Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

Background

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 11, 1922, to Kurt Vonnegut Sr. who was a well known architect and Edith Sophia Vonnegut. The Depression hit the family hard reducing their income considerably forcing Kurt to attend public school unlike his siblings who went to a private school. Though he was encouraged to study science, Kurt displayed a keen interest in writing right from his high school days when he edited the school newspaper. While at Cornell too, he edited the Cornell Daily Sun. He left college to enlist in the US Army during the WWII. He was captured by the Germans and put to work in a factory in Dresden which till then had not seen any action, not being of strategic importance to either the Germans or the Allies. But on 13 February, 1945, Dresden was mercilessly bombed by the Allies, an attack that killed more than a hundred thousand unarmed civilians.

The senseless suffering caused by this attack coloured Vonnegut’s future attitude to war. He embraced pacifism as the guiding philosophy of his life. While the Dresden bombing was going on, Vonnegut and other POWs took shelter in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse. This incident is the basis for the novel, Slaughterhouse Five, though he had to let 20 years pass before he could write about that life altering moment. The pacifist philosophy that his novels propounded and the scientific discoveries that had the potential to destroy the world profoundly influenced the counter culture generation of the 60s. Vonnegut is famous for his science fiction which was full of satiric humour; Cat’s Cradle is a good example of that.

Summary

John is the narrator of the novel called Cat’s Cradle but he prefers to be called Jonah. He plans to write a book on the activities of important Americans the day Japan was hit by nuclear bombs. One of the figures he wants to interview is Newt Hoenikker, the son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the scientists who worked on the nuclear bomb. He also gets to meet Dr. Asa Breed who was Dr. Hoenikker’s boss. From him, he gets to know that Dr. Hoenikker had invented or was close to inventing a substance called ice-nine which was capable of instantly freezing all water in the world including the water in the human body.

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The book does not make much head way and remains forgotten until John gets sent on an assignment to the island of San Lorenzo. By strange coincidence, there he meets several characters who were connected to Dr. Hoenikker in some way. All three Hoenikker children are present in San Lorenzo. Here he also learns about the Bokononism, a religion practiced in San Lorenzo. This country is ruled By Papa Monzano who is dying of cancer. He has anointed Frank Hoenikker, an army general, to be his successor. Frank does not feel up to it hence offers the job, surprisingly, to John who accepts it because along with the offer comes the chance of marrying the beautiful Mona Monzano.

Papa Monzano does not want to suffer anymore so he kills himself by consuming ice nine. John is now sure that Dr. Hoenikker had indeed discovered ice nine but he needs to know what has happened to it. The Hoenikker siblings admit that they had shared the substance among the three of them and used it to get what they wanted from life. John and the Hoenikker siblings try to remove traces of ice nine by burning it which is the only way to get rid of it. Papa Monzano’s body is cremated to neutralize ice nine. But a freak air accident sends the body floating into the sea and all the water in the world freezes and becomes solid. The world as we know it perishes. John and Mona live in Papa Monzano’s dungeon for a while but she commits suicide later. When John meets Bokonon, the founder of Bokononism, Bokonon tells him that someone should write a book on “the history of human stupidity”. And that is what Cat’s Cradle is!

Plot

John, the main character sets out to write a book chronicling the activities of important people the day Japan was hit by nuclear bombs. The first person he plans to interview is Newt Hoenikker, the son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker who was one of the scientists who worked on the nuclear bombs. Although Dr. Hoenikker dies, John gets to meet Dr. Asa Breed who was Dr. Hoenikker’s boss. He tells John that Felix had already discovered or was close to discovering a substance called ice nine which had the quality of freezing water the moment it came into contact with it. Even a drop falling into the ocean would freeze the water in all oceans, rivers and lakes and would eventually destroy the world.

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John does not make any further progress with the book and it lies forgotten until an assignment takes him to San Lorenzo. Here he gets to meet all three Hoenikker siblings and the island’s dictator, Papa Monzano. San Lorenzo is a strange place where the inhabitants are dirt poor but they practice a religion called Bokononism that keeps them happy. Before dying of cancer Papa Monzano anoints Frank Hoenikker, an army general in San Lorenzo, as his successor. But Frank does not fancy the job and offers it to John. John accepts it as he gets to marry the ravishing Mona Monzano as part of the deal.

Sick of suffering Papa Monzano commits suicide by swallowing ice nine. This proves to John that Dr. Hoenikker had indeed discovered ice nine and some have access to the substance. On questioning, the Hoenikker siblings confess that when their father died, they shared the substance among themselves and used it to satisfy their materialistic desires. John and others try to remove all traces of ice nine from the room by exposing it to heat. The body of Monzano is burnt too, as a customary burial would cause all the water in the world to freeze over. But a freak air accident sends the building in which the body was kept tumbling into the sea. The water freezes over instantly. Only John and a few others survive for the time being. They take shelter in Monzano’s dungeon. Mona commits suicide. John comes across Bokonon who tells John that someone ought to write about the “history of human stupidity”.

Characters

John

John is the main character and narrator in the novel, Cat’s Cradle. Everything that is spoken during the course of the book is through John’s words. John sets out to write a book which alas isn’t completed. Later on he gets sucked into the affairs of the Hoenikker siblings and the people of San Lorenzo. He accepts the Presidency of San Lorenzo though he is more interested in marrying Mona Monzano, the daughter of the dictator. Later when Papa Monzano dies, John is involved in de-contaminating the room.

Felix Hoenikker

Felix is a brilliant scientist who worked on the atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima but he does not care about humanity nor does he accept any responsibilities. For him research and discoveries are like an amusing game. He does not take the responsibility for the outcome of research. After discovering ice nine, in spite of knowing its lethal nature, he leaves no records of it but lets his children misuse it. Felix does not bond with humans; that includes his children whom he does not care for.

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The Hoenikker Siblings

The Hoenikker siblings are Angela, Frank and Newt. They share their father’s lack of concern for humanity. When their father commits suicide, they realize the potential of ice nine to further their interests in life. Though they lack the malicious intent that evil characters have, the Hoenikker children fulfill an evil function because they bring about the end of the world. All of them pursue happiness in their own ways; at first this seems an innocent enough pursuit which they share with the rest of humanity but they don’t comprehend the consequences of their pursuit.

Themes

Science

Science is a dominant theme in Cat’s Cradle. Scientists are sincere in their pursuits but they do not bother to consider the destructive nature of their discoveries. We cannot condemn science though since it enabled us to create antibiotics, x-rays and effort saving or efficient gadgets. However due to a lack of discretion and concern, it enabled the creation of atomic bombs and polluting industries. Scientists often lose interest in their discoveries and they don’t take responsibility for it.

Symbols

Ice nine

This is symbolic of the destructive force of technology. Vonnegut had been an ardent supporter of technology. Though he studied science in his university he wasn’t a keen student. While a POW in Dresden, Vonnegut felt the full brunt of destructive technology when the town had been bombed resulting in 1, 35,000 civilian deaths. Later at the end of the war, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unleashed untold suffering on people that lasted decades.