“For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces.”
Newt remained curled in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat’s cradle were strung between them. “No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…”
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”
So goes a conversation between the narrator of Cat’s Cradle and the son of a scientist who created the ill-fated molecular material known as ice-nine, a structure of water that has the power to instantly solidify water to catastrophic ends.
With that in mind…
Cat’s Cradle is a cautionary tale that spells doom for humanity when the lust for technological advancement threatens to solidify every lake, ocean, and river instantly into ice. But to truly understand the nuance and fears explored in Cat’s Cradle, it’s a good idea to have some context for the 1960s.
Historical Events Behind Cat’s Cradle
Let’s venture back to when Cat’s Cradle was first published. In 1964, Kurt Vonnegut published his fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle as a hardcover with the large publisher Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Now imagine, it’s the height of the Cold War, and tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union are at a breaking point.
Still fresh in the American zeitgeist is the Bay of Pigs fiasco. This fateful event transpired after successful coups by the Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy, where the U.S. actively financed and supported coups in Iran, South America, and Africa. Any leader that tried to nationalize its resources or go outside of U.S. empirical interests would be replaced by a puppet leader. Such leaders who faced a bleak end at the hands of the U.S. include Patrice Lumumba, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and Jacobo Arbenz, and that’s only naming a few.
In 1962, French leader Charles De Gaulle faced scrutiny for his Algerian initiatives for independence angering France’s military and Western industrialists. Several assassination attempts were made on him to which all failed.
Fascinating enough, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who shared De Gaulle’s worldview, received support from the French leader regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This was the unfolding world stage as Vonnegut set out to write his second novel, which languished for years and would later become Cat’s Cradle. The concept of universal truth was utterly diminished in favor of propaganda and patriotism that had been fermenting since World War II.
Similar to one of his influences, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut was a master of satire. However, he never appreciated the label “black humorist.” In Studies in American Humor, Peter C. Kunze and Robert T. Tally, Jr. writes, “Vonnegut makes sense through humor, which is, in the author’s view, as valid a means of mapping this crazy world as any other strategies.”
And Vonnegut does exactly that by using humor as a device to explore and make palatable the cold truths and bleak outlook he envisions for humanity.
Cat’s Cradle Structure & Background
Cat’s Cradle is split into two major parts and contains 127 discrete chapters. However, the novel itself is short and Vonnegut has claimed that his books “are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips… and each chip is a joke.” The first is set in Ilium, New York where the narrator introduces himself, “Call me Jonah,” which is reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick “Call me Ishmael” opening. Both characters are not only narrators but protagonists of their own stories. Jonah tells his story as a flashback when he was a professional writer working on a book about what significant Americans did on the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, entitled The Day the World Ended.
One of his intended subjects is of the deceased fathers of the atomic bomb, the fictional Dr. Felix Hoenikker, who’s also a Nobel laureate physicist. Hoenniker was working on a substance for a Marine general that would solidify mud so soldiers could run across it more easily when he discovered ice-nine. Ironically, this like the atomic bomb is a potentially catastrophic substance with the capability to destroy all life on Earth. Although with the serendipitous nature Vonnegut is known for, Felix Hoenikker dies in his rocking chair while taking a break experimenting with his recent discovery.
Vonnegut based Felix Hoenikker on his experiences with aging scientists he interviewed while working in the public relations department for General Electric’s research company. Vonnegut found that many of the aging scientists had no concern for how their research might be used. For example, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir, according to Vonnegut, was “absolutely indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he dug out of the rock and handed out to whoever was around, but any truth he found was beautiful in its own right, and he didn’t give a damn who got it next.” Langmuir became the key inspiration behind Vonnegut’s Felix Hoenikker. Even down to the similarly named Ice IX, which Langmuir worked on to seed ice crystals that could increase or diminish rain and storms.
Hoenikker’s three unusual children, Frank, Angela, and Newt, find the ice-nine and split it up in thermoses. It is through the desire to learn more about Felix Hoenikker for his book that Jonah meets his children and eventually learns of ice-nine.
Frank is the eldest son and is technically minded for better or worse. Angela is a clarinetist and abnormally tall while the youngest sibling Newt is unusually short, and is an artist who specializes in painting minimalist abstract works.
It’s in an interview with Newt, that he describes exactly what Felix Hoenikker was doing as the bombs dropped. He recounts that his father did nothing more than play a string game is known as “cat’s cradle” as the first bomb dropped.
Second Part of Cat’s Cradle
The second part of Cat’s Cradle takes place on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. Jonah receives a magazine assignment that takes him to the rocky island nation. One of the poorest countries on Earth, with only one city, (Bolivar), however, it does possess fighter jets if that gives any indication of where its disparities lie. San Lorenzo is ruled by a Christian government along with a dictator, Papa Monzano, who is an American ally and staunch opponent of communism.
San Lorenzo is an interesting portrait of what Western nations, led by the U.S., wreak on the developing world. It has a stooge government and leader that’s entirely beholden to the U.S., a suffering people that are highly reminiscent of Cuba, Guatemala, and the other nations exploited by Western business interests.
For his fictional island, Vonnegut injects Western influence in the most humorous of ways. Just imagine a national anthem that sounds fairly identical to Home on the Range and a flag that has the U.S. Marine Corps corporal’s chevrons on a blue shield, or a currency that’s called “corporals.”
Even more interesting is the founding of San Lorenzo. U.S. Marine Corporal Earl McCabe deserted his company in 1922 when he shipwrecked on the island along with accomplice Lionel Boyd Johnson who is from Tobago.
After the duo set in place a series of events that booted out San Lorenzo’s governing sugar company, it became a republic. Though, circumstances didn’t get any better for the citizens of San Lorenzo. So, to offset the wave of hopelessness and dissent, Boyd Johnson created a religion known as Bokononism.
Cat’s Cradle Religion Bokononism
Bokononism is a semi-humorous religion based on enjoying life through believing “foma” or harmless lies and taking any bit of encouragement where you can. Boyd Johnson rebranded himself as Bokonon and decided to outlaw the religion to help it spread quicker. Punishment if caught practicing Bokononism involves being impaled on a hook. However, it’s rumored that the leaders who outlawed the religion, even Papa Monzano, worship it and hardly ever punish anyone.
Many of the sacred texts that make up the religion are called The Books of Bokonon and are written in the form of calypso songs. Calypso music found its origins in the 17th century, brought by African slaves forced to toil the sugar plantations. With no connections to their homelands and unable to interact with one another, calypsos were used to mock the slave masters and communicate with one another. It’s only prescient that Vonnegut would use this form of music to become the dying gasps of humanity, brought on by western expansion and exploitation.
The Meaning of Cat’s Cradle is Meaninglessness
Theodore Sturgeon once described Cat’s Cradle as “appalling, hilarious, shocking, and infuriating,” concluding that “this is an annoying book and you must read it. And you better take it lightly, because if you don’t you’ll go off weeping and shoot yourself.”
After the fallout, Jonah and Newt are driving and Newt mentions maybe he could find a “neat” way to die. Jonah recalls a dream about climbing Mount McCabe but doesn’t know what to take with him. Then, John spies Bokonon sitting on the side of the road writing the last sentence of The Books of Bokonon. It reads:
“If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”