vulnerable Angela marries Harrison Connors, a very handsome weapons researcher, who marries her only to gain access to her inheritance of ice-nine. Angela is convinced that her father was an underappreciated heroic figure. She is blind to his failings and proudly tells everyone of her father's many triumphs. Angela initially survives the destruction caused by the release of ice-nine but dies after she tries to play her clarinet, which has been contaminated with ice-nine.

Dr. Felix Hoenikker

Dr. Felix Hoenikker is one of the scientists who created the atomic bomb. He is long dead when Vonnegut's novel begins, but his research and the neglect of his children—who use ice-nine to buy the happiness they never had as children—play a central role in the events of the novel. When he was alive, Hoenikker was completely removed from the reality of ordinary day-to-day life, and as a scientist, he took no responsibility for anything he created. Dr. Hoenikker thought of his research as a game to be played. This allowed him to make ice-nine, without ever considering the disaster that would unfold if the material was ever used or if it ever escaped from its container. Hoenikker existed only in his own personal space, never considering the lives of anyone else, including the lives of his neglected wife and three children.

Franklin Hoenikker

Frank is the second child of Felix and Emily Hoenikker. After his father died, Frank shared the ice-nine that his father invented equally with his two siblings. Frank is like his father in that he has no social skills and is unable to interact well with other people. As a teenager, he built an elaborate model of a small country at a local hobby shop, but the primary reason for spending so much time building the model was mostly to disguise the affair he was having with the hobby store owner's wife. After Frank gets into some trouble with a group of car thieves, he takes refuge on San Lorenzo and gives ice-nine to the country's dictator. Just as his father took no responsibility for his scientific inventions, Frank takes no responsibility for the devastating effects made possible by ice-nine. Frank survives the destruction of almost all life in the world after the accident with ice-nine. Even after he has caused all this destruction, Frank takes no responsibility for what he has unleashed. Like his father, Frank lives in his own little world, in which the lives of others have no role or consequence.

Newton Hoenikker

Newt is a four-foot tall midget and the youngest child of Felix and Emily Hoenikker. Newt's mother died during childbirth, and he was raised by his older sister, Angela, who continues to treat him like a small child, even after he has become an adult. After his father died, Newt shared the ice-nine that his father invented equally with his two siblings. John corresponds with Newt as a way to learn more about Dr. Hoenikker and his response to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Newt's affair with Zinka, a Russian midget spy, puts ice-nine into the hands of the Soviet Union. Newt creates paintings of a cat's cradle that are mostly ugly black canvases. He survives the destruction created by ice-nine and continues to paint.


John is the narrator of Vonnegut's novel. His last name is never revealed to readers, although there is a suggestion that it is somehow important. As the novel begins, he plans to write a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, which is how he becomes mixed up with the Hoenikker family. His research leads him to Ilium, the original home of the Hoenikker children. While visiting with Dr. Hoenikker's former supervisor, John learns about ice-nine and immediately recognizes the danger this weapon presents. On a flight to San Lorenzo, where John is to interview Julian Castle for an article he is writing, John meets two of the Hoenikker children and learns about San Lorenzo's history. With the dictator, "Papa," near death, Frank Hoenikker asks John to be president, and John agrees, only because the president gets to marry the very beautiful and erotic Mona Monzano. After ice-nine is released upon the world and nearly all life dies, John is one of the few to survive. He survives when Mona leads him to an oubliette under "Papa's" castle. When they are trapped, John sees their isolation as an opportunity to have sex with Mona. They hide for seven days and emerge to find that Bokonon has told his followers that God was trying to kill them, and so they should do as God wishes and kill themselves. Mona also kills herself, leaving John as one of only a few survivors. John's own ending is ambiguous, but Bokonon in the final sentences says that he would climb to the top of the mountain and lie down and commit suicide by eating ice-nine. Since John has become a follower of Bokonon, readers can assume that he does as Bokonon suggests and commits suicide.

Claire Minton

Claire Minton is the wife of the new ambassador to San Lorenzo. John meets Claire and her husband on the plane ride to San Lorenzo. Because of an earlier letter that Claire wrote criticizing Americans as self-centered, egocentric people who expect everyone to love them, her husband lost his former post as ambassador and is punished by being sent to be the new ambassador to San Lorenzo. Claire and her husband are so close that they seem to function as a single entity. John labels their unity a duprass, a karass composed of only two people, who are so close that no one else can invade their unity. Claire dies with her husband, the two holding hands and facing death with dignity.

Horlick Minton

John meets Horlick Minton on the plane to San Lorenzo. Horlick and his wife, Claire, form a duprass, a karass composed of only two people, who are so close that no one else can invade their unity. As the new ambassador to San Lorenzo, Horlick gives a speech at the celebration of the Hundred Martyrs that condemns war and the governments that send young men off to die as heroes. Horlick labels these young men murdered children and reveals that his only child died in war. He also says that, rather than honor wars with speeches and celebrations, people should despise the stupidity of a society that kills soldiers. Just after he completes his speech, Horlick and his wife die in an accident, the two holding hands and facing death with dignity.

Miguel Monzano

See "Papa"

Mona Aamons Monzano

Mona is the adopted daughter of "Papa" Monzano. She is a native of San Lorenzo and is the natural daughter of a Finnish architect, who died before her birth. Mona was adopted to boost "Papa's" popularity and then turned into an erotic symbol of the country as a way to boost tourism and investments. According to the writings of Bokonon, Mona must marry the next president of San Lorenzo, which at various times is either Frank Hoenikker or John. John only agrees to be president after he learns that Mona will marry the next president. Although John falls instantly in love with Mona when he sees her photo, she has no special love for him, beyond the love that she feels for all human beings, as a practitioner of Bokononism. Mona initially survives the contamination of ice-nine that brings about the end of the world. She and John spend seven days in an oubliette under "Papa's" castle. While they are trapped, John sees their isolation as an opportunity to have sex with Mona, but later she tells him that the world is not a good place to create children. After Mona and John leave the oubliette, she commits suicide by eating ice-nine.

"Papa" Monzano

See "Papa"


"Papa" is the dictator of San Lorenzo. In exchange for ice-nine, "Papa" gives Frank the title of Major General and a job as Minister of Science and Progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo. "Papa" is in his seventies and is dying of cancer. He uses the ice-nine to commit suicide, which triggers the deaths of most of the rest of the world, when his body is propelled into the sea after a portion of the castle collapses. "Papa" emphatically believes in the power of science, but his illness reveals that he is also a follower of Bokononism.

Dr. Schlicher von Koenigswald

Von Koenigswald is a former Nazi doctor, who murdered many people at Auschwitz. He began to work for Julian Castle at his free hospital as a way to atone for his crimes. It is estimated that he would have to work for more than a thousand years to atone for the many lives he took while working for the Nazis. Von Koenigswald is "Papa" Monzano's doctor, and after "Papa" dies, von Koenigswald accidentally touches the spilled ice-nine and dies instantly.


Zinka is a midget, a Russian dancer with whom Newt is in love. She is also a Russian spy. Zinka pretends to love Newt only long enough to steal ice-nine from him. Although she appears only very briefly in the novel, she is important because she gives the Soviet Union the same weapon that the United States also possesses, thus maintaining cold war equality between the two countries.


Life as a Game

Vonnegut makes several references to games in his novel. The primary reference is to cat's cradle, a game played by children in all cultures. It is a game without a cat and without a cradle. It is also a game with no end or solution, a puzzle without meaning. The string in the game creates a series of X's that offer no real shape. The game is a metaphor for the lack of meaning in the characters' lives in this novel. The cat's cradle is an illusionary game, but so is life, in this novel. Newt claims that the game is like much of life, offering the illusion of reality but with no substance. Vonnegut also mentions that Felix Hoenikker saw the creation of weapons as a game. In other words, the creation of an atomic bomb, which is capable of terrible destruction, loss of life, and lasting effects on the environment and on people's lives, was just a game to the scientists who created it.

Religion as Thought Control

The religion of Bokononism is, as Vonnegut makes clear in his novel, formulated on lies. The purpose of Bokononism, as described by Bokonon, is to give the people false hope and help them to forget the abject poverty and disease that permeates their lives. Since there is no way to eliminate the terrible poverty and disease of their country, giving the people religion allows them to feel more hopeful about their existence. The larger implication is that all religions are a collection of lies used to keep the masses satisfied in times of great poverty, disease, and disaster. Although Bokononism is a fictional religion, there are elements of other religions present, such as the idea that destiny guides people's actions. Many people who define themselves as Christians will state that whatever happens was meant to be. Both Bokonon and the narrator, John, express a similar belief about destiny as the force that brought them to San Lorenzo. Religion is only one of many things that Vonnegut attacks using humor. From the wanted posters that call for the arrest of the religious leader, Bokonon, which he has created himself, to the threat of the hook for those who practice Bokononism—and it turns out everyone does practice Bokononism—the whole basis for religious belief on San Lorenzo is a sham. Like charlatans crying out in a marketplace, religion in Vonnegut's novel is about illusion and not reality. The purpose of Bokononism is for readers to think about religion in a more critical fashion.


  • John's initial contact with the Hoenikker family is a result of his interest in the bombing of Hiroshima. Research the bombing of Hiroshima and the decision that was made to bomb Japan. Create a poster presentation that lists the arguments for and against the dropping of the atomic bomb.
  • The Republic of San Lorenzo is a fictional country, but it is meant to represent any number of small countries, such as Nicaragua and Haiti, where a long history of political and military influence by larger imperial countries has had an impact on the lives of the inhabitants. Research the history of Haiti under President François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and write a paper in which you discuss Duvalier's rule.
  • Vonnegut's novel makes reference to the McCarthy era and the hunt for Communists. Research McCarthyism and its effect on writers, who were often targets of the McCarthy hearings. Prepare and deliver a speech in which you briefly outline the history of McCarthyism and then explain whether you think something similar could happen now.
  • Vonnegut's book questions the responsibility that scientists should assume for the weapons they create. A number of the scientists who worked to develop the atomic bomb wrote about the experience and about their feelings concerning the bomb's destructive force. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, and Otto Frisch are only a few of the scientists who were involved. Research at least one of the scientists who worked on what was then called the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb) and write a paper in which you discuss ways in which the scientist whom you chose either took responsibility for his or her contribution or failed to do so.
  • Bokononism is not a real religion, but there are similarities to bits and pieces from other religions. In the Caribbean, where the action of Vonnegut's novel takes place, Catholicism and Voodoo are the two most common religious forces. Write an essay that compares Bokononism with these two real religions. In addition to explaining what Bokononism borrows from other religions, you should argue what each religion might offer to people who live in extreme poverty.

The Pitfalls of Scientific Advancement

As Vonnegut makes clear in his novel, scientists often fail to take responsibility for their actions. Felix Hoenikker creates ice-nine without giving any thought to why doing so might not be a good idea. He is presented with a challenge and solving the challenge becomes the only motivation that he needs. Hoenikker is so careless in handling this weapon that he takes it with him on a brief vacation for Christmas. While his children are gone, he essentially plays with it in his kitchen, and then goes to sit down, where he dies. He gives no serious thought to the danger created by a substance that can freeze all water on the earth. He is so unconcerned that he does not even bother to clean up the mess that he made playing with ice-nine before going to sit down and rest. John does something similar on San Lorenzo when "Papa" Monzano dies. He also allows the Hoenikker children to take a break from cleaning up the mess created by their misuse of ice-nine, and as a result, Hoenikker's invention is allowed to contaminate the world, killing nearly all life. Just as their father never gave a thought to whether he should have invented such a substance, his children give no thought to whether they should use the material. Vonnegut suggests that this is too often the result of technology: scientists give no thought to whether an invention is a good thing, and they give no thought to who might use their invention and whether it will be used responsibly.

The Search for Happiness

The three Hoenikker children were all terribly neglected as children. After the death of their mother, the oldest child, Angela, became a surrogate mother, cook, housekeeper, and nanny. The neglect by their father leaves each one to search for happiness wherever it can be found. The neglected Angela, who was too tall and too unattractive to actually form any friendships, was pulled from school at age sixteen and further isolated from the rest of the world. She has had no opportunity to meet a young man to marry. Thus, when she is briefly courted by the incredibly handsome Harrison Connors immediately after her father's death, she willingly trades her ice-nine inheritance for the chance of marital happiness. The middle child, Frank, who as a teenager created models and seduced the wife of the town hobby store owner, used his ice-nine to buy a place in "Papa" Monzano's government. However, Frank is so scared of living that he begs John to take the presidency and the beautiful Mona, who comes with the job. For the youngest child, Newt, ice-nine provided a brief fling with a Russian dancer, Zinka. While ice-nine could buy Angela a handsome husband, it could not guarantee he would be faithful and she would be happy. Nor could Frank be happy as president of San Lorenzo, since ice-nine could not give him the ability to fill the role that it purchased. Similarly, Newt found only very brief happiness with Zinka, who quickly left him humiliated and feeling used, as so many newspaper accounts were only too happy to relate. Ultimately the three Hoenikker children's search for happiness put their father's invention of ice-nine into the hands of unscrupulous individuals and governments.


Black Humor

Black humor is the use of satire and irony to transform serious topics into absurd topics. In black or dark comedy, the author parodies things that might ordinarily be considered sacred, such as religion. For instance, Vonnegut's treatment of religion is an example of black humor. Bokononism is a fictional religion based on lies, in which the creator, Bokonon, says that God had no reason for creating mankind, and since God has no interest in mankind, humans are instructed to try and figure out their purpose for existing. In another humorous twist on religion, the seven days to create the world that form the beginning of the biblical Genesis story are rewritten by Vonnegut to become the seven days Mona and John hide in the oubliette under the castle. Although not a Garden of Eden, the makeshift bomb shelter has plenty of food and fresh water, and John is finally given the opportunity to engage in a sex orgy with Mona. It is not the biblical Garden, but it is, instead, a parody of paradise. Although black humor is intended to be entertaining for the reader, it is also supposed to prompt questioning of those social entities that are often taken for granted, such as the role of religion in society.

Invented Words

Vonnegut fills his novel with made-up words that have no meaning, except that which he gives to them. The most obvious example is his creation of the word, Bokononism, which is defined as a religion of lies in which humans are organized into teams who unintentionally do God's will. Other invented words include karass (members of an individual's "team"), sinookas (tendrils of an individual's life that become entwined around the tendrils of those who are on his or her team), wampeters (the pivot or common object of an individual's

team), vin-dit (the idea that God has some plans for each individual, which will be revealed in good time). All of these newly created words allow Vonnegut to parody religion through the use of words that have no meaning, just as religion in this novel has no real meaning.

Single First-Person Narrator

When the narrator is a single character, like John, the story is limited to only that character's point of view. John tells the story and interprets it for the reader. The reader learns about the experiences of other characters, but only as John has experienced their stories. The single first-person narrator is limited to only the details experienced by or told to him. John lacks the omniscient view of a third-person narrator, in which the author serves as the narrator offering all views. In some cases, authors use multiple narration, in which several characters tell their stories. This gives the reader the opportunity to see the characters from multiple perspectives. In Cat's Cradle, John is told several stories by other characters, which allows the readers to have a more encompassing view of events. Because John is writing Cat'sCradle as his own personal memoir, he is able to interject information that he learned long after some of the events occurred, and so in this case, first-person narration is not as limited as it typically would be.

Science Fiction

Cat's Cradle is an example of the science fiction genre, positing fantastic possibilities based on scientific advancements. As is common for this genre, the exact date of the events narrated is never clearly stated. The novel is set in a vague sometime after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, but whether that date is in the late 1940s, during the 1950s, or the early 1960s, is never clearly stated. Since the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, science fiction, whether in novels or in films, has often explored the destructive force of scientific advancement spinning out of control. Vonnegut presents a fantasy of a future destroyed by science, which is a common theme of this genre. Although the creation of the atomic bomb was a real event, Vonnegut takes one of the supposed fathers of the bomb, a fictional Felix Hoenikker, and uses him to create the ultimate weapon to destroy all of mankind. While the story is fantasy, the threat presented is a possibility; while most science fiction offers the opportunity for redemption, Vonnegut's novel ends with no such rescue.


The Cold War

Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle is set against the concern of imminent destruction that the events of the cold war created in people's minds. The horror of an estimated 150 million dead during World War II and fears that technology was capable of creating even more terrible destruction defined the period after World War II. This fear of war became known as the cold war. The United States and the Soviet Union, two former allies who had never been friendly even before their mutual hatred for the Nazis united them, emerged from World War II as superpowers, but they were superpowers who distrusted one another. In addition, each of the two super-powers was allied with groups of smaller countries. The Soviets allied with many of the Eastern European countries that formed their western border, while the United States allied with western European countries. This animosity spilled over into the Middle East, when the United States championed Israel, and the Soviets became allies with the Arab countries. While neither group wished to go to war again, the threat of war motivated the actions of both groups. The use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealed that, not only did the United States have such a weapon but also there was a demonstrated willingness to use it against an enemy. By the early 1950s, both countries had nuclear weapons, and both countries were using frequent nuclear tests as an implied threat. As a result, the United States and the Soviets competed against one another in the developing and stockpiling of weapons. As each country developed larger, more deadly weapons, the other was forced to match that development. For instance, in 1952, the United States exploded the first hydrogen bomb, which was smaller than the bomb used at Hiroshima, but it was 2,500 times more powerful. The following year, the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb. When the Soviets launched Sputnik into space in 1957, it became clear that the Soviets could also launch their nuclear bombs to the United States, using a similar rocket system. By 1961, when Vonnegut was writing his novel, it was estimated that there were enough bombs stockpiled to destroy the entire world. The theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, developed in the early 1960s, made certain that the arms race might well be a race toward the destruction of the world.


  • 1960s: In 1957, the first efforts to end nuclear weapons testing begin. The following year, President Eisenhower proposes a conference to discuss test ban verification. Over the next few years, several proposals are made to end nuclear testing. The first limited ban on testing is implemented in 1963.

    Today: Although there have been several comprehensive test ban treaties since 1963, a more comprehensive ban has not yet been approved. The United States government has consistently refused to ratify and sign such an agreement and instead argues for the right to maintain stockpiles without testing such weapons.

  • 1960s: Air travel is still relatively unusual in the early 1960s, but gains in popularity throughout the decade.

    Today: Air travel has become so ordinary that people no longer dress up for the experience, as they once did. The convenience of getting somewhere quickly continues to outweigh the inconveniences of air travel, such as increased security and travel restrictions.

  • 1960s: The peace symbol—three lines pointing down, with one line pointing up, enclosed in a circle—is used for the first time in 1958. It is introduced as the symbol for nuclear disarmament by English philosopher Bertrand Russell, at an Easter march in Aldermaston, England.

    Today: The peace symbol now stands for far more than nuclear disarmament, and it is used to protest war and violence of all kinds. Although technology still poses threats to peace, the prominence of the peace symbol since 1958 suggests that there will always be people who actively seek the end to war.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

All of the escalating rhetoric of the cold war nearly led to a very real war during a very long fourteen days in October 1962. In events that came to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world held its breath and waited to see if the two superpowers would finally unleash nuclear war upon the world. Anyone who was a child in the early 1960s probably still remembers the Duck and Cover exercise that all children in school practiced during that period. In the event of a nuclear bomb, schoolchildren were taught to duck down and hide under their desks. Many parents built bomb shelters in their back yards, as well. All of this preparation reached a climax in mid October 1962, when aerial photographs showed that the Soviets had installed missiles in Cuba. These missiles were aimed at the United States. For a week, President Kennedy conferred with advisors and then announced in a televised speech that any attack on the United States coming from Cuba would be considered to be an attack by the Soviets. Kennedy put the United States military on alert for all possible eventualities, which most observers took to mean a possible nuclear attack. A week later, the Soviets backed down, but the fear and panic caused by the Soviet missile scare was not soon forgotten. The idea that any country could so easily start a nuclear war and destroy one another became the topic of books, such as Vonnegut's, but also films, such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail-Safe. The cold war and the Cuban Missile Crisis made it clear that technology and weapons had created a dangerous world in which to live.


Upon its release in 1963, Terry Southern reviewed Cat's Cradle for the New York Times. In his review, Southern states that the novel is a "work of a far more engaging and meaningful order than the melodramatic tripe which most critics seem to consider ‘serious.’" Vonnegut's earlier novels had not drawn much interest, and in fact, the initial printing of Cat's Cradle was only 500 copies. This was a novel, though, that seemed to reflect the concerns that many people had about nuclear weapons at the time. As Southern notes in his review, Vonnegut's novel "is an irreverent and often highly entertaining fantasy concerning the playful irresponsibility of nuclear scientists."

C. D. B. Bryan observes in his 1969 New York Times Book Review article, "Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bokononist," that there are recurring messages in Vonnegut's writing. One message is "Be Kind," and the second message is that "God doesn't care whether you are [kind] or not." Vonnegut's writing, according to Bryan, is "quiet,

humorous, well-mannered and rational," the kind of writing that creates "an articulate bridge across the generation chasm." Indeed this ability to span the generations is best captured by a tribute written after Vonnegut's death. The student Kara Caldwell writes in the University News that Vonnegut's passing is personally "devastating" to her, but it is made worse knowing that so many people have not yet read his work. Caldwell hopes her column will inspire readers to pick up a Vonnegut book, and so she points out that Vonnegut's "life was one of a kind," and his "writing was even more unique." As Caldwell's tribute makes clear, one of Vonnegut's legacies remains his ability to inspire college students.

Indeed, the best indication of the lasting influence of Vonnegut's writing is found in the many obituaries and columns written after his death in April 2007. Gary Sawyer writes in the Herald & Review that, although Vonnegut wrote about depressing subjects, such as war, the end of the world, and suicide, he remained "a humanist." He could take the most difficult subjects and write about them "with humor and gentleness," because he "believed in the basic decency of mankind." The exact opposite view was take by Lev Grossman in his tribute in Time magazine. While Grossman celebrates "Vonnegut's sincerity, his willingness to scoff at received wisdom" and that "something tender in his nature" that he was unable to suppress, Grossman does not agree completely with Sawyer's claims of Vonnegut's humanism. Grossman says of Vonnegut that his "opinion of human nature was low," and that the author was "endlessly disappointed in humanity." It is characteristic of Vonnegut's appeal that two people could read his work and emerge with such differing opinions. One of the most important and unique tributes to Vonnegut was published in the Chemical & Engineering News. Rudy M. Baum says of Vonnegut that he was a writer "who knew that words are powerful." His fiction is "free-form, raw, repetitive, and bursting with ideas, emotions, and anger, much like the rock and roll we were listening to" at the time of his writing. Baum explains that Vonnegut taught him that "skillfully wielded words are powerful, that irony and sardonic humor can prick the smug self-assurance of the powerful, and that a writer's work can help unite dispossessed individuals in their collective response to power." As many Vonnegut admirers would agree, Baum's words serve as a testament to the enduring power and legacy of Vonnegut's work.


Sheri Metzger Karmiol

Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the university's honors program. Karmiol is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay, Karmiol discusses the message of moral responsibility that Vonnegut delivers in Cat's Cradle.


  • Vonnegut's Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981) is a collection of autobiographical writings. Students interested in the author will find the book a valuable read.
  • Vonnegut's bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is a fictionalized account of the author's experience as a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in 1943.
  • The Bible according to Mark Twain (1996), by Joseph B. McCullough, is a collection of Twain's humorous retellings of biblical stories, including diaries of Adam and Eve. Vonnegut was most often compared to Twain, both in appearance and in writing style. Like Twain, Vonnegut thought that the topic of religion was a good target for parody and sarcasm.
  • Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) is an example of dark humor by one of Vonnegut's contemporaries. Kesey's novel of a mental ward in which the inmates rebel against authority has long been considered an anthem of the 1960s.
  • Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, is considered a classic of the twentieth century. This 1954 novel, in which Amis parodies the stuffy academic life of a British university, remains a fine example of the kind of sarcastic humor that appealed to Vonnegut.
  • The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics and the First Atomic Bombs (2000), by John Canaday, is one of the very few books that attempts to bridge the gap between science and literature by examining the literary texts written by scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb.

In many ways, Cat's Cradle is an expression of Vonnegut's belief that writers have a responsibility to alert their readers to injustice, danger, and the need for social change. In a 1973 Playboy magazine interview with David Standish, Vonnegut argues that writers are "expressions of the entire society," and "when a society is in great danger, we're likely to sound the alarms." Sounding the alarm is what Vonnegut does in this novel; he takes on the scientific community, the ideology of truth, and the pursuit of knowledge, all of which he fears have created danger in a world without a social conscience. Being able to do something, according to Vonnegut, does not mean that that ability should necessarily constitute action. In other words, possessing the knowledge of how to create destructive technology does not mean that one should create such technology.

Vonnegut believed that writers have an obligation to serve as "alarm systems" who can challenge their readers to confront injustice and create change, and so he made cold war technology and naïve, foolish scientists the target of his 1963 novel. The fictional, irresponsible scientist, Felix Hoenikker, whose work destroys human life in Cat's Cradle, was based on a real person, a scientist with whom Vonnegut's brother worked. In his interview with Standish, Vonnegut explains that, historically, scientists were so focused on their work that they never considered what use might be made of their discoveries. He says that "it used to be that scientists were often like Irving Langmuir" (a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who served as the model for the childlike, innocent Felix Hoenikker). Vonnegut explains that Langmuir claimed that "he was simply unearthing truth, that the truth could never hurt human beings." Langmuir was not "interested in the applications of whatever he turned up," according to Vonnegut. The fictional Dr. Hoenikker also lacks any awareness of the dangers posed by his inventions. He is so unaware that he takes his invention, ice-nine, on his Christmas vacation and spends time playing with the compound. He dies as a result of handling the compound without taking care that the material does not fall into the equally careless and irresponsible hands of his children. During the time that Langmuir was working, scientists paid more attention to the search for knowledge than to any use that might be made of that knowledge.

The development of atomic weapons was one field, however, that led to a greater awareness of the social and moral responsibility that scientists must assume. In a 1950 letter to the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, Albert Einstein wrote: "In our times scientists and engineers carry particular moral responsibility, because the development of military means of mass destruction is within their sphere of activity." Einstein felt that scientists would need the backing of a strong social and scientific organization to withstand the pressures placed upon scientists, who "face difficulties" in following their conscience. Einstein clearly understood that scientific advancement in weapons research could pose a danger to the world. As if to confirm Einstein's fears, scientists continued to develop larger, more powerful, and more deadly nuclear weapons in the decade that followed his letter. The possibility of mass destruction became a reality, and literature became one way to sound the alarm that it was time for someone to take responsibility for the development and use of all this dangerous technology.

Vonnegut's treatment of the scientific community in Cat's Cradle presents an argument for the need for someone to assume moral responsibility for this technology. In particular, Vonnegut uses the development of ice-nine to illustrate his worry that scientists are only concerned with solving problems and creating products without any thought about how these discoveries might be used. Vonnegut has Felix Hoenikker's boss at Research Laboratory present the argument that all scientific discovery is good because science is truth. A fictional scientist, Asa Breed, tells the narrator, John, that scientists at the facility that he oversees work unsupervised on whatever interests them. The work of these scientists is solely concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, which to the scientific community is absolute truth. In his essay in the Hastings Center Report, Michael J. Selgelid acknowledges this same kind of belief among real scientists, who "commonly believe that knowledge is good in itself and that both freedom of inquiry and the free sharing of information are essential to the purity and progress of science." Selgelid quotes Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the atomic bomb, as saying that "it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world." Oppenheimer's words are so similar to the argument put forth by Asa Breed that they represent the kind of warning that Vonnegut's novel suggests should not be ignored.

The period during which Vonnegut was writing Cat's Cradle was a time when the technology-fueled arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was putting the world at great danger from nuclear war. Naturally, Vonnegut was not the only person worried about nuclear technology. In his essay in the Journal of American History, Paul Boyer notes the obsession that Americans had with nuclear weapons, during the 1950s and early 1960s. According to Boyer, during this period, "the nation had been gripped by profound nuclear fears," in part due to the cold war arms race between the United States and the Soviets to create bigger and more deadly weapons. Boyer argues that "nuclear fear was a shaping cultural force in these years. Books, essays, symposia, and conferences explored the medical, psychological, and ethical implications of atomic weapons." In 1961, President Kennedy gave a televised speech in which he urged Americans to participate in a national bomb shelter program. As a result, many people built bomb shelters in their back yards, and even "Papa" Monzano has a bomb shelter built under his castle in Vonnegut's novel. At the same time, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which had been created in 1951 as a response to the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb test, created evacuation plans, radio alert systems, warning sirens, school air raid drills, and films on how to survive a nuclear attack. What was missing from all this planning was any sense of responsibility for the creation of the weapons that made such planning necessary. This lack of demonstrated moral responsibility is the issue that Vonnegut addresses in Cat's Cradle.

Vonnegut is not alone in claiming that writers have an artistic responsibility to serve as alarmists who can alert readers to risks they may not understand or to dangers of which they might be unaware. In his essay in Symploke, Robert L. McLaughlin discusses the ethical and moral responsibility of literature. He laments a world in which publishers and big-box booksellers seem only interested in bestsellers and profits. This is also a world in which potential readers are only interested in reality television. Because of a changing environment for writers, McLaughlin argues that the kind of literature that embraces social responsibility is no longer being written or read. In his contemporary world, fiction functions as occasionally challenging "our culture's values, raising consciousnesses, occasionally transforming individual lives." McLaughlin does not see these occasional possibilities for change as sufficient. Like Vonnegut, McLaughlin argues that literature's role "is to question, challenge, and reimagine the ideological status quo." Vonnegut, of course, goes beyond questioning and challenging in Cat's Cradle. What he does, instead, is imagine a world in which accountability is no longer relevant. In Vonnegut's fictional world, no one takes responsibility for his or her actions. Felix Hoenikker cannot envision a world where his inventions would not be valued, and his children are so busy searching for long-denied happiness, they never consider the results of their actions. Vonnegut makes sure that readers understand that the Hoenikker children are neglected, unloved, and unhappy. In creating these children as victims, as well as perpetrators, the author asks his readers to consider any possible excuses for their actions. Ultimately, Vonnegut proposes a world in which excuses cannot suffice to exonerate blame.

The search for reasons, for excuses, or for answering the question of why people behave as they do is a common query of philosophers. Philosophy professor Elinor Mason, writing in Philosophical Books, explores what kinds of situations might excuse an individual from accepting moral responsibility for his or her actions. As noted above, this is an important point to consider, with regard to the Hoenikker children, who were starved for affection as children and who each subsequently bartered ice-nine to buy a brief chance at happiness. Mason says that there are debates in the philosophical community about the kinds of conditions that "excuse someone from responsibility for something they have done." In particular, Mason notes that there are "debates about whether a deprived childhood is an existing condition" that absolves someone of responsibility. Vonnegut's position on this argument is clearly established in Cat's Cradle. After the release of ice-nine and the destruction of almost all life in the world, the middle Hoenikker child, Frank, spends his time creating an ant farm, where he observes that the ants have devised a system of cannibalizing one another to create water. Frank, whose ice-nine destroyed the world, is oblivious to his role in the destruction. No amount of baiting by the narrator, John, can get Frank to accept or admit any moral responsibility for the devastation he has caused. In fact, his response to John's comments is to say that he has grown up since the release of ice-nine. John's disgust with Frank's actions and his disavowal of responsibility illustrate Vonnegut's dismissal of the philosophical debate about whether there are excuses that negate actions. These excuses only camouflage a more serious issue—the absence of moral responsibility by those who fail to safeguard their fellow man. As a result, in Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut reimagines a world in which the collapse of social and moral responsibility can have destructive consequences for the world.

Cat's Cradle is an example of how imaginative, socially responsible literature can function in the world. The ending is bleak; nearly all life is destroyed, and there is no hope that the world can survive. Still, the ending argues that readers cannot just sit back and ignore the looming disaster presented by cold war technology. Although McLaughlin expresses concerns that modern writers have not taken up the baton of social responsibility, there are still writers willing to accept the challenge of changing the way their readers think about the world. Some novels, such as those in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series for example, continue the effort of writers to reimagine a world in which a few responsible people try to combat the carelessness of governments who fail to protect their citizenry. In Rowling's world, people reimagine a world in which the status quo of discrimination and hate are no longer tolerated. Although on the surface Rowling's adolescent novels might seem vastly different from Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, both authors hope to inspire their readers to meet the challenge presented by socially and morally responsible literature.

Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on Cat'sCradle, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Michael Bland

In the following essay, Bland argues that the game of cat's cradle has anthropological and cultural significance that reveals superstitious meanings about death, and that this device is a mechanism to provide continuity in Vonnegut's novel.

Why did Kurt Vonnegut choose Cat's Cradle as the title of his novel, and what is the significance of the children's game? The answers are perhaps to be found in anthropology, Vonnegut's major as a graduate student at the University of Chicago (Vonnegut, Fates Worse thanDeath. [NY: Putnam, 1991], 122).

The cat's cradle probably originated as a primitive pastime in ancient China (Sigmund A. Lavine, The Games Indians Played. [NY: Dodd, 1974], 86). The game most likely came to America via the Eskimos, who in turn taught it to the American Indians (Lavine [,] 87). The tea trade brought cat's cradle to Europe from China in the 17th century (Camilla Gryski, Cat's Cradle,Owl's Eyes: A Book of String Games [NY: Morrow, 1984], 62). For many centuries the cat's cradle has been played and passed on from adults to children in almost every culture (Carolyn F. Jayne, String Figures and How to Make Them. [NY: Dover, 1962], xiv).

In his letter to Jonah [sic, et al.] in Cat'sCradle, Newt Hoenikker mentions the first and only time his father Felix tried to play a game with him. A prison inmate had just sent Felix a novel about the end of the world which was bound with a length of string that Felixb [sic] began to play cat's cradle with. Beyond the game's significance to the Hoenniker's personal relationship is the fact that Felix has continued the tradition of teaching the game to another generation.

Many cultures believe that the cat's cradle has magical properties. In Germany it is called hexenspeil, "witches game" (Gryski, 65). Before an Eskimo father leaves on a seal hunt, he tells his son not to play at home because he fears that the son's play may cause his fingers to become caught in the harpoon ropes (Lavine, 88). In the novel, Newt refers to Eskimos who play cat's cradle (113).

But the most relevant superstition belongs to the Navajos, who claim that cat's cradle was taught to them by the spider people and that it is to be played only in the winter, when the spiders are asleep. Legend says that if a spider sees a Navajo child playing cat's cradle, the child will have a horrible death (Lavine, 87).

The book that Felix Hoenikker receives from the inmate is 2000 A.D., a title suggesting both Christ's first and second comings. Here, Christ will appear on earth ten seconds before a nuclear holocaust. The apocalypse must anticipate, however, that Felix knows that ice-9 not atom bombs will end the world. Thus, when he uses the string that bound up the book to teach Newt cat's cradle, which resembles Christ's manger (Jayne, xiii), Felix joins the Eskimo and Navajo fathers who use the game as a superstitious way of protecting themselves and their children.

A number of images from Cat's Cradle echo the ominous superstitious beliefs cultures have attached to the string game. The lattice work holding up Papa Monzano's house resembles a cat's cradle. Jonah says the painting which Newt is working on resembles a spider's web, another reference to a cat's cradle and the possibility of horrible death. When asked what his painting is, Newt does not know, just as Felix does not know the terrible implications of his doomsday devices when he creates them.

The Eskimos played cat's cradle in the fall to catch the sun in the strands of the weave to delay the long winter night (Gryski, 72). In Vonnegut's novel eternal winter falls over the earth after an airplane crashes into the cradle-like lattice work of Papa Monzano's house and causes a sliver of ice-9 to fall into the ocean.

Vonnegut uses the cat's cradle image to [hold] his novel together in the same way that the prison inmate uses the string game to bind Felix's copy of 2000 A.D. Because the novel also links the game to destruction, Vonnegut, the former anthropology student, appears to be using ancient superstition to render a futuristic world.

Source: Michael Bland, "A Game of Black Humor in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle," in Notes on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1994, pp. 8-9.

William S. Doxey

In the following article, Doxey suggests some possible sources for the characters' names in Cat's Cradle.

While some attention has been given to Vonnegut's use of names in Cat's Cradle (see Stanley Schatt, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. [Boston: Twayne, 1976]), several important names remain unexamined, specifically those of Felix Hoenikker, Lionel B. Johnson, and Earl McCabe.

In Latin, "felix" means happy. "Hoenikker" may be pronounced the same as "Hanukkah," which is a Jewish holiday (also known as the "Feast of Lights") celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev (3rd month of the Hebrew year corresponding to November-December). Hanukkah is marked by the exchange of gifts. The holiday commemorates the Jews' victory over the Syrians led by Judas Maccabeus, who reconquered Jerusalem and restored the temple in 165 B.C. "Hanukkah" is derived from the Hebrew hānakh, to be dedicated. Nobel Laureate Hoenikker is most certainly that, though it is through game-playing and following his curiosity that he makes his great discoveries.

Felix dies on Christmas Eve, and ice-nine—his most recent, and most lethal, formulation—is his gift to his children. "Some Happy Hanukkah!" Vonnegut seems to be saying.

As Bokonon, Lionel B. Johnson is a spiritual leader for the inhabitants of San Lorenzo. His message, cast in the form of calypso verses, is based upon his admonition that, "‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’" The significance of his name seems to be in the fact that as "Johnson" he is a "son of John" who offers spiritual leadership as did his namesake John, author of the Book of Revelation which deals with "last things." It is Johnson-Bokonon who makes the last gesture of the novel by stating that were he a younger man he would "write a history of human stupidity" and then go up on the mountain and freeze himself into a statue "thumbing" his nose"—but at whom? Surely God; but rather than speaking the name of the [unnameable], he says "‘at You Know Who.’"

The name of Earl McCabe—a deserter from the U.S. Marine Corps who, with Johnson, took control of San Lorenzo in 1922—may have no significance beyond itself. It may, however, contain an ironic reference to the Judas Maccabeus who, by leading his people to victory over the Syrians, caused the occasion for which the Hanukkah celebration was created. A parallel in Cat's Cradle may be seen in Felix Hoenikker's Hanukkah gift to his children eventually being used in San Lorenzo to freeze the world solid. The connection between the two characters seems to exist only on the level of names, but in accordance with Bokononist belief this in itself may be good evidence that the scientist and the deserter belonged to the same karass, a structure analagous to the checkerboard yet "as free-form as an amoeba."

Vonnegut's humor is of a cosmic type which, ultimately, enables the reader to smile at fate and perhaps even laugh. The extended significance of the names of Felix Hoenikker, Lionel B. Johnson, and Earl McCabe adds to one's realization of the comedy that is Cat's Cradle.

Source: William S. Doxey, "Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle," in Explicator, Vol. 37, No. 4, Summer 1979, p. 6.

Wayne D. McGinnis

In the following essay, McGinnis argues that Vonnegut's invention of ice-nine is not a device of science fiction. Instead, ice-nine serves as a metaphor to discuss the social problem of evil.

One of the more fascinating elements of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle (1963) is its fictional scientific discovery ice-nine, a seeded form of water which crystallizes or stays frozen at extremely high temperatures. Vonnegut fans and critics have long pondered the source and implications of ice-nine and have naturally turned to science for help; one of the first dissertations on Vonnegut contains this footnote: "I am indebted to Dr. William Brown, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California, for pointing out to me that Russian scientists have isolated an ‘ice-two’ and ‘ice-three.’ This is further evidence that Vonnegut is a social critic who is dealing with problems of the present and foreseeable future." The bubble burst for this kind of speculation, however, when the "polywater" controversy was permanently shelved in 1973. The Soviet scientist Boris V. Deryagin, discoverer of what was taken to be the prototype of ice-nine, announced in that year that there was in reality no such form of dense water with "polywater's" amazing physical properties, properties of such interest to cold war-minded officials that a "polywater gap" had been declared in the mid to late '60's. Deryagin confirmed what some Western scientists had suggested all along, that polywater's properties could be attributed to contamination of ordinary water by outside agents such as dissolved quartz or even human sweat.

Had Vonnegut followers known the real source of ice-nine, all the speculation about this science fiction "invention" and its implications of social criticism could have ended long before, too. In 1969 Vonnegut addressed the American Physical Society in New York City and told of how he came upon the idea for ice-nine when he was working for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., during the early '50's. While working as a public relations man for GE, Vonnegut heard a story about H. G. Wells' visit to Schenectady in the '30's. Irving Langmuir, the Nobel Prize winning chemist (1881-1957), was recruited to entertain the dean of science fiction and thought up a story he hoped Wells would want to write: "It was about a form of ice which was stable at room temperature." Wells didn't take to the idea, and as Langmuir and Wells were both dead when he began writing Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut considered it his "found object." He tested the idea by suggesting an ice with such stability to a crystallographer at a cocktail party and was told that ice-nine was scientifically impossible (this episode antedates Deryagin's "confession" by ten years). Vonnegut still liked the idea: "Be that as it may, other scientific developments have been almost that horrible. The idea of Ice-9 had a certain moral validity at any rate, even though scientifically it had to be pure bunk" (Opinions, p. 97).

Given this overriding moral validity, to insist on the mere contemporary social implications of ice-nine, or to make it some amazing science fiction contraption is to distort Vonnegut's purpose for basing a fiction on it. Because God speaks to Job from out of a whirlwind, we do not call the book of Job a piece of science fiction, nor do we treat the exposition of Job's problems as a piece of social criticism of the Old Testament era. Like Job and Candide and Ra[s]selas and many other parables, Cat's Cradle uses extraordinary devices as metaphors for age-old, universal problems. The ice-nine metaphor is closest to the poetic metaphor Frost uses in his poem "Fire and Ice"; morally, it represents an embodiment of the destructive principle or "evil." Scientifically, ice-nine is perhaps closest related to the Second Law of Thermodynamics' proposition of the concept of entropy, the final inert amalgamation of all matter and energy in the universe, as much a philosophic as a physical concept. Vonnegut has been robbed long enough of his poetic mantle by well meaning but misguided science fiction addicts and social critics. Since we have the origin of ice-nine from Vonnegut himself, let us place the writer of Cat's Cradle in the universal moral arena where he belongs.

Source: Wayne D. McGinnis, "The Source and Implications of Ice-Nine in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle," in American Notes & Queries, Vol. 13, No. 3, November 1974, pp. 40-41.


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Diederich, Bernard, Papa Doc: Haiti & Its Dictator, Marcus Weiner, 1990.

Vonnegut modeled San Lorenzo and its dictator, "Papa" Monzano, on Haiti and its dictator, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. This book examines Duvalier's metamorphosis from country doctor to ruthless dictator.

Kelly, Cynthia, ed., The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses and Historians, Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007.

This book is a collection of essays, excerpts from books, and articles that creates a picture of the people who developed the atomic bomb, the policy that led to its use, and the ethical implications of its use.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Vonnegut Effect, University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

This book is a study of how Vonnegut's work reflects the cultural and social changes from 1964 to 2004.

Walker, J. Samuel, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bombs against Japan, University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

This book is an analysis of the events that led the United States to decide to use atomic bombs against Japan.

Weeramantry, C., Nuclear Weapons and Scientific Responsibility, Springer, 2000.

This book explores the responsibility that scientists must assume in agreeing to hire themselves out to whatever nations offer employment. The author tries to alert scientists to the importance of conscience and legality as essential issues of their work.

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