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Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapters 23-34

Chapters 7-22

Chapters 35-43

Summary

Without keeping records of his discovery, Felix had secretly succeeded in fulfilling the general's request. He created ice-nine, an isotope of water with a melting point of 114 degrees Fahrenheit: an isotope that was solid at room temperature. Shortly before he died, on a Christmas vacation in Cape Cod, Felix revealed his discovery to his children. After his death, they each took a sliver of ice-nine for themselves. According to Bokonon, each karass has two wampeters, or pivots, around which they revolve. John believes that ice-nine became the wampeter for his karass the day he spoke with Asa Breed.

Miss Faust gave John a tour of Felix's lab, which was cluttered with cheap toys. A plaque on the wall stated that Felix's importance to mankind was incalculable. Miss Faust explained that no one really knew Felix because his main concern was "truth," not people. She found it hard to believe that truth alone was enough for a person. She said that Felix challenged her to name something that was absolutely true. She responded that God is love. However, Felix asked her what God and love were, and she was unable to answer. When Miss Faust and John took the elevator, John asked the elevator man, Knowles, if he knew the Hoenikker children. Knowles replied that they were "babies full of rabies."

John visited the cemetery in Ilium to photograph Felix's grave. Emily Hoenikker's tombstone, a massive monument 20 feet high and three feet wide, was engraved with the word "Mother," two poems by Frank and Angela, and the phrase "Baby Newt" underneath a baby's handprint. Felix's marker, on the other hand, was a small square engraved with the word "Father." John visited the tombstone shop owned by Asa Breed's brother, Martin Breed. Martin explained that a year after Emily's death, Frank and Angela came into his shop with baby Newt and purchased an enormous tombstone for their mother, using Felix's Nobel Prize money to pay. Felix hadn't bothered to take care of the marker himself.

Martin was in love with Emily when they were in high school. She was a marvelous musician, so he started playing the violin to impress her. However, his older brother Asa lured her away from him, and Felix later lured her away from Asa. Because Felix helped invent the atomic bomb, Martin scoffed at the prevailing notion that Felix was innocent and harmless. Martin mused that Felix was "born dead" because he had so little interest in living people, even his beautiful, unhappy wife. He then told John that Frank left Felix's funeral services before the burial was even finished. At the time John spoke with Martin, Frank was wanted by the F.B.I. in connection with a car theft ring in Florida. Martin didn't believe Frank could actually be a criminal. Before he left Ilium, Frank worked in Jack's Hobby Shop, and his only talent and interest was building models. He took a job in a model shop in Florida that was actually a front for the car theft ring. Martin believes Frank was murdered because he simply heard too much while working there.

Although Newt was a midget, Angela was over six feet tall. She was a sophomore in high school when Emily died. After Emily's death, Felix withdrew her from school to act as homemaker for the family. She never had any friends, so she used to lock herself in her room and play the clarinet along with her records.

Martin had a stone angel carved by his grandfather in his shop. When John asked if there was anyone left who could carve stone with that kind of skill, Martin told him that Asa's son could. Asa's son took up sculpting after he quit his job at the Research Laboratory.

Commentary

The plaque in Felix's laboratory declaring Felix's "incalculable importance" to humankind is extremely ironic considering the ending of Cat's Cradle. Felix created the seeds of humanity's destruction with ice-nine, so his "importance" to humankind is indeed incalculable. Of course, as Miss Faust states, Felix was not concerned with people at all. He was concerned merely with finding new interesting games to play. He epitomizes the scientist who searches for knowledge with little or no concern for the application of that knowledge. Felix and Asa were essentially selfish. Asa cared more about protecting his valorized status as a scientist than he was with really considering the moral implications of his work. Felix merely wanted to amuse himself with the "real games" provided by the laws of physics.

Miss Faust's conversation with Felix regarding absolute truths emphasizes the theme of science as alien to basic human needs. Of course, humanity has been concerned with finding "truth" for most of its history, whether that truth came in the form of religion, culture, education, or science. Miss Faust offered Felix a religious conception of truth, but Felix, ever the scientist, asked her to define God and love. Vonnegut poses the hypothesis that "truth" alone does not fulfill human needs, whether it is religious or scientific truth.

Because he was a proprietor of a tombstone shop, Martin considered the entire charade of human existence in a different manner than Asa and his colleagues. Asa, Martin, and Felix all worked in the business of death. Asa and Felix's research was used to develop weapons of mass destruction, but they did not directly witness the results of their work. Having directly witnessed death and grief in his profession, Martin's take on human relations and human needs is quite different. He recognized the unhappiness of Felix's children in the aftermath of their mother's death. Felix cared so little for his wife that he didn't bother to buy a marker for her grave. His children took no comfort in having a Nobel-prize-winning physicist for a father. They used his prize money to purchase a monumental marker for their mother's grave. Her death affected them more than Felix's fame.

Martin mocked the prevailing notion that Felix was a harmless, playful innocent. People admired Felix because he didn't care about fame, fortune, or prestige. However, Martin correctly points out that Felix didn't deserve praise for not desiring the things that drive many other human beings. He was selfish in other ways. He got everything he wanted, and he didn't care about using people to get it. When his wife died, he took his daughter out of school to take care of the domestic matters he didn't wish to deal with. As long as his own comfort and peace of mind were provided for, he paid no attention to his children at all. Martin sees Felix's behavior in terms of his children as directly relating to his inability to feel remorse or responsibility for the atomic bomb.

Ironically, the Hoenikker children were just as selfish as their father in some ways. Their suffering and unhappiness aside, they still traded ice-nine to buy happiness. Like their father, they wanted to fulfill their desires, but they did so at great risk to all life on earth. Like their father, they did not care or even consider the awful implications their actions held for the rest of humanity. In their vanity and greed, they sowed the seeds of total destruction.

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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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30 out of 58 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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