Cat's Cradle

by: Kurt Vonnegut

Chapters 1-6


Cat's Cradle opens with a brief introduction to some of the tenets of Bokononism. Each Bokononist believes that he or she belongs to a team that carries out God's will, but Bokononism warns that the individual will never fully understand his or her part in the divine plan. Everything that happens in his or her life is "meant to happen," so the Bokononist feels no pressure to do anything other than live his or her life with the faith that he or she is inevitably doing God's will.

Interestingly enough, the opening lines of The Books of Bokonon declare that Bokononism is based entirely on lies. Nevertheless, we later discover that the citizens of San Lorenzo, the birthplace of Bokononism, are all devout Bokononists. One may wonder how a religion that calls itself a lie can inspire such devotion. However, Vonnegut means to emphasize that religion's main purpose is to make its practitioners feel as if their lives have meaning and purpose. Therefore, "truth" plays no real part in religion; it is the illusion of meaning and purpose that a religion provides that is important. Without this emphasis on truth, Bokononism avoids inspiring the violent religious dogmatism that sometimes characterizes the practitioners of other religions. No Bokononist has any particular truth for which to fight.

In his portrait of Felix Hoenikker, Vonnegut mocks standardized, Western ideas about good, evil, sin, and morality. Generally, an "innocent" person is ignorant of sin. Felix, in many ways, fits this definition. When his colleague commented that science had known sin after the first bomb was tested, Felix betrays ignorance as to even the definition of sin. With such ignorance coincides a necessary inability to acknowledge moral responsibility. Felix felt none for his part in helping to create the atomic bomb.

Felix was so "innocent" that he was completely ignorant of personal and moral obligations. Like a selfish child views its mother, he viewed his wife, and later his daughter, as his caretakers and nothing more. He hardly acknowledged his family because they were not as interesting and fascinating as the "games" he played at the Research Laboratory. Felix was not an abusive father, but he was an extremely indifferent father, and just like his research, his indifference had future effects.

Frank's explanation of his interest in bugs eerily echoes Felix's attitude toward his research. On the day Hiroshima was bombed, Frank was amusing himself by forcing bugs to war against one another in mason jars. He told Angela that he was merely "experimenting." Felix's attitude toward the global conflict of World War II was very much the same. The pawns in Felix's "experimental" war game were millions of soldiers and nations armed with nuclear warheads. Felix regarded these pawns with no more concern than Frank regarded his insects.

Felix's total ignorance, indifference, and "innocence" toward the moral responsibility that accompanied his nuclear weapons research become even clearer in his attitude toward the prisoner's book about the end of the world. The prisoner asked Felix's advice about the type of bomb that could destroy the world because Felix was one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. More interested in playing Cat's Cradle with a piece of string than thinking about the possible applications of his weapons research, Felix did not spare the prisoner's book a second glance. Once the bomb had been created, Felix lost all interest in it. Clearly, Vonnegut does not equate innocence with harmlessness. Innocence such as that found in Felix can be incredibly destructive.