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Cat's Cradle

An analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" for Dwyer's 2H English class.

Nicolette D'Angelo

on 31 May 2013

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Transcript of Cat's Cradle

CAT'S CRADLE a prezi by Nicolette D'Angelo background "Cat's Cradle" is the fourth novel of the critically-acclaimed American writer Kurt Vonnegut, and it was first published in 1963. The novel was inspired by Vonnegut's employment at General Electric's public relations department during World War II (1939-1945). GE hired scientists and let them do pure research; Vonnegut's job was then to interview these scientists and write stories about their research. Vonnegut felt that most of the scientists were indifferent towards the ways their discoveries might be utilized. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir, who worked with Vonnegut's older brother at GE, embodied this indifference and thus became the model for the character Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Vonnegut said in an interview with The Nation that "Langmuir 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." These scientists were the individuals who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb used to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII. Vonnegut was placed in a moral quandary over how to interpret their indifference towards human suffering, and as a result, he wrote "Cat's Cradle." plot "Cat's Cradle" focuses on an everyman named John, who is writing a book about what important Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. While researching this topic, John becomes involved with the children of Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John and the three Hoenikker children end up in San Lorenzo, a tiny, rocky island nation located in the Caribbean Sea. The country's form of government is a dictatorship, under the rule of ailing president "Papa" Monzano, who is a staunch ally of the United States and a fierce opponent of communism. San Lorenzo also has its own native religion, Bokononism, a religion based on enjoying life through its "harmless untruths." As the novel progresses, John learns of a substance called ice-nine, created by the late Hoenikker and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When a crystal of ice-nine contacts liquid water, it becomes a seed crystal that makes the molecules of liquid water arrange themselves into the solid form, ice-nine. Rather than succumbing to his inoperable cancer, "Papa" Monzano acquires the ice-nine and uses it to commit suicide. The dictator's corpse instantly turns into solid ice at room temperature. John is selected to become the next ruler of San Lorenzo. During his inauguration festivities, San Lorenzo's small air force presents a brief air show. One of the airplanes crashes into the dictator's seaside palace and causes his still-frozen body to tumble into the ocean, and all the water in the world's seas, rivers, and groundwater turns into ice-nine, killing almost all life in a few days. John takes refuge in a cave for several months, which is where he begins to write his memoir. He meets Bokonon, the founder of the Bokonon religion, who is contemplating what the last words of the Books of Bokonon should be. themes humanism vs. antihumanism Humanism is "a system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters." This means that human need and thought eclipses all other philosophies. Although Vonnegut himself was a humanist, we can see both humanist and antihumanist messages in this novel, for example: a human brought about ice-nine, but at the same time, it was a human that destroyed the Earth with it. a further look at Bokononism Bokononism is based on the concept of "foma", which are defined as harmless untruths. Thus, the foundation of Bokononism is that of entirely lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to "Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy." Bokonon, a character in the novel, is the founder of the religion. He was born Lionel Boyd Johnson in 1891. "Bokonon" was the way the natives of San Lorenzo, the place where he started his rleigion, pronounced his family name in their unique dialect of English. Bokonon established Bokononism with Earl McCabe, his partner in ruling the island, as a means of helping the poor islanders escape the miserable reality of their lives by practicing a simple, useful religion. He arranged with McCabe that Bokononism be outlawed and eternally persecuted by the government, and with that, he went to live in the jungle, supposedly hiding, as a way of trying to lure the population into Bokononism as a kind of forbidden fruit. Bokononism encompasses a number of unique concepts
expressed in the San Lorenzan dialect, such as: "Calypso" – a song from The Books of Bokonon. Eight such songs are cited in "Cat's Cradle." The Calypsos illustrate various aspects of the teachings of Bokonon. Karass – a group of people who, often unknowingly, are working together to do God's will. "Now I will destroy the whole world" – what a Bokononist would say before committing suicide Duprass – a karass that consists of only two people. The two members of a duprass live lives that revolve around each other, and are therefore often married. Essentially, Bokononism is a religion based on the idea that religion is useful, even if, in the case of Bokononism, it is inherently false. The prevalence of the religion of Bokononism in San Lorenzo also embodies these conflicting themes: while the citizens are dependent on the religion and its principles, Bokononism itself promotes humanism. It is also told to the narrator that "the only thing sacred to Bokononists is man" (Vonnegut 211). religion Similar to the humanism vs. antihumanism debate, "Cat's Cradle" questions religion's role in relation to humanity. Vonnegut's message in creating a religion based on lies isn't to denounce religion altogether. Instead, he asks the reader to consider the ultimate purpose of religion. Some of these questions include:
"What if religion is all just a heap of lies?"
"Is that a bad thing?"
"Can religion still be useful, maybe even necessary, for human existence even if it's 'false'?" Vonnegut seems to answer "YES!," that religion is a necessary part of humanity, regardless of truth, which is best exemplified by how Bokononism allowed for the survival of the people of San Lorenzo (despite the fact that many San Lorenzans lived in life-threatening squalor). However, it is ultimately up to the reader to decide what constitutes religion and the degree of its importance. Vonnegut intentionally leaves these questions open-ended, despite hinting at his own preferences. the importance of science Indisputably, it is scientific advancement that leads to the fall of man in "Cat's Cradle." At first glance, it appears that, by making scientists like Felix Hoenikker and his inventions into conflicting forces, Vonnegut is putting science on trial. However, that is not entirely the case. Instead, Vonnegut criticizes the thought that science can somehow be considered separate or above the atrocities it helps create, such as the atomic bomb. Characters like Felix Hoenikker and Dr. Asa Breed consider their research distinct from the way the world decides to use it, which is what really leads to catastrophe. The following self-referential quote by John is a testament to this idea:
"My book is going to emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb, so recollections of the day through the eyes of a 'baby,' if you'll pardon the expression, would fit in perfectly." (Vonnegut 7) "Cat's Cradle" sees science and technology as essential tools that can be used for evil as well as good. As a result, the novel holds science accountable to right-brain as well as left-brain analysis. fate vs. free will At the end of the novel, John believes that everything that happened to him during his time in San Lorenzo, and his imminent death, is a direct result of fate. After all, the Books of Bokonon say that "things happen as they were meant to" (Vonnegut 22). On the other hand, it is also revealed at the end of the novel that Bokonon truly believed in God, not in the foma of Bokononism. Does this mean that fate is another one of the lies that humans tell themselves to make their lives more bearable? Are we slaves to thought of fate? Vonnegut presents these questions, and leaves them unanswered. symbolism The song "Blue Lips" by Regina Spektor narrates the life of a man that takes up a new faith, and as a result he becomes in touch with his thoughts and feelings (this is also true of John in the novel as he takes up Bokononism). These human impulses have consequences: he begins to see the ugliness of the world and is overwhelmingly disappointed by the state of society. The chorus contributes to this sense of dissatisfaction with the image of the color blue, which is often linked to human sadness. The closing lyrics remind that blue is also "the color of the Earth from far away." Considering that the world ends in "Cat's Cradle" completely covered over by ice-nine, the song and the novel have a similar ending. cat's cradle Pieter Bruegel's 1568 oil painting, often called "The Parable of the Blind," is a literal depiction of a line of blind people following each other and stumbling into a ditch, as forecasted in the Bible by Matthew 15:14. In connection with the themes presented Vonnegut in the novel, this painting is apt to the idea that the fate of one can sometimes be influenced by that of another, such as in the case of John's conversion to Bokononism. The fact that the subjects of this piece are falling can also be connected to the fall of mankind at the end of the novel, which was caused by the naive notion that science is not related to morality. Bokononism revolves around the idea that people's lives are interconnected in a way that is simultaneously fragile and durable. Although the cat's cradle is only referenced a few times throughout the novel, it is a symbol of the inexplicable bonds that tie human lives together. However, the absurdity of the novel and its social commentary further develops this symbol. In essence, the cat's cradle is something we can't explain:
"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, no damn cradle." This is Vonnegut's clearest message about the institutions that govern our society: war, science, religion, anything. They are just as much of a cat's cradle than a bunch of X's between somebody's hands. It is, in a sense, the root of all the other problems. If we want to wonder why life could be so fragile as to be destroyed by ice-nine, we should wonder how easy it is to undo a cat's cradle. If we want to wonder why we can be comforted by lies, we should wonder why we call it a cat's cradle... but in the end, we are left with the same conclusion: No damn cat, no damn cradle. ice-nine This 2008 painting by Baila Goldenthal captures the complexity of human relationships, and like Vonnegut, she uses a cat's cradle as a symbol for the game of life. Ice-nine is the ultimate symbol for the fragility of life. It was not created to be a weapon, yet it was still brought about the end of the world: not with violence, not with intent, but with a circumstance of stupidity that is undeniably human. For this reason, ice-nine is more than just a metaphor for the atomic bomb. Rather, it is a reminder of how vulnerable we are to accidents, which promotes the idea that our lives are somehow controlled by the indifference of fate. satire/irony "Cat's Cradle" is, at its core, a social commentary on the modern man and his madness. All of the themes and literary devices are expressions of Vonnegut's ultimate goal: satirizing human institutions that are considered "sacred," like religion, politics, and science. Vonnegut employs irony to create a mostly playful atmosphere which, in contrast with the emergence of the more serious themes of the novel, is a sobering realization of human stupidity. An example of the Calypso music that is popular in the Caribbean, where the fictional San Lorenzo is located in the novel. Many of Bokonon's "Calypsos" are set to this kind of music by followers of the religion. "Atlas Hands" by Benjamin Francis Leftwich is a song that reflects the struggle of being enslaved by institutions. Leftwich has disclosed that the song was written while he was trying to make ends meet financially in order to go to college. He felt pressured by those around him to make the "right" decisions until he realized that he has the power to control his own life ("atlas in my hands"), which agrees with the pro-humanist anti-institutional themes of the novel. This 2008 piece of art by Mari Skarp is called "Carriage," and in relation to the symbolism of the novel, it emphasizes the fragility that humans are born with as infants. As children we are often fed harmless untruths, or foma, in order to protect us from how dangerous the world actually is. This carriage is a bittersweet reminder of how we are protected, and how quickly the lies will fall apart when they are left unattended to. why you should read this book Although "Cat's Cradle" is considered "one of the twentieth century's most important works," and it demonstrates Vonnegut's true artistry, it is certainly not the most accessible American novel. It calls into question many notions that people, for whatever reason, are uncomfortabe questioning, predominantly religion. However, that's what makes this novel just as relevant as it was in the 1960's, if not moreso: the dystopia that Vonnegut is satirizing is OUR world. It is our institutions that he begs us to question, because in yopinion, there is nothing liberating about feeling comfortable. We must always ask "why?" We must always want more. We must act with the knowledge of our fragility in mind. When we don't do these things, we become susceptible to our own stupidity, just as the characters of "Cat's Cradle" became susceptible to ice-nine. If not for its philosophical value, this book is a great read because it's hilarious. Vonnegut's humor is unexpected and often situationally inappropriate, although it always has a point. His creation of Bokononism alone is laughably baffling. Finally, each chapter is between one to five pages long... enough said.
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