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Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapters 7-22

Chapters 1-6

Chapters 23-34

Summary

Newt, who had failed all his classes at Cornell, wrote in his letter that he was a four-feet-tall midget. He also mentioned his happy engagement to Zinka, a Ukrainian midget who belonged to a dance company. However, John soon read in the newspaper that a week after their engagement, she returned to the Soviet Union. Although Newt refused to offer an explanation to the newspapers, one reporter discovered that Zinka was 42, not 23 as she had claimed.

John arranged for an interview with Dr. Asa Breed, the man in charge of the General Forge and Foundry Company's Research Laboratory where Felix worked. The night before the interview, John met Sandra, a prostitute, and a bartender who attended school with Frank. They said that Frank was a reclusive and secretive youth, known among his peers as "Secret Agent X-9."

From Sandra and the bartender, John learned that Felix was supposed to give the commencement speech for Frank's graduating class, but he failed to show. Another scientist gave a speech in his place that condemned superstition and praised science, which would surely discover the key to life one day. Sandra and the bartender added that "some protein" had recently been discovered as the "basic secret" to life. Another bartender told John about a bum who had come in the day the bomb was dropped to ask for a free drink because the world was ending. Asa Breed's son came in thereafter and announced that he was quitting his job at the Research Laboratory because everything a scientist did was destined to become a weapon. Sandra told John that everyone believed Asa Breed had carried on an affair with Felix's wife; some people thought he had fathered all Emily's children.

When John met with Asa the next morning, Asa told him that Felix had once inexplicably abandoned his car in traffic. Felix's wife, Emily, picked it up, and while driving it home suffered a terrible accident that damaged her pelvis. Asa attributed her death in childbirth with Newt to her injury. Asa introduced John to Francine Pefko, the secretary for one of the research scientists. She knew nothing about her boss's work, and she believed scientists spent too much time thinking. Afterward, Asa took John on a tour of the Research Laboratory, where he teased Naomi Faust, one of the many secretaries who did not understand a word of the documents they transcribed.

As John asked him questions about the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Asa became increasingly irritable because he sensed that John believed scientists had no moral conscience. He complained that people did not understand or appreciate "pure research." Asa stated that increasing the store of mankind's knowledge was a noble goal. He proceeded to tell John that a general once asked Felix to invent a solution to mud because the troops were tired of slogging through it. Felix thought it was possible to create a small seed of a new isotope of water, which he called ice-nine, that was solid at room temperature. If this small seed were dropped into mud, then all the water in the mud would crystallize in the same fashion.

Horrified, John asked what would happen if such a thing were dropped into the hypothetical mud. Asa irritably replied that the mud would freeze, but so would the rest of the water on earth because the chain reaction would seep into the streams, rivers, and oceans. If it rained, that water also would freeze upon contact with ice-nine. John asked if Felix had actually developed a seed of ice-nine, but Asa vehemently denied it. Asa ended the interview because John's questions made him furious.

Commentary

In order to understand how circumstances lead to a worldwide disaster by the end of Cat's Cradle, it is necessary to understand the emotional world of the Hoenikker siblings. Their mother died suddenly, and their father neglected them. Frank grew up as an outcast adolescent, subject to the taunting of his peers. Newt dealt with the added problem of being a midget. Felix withdrew Angela from high school to keep house for him, and she never had any real friends. The three of them wanted nothing more than to find happiness, a simple, universal human concern.

The Hoenikker siblings are a representation of humanity's common, simple needs. If modern technology had not placed a dangerous, destructive substance in their hands, these simple needs would not have become a threat to all life on earth. Vonnegut later reveals that Zinka was a Soviet spy. She stole Newt's ice-nine and gave it to the Soviet government. Newt, as a neglected, lonely young man was an easy target for such manipulation.

Vonnegut mocks the valorized status that science occupies as a means to gain knowledge and "truth." The commencement speech, delivered by one of Felix's colleagues, illustrates the inadequacy of science to fulfill all of humankind's needs. Felix's colleague declared that science would one day discover the key to life. This "key to life" turned out to be a type of protein. The concept that such a thing could be the "key to life" in any meaningful way is ridiculed in the response of Sandra and the bartender. Neither of them understood the details or significance of this discovery. It didn't change their lives, and, by extension, it likely did not affect the lives of most other people on the planet. The discovery of this protein brought no happiness; it was a key to life in only the most basic, structural manner.

Asa Breed's praise for "pure research" failed to take into account the possible destructive outcomes of this research. He viewed "pure research" and the drive for knowledge as an end in itself. Therefore, he, like Felix, did not acknowledge or even understand that scientists incur a moral responsibility for the outcomes of their research. He believed that scientists only have the responsibility to acquire knowledge, not to determine how it is used. He praised Felix's brilliant mind, but he also called Felix a "force of nature" that could not be controlled. Asa's declarations, however, are undermined by his anger; he seems to feel some sort of guilt. In fact, Asa's own son quit his researching job after Hiroshima was bombed because he felt that anything a scientist learned would eventually be used as a weapon. Asa's son's decision is an implicit condemnation of the idea of "pure research."

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Incorrect information

by SuperBobKing, August 29, 2012

Ice-nine isn't an isotope of water. An isotope is an element with a different number of protons, and water is not an element and the water molecules are not altered. Ice-nine was just water in solid state only the molecules were put together differently than normal ice, which caused it to have a higher melting point.

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29 out of 56 people found this helpful

Incorrect Name

by tapmaster88, October 02, 2013

The name of Asa Breed's brother is not Martin, it is Marvin. Check Chapter 31.

Something I thought was interesting...

by possibly_troodon, March 28, 2014

It seems like almost every aspect of science has an opposite in religion and vice versa. Science is a search for truth, and Bokononism is nothing but "foma." Likewise, the scientific documents are completely incomprehensible to the secretaries in the Research Laboratory who transcribe them, and Bokononism is the one real comfort to the people of San Lorenzo.

I especially like how the contrast stands out in the characters of Felix Hoenikker and Bokonon. Felix is typically described as "innocent," yet his inventions, the atom bomb and i... Read more

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17 out of 18 people found this helpful

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