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Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

Chapters 73-81

Summary Chapters 73-81


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?"


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.