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Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapters 73-81

Chapters 56-72

Chapters 82-97

Summary

When Philip was 15, an epidemic of bubonic plague came to San Lorenzo via a shipwrecked German boat. One night, Philip was helping his father at the hospital, but they couldn't find a living patient in any of the beds. Julian began to laugh hysterically and told Philip that someday this would all be his. As Philip related this story to John, Frank telephoned John's room asking to see him right away.

Frank's house, designed by Nestor Aamons, straddled a waterfall. Frank was not there when John arrived, but John encountered Newt sleeping on the terrace. Newt had been working on a painting that was completely black with scratches in the form of a spider web. When Newt awoke, he told John that the painting was a cat's cradle, one of humanity's oldest games. He pointed out that it is nothing but a bunch of Xs made with strings. He further commented that it didn't surprise him that children go crazy, since there's no cat or cradle.

Angela and Julian arrived. John stated that he heard Julian was a follower of Albert Schweitzer. Julian replied that he considered Schweitzer no hero, but he did see Jesus Christ as a hero thanks to Schweitzer. After John explained the significance of Newt's painting, Julian interpreted it as a representation of life's meaninglessness. John reminded him of his statements regarding Christ, but Julian replied that people have to talk about something to exercise their voice boxes. Julian explained that he perceived all humanity as worthless and repulsive, despite all its creations and so-called "knowledge." Newt agreed, so Julian threw his painting off the terrace into the waterfall. John realized that he would have to write an article about Julian that focused on his charitable deeds because his philosophy would be very unpopular with his readers.

From Julian, John learned that everyone on San Lorenzo was a Bokononist. Julian explained that when McCabe and Bokonon took over the island, they quickly realized that no economic or legal reform would really raise the standard of living for the island's residents. Instead of confronting the truth, they decided to hide it, by providing the people with a religion, Bokononism, designed to provide comfort. The illegality of Bokononism was also by design; an illegal religion seemed more exciting to its practitioners. Rumors of executions began to circulate and Bokonon went into hiding. The lives of San Lorenzo's residents suddenly gained a meaning they could understand. However, both Bokonon and McCabe eventually went insane because the strain of playing their roles became too much. McCabe actually did execute a few people on the hook. Although it would have been easy, he never tried to capture Bokonon since, without him, McCabe's own role as tyrant would have been meaningless. After McCabe died, Monzano took over. He ordered a few executions every now and then to keep the charade going.

After a few drinks, Angela railed at the world's lack of gratitude for Felix's contributions. Felix's salary was less than $30,000 a year, and he received only $45 as a bonus for each patent his research produced. While Julian expounded on the poverty on San Lorenzo, Newt suggested Angela play her clarinet to ease her sadness. While she was out of the room, Newt explained that Angela had a hard time because her husband always came home late, drunk and covered with lipstick. When John expressed surprise that her marriage was unhappy, Newt held out his hands and replied, "See the cat? See the cradle?" In the next room, Angela played her clarinet with astonishing beauty. Julian quoted a poem by Bokonon about man's need to think he understands. He explained that all copies of The Books of Bokonon were hand-made. Newt dismissed the whole idea of religion, stating, "See the cat? See the cradle?"

Commentary

In this section, Vonnegut takes dead aim at the concept of truth. Many people considered Felix a "hero" or a "saint" because he helped the United States win the war with his research on the atomic bomb. However, few people knew Felix personally, so they did not know how terribly indifferent, irresponsible, and careless he was. Further, few people gave thought to the world the creation of the bomb produced. The atomic bomb ended World War II, but it created the circumstances that produced the Cold War. And, at the time Vonnegut published Cat's Cradle, the specter of complete nuclear annihilation was still very real. Vonnegut shows here that there is no definite truth, no single strand of belief that an individual can hold onto and be certain of, without deluding himself just a little bit.

Vonnegut shows a number of origins for such delusion masquerading as simple truth. In the case of Asa Breed, this delusion arose out of simple pride and perhaps fear. Asa wanted to conceive of himself as a good person and an important scientist. In order to do so, he needed to defend his actions. The concept of "pure science" was his defense. But the delusion also exists on a grander scale. John traveled to San Lorenzo to write an article about Julian Castle. He discovered soon after arrival that Castle was a blatant misanthrope. Yet, John knows what his readers want: an article about a reformed bad boy. John resolves to give it to them. Delusion feeds itself and makes itself stronger. The public wants Julian to be a hero, and so he is presented as such.

Albert Schweitzer was a philosopher, theologian, and medical missionary who developed a philosophy that preached the utmost respect for the value of life. Julian's cynical dismissal of Schweitzer reveals a strain of nihilism. He believed the world is utterly meaningless and that all beliefs, religious, moral, or otherwise, are merely a means to exercise one's voice box. Unlike Julian, Bokonon did not seem to view people as worthless and repulsive. Rather, he saw them as ridiculous and laughable. His religion illustrates his cynicism, but he lacked the nihilism that characterized Julian's beliefs, and the greedy arrogance that characterized Lowe and Hazel. When he found that he did not have the power to increase their material comfort, he offered San Lorenzo's people the comforting illusion of meaning and purpose. Arguably, his gift to San Lorenzo was more meaningful than Julian's hospital or "Papa" Monzano's gift of an erotic symbol in Mona. Bokonon recognized the basic irrational nature of humanity and sought to provide comfort and a measure of happiness through an irrational religion. The only problem with the entire charade he created with his religion was that he and McCabe began to treat it as if it were real. At that point, people actually did begin dying for practicing Bokononism. Delusion became real.

Angela's outrage at her father's salary reveals her total indifference to the suffering, poverty, and disease that surrounded her on San Lorenzo. While Julian expounded upon the utter poverty in San Lorenzo, she still continued to complain about her father's pay, although the vast majority of San Lorenzo would have considered his pay an astronomical fortune.

With Newt's painting and his constant reference to the cat and the cradle, the title of the novel comes to bear a powerful symbol. Here is a game that Felix played as the bomb dropped and changed the world. It is a game played with string that forms nonsense shapes, a puzzle without end. And, it is a game named after a non-existent cat and a non-existent cradle. Cat's Cradle is a game of no meaning, of no value, and yet, it is beloved among children, its name accepted despite its ridiculous absence of fact. The game becomes a symbol of all the delusions that run rampant through the novel; people in Cat's Cradle search for an impossible final meaning, caught up entirely in a game with no end.

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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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