Published in 1963 by Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle” is a science fiction novel about the end of the world. It looks at science, technology and religion during the Cold War. In 1971 Kurt Vonnegut was awarded a master’s degree in anthropology for this book from the University of Chicago.
The book follows John who wants to be called Jonah because he likens himself to Jonah of the Bible. He is working on a novel about Felix Hoenikker who was a fictional “Father of the Atomic Bomb” that landed on Hiroshima. He is also a Nobel Prize winner. In researching the man he meets his three children and develops relationships with them. He also becomes involved in a religion called Bokononism. It teaches to accept God’s will, and to go with the flow of the universe.
After he is sent to write a story on a dictator president in San Lorenzo, he meets all three Hoenikkers personally and become involved in their lives. He is offered the presidency when the president dies and given his beautiful daughter to wed.
Meanwhile, the Hoenikker’s have a deadly biochemical weapon their father developed that they use as barter to get the kind of life they think they want. When the weapon is accidentally released the entire world is covered in ice in a matter of moments.
The end is a dystopian outlook with very few people left alive. Among them are Jonah, an older couple and two of the Hoenikkers, Frank and Newt. Jonah spends his time working on Cat’s Cradle, so named because Felix worked on the string game while the bomb dropped.
The “Cat’s Cradle” is introduced with, “Nothing in this book is true.” The name of the narrator is John but he wants to be called Jonah because he has been compelled to be certain places at certain times, as Jonah was sent by God to go to Nineveh and warn them of their destruction. When he tried to avoid going, God sent a fish to swallow him.
This Jonah has been gathering information for a book. He plans to write, “The Day the World Ended”. It was supposed to be about the actions of Americans on the day Hiroshima, Japan was bombed. At the time he was a Christian, so he meant it to be Christian. But since then Jonah has become a “Bokononist.” This religion believes that all of humanity can be separated into teams called “karasses”. These “karasses” unknowingly do the work of God. The book he never finished is the “kan-kan” that set him on his personal “karass”.
“The Books of Bokonon” teaches that if your life tangles itself with the life of another for no logical reason, then they are part of your “karass”. Jonah’s “karass” consisted of the three children of one of the Fathers of the Atomic Bomb, Dr. Felix Hoenikker. At the time of Jonah’s “sinookas”, or the tendrils of his life, became entangled with the physicists children, Dr. Felix Hoenikker was dead. The children were Angela, Frank and Newt.
Jonah wrote a letter to Newt in research for his book. He asked him what Newt was doing when the bomb was dropped. Newt replies that he was very young but gives Jonah the name and address of his sister, adding that his brother, Frank disappeared right after their father’s funeral. Newt tells Jonah that he was playing with his trucks and his father was making cat’s cradles with string at the time the bomb was dropped. Ironically his father was also reading a book a prison inmate had sent him about the end of the world in the year 2000. The book was called, “2000 A. D.” It was about a mad scientist who made a bomb that destroyed the world.
Newt couldn’t remember his father playing any other games. In an interview with Time Magazine his father said he didn’t play “made-up games” when there were so many real games going on. But, on this day his father, in his pajamas still wanted to teach Newt to make a cat’s cradle. Newt ran away in tears. His father frightened him because he never played with his children. He wasn’t interested in people.
After running from his father, Newt found his brother, Frank age twelve, who was collecting bugs in a jar for an experiment. Angela, then 22, came to check on her brothers. When Newt told her what happened with their father, she slapped him and Frank punched her in the stomach. She threatened to tell their father, but they knew he would ignore them. Newt said he didn’t blame her for slapping him because she idolized their father and he was all she had. No friends, no boyfriends, just a clarinet.
Newt closes the letter off by telling Jonah that there are a lot of anecdotes about his father and the bomb. Such as when a fellow scientist turned to his father and told him that science now knew sin, when the first test bomb was released. Hoenikker said, “What is sin?”. Newt then adds a couple of postscripts to the letters correcting Jonah of calling their family illustrious. He reveals that he is a midget at four feet tall and his grades are so low he can’t pledge a fraternity.
But, he is happy because he is engaged to marry a Ukrainian midget named Zinka. His brother, Frank is wanted in Florida by the police, the F.B.I and the Treasury. He has been running stolen cars to Cuba using war surplus L. S. T. ‘s. Afterwards Jonah reads in the paper that Newt’s fiancee returned to Russia a week after their engagement. She told the Russian Embassy Americans were too materialistic. Seems she lied about her age and was forty two not twenty three.
While trying to get an interview with Dr. Asa Breed who worked with Felix in the laboratory, Jonah kills some time in the bar of his hotel. He meets a prostitute who when to school with Frank. They called him Agent X-9 because he always acted “like he was on the way between two secret places; couldn’t ever talk to anybody.”
Dr. Hoenikker was supposed to give the commencement address to the class but he didn’t show up so Dr. Breed rushed in to give it. Dr. Breed said they should all study science. Science will discover the secret of life. Then she and the bartender say that they read in the paper that the scientist had answered that question and it was protein.
An older bartender comes in then. When he finds out Jonah is writing a book, he tells him what he was doing on the day of the bomb. A bum came in that day and wanted a free drink because the world was ending. Then Breed’s son came in. The young man said he was quitting his job at the lab because everything the scientist work on is turned into a weapon. Sandra, the prostitute, tells Jonah that everyone in Ilium thought that Dr. Breed was in love with Dr. Hoenikker’s wife and he might be the father of all three children.
The next day Jonah is hungover and driving with Dr. Breed. He tells Jonah about a time when Felix left his car in the middle of the road because of he traffic. When the police found it abandoned there was a cigar burning in the ashtray and fresh flowers in the vases. His wife put fresh flowers in the vases of the Marmon, every morning. The police had Felix’s wife, Emily pick up the car. Dr. Breed gets a far away look when he says her name. Then his hands tighten on the wheel when he says that she was involved in an accident on the way home that broke her pelvis. He thinks that may be why she died after giving birth to Newt. Unfortunately Jonah is still feeling the effects of his hangover when he begins to question Dr. Breed. The questions come out accusatory. No matter how Jonah tries to reign in the interview, Dr. Breed still feels he must defend scientist.
Breed begins to tell Jonah about something that Felix invented when a Marine General came to him at lunch asking him about moving troops. Felix told him about Ice 9. He said it would be the size of a grain of sand and freeze the water. The problem would be that the freezing would keep spreading until all the water in the earth was frozen. Although Dr. Breed swears Ice nine never left the planning stages, we discover that on the day he died Felix gave it to his children. They separated it three ways. For Jonah Ice nine is the “wampeter” in their “karass.” A “wampeter” is a hub that the “karass” spins on. It can be a book, an idea, a Holy Grail, etc. Something that every member concerns themselves with.
After his interview with Dr. Breed is finished Miss Faust is asked to show him out. He talks her into letting him see Dr. Hoenikker’s lab first. The lab is set up as a shrine with a plaque that tells of his accomplishments. Inside the lab was just as he left it and it was a mess. Cheap toys littered the space. A bubble pipe, a paper kite, etc. The desk was covered in letters since he never answered any. There was a framed photograph on his desk of a stack of cannon balls, instead of his family. His hobby was to take pictures of stacks of cannon balls. When she remarks on his eccentricities, Miss Faust says he was as different as a “man from Mars.” Jonah replies that maybe he was a Martian and she says that would explain his strange kids. When Jonah asks the elevator operator if he knew Dr. Hoenikker’s children he said they were, “babies full of rabies.”
Later Jonah decides to visit the cemetery so he can get a photo of Dr. Hoenikker’s grave. What he finds is a huge monument to Emily with poems engraved from each child with a hand print from “Baby Newt.” The monument to Dr. Hoenikker is a “marble cube forty centimeters on each side.” As specified in his will, with the word “Father” engraved.
The cab driver asks Jonah if he minds a side trip to the “tombstone salesroom” after viewing his own mother’s grave so he can upgrade her sad stone. At the showroom Jonah meets Dr. Breed’s brother, Marvin, who owns the shop. He tells Jonah that the children ordered their mother’s tombstone and paid for it with the money their father won his Nobel Prize. They visited their mother’s grave often, but her husband never did and hadn’t put any kind of marker on her grave.
When asked if he knew Emily, Marvin says that he dated her in high school and was in love with her. Then his older brother stole her away. But, when she met Felix, she left Dr. Breed. She said that Felix heard music from the stars. Marvin goes on to say the last time he saw Frank was on the day of his father’s funeral. Before the man was on the ground he hitched a ride out of town and hasn’t returned.
Jonah experiences what is know as a “vin-dit” moment in Bokonoism. A time when a person feels that God knows about them and has plans. In the showroom is an elaborate headstone with an angel. Marvin’s grandfather made it and the workmanship is amazing. The name carved on it is unusual and Marvin asks if Jonah or the cab driver had ever heard of anyone with that name. Ironically, it is Jonah’s last name.
Before going back to his room Jonah stops by a hobby shop that Frank worked at. There is an elaborate train set that Frank designed. He spent all his extra cash and time working on it as a teenager. The owner of the shop breaks into tears when he speculates that Frank was killed by “Florida gangsters.”
While Jonah was away he allowed a man he met to stay in his apartment. When he returned he found the man had trashed his apartment and killed his cat. Before that time, Jonah had been considering a nihilistic life, but after viewing the total destruction he changed his mind. Therefore, the man was Jonah’s “wrang-wrang.” The person who “steers a person away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the “wrang wrang’s” own life, to an absurdity.”
Then one Sunday, Jonah sees an advertisement in the Sunday Times that changed his life again. The ad has a picture of Mona Aamons Monzano. She is the adopted daughter of the dictator of San Lorenzo, Miguel “Papa” Monzano. Jonah falls instantly in love with her. Looking at the paper he sees a photo of her father and next to him is “Major General Franklin Hoenikker.” He is the Minister of Science and Progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo at twenty six years old.
Ironically, again, Jonah is assigned to do a report on Julian Castle. He was an American tycoon who was an alcoholic that chased women, drove fast and spent money like water. He also founded a charity hospital in San Lorenzo called The House of Hope and Mercy. His only child was Philip Castle who owned the hotel Jonah stays at. He dreams the beautiful Mona will take one look at him and fall in love.
On the plane Jonah meets an older couple who are completely devoted to each other, a “duprass.” Or two people who are complete in their own “kurass,” Minton and Claire. He is to be the ambassador to Sn Lorenzo. They are studying a manuscript about San Lorenzo written by Philip Castle. They offer it to Jonah and he randomly opens it to a page on “the island’s outlawed holy man, Bokonon.” He becomes absorbed in the book. During their childhood Bokonon was a tutor to both Philip and Mona.
Soon another passenger interrupts him and offers to introduce him to Angela Hoenikker Conners and Newton Hoenikker. Angela and Newt both have their Ice Nine crystals with them while flying over the ocean. They are going to the wedding of Frank and Mona.
When the plane lands, Jonah sees posters that say practicing Bokonism is illegal and Bokonon is wanted dead or alive. As they disembark Papa Monzano, Frank and Mona meet the plane. Monzano appears frail and sickly. During a speech, Monzano collapses and tells Frank he is to become president if he dies since he has Science and Ice. When he seems to die, Jonah looks to see a reaction in Mona. There isn’t one. But, he notices she is rubbing her foot on a pilot standing next to her. The ambulance took him away and the group disperses with Jonah and the Crosbys, a middle aged couple who are very gregarious, go to the hotel. When the Crosbys discover Philip owns the hotel, the check out and stay at the American Embassy. This left Jonah the only guest at a hundred room hotel.
While Jonah is talking with Philip Frank calls and tells Jonah to come over right away. At Frank’s house Jonah sees Newt working on a painting of a cat’s cradle. He says it is just a bunch of x’s between someone’s hands. Kids are disappointed because there is no cat or cradle. Angela arrives with Julian Castle. Frank calls and asks Jonah to wait in the house for him. He is at the hospital with Papa who is dying. The power goes out for a while and Jonah occupies himself by reading more on Bokonon. Meanwhile, Newt and Angela have their pieces of Ice Nine in thermoses that they are carrying around. When the power comes back on Jonah finds Mona with Frank by the generator.
The urgent matter he wanted to discuss with Jonah is that he wants him to become president instead of Frank who has trouble talking to people. Jonah laughs at the idea and Frank tells him that he is like the kids in high school that taunted him. They would have been surprised to learn Frank was sleeping with his bosses wife at the hobby shop. Then he tells Jonah that the Bokonon says that whoever becomes president can marry Mona, so Jonah accepts. When he discusses it with Mona, he tells her his only stipulation is that she must be monogamous. She tells him that is not the way of her religion and then asks him what his religion says. He says he doesn’t have one and she almost walks away. Then he asks her if he can share her religion and she stays. They exchange words of love.
The next day Jonah and Frank visit Monzano to get his blessing on their plan. He tells them to teach the people science. Then he has a Bokonon last rites. But he didn’t die yet. One of the first acts Jonah wants to perform as president is to get more electricity. At first Jonah wants to make changes and allow Bokononism and give Bokonon a government position. Then he realizes that he can’t give the people all that they need such as social services, housing, etc. So he decides to keep things as they are. The thing he can give them is clear cut good and evil.
Monzano dies after ingesting the piece of Ice Nine he wore around his neck that he got from Frank. The doctor also succumbed to it. When Jonah calls the Hoenikker siblings in to discuss the Ice Nine he learns that Zinka took Newt’s sample. So the Soviets have it. Angela gave hers to her handsome husband in order for him to marry her and Frank used his to get a job.
While the four are cleaning the Ice Nine from Monzano’s room, they tell Jonah about the day their father died and they got the Ice Nine. Afterwards they go outside to join a gathering on the beach honoring the “Hundred Martyrs to Democracy” who died in WWII. Suddenly one of the planes that were flying in formation experienced trouble and crashed into a cliff over the castle . This causes a rock slide that kills the Mintons. Then the rock slide carries Monzano’s body out to sea and within seconds Ice Nine is covering the world. Jonah and Mona make it to a bomb shelter and stay there through the worst of it. They spend the time having sex and Jonah reading the Books of Bokonon.
After seven days they emerge from the shelter and find the whole world is covered in ice. They find a boulder with a message from Bokonon. The people asked him if this was God’s will. He told them it was and God was trying to kill them all, so they should die. They all did. Jonah is furious but Mona touches a piece of Ice Nine to her lips and dies. The Cosbys find Jonah and take him back to Frank’s house where he and Newt are.
For the next six months Jonah writes this book. They eat meat and vegetables that were frozen by Ice Nine that preserved them until they were ready to thaw and cook them. Germs were all dead, so no sickness. Mrs. Crosby makes an American flag and Frank sends S.O.S.’s on a radio. Mr. Crosby does all the cooking.
By the time she finishes the flag, Frank has found some surviving ants. He sets up an ant farm to study how they survive the Ice Nine. Newt is working on a painting and asks Jonah to drive him to find some more paint. Along the way they talk about being the last people alive on earth. Then suddenly Jonah sees Bokonon. He stops and goes back to the man. His feet are covered in Ice Nine and he has the last page of his book that he has finally finished. It says that if he was younger he would climb to the top of the mountain, lie on his back and die, thumbing his nose at “You Know Who.”
John (Jonah) – he begins by comparing himself to Jonah of the Bible. At first he is writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The plan is to find out what key people were doing on that day, including Felix Hoenikker, one of the Fathers of the Atomic Bomb.
He connects with Newt, the youngest son of Hoenikker and through him the other two siblings, Frank and Angela.
Ironically he is sent to interview the president of San Lorenzo Island after he sees that Frank Hoenikker is his top aide. While traveling he meets Angela and Newt on the plane. Then on the ground he meets the president and Frank. Through an unusual set of circumstances, Jonah is offered the job of president and given the beautiful daughter of the president to marry. But he also discover the religion that shapes his life, Bokononism. He also discovers that a deadly biochemical weapon was developed by Felix before he died and his children each took a third of Ice Nine. Frank used it to secure the job he has by giving it to the dictator president. Angela gave it to her handsome husband so he could get the job he wanted and she could get a husband. And Newt allowed a Russian spy to romance his away from him.
Jonah saw the danger of the weapon and tried to stop it, but within seconds the world was frozen. He spends some time with Mona in a bomb shelter, but after they see the devastation she kills herself. Then he goes on to live with and older couple and the brothers, Frank and Newt. In the end he finally meets Bokonon. And writes Cat’s Cradle.
Bokonon – a religious leader in San Lorenzo. He develops a religion called Bokononism. Although he says his religion is based on lies the sayings are actually true. Throughout the book Jonah quotes him. He puts silly, but factual rhymes to music.
Angela Heonikker – the oldest child of Felix. She quit school after her mother died to take care of her father and brothers. She is very tall and not pretty but marries a very handsome scientist because she give him Ice Nine for the American government. Because she was so unhappy as a child she made herself think her father was a saint to justify his treatments.
Frank Hoenikker – the oldest son of Felix. Although he is handsome he is also a sociopath. He doesn’t like people and conducts experiments that are sometimes heartless. Frank left home when his father died and found himself on San Lorenzo. He used his Ice Nine to buy his position in government by giving it to the dictator president.
Newt Hoenikker – the youngest child of Felix and a midget. He spent his life unhappy. He was treated like a child by his sister. When he met another midget, he fell in love with her only to discover she was a Russian spy. She stole his Ice Nine and gave it to the Soviet Union.
Felix Hoenikker – a brilliant scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb. He felt no remorse when it was used because he was a sociopath. To him the work he did was a game. He developed Ice Nine that changed water into ice and then spread to all water in seconds. It destroyed the world. If he had still been alive, he wouldn’t have cared.
Kurt Vonnegut Biography
Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) was born on November 11, in 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was descended from German immigrants who settled in Indiana in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Vonnegut dropped out of college to join the Army during World War II. He was shipped to Germany, where he was taken a prisoner of war and sent to Dresden. There he survived the firebombing of Dresden and wrote about it in his book, Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut’s parents felt such animosity Germany, that they never taught him German, or kept any German books in the house.
Vonnegut wrote for his high school newspaper and found it easy. He believed everyone had something they did naturally and wondered why other people found it so hard. For him is was writing.
When he attended Cornell, he joined the Cornell Daily Sun. He quickly rose up the ranks to editor. As a pacifist, Kurt was against the war. But after Pearl Harbor, the whole nation was ready to fight. Kurt was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps while in college, but bad grades and an article that was satirical led him to be put on academic probation. Vonnegut dropped out of college, lost his student deferment, and instead of waiting to be drafted, enlisted.
He was stationed in Indiana and was so close to home that he could almost sleep there and report for duty the next morning. Returning for Mother’s Day weekend, Kurt found his mother’s body. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Three months later he was sent to Germany with the 106th. His unit participated in the Battle of the Bulge, but was supposed to be in a safe zone due their lack of experience. That did not work. They were overwhelmed by German troops. Five hundred were killed and six thousand were captured.
The train that transported the prisoners was attacked by Englishman killing one hundred and fifty prisoners. Then Vonnegut was taken to Dresden with other prisoners and put to hard labor. While there the city was attacked by Allied forces killing thousands of people. After making his way to a repatriation camp in France, Vonnegut served out the rest of his time stateside. He was discharged in 1945. Afterwards he married Jane Marie Cox in September of 1945. She was his high school girlfriend who he had known since kindergarten.
Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago on the GI Bill and worked at the Chicago City News Bureau at night. He wrote a few pieces that he sold to magazines. When his thesis wasn’t accepted by the college, he dropped out, and his wife quit when she became pregnant. Vonnegut went on to work at GE and continued writing. Soon his writing become lucrative enough for him to quit his job and take his family to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he settled to write.
His breezy style and innovative subject matter gained him a wide following. Before Slaughterhouse Five he wrote a few books that didn’t do well, but that book hit at the right time during the Vietnam conflict. It’s anti-war message was well received. It hit the best seller list and was instantly famous. He was invited to give lectures, speeches and commencements. Kurt was also awarded numerous awards for his writing.
Kurt Vonnegut’s style of writing was usually in the science fiction realm. He was satirical and wrote a lot of gallows humor. During his lifetime he wrote fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five non-fiction books. Kurt Vonnegut passed away from complications after a fall in his New York brownstone when he was eighty-four years old. But, his genius will live on forever.