Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most well-known writers of the twentieth century who speaks about social and political problems using satire, acute irony, and black humor. Vonnegut is a science fiction writer who tells about Cold War fears and the threat of the Bomb, the lurking dangers of overpopulation and food shortage on the one hand, and on the other government’s efforts to assuage the population.
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The threats to the individual, of being dehumanized in an anonymous technological world, of loss of identity, purpose, or power of choice, are implied repeatedly in even lightly humorous stories (Allen 65). Science fiction plots provide the perfect mode in allowing Vonnegut to treat these topics without becoming bogged down in the quagmires of logic that often inhibit their more serious discussion. His novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) vividly portrays his unique style of writing and vision of the world typical for Vonnegut. Critics underline that like many of his works, Cat’s Cradle is an autobiographical novel reflecting his life events and ideals.
Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922. His pedants, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr, and Edith Lieber Vonnegut were third-generation Americans. Vonnegut was a son of an architect, and his family never suffered the severe hardships that affected many families during the Depression. Kurt Vonnegut’s earliest publications appeared in his high school and college newspapers. In themselves, they do not appear exceptional in the quality of either their prose style or their ideas (Allen 12). That is natural enough since they are intended primarily to entertain student readers by being catchy and topical.
He wrote for The Daily Echo and the Cornell Daily Sun. The suicide of his mother was a terrible event in his life that had a great impact on the themes and symbols used in many novels. During WWII, Vonnegut was imprisoned in Dresden and spent about a year gathering bodies for mass burial. These events had a profound impact on his themes and were reflected in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel Cat’s Cradle was accepted as his Master’s thesis.
After the war, he worked as a police reporter and further a teacher at the University of Iowa. The second wife of Vonnegut was a famous photographer, Jill Krementz. He had seven children, and four of them were adopted. He spent most of his life in Barnstable, Massachusetts (Allen 43). Vonnegut died in 2007 in Manhattan. Two of his children become writers. and a daughter became an artist.
Cat’s Cradle is centered on the themes of science, religion, and technology. The protagonist of the novel, John, describes that he was going to write a novel about Hiroshima, and during his research, he got acquainted with the family of Felix Hoenikker, a fictional developer of the atomic bomb. He develops a substance called ice-nine, but now it becomes a possession of his children, the events take place n a fictional Caribbean island ruled by a dictator.
Their religion, Bokononism, is based on irrational actions aimed to bright joy to the community. In order to save his life and receive ice-nine, the dictator kidnaps the son of Felix Hoenikker. Instead of recovery, the dictator turns into solid ice. Because of an airplane crash, Monzano’s frozen body sends into the sea, which immediately freezes along with most of the water on earth. Extinction of life on the Earth is inevitable. At the end of the story, Bokonon suggests that he would write “a history of human stupidity” (Vonnegut 287).
The main character of the novel is John or “Jonah”. Cat’s Cradle is presented as if told by an almost anonymous narrator, who begins by trying to write the history of total destruction, with which Vonnegut himself was still wrestling in vain. John-Jonah moves among the heirs who share the invention–old Hoenikker’s children, along with their lovers and friends–learning slowly, painfully how to become yet one more Vonnegut victim: the patsy and reluctant messiah of yet one more true, i.e., false, religion (Schatt 54).
At the book’s close, he lies frozen for all eternity, his thumb to his nose and history of the world clasped to his side. He has learned this sacred gesture of contempt for the God or not-God behind the universe from Bokonon, a Black Prophet who is Vonnegut’s most impressive rebel-guru; and who, just before his own suicide, composed the final sentence of his Scriptures, as if for John-Jonah’s special benefit:
Vonnegut portrays that Dr. Hoenikker’s children suffer from the failure of their father and his scientific discoveries. Three of them have some physical disabilities that are only the sign of psychic problems. they are depicted as weak characters unable to resists the temptation to use ice-nine.
The Prospero who regulates the actions of everyone else is dead before the fiction begins; a certain Dr. Felix Hoenikker referred to throughout as “the father of the Atomic Bomb”. “Hoenikker, father of a bomb, father of three children, father of ice-nine. He was a little person” (Vonnegut 114). Franklin “Frank” Hoenikker is depicted as a “fox-faced, immature young man,” and a “pinch-faced child” (80, 194). He is cruel and unsympathetic, light-minded. and egoistic character. Frank obtains power on San Lorenzo by giving its dictator ice-nine, a decision that leads to the end of life on the Earth.
Bokonon, a priest on the island, dreams to turn the island they found into a utopia. He created a religion of Bokononism, Vonnegut invents new languages and creates terms like karass and Boko-maru, which seem to survive, in the heads of his “readers, his plots and even his jokes” (Allen 43).
Bokonon understands that all religions are founded on lies, but he tries to find some good in order to attract followers. Bokonon is a debunker, a demystifier, a mocker, an alternative voice through which Vonnegut can find the freedom to be as iconoclastic as he pleases. Bokonon is perhaps both more cheerful and more cynical. His ultimate philanthropic gesture, while judged “insane” or at least highly eccentric by others in positions of power or responsibility when looked at in light of either its limited but positive results or its ethical implications, appears eminently sane and even highly commendable (Bloom 33).
The novel takes place largely on an island paradise in the Caribbean, which stirs in us once more memories of that Master of Illusion, Prospero. Vonnegut describes the island as perfectly rectangular as a township in Kansas. Any restless soul, any soul seeking to find what lay beyond…” (Vonnegut 74). It is possible to say that this perfect and ideal setting is used in opposition to anarchy and false morals existing in society.
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The Pioneers’ Day parade is another setting that helps to unveil false values and traditions preached by society. There is stock humor in this story, such as the descriptions of the bodies amphibians choose and how they behave in them, the Pioneers’ Day parade, and the trial, with its parody of a McCarthy hearing. Science fiction is not always as benign in its comic contributions. Variable gravity is one of the science-fiction devices that set up much of the plot of the novel, much as Ice-Nine does in Cat’s Cradle. Both of these transformations of nature have their comic potential as well as their catastrophic consequences (Bloom 36).
The main symbol of the book is ice-nine can be interpreted as an atomic bomb that can destroy everything in a second. For John-Jonah, however, it was to be a book about Hiroshima rather than Dresden, and in the end, he does not even manage that–his imagination (and Vonnegut’s) pre-empted not by the Atomic Bomb, which did not quite end the world, but by Hoenikker’s next, posthumous invention, which did: not by the final fire, but the final ice–a kind of super-nice, called Ice-Nine, which melts at 114 degrees Fahrenheit, and with which Hoenikker was playing like a child at the moment of his death (Giannone 23). Vonnegut depicts the substance as “containing a seed of ice-nine, a new way for the atoms of water to stack and lock, to freeze” (47).
Bokononism can be seen as a symbol of false truth and values followed by society. Indeed, the not-quite nihilism of the book’s close is a product of the tension between the religion of Bokononism, which advocates formulating and believing sacred lies, and the vision granted to the dwarfed son of the Father of the Bomb of the emptiness behind all lies, however sacred (Reed 42). Vonnegut depicts the religion: “Bokonon’s theory … is what he called “Dynamic Tension,” his sense of a priceless equilibrium between good and evil….” (102).
At any rate, is revealed as having experienced two great joys before his tale is told: one slow and long-continued, as he learns who are the other members of his karass, the handful of others in the world with whom, willy-nilly, he must work out the pattern of his destiny: one intense and momentary, as he plays footsie with the blonde Negress, Mona, whom he, and everyone else, loves: their naked soles touching in the union called by Bokononists “Boko-maru.” “One of the central ironies of Cat’s Cradle is that through “the bittersweet lies” of the true-false religion Bokononism, the novel thematically quizzes itself” (Schulz 19).
Cat’s Cradle symbolizes the ability of a human race to change and shape the world around, and transformations caused by our actions. Through all historical periods, people try to shape and structure the world using religion and science. Once again, the central science fiction ingredient in the plot of this story is a throwaway device (Schulz 7).
The few absentminded steps necessary to set the would-be amphibian walking out of a body have about the same plausibility as Barnhouse’s aligning his brain cells. at the end of the novel, Bokonon comments: “If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe… and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who” (Vonnegut 299). Vonnegut presents the unresolvable conflict of mutually exclusive theories; namely, the possibility of actual joy.
Writing books can be interpreted as a symbol of future hopes and the creation of history by humans. For instance, Bokonon, priest-philosopher writes his Books of Bokonon, whose tenets and calypsos are quoted frequently in the novel. He declares that all of his truths are shameless if harmless lies, once again raising the issue of the ethics of the writer. Bokonon invents versions of history and explanations of various of life’s mysteries with alacrity. In so doing he shares disregard for distinctions between fact and fiction (Goldsmith 87).
In many reviews, Cat’s Cradle is often described as a “black humor” novel in which Vonnegut created a new language and a new religion to convey how language and religion help to invent beliefs that provide meaning and purpose in the face of life’s paradox (Reed 45).
When the narrator begins the story with the quietly loaded statement, “Call me Jonah,” Vonnegut launches a literary irony of several dimensions. Critics (Giannone 43) admit that One aspect is of course that of the Old Testament prophet who was punished for his failure to carry God’s message of mercy to the Assyrians by being cast off a ship into a storm, swallowed by a whale, and then coughed up on dry land. Following Allen (69) Vonnegut touches upon issues of free will, population control with hyperbole and humor. He can thus express a philosophical point of view or make a moral judgment in a manner that may avoid the resistance argumentation might invite (Klinkowitz 45).
In sum, Cat’s Cradle does not offer readers a Happy Ending: the book begins and ends with a vision of the total destruction of mankind, to which only an eternal gesture of contempt is an adequate response. Vonnegut questions the role and importance of science in everyday life and its threats to humanity. Vonnegut seeks to make a fairly wide-ranging commentary in Cat’s Cradle, he faces the challenge of creating broad or multiple plot situations and categories of characters to permit his plausibly portraying many aspects of life. He minimizes the danger of the reader’s becoming confused and distracted. Cat’s Cradle vividly portrays the unique style of Vonnegut and his ability to join humor into the science fiction elements.
- Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Kurt Vonnegut. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2000.
- Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1977.
- Goldsmith, David H. Kurt Vonnegut: Fantasist of Fire and Ice. Bowling Green, KY: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.
- Klinkowitz, J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and the Crime of His Times. Critique, 12 (1971). 38-53.
- Reed, Peter J., and Marc Leeds, eds. The Vonnegut Chronicles: Interviews and Essays. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Schatt, S. The World of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Critique, 12 (1971), 54-70.
- Schulz, M. F. The Unconfirmed Thesis: Kurt Vonnegut, Black Humor, and Contemporary Art. Critique 12 (1971), 5-26.
- Vonnegut, K. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963, 1998.