Cats Cradle Kurt Vonnegut Analysis

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Shameless Lies: An Analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle vonneguts-cats-709439.html?cat=38 By anonymous "The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is: 'All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies'" (5). This embodies the nature of Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut's ridiculous collage of satire and black humor. Vonnegut, like the fictional holy man Bokonon, spins a tale of his ideals and convictions sarcastically, by stating the obvious opposite to the truth. The novel begins with John, a man journeying away from his primary occupation of writing a "Christian book" about the first Atomic bomb, and ends at his death, at the end of the world. Every amusing stumble and revelation that occurs between opens a new door for Vonnegut, behind which is an established institution he is eager to invite the world to criticize. Vonnegut's purpose in writing Cat's Cradle was not to romanticize or fictionalize the events surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, but instead was to use those events to shamelessly ridicule the world's flawed religious, political, and scientific institutions. Religion, as a collective philosophical institution, is one of the primary targets in Vonnegut's sarcastic crosshairs. Vonnegut invents the brazenly nonsensical cult of Bokononism, a religion based on lies which urges its practitioners to be blissfully happy, accepting misfortune as fate. John, the protagonist, has recently discovered the joys of Bokononism and, to create a sense of mystifying disorientation, Vonnegut introduces John's newfound religion amid a slew of ridiculous terms and rationalized definitions, intended, surely, to prompt the reader to dismiss this overly complex, convoluted religious concept: "[This discussion] brings me to the Bokononist concept of a wampeter. A wampeter is the pivot of a karass. No karass is without a wampeter, Bokonon tells us, just as no wheel is without a hub" (52). Though John's righteous religious message grows tedious and befuddling, there are notes in its delivery which ring true - not with John's design of

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Shameless Lies: An Analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle anonymous "The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is: 'All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies'" (5). This embodies the nature of Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut's ridiculous collage of satire and black humor. Vonnegut, like the fictional holy man Bokonon, spins a tale of his ideals and convictions sarcastically, by stating the obvious opposite to the truth. The novel begins with John, a man journeying away from his primary occupation of writing a "Christian book" about the first Atomic bomb, and ends at his death, at the end of the world. Every amusing stumble and revelation that occurs between opens a new door for Vonnegut, behind which is an established institution he is eager to invite the world to criticize. Vonnegut's purpose in writing Cat's Cradle was not to romanticize or fictionalize the events surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, but instead was to use those events to shamelessly ridicule the world's flawed religious, political, and scientific institutions. Religion, as a collective philosophical institution, is one of the primary targets in Vonnegut's sarcastic crosshairs. Vonnegut invents the brazenly nonsensical cult of Bokononism, a religion based on lies which urges its practitioners to be blissfully happy, accepting misfortune as fate. John, the protagonist, has recently discovered the joys of Bokononism and, to create a sense of mystifying disorientation, Vonnegut introduces John's newfound religion amid a slew of ridiculous terms and rationalized definitions, intended, surely, to prompt the reader to dismiss this overly complex, convoluted religious concept: "[This discussion] brings me to the Bokononist concept of a wampeter. A wampeter is the pivot of a karass. No karass is without a wampeter, Bokonon tells us, just as no wheel is without a hub" (52). Though John's righteous religious message grows tedious and befuddling, there are notes in its delivery which ring true - not with John's design of enlightenment, but with Vonnegut's biting interpretation of the evangelical religious zealot. Haven't we all met someone who, recently making a discovery, was so long-winded in sharing it that nobody cared to listen? This is Vonnegut's point: that religion is tired, overly complex, and much too elaborate to have anything to do with life's true purpose. He asserts, through John's annoying born-again diatribe, that religion has been reduced to nothing more than a social diversion, a hobby, a mild fascination. Religions are so varied and loosely defined that nowadays everyone can be a messiah, even if nobody will commit to their worship. Possibly the most interesting and perplexing convention devised by Vonnegut in his satirical war against weightless religious conviction is the Bokononist concept of the 'granfalloon.' A granfalloon is a perceived link between people that doesn't really exist. As John uses it, a granfalloon is when people who own the same car or graduated the same academy assume that they are linked, though their lives have never intersected (91-92). However, the concept of the granfalloon enjoys a double significance, as Vonnegut expects the reader to reason that the concept, when applied to any religion, even Bokononism, destroys the institution to its core. To claim "I am a Christian," or to suggest, "We have a lot in common because we are both Jewish," is, according to Vonnegut's concept of the granfalloon, as ludicrous as hinting that all left-handed people are subconsciously linked, or that clinging to a specific ideology, like Christianity, makes you instantly part of a special community.

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While some may argue that religions and ideologies are truly globally unifying factors, it is hard to accept that all people who claim to be Christian are really focused on the same goals. This, according to Bokononism, means that Christians are a group lacking a common wampeter, which means that they do not compose a true karass, but instead comprise a hollow granfalloon. Vonnegut pokes fun at prophets and makes the faithful look foolish, but his sarcasm does not stop before a parody of politics. Vonnegut makes a joke of heroism and a farce of all military and political enterprises. Though the book initially centers on the science and bureaucracy surrounding the Atomic bomb, the true meat of the satire lies on the tiny island of San Lorenzo, where Vonnegut's primary military jab lies in The Day of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy, San Lorenzo's "greatest national holiday." John arrives on San Lorenzo one day before the holiday, and, knowing only that it commemorates something honorable during WWII, inquires about the martyrs: I asked the driver who the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy had been... [He] told me that San Lorenzo had declared war on Germany and Japan an hour after Pearl Harbor was attacked. San Lorenzo conscripted a hundred men to fight on the side of democracy. These hundred men were put on a ship bound for the United States, where they were to be armed and trained. The ship was sunk by a German submarine right outside of Bolivar harbor (149). Vonnegut masters the art of dark comedy and unlikely hilarity with this anecdote alone. The "greatest national holiday" of San Lorenzo commemorates a startling and depressing military defeat, and the horribly hilarious part is that San Lorenzo's great contribution to the war for democracy was one hundred untrained, unarmed, conscripted soldiers. It's all at once hilarious and horrible, but it serves Vonnegut's purpose, which is to satirize the military by pointing out the futility and inevitable wastefulness of military effort. The emotionally devastating part, crafted expertly by Vonnegut, is the enraptured hope with which the citizens of San Lorenzo view this fateful day. They innocently celebrate what amounts to no more than a massacre, suggesting that all militarily involved nations are naïve to turn an amorous eye to their mistakes. San Lorenzo has other weaknesses which Vonnegut jumps to exploit, specifically its unstable political environment. Every citizen of San Lorenzo is a devout practitioner of Bokononism, and it is against the teachings of Bokonon to desire to rise above your position in society. This is a wonderful ideal, but when the president of San Lorenzo dies, nobody wants to take the job because of Bokononism, and so John, a newcomer to the island, is offered the post: "Come on. Be President of San Lorenzo. You'd be real good at it, with your personality. Please?" (201). Vonnegut uses the situation not to mock the failing political climate of San Lorenzo, but to comment on the nature of political corruption. In a society where nobody is greedy and nobody is corrupt, like San Lorenzo, nobody wants to be a politician, even if doing so means that they'll be wealthy and powerful. In this ideologically perfect society, there is no desire to dominate other people, and future leaders must be cajoled and tempted into their posts. The contemporary and satirical significance of this conviction is that all politicians desire to be wealthy and powerful, and that their government positions are simply masks for their need to control and dominate other people. Vonnegut deals plenty of blows to organized government, but he also satirizes one of the modern military's favorite tools: science. Vonnegut makes a playful cartoon of Dr. Hoenikker, the 'father' of the Atomic bomb. While John is researching his book on the

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Bomb, he corresponds with Newt, Hoenikker's youngest son. Newt remembers the events leading up to the bomb's invention, and shares an anecdote about his father's short attention span and absent-mindedness: I remember one morning when the oil burner had quit, the pipes were frozen, and the car wouldn't start. We all sat there... while [my sister] Angela kept pushing the starter until the battery was dead. And then father spoke up.... He said, "I wonder about turtles." "What do you wonder about turtles?" Angela asked him. "When they pull their heads in, do their spines buckle, or contract?" After the turtle incident, father got so interested in turtles that he stopped working on the bomb. Some people from the Manhattan project finally came out to the house to ask Angela what to do. She told them to take away Father's turtles... [He] never said a word about the disappearance of the turtles. He just came to work the next day and looked for things to play with... and everything there was to play with... had something to do with the bomb (16). This is Vonnegut's interpretation of scientists: that they are extraordinarily brilliant and inquisitive, but that they are unfocused and flighty, unreliable in group projects. Hoenikker's character is foolish and unsociable, even his own children seem not to know him. While Hoenokker's personality may be childish and uncertain, his projects are frightfully sophisticated. John learns that a man in charge of the Marine Corps weaponry visited Hoenikker before his death demanding that Hoenikker devise a tool to save the Marines from long treks through mud. Unfazed by the outlandishness of the request, Hoenikker quickly theorizes about a compound that can train water to crystallize a new way, with a higher melting point. He calls this compound ice nine. A marine could, hypothetically, place a bit of the compound into the mud, and all of the mud would instantly solidify into ice nine, creating a solid walking surface for the marines. The frightening (and fateful) part of this theory is that the ice nine would train all the moisture it came in contact with to solidify into ice nine, thus a tiny bit of ice nine in a puddle would eventually freeze the groundwater beneath it, and eventually freeze all of the water in the entire world (48-49). The scientist who relates this principle to John seems unfazed by the harrowing possibilities associated with the compound, and this is Vonnegut's concern. With scientists as unfocused and childish as he asserts they are, what business do they have creating compounds that could, potentially, kill everyone on the planet? Vonnegut presents the sarcastic extreme of ice nine to drive home a very simple point: that we place our lives in the hands of men like Hoenikker on a daily basis. One might argue that ice nine is an impossible theory, that such a devastating tool could never be created. However, when one recalls the original focus of John's story, a book about the effects of the Atom bomb, they see that the theory of ice nine, and Vonnegut's point, is not terribly far from the truth. Science created a bomb that wiped out entire cities and left radioactive fallout for generations. Vonnegut's style is satirical, but his message is concrete. Science has dangerous potential when not treated with the utmost respect, and when used frivolously, to keep marines out of mud, for instance, it can have devastating repercussions. Kurt Vonnegut is a mastermind of literature, commanding every nuance of satire and ridicule to drive his message home in a backwards fashion. No institution is safe from Vonnegut's vicious conviction. He lampoons religion, government, and science through his innocent, foolish characters, and creates impossible situations which nevertheless

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make readers think. Vonnegut paints a disheartening picture of our world at its worst, but invites us to laugh with him at the absurdity of it all. Works Cited Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat's Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing, 1998.

Dubious Truths: An Examination of Vonnegut's Cat's CradleBy David Michael Wharton24 March 2003Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash.--Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma, and Granfaloons

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut gets the joke. Even if some of his characters don't. Even if most of the rest of us don't. If there is one unifying thread that runs throughout all of his works, it is the knowledge that the universe is a Big Damn Mess, and that's a terrible thing. The flip side of that, and the bit that Vonnegut is so skilled at pointing out, is that the universe is a Big Damn Mess, and that's pretty funny when you stop to think about it. In the words of Vonnegut's Theodore Sturgeon-esque pulp science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, "being alive is a crock of shit." Vonnegut comes from a background uniquely suited to appreciating this Great Cosmic Punchline: he grew up during the Depression. He watched his father waste away and his mother commit suicide. He witnessed the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the firebombing of Dresden and spent the aftermath as a captive of the Germans, dredging corpses out of charred basements. Vonnegut is all-too-familiar with the fact that we can be a fairly nasty species when we choose to be . . . and we choose to be quite a lot of the time. In spite of all of this, or perhaps because of it, Vonnegut can't help but take it all in . . . and laugh. Like most of his works, Cat's Cradle is a satirical look at the structures and mores that underlie our society and our species, with particular attention paid to politics, science, religion, and all the other lies that make up our lives. By deconstructing these institutions, Vonnegut invites us to appreciate the fact that most of the truths to which we hold fast are really rather silly when examined closely, so we might as well join him in the heckler's gallery.In the first line of Cat's Cradle, the narrator invites us to "Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John." Anyone with a semester of freshman lit or a subscription to Classics Illustrated will immediately recognize the reference to Melville's Moby Dick, which opens with "Call me Ishmael." But what does Vonnegut hope to accomplish with this? In Moby (the novel, not the bald techno artist), Ishmael serves as witness to the increasingly insane pursuit of Moby Dick by Captain Ahab, a quest that can be seen as representative of man's immortal -- and some would say, just as futile -- quest for truth. "Jonah" also alludes to the Biblical Jonah, who was swallowed whole by a whale (literally a "great fish") as punishment for disobeying God. Once released from the belly of the beast, Jonah has learned his lesson and is more than willing to go about God's Good Work. John spends Cat's Cradle in an Ahab-esque quest to find the whole story of

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Dr. Felix Hoenikker and kin. As the novel progresses, that quest becomes more and more a quest for truth or meaning. Once he learns of the existence of Ice-9 -- the isotope of water that is solid at room temperature and contaminates any other water it touches -- and that each of Dr. Hoenikker's children is in possession of some, John makes it his quest to find them. It is never clear what he intends to do if his search succeeds. Ishmael watched as his captain foolishly pursued the whale that had taken his leg, a pursuit that in the end destroyed him. For Jonah, the whale came to him. The message seems to be that whether we choose to chase the truth or run from it, it will inevitably turn around and swallow us whole. Damned if you do, damned if you don't is a philosophy Vonnegut seems to particularly enjoy.John's name may also be intended to echo that of two Biblical prophets, John the Baptist and John of Patmos. John the Baptist foretold the coming of Christ and ended up with his head on a platter for his troubles. God gave John of Patmos an elaborate vision of the end of the world, much of which he could not easily understand. The John of Cat's Cradle is also a prophet of sorts. His gradual conversion from Christianity to Bokononism, the fictional religion created by Vonnegut, is at the heart of the novel. As he pursues the Hoenikkers across the globe, each time he comes to a realization that pushes him one step closer to a Bokononist outlook, he comments on it, quoting the appropriate Bokononist tenet. John is narrating the events of Cat's Cradle from the future, more specifically from the "end of the world" described in the last few chapters of the novel. His story is the Gospel of the Final Stupidity of Mankind, a doctrine of supreme futility. Furthermore, his conversion to Bokononism foreshadows the eventual coming of Bokonon himself, who does not actually appear until the very end of the book. Unlike traditional messiahs, however, Bokonon's appearance does not bring redemption, salvation, or answers to all of life's questions. Rather, he leaves a note, the gist of which is, "life is silly and unpleasant," and vanishes.Vonnegut uses the fictional religion of Bokononism as his primary weapon in skewering the many targets he wishes to satirize in Cat's Cradle. Bokonon serves the same purpose as the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five or Kilgore Trout in nearly every Vonnegut tale: he voices whatever off-the-wall observations the author chooses to toss out concerning the general state of things. Bokononism, unlike most religions, is quite openly founded on outright lies, a pack of foma as Bokonon himself might say. As John explains, "Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies won't understand this book either." While this could be simply written off as a symbolic attack on religion in general, with Vonnegut it is rarely that simple.Consider that although Bokononism is, in the words of its own founder, "shameful lies," the lives of the characters in the novel nonetheless demonstrate that it has many useful things to say. Virtually every character in the novel is a Bokononist, or becomes one by the end. While this particular faith does not necessarily give them any exclusive window onto the inner workings of the universe, it does give them a mindset more appreciative of the overall irony and humor of the situation. John converts from Christianity to Bokononism precisely because he comes to the conclusion that the universe does not make any sense at all. At the end of the novel, he finds himself confronted with the effective end of humanity. Were he still Christian, his worldview would be hard pressed to survive the cruel reality he sees around him. However, as a Bokononist, the disaster makes perfect sense, because it is completely senseless. As critic Paul Reed explains:

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Bokononists always say "as it was meant to happen," instead of "as it happened." Bokonon develops this concept when so many coincidences shape his travels that he decides something is trying to get him somewhere for some purpose. In Bokononist terms, however, it translates roughly as saying there is no decipherable meaning in the workings of the world, but we can play as if there were some.The apparent conclusion that Vonnegut has come to is that, while religion may or may not provide us with a dosage of real "truth," even if it ultimately serves no more purpose than to give us hope and to help us to enjoy life a bit more by working under the assumption that Something is Going On, isn't that a noble enough purpose? The survivors of the Ice-9 disaster, including John, are faced with an undeniably bleak future, yet none of them appears to be gripped by depression or fatalism. In fact, several of them remain cheerful and upbeat. They truly see the glass as half-full, pointing out the plentiful food and water available to them, and the fact that at least they have company. Sure, most life on the planet has been obliterated, but really, is that any more ridiculous and unpleasant a situation than the way things were before? Vonnegut may firmly believe that the only thing beyond the grave is a big flashing neon sign reading "No Vacancy," but if religion can stand in between us and the Abyss long enough to distract us and keep our lives happy, then more power to those of faith.Vonnegut's problems with religion and his beliefs about truth are symbolized by one of the prevailing images in the novel, from which the book takes its name: the cat's cradle. Early in the novel, Newton Hoenikker, the younger son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, relates a childhood memory of his father. Felix has been playing absent-mindedly with a bit of string he received in a letter. Newt says:Anyways, Father looked at that loop of string for a while, and then his fingers started playing with it. His fingers made the string figure called a 'cat's cradle' . . . but he went down on his knees on the carpet next to me, and he showed me his teeth, and he waved that tangle of string in my face. "See? See? See?" he asked. "Cat's cradle. See the cat's cradle? See where the nice pussycat sleeps? Meow. Meow."Up until this point, Dr. Hoenniker has had almost no close interaction with his children. His life has been so focused on his scientific research, that he often seems to forget that he has children, or sees them simply as small roommates who can take care of themselves. Young Newt, never having seen his father this close up, or in such an unusual and playful mood, is terrified and runs away crying. He is frightened both by his father's appearance and by the foreign concept of his father attempting to connect on an emotional level with him. He explains to John that it was because up close, his father "was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen. I dream about it all the time." As a child, Newt and his siblings idolized their father, even though he focused almost exclusively on his work, at their expense. While Newt may have craved attention from his father, the one time such attention was offered, Newt was frightened by the harsh truth of his father as a flawed, imperfect human being. That close to his father, Newt can no longer mentally airbrush out his father's faults. What he describes as terrifying him are all purely physical characteristics: his pockmarked face, his breath reeking of cigar smoke. However, these are merely a screen for the emotional truth that Newt cannot face: that their father has been a bad parent and does indeed care more for his work than for his own offspring. His father's one attempt to make an emotional connection is a bizarre and frightening failure because Dr. Hoenniker honestly has no concept of how to relate to his children. It is

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important that a cat's cradle is at the center of this scene, that it is the symbol of Felix Hoenikker's half-hearted attempt to bond with his children. Later in the novel, Newton sums up the problem with the cat's cradle, and more poignantly, with what it represents:No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's . . . No damn cat, no damn cradle.Those six words sum up Vonnegut's message about religion, politics, science, and just about everything else. Sure, the mysteries of the universe can look astounding, and mankind can be fairly interesting and entertaining at times, but what happens when you really start digging into things? When it's not enough for you just to exist and be happy, but when you decide to start hunting down truth? In Vonnegut's opinion, this is a quest that can only end in one conclusion: No damn cat, no damn cradle.Kurt Vonnegut appears to be a man very much in touch with what he sees as the basic ridiculousness and meaninglessness of life, the universe, and everything. Cat's Cradle dissects many of the institutions that we hold sacred, that give our lives structure and meaning and stability. In many ways, this novel is an exercise in pulling aside the curtain and revealing the Great and Powerful Oz as nothing more than a con man with some gadgets, a man who ultimately has no more useful knowledge about the Meaning Of It All than do any of the rest of us. So where does that leave us? On the surface, these conclusions would seem to dead-end in a fairly depressing alley. If everything we trust in is empty and false when viewed beneath the microscope, then where do we go from here? What does Vonnegut hope to teach us? The answer can be found in the book's dedication, tucked quietly and unobtrusively at the front of the novel: "Nothing in this book is true. 'Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy'." In the end, that's all any of us can do. Whether Vonnegut is right, whether there is a god or not, whether that god cares one whit about us or not, many still choose faith. They must believe that the universe makes sense in some fashion, even if deep down they suspect it doesn't. Why? Simply because those things in which we have faith make us better than we are otherwise and hold the possibility of maybe -- just maybe -- elevating us above our otherwise dark natures. Vonnegut wouldn't have it any other way.Copyright © 2003 David Michael WhartonReader Comments Michael Wharton is a freelance writer from Texas. He spends his days picking grammatical nits as a copyeditor for a publishing company in Fort Worth, and fills his free time writing short stories, essays, scripts and the like. His work has appeared in Dark Moon Rising and The Circle, and he also writes audio scripts for the Texas Radio Theatre Company. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.Works CitedVonnegut, Kurt Jr. Cat's Cradle. New York, 1963.Reed, Paul. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (Writers of the '70s). New York, 1972.Further ReadingOfficial Vonnegut siteVonnegut Web

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Cat's Cradle is laced with irony and parody, but it is necessary to recognize the underlying implications of

Vonnegut's humor. Although Vonnegut clearly intends for his readers to laugh while reading his book, Cat's

Cradle is not merely a playful frolic through human foibles. Vonnegut employs humor as a means to make

his reader assume a critical stance toward the "sacred cows" of their culture, of which science, religion,

nation, and family are only a few. Underlying Vonnegut's playful humor is a sobering exploration of the

dangers inherent in the combination of human stupidity and indifference with mankind's technological

capacity for mass destruction.

The twentieth century added an ever-increasing pace of scientific advancement and industrialization

to a pre-existing cauldron of religious, class, and international conflict. Although industrialization and

scientific advancement offered millions of people a better standard of living, they also produced or

exacerbated human suffering on many levels. The same scientific community that discovered antibiotics

also produced the atomic bomb, nerve gas, automatic firearms, and a host of other efficient means to kill

and maim human beings. The same process of industrialization that produced cheaper, standardized

material goods came hand in hand with abusive labor practices and unsafe working conditions.

Vonnegut offers his readers a puzzling, disturbing portrait of "innocence" in Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel-prize-

winning physicist, who approaches all of his research as a child would an amusing game. Felix lacks the

malicious intent we associate with people we term "evil." He is as interested in researching the atomic bomb

as he is in researching the behavior of turtles. He cares little for money, fame, or prestige, but he also cares

little for other people, even his family; nor does he care for the implications his research could have for

humanity. This seemingly harmless man helps build the atomic bomb and later produces ice-nine, an

isotope of water that is solid at room temperature. By the end of Cat's Cradle, this second invention is

responsible for the death of almost every living thing on earth.

Felix's neglected children also seem fairly harmless at first. At heart, Newt, Angela, and Frank simply want

to be happy. However, their seemingly innocuous attempts to gain an impossible happiness leads to the

destruction of life on earth. In this way, the Hoenikker children come to represent the people of the world; the

search for happiness is perhaps the most universal of human endeavors and a noble goal. But, Vonnegut

portrays this very human effort as being neither as simple, nor as simplistically moral, as it is generally

perceived to be. Like their father, the Hoenikkers lack the malicious intent usually associated with people

termed as "evil." Instead, they are careless, sometimes indifferent, often stupid, and ultimately caught up in

their own lives. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut demonstrates that these traits--none of them evil--combined with

man's technological power are enough to destroy the world.

Recorded history is replete with examples of violent religious, ethnic, and international conflict. None of this

changed with the twentieth century. Nevertheless, many people in the twentieth century took the egotistical

position that humanity had reached a new pinnacle of maturity. Science became a revered institution of truth

and knowledge, and few people seriously questioned whether the truth and knowledge of modern science

were necessarily beneficial. Cat's Cradle ridicules this hubris by emphasizing that sheer human stupidity is

not only alive and well in the twentieth century but armed to the teeth.

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The Futility of Life in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut’s reputation seems to be primarily as an absurd science-fiction writer; someone who takes the clichéd plots of his contemporaries and lavishes them with biting humor and original thought. However, what truly distinguishes him from his fellow authors is his pessimism. Your average sci-fi author is an optimist; he or she devises great solutions to human problems through technological advances, stumbling across an intelligent alien civilization, or the like. Vonnegut’s novels set up as if they will reveal similarly great solutions, but they never do. Instead, his work seems to be saying that the problems in life are inherent to the point where nothing can solve them, not even the endless imaginative possibilities of science fiction.

It is prudent to examine where Vonnegut’s pessimism might have arisen from. Most scholars seem to agree that Vonnegut’s experiences fighting in World War II deeply scarred him, and that seeing the fire-bombing of Dresden while a prisoner of war contributed heavily to the anti-war themes that often cropped up in his novels ("Kurt Vonnegut"). Perhaps even worse, Vonnegut had to live through his mother’s suicide and the wasting away of his father. With such trauma in his life, it becomes unsurprising that Vonnegut sees life as almost a waste of time (Wharton).

Other key life influences for Vonnegut include his birthplace of Indiana, his stint as a police reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago, and his brother, renowned atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut. Vonnegut himself said that his time as a reporter contributed heavily to his writing style, a style mostly free of detail and descriptions ("Kurt Vonnegut").

His novel Cat’s Cradle draws on a lot of these influences, even in minor pieces of the plot. For example, the character Hazel’s life revolves around her pride in being a "Hoosier." She inherits any fellow people born in Indiana and has them refer to her as "Mom." While not necessarily a criticism of his Hoosier people, this plot line certainly alludes to Vonnegut’s Indiana roots. Additionally, the research-oriented life of Felix Hoenikker and realistic depictions of the laboratory environment are likely based on Vonnegut’s knowledge of his brother’s work.

Cat’s Cradle, written in 1963, is the rare novel that ends in human apocalypse. Before its explosive ending, though, it is notable for its madly rushing plot, which covers a lot of ground in just 287 pages. The book begins with the line "Call me Jonah," making an instant connection with the novel Moby Dick, which begins "Call me Ishmael." This would seem to allude to the futile quest for truth that encapsulated Moby Dick, implying that Cat’s Cradle serves up a futile quest for truth itself (Wharton). As a narrator, Jonah serves the same sort of role that the character Nick Carraway did in The Great Gatsby. Although Jonah is a central character of Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut uses him primarily as a conduit for the rest of the characters in the book to interact through. We see the world of

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the novel through Jonah’s eyes, but much more detail is focused on the life of the Hoenikker family than on him.

At the beginning of the book, Jonah is intending to write a book titled The Day the World Ended, about what notable Americans were doing on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This quest leads him into correspondence with the children of Felix Hoenikker, one of the chief creators of the atom bomb. During his research, he is hired to write an article profiling Julian Castle, a wealthy philanthropist residing on the remote island of San Lorenzo. On the island, Jonah winds up running into the Hoenikker children, as Frank Hoenikker happens to be the major general of the island. As he spends more time on San Lorenzo, Jonah learns of the local, outlawed religion called Bokononism and becomes engaged to the local paramour, Mona Aamons Monzano. Eventually, the island’s president-dictator, Papa Monzano, dying of cancer, commits suicide using a strange substance called ice-nine. Jonah is slated to inherit his position, but an accident occurs, and Monzano’s corpse falls into the ocean, along with the ice-nine. The ice-nine freezes up the world’s water supply, causing the human race to be extinguished except for Jonah and a few other survivors on the island.

Structurally, Cat’s Cradle runs fairly straightforwardly, with Jonah telling the reader the story after it has already happened. Therefore, the narrative is mixed with works of Bokononist advice, even though Jonah does not convert to Bokononism until the end of the book. Some allusions to the past are brought up, notably the life of Felix Hoenikker, but mostly the plot just keeps moving forward. There are 127 chapters, most 1-2 pages long, which is perhaps the most interesting structural device of the novel. Having so many chapters adds to the frenetic pace of the book, since each chapter contains a new tangent, idea, or plot twist.

Like many science fiction novels of the time period, Cat’s Cradle draws on the use of new, innovative science. The major scientific breakthrough of the novel is Felix Hoenikker’s invention of ice-nine, an altered form of water which when brought into contact with regular water, causes the water molecules to convert into ice-nine, as solid as ice, but with a melting point of 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit. However, where the average science fiction writer would come up with some great way that ice-nine could save humanity, Vonnegut has ice-nine cause the end of the world.

A close reading of Cat’s Cradle truly underscores what Vonnegut sees as the futility of the human condition. Besides ending in apocalypse, the novel also is both anti-war and anti-religion, quite notable since war and religion are perhaps the two fundamental principles of modern humanity. For the purposes of his anti-religious subtext, Bokononism heavily influences the narrative of the book. The Book of Bokonon, the main text of Bokononism, is blunt about its validity, saying, "All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies" (Vonnegut 4). By having his characters happily follow a religion that they know to consist of lies, it appears that Vonnegut is implying that Bokononism is no more absurd than any other religion, but at least the followers of Bokonon know they are being lied to.

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Also thematically prominent in Cat’s Cradle is its anti-war undercurrent. Vonnegut’s horrific war experiences clearly shape the subtleties of the narrative. He obviously sees no good in war, as shown in his portrayal of Felix Hoenikker. Although Hoenikker is undoubtedly a brilliant mind, he is shown as having no real affinity for interacting with people. It is this quality that allows him to coldly devise such horrific weapons during his lifetime. Through Hoenikker, Vonnegut seems to be critiquing the scientific rationale of his time, which was to develop new technologies and ideas, no matter what their consequences might be.

The use of ice-nine in the novel, in particular, speaks to both Vonnegut’s hatred of war and his general pessimism. Ice-nine seems like a nice toy at first, but its powers carry dire consequences. The connection between the fictional ice-nine and the atom bomb, an all too real threat, is made obvious, especially when the atom bomb is featured in the novel and attributed to the same character who creates ice-nine, Felix Hoenikker. By bringing his fictional world to apocalypse, Vonnegut tries to make as blunt a point as possible, saying that the global race to win wars will bring the world to its knees.

Even more prevalent than his warnings against religion and war in Cat’s Cradle is the utter misery with which the narrator leads life. In fact, the book revolves around several pathetic characters, especially Felix Hoenikker’s children. Rather than benefit from their father’s scientific derring-do, they are castigated by society. Each has great talent, but true to the spirit of Vonnegut’s pessimism, their flaws overshadow their talents, as far as the people around them are concerned. Angela is a woman possessed when she plays the clarinet, but is ugly and stupid, and is being exploited by her husband. Franklin is a mechanical genius, but has no idea how to interact with people. Newton is a midget, and although he is graceful and comfortable with his status, the rest of society cannot get over his height.

When each is granted possession of ice-nine upon their father’s death, there would seem to be potential for each of the characters to markedly improve their lives, using this great new invention as a guide. However, all they do is use it to buy things that can’t really be bought, making their lives further wretched. Newton buys a sexual escapade with a Ukrainian midget from a dance company, but his "love" for her is ruined when it is revealed that she is old enough to be his mother. Angela gets herself a husband, the dashing Harrison Conners, with her ice-nine, but he neglects her totally, and openly has affairs with other women. Franklin uses the ice-nine to buy himself power on the island of San Lorenzo, yet he is unable to cope with his power, as he cannot interact with people, thus forcing him to try and make Jonah become president of San Lorenzo in his place.

A typical, happy way of writing a book is to have some positive changes occur in the characters’ lives, some feats of redemption, to turn the protagonists from pathetic individuals into happy, interesting people. Cat’s Cradle has no such changes. In fact, none of the book’s characters really ever change; true, the plot rushes on inexorably, from the narrator’s researching of Felix Hoenikker, to the distant island of San Lorenzo, to the end of the world. The plot is fast, and goes all over the place. Yet the characters remain

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the same people they always are. Everyone is always miserable, perhaps just like Vonnegut himself.

It is not uncommon for other literary critics to uncover the inherent pessimism in Vonnegut’s work. The question seems to be what to make of it. Critic Kathryn Hume believes that the purpose of Vonnegut’s work is "to tackle problems—usually social problems, but sometimes artistic and personal" (Hume). She puts forth an argument that Vonnegut is making a concerted effort to solve human problems, but is rendered unable to because of his pessimistic presuppositions about humanity.

She emphasizes three concepts as being critical to Vonnegut’s worldview; the randomness of society, individual lack of control over life, and human inability to break free of isolation. She uses the Hoenikker children as living examples of these factors at work in Cat’s Cradle, saying that they feel inadequate due to their inability to control the world around them. Hume further suggests that Cat’s Cradle is an attempt for Vonnegut to "deal with his Dresden experience in writing, and he does it by changing fire to ice," referring to the development of ice-nine (Hume).

In detailed support of her argument, Hume covers all of Vonnegut’s key works, producing a slew of examples of where her three main concepts pop up again and again in his novels. She also points out, rightly, how in his later work, Vonnegut attempted to create more practical solutions, more utopia-like solutions to human problems, whereas a novel like Cat’s Cradle served more to prove that human problems had no solution. It is here where she deconstructs his solutions, revealing how she thinks they are derailed by his pessimistic presuppositions.

Similarly, critic Robert W. Uphaus deals with Vonnegut’s pessimism, which he regards as an open fact, using a quote from Vonnegut where he declared himself to be "no lover of life" (Uphaus, 165). The author’s own negativity and the overwhelming positive feelings with which his books are regarded causes Uphaus to wonder what in the books makes them so lovable, to wonder what the meaning of Vonnegut’s work exactly is.

To go about finding the meaning of Vonnegut, Uphaus analyzes the end of seven of his novels, in order to discover what conclusions each book wants the reader to draw. Immediately, Uphaus concludes that in Vonnegut’s work, "people, including Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., are free to self-actualize but they must never expect such self-actualization to alter, fundamentally, the course of human history" (Uphaus, 166).

On the other hand, Uphaus also find that Vonnegut does not qualify as a hater of life, since he argues that to truly hate life, one must have great expectations for life, which Vonnegut clearly doesn’t. To support this, he quotes Vonnegut himself as saying "it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is that implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry--- or laugh" (Uphaus, 165).

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Uphaus and Hume are able to agree upon the basic tenets of life in Vonnegut’s novels, but their positions definitely contradict each other, as Uphaus sees Vonnegut as trying to express his thoughts about humanity, whereas Hume sees Vonnegut as a failed problem-solver. Although not reacting to Hume specifically, Uphaus, in a footnote, expresses his disdain for such a perspective, when reacting to a similar interpretation by critic Michael Wood. "Wood, clearly, wants Vonnegut to be a problem-solver, to render meaning by having the dialectic develop into a meaningful synthesis of some kind. In short, because Wood’s expectation of meaning has been frustrated he attributes his own frustration to Vonnegut’s artistic deficiency" (Uphaus, 171).

I find myself agreeing much more with the critical position of Uphaus. His quote about self-actualization provides an excellent summation of the behavior of all of the characters in Cat’s Cradle. The Hoenikker children, Jonah; all attempt to make a name for themselves, but wind up further and further trapped in a cocoon of fate. In fact, the children’s stores of ice-nine does alter human history, but totally unintentionally. The children themselves only further enhance their misery by trying to buy a new lease on life with ice-nine. The only character who does truly alter human history, Felix Hoenikker, is the one character who isn’t trying to, the one who isn’t possessed by the urge that all humans have to do something great, to make themselves known. It is his apathy and naivete to human condition that allows him to change the world around him, a bitter twist of irony on Vonnegut’s part that seems to be quite intentional.

It is Vonnegut’s tendency to insist that his characters are locked into forces that they cannot control, that any active methods to change the world, become famous, etc., will go unnoticed by the strands of time. Hume was prudent to bring out her three concepts of pessimism that shape human life in a Vonnegut novel. Truly, these three concepts; isolation, lack of control, and randomness, dominate the narrative of Cat’s Cradle. The plot’s speed emphasizes the lack of control and randomness of the world, becoming a veritable roller coaster for Jonah and his companions, and it is the forced isolation of the Hoenikker children that shapes much of the second half of the novel.

However, it would seem to undermine Vonnegut’s skill as an author that he cannot control his own presuppositions. Rather, his definitions of what shapes human life seem to be quite pointed. He has a certain viewpoint, and it happens to be fairly pessimistic. The quote from him in Uphaus’ paper attests to the idea that his pessimism is very intentional. He truly believes that humanity is irrevocably held down by forces it cannot control.

However, the humor and genial absurdity Vonnegut brings to the situation should not be totally ignored. I have glossed over it so far, Hume missed it entirely, and Uphaus mentioned it, if only to say that it wasn’t his focus. After all, it is perhaps Vonnegut’s wry sense of humor more than anything else that most attracts him to such a wide audience.

Uphaus refers to Vonnegut’s humor as "a perceptual slant that makes destruction a bit more tolerable," and the idea that humor is used as a coping mechanism instead of the center of the book makes much more sense in the context of Cat’s Cradle. When I first

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prepared to read Cat’s Cradle, I expected something endlessly hilarious, something like Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but perhaps more sophisticated and worldly. Upon finishing the book, I was thus disappointed, because it hardly met my expectations as the sort of light-hearted science fiction novel I could laugh at for days later. Instead, I was mostly depressed by the book, and a bit off-put by the detached writing style and off-kilter humor in the midst of all the pessimism.

However, after close analysis, it appears the point of Kurt Vonnegut was quite different than what I was expecting. On his own terms, Cat’s Cradle is a great book. Sure, it goes against the creed of science fiction, which is to find hope where there is none, but it is this going against the grain that makes the novel great. Vonnegut does not necessarily think there is hope, and he thinks that life is mostly a meaningless pursuit. By using science fiction to express his worldview, he makes his point that much more drastically, since only in science fiction is there freedom to produce the amount of imagination required to overcome all of humanity’s problems. Yet even in such a free, imaginative, optimistic genre, Vonnegut’s pessimism is inescapable. This provides for an original perspective, and one that he follows through on admirably in Cat’s Cradle.

Once it is established that his books are going to be largely depressing, the work really opens itself up. Only then can a reader truly appreciate his biting humor, and understand how much the humor must mean to Vonnegut as a coping mechanism, since it is the only thing that keeps Vonnegut, his characters, and his readers from snapping. Science fiction, the genre of unparalleled optimism, fights a good fight against Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the master of unparalleled pessimism, but Vonnegut wins out in the end, keeping his perspectives clear and true, a sign of a great author.

Vol. 18 No. 4 (April, 2008) pp.365-369CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Dell Publishing, originally published in 1963. Dell Pulishing, 1998. 304pp. Paper. $14.00. ISBN: 9780385333481.Reviewed by Stephen McDougal, Department of Political Science/Public Administration, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Email: mcdougal.step [at] it’s because CAT’S CRADLE (first published in 1963) was one of Kurt Vonnegut’s earlier novels, and I found his later works so much more captivating. Maybe it’s because so many of those New Left issues, which seemed so vital forty-something years ago, nowadays don’t. Maybe it’s because I caught the flu over the holiday break, and I ended up re-reading the novel two or three pages at a time, which wasn’t bad since it is presented in 127 chapters of about two pages each. Maybe it’s because years ago at Carroll College in Wisconsin, I had the privilege of introducing Vonnegut as the college’s annual “big speaker,” and as we visited beforehand, he admitted to me he didn’t really remember much about the novel. But, for whatever reasons – and combinations of reasons – I found that as a fictional basis for undergraduate classroom exercises in law, courts and society, CAT’S CRADLE is

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probably pretty much a bust. I couldn’t keep myself from viewing it as something of a period piece, a reflection of the growing angst of the 1960s. The novel says much more about religion than about law. Law is a minor character in the narrative, and it is painted as only bombastic, superficial and ineffectual, yet perhaps (like the explicit depiction of religion) filled with very “useful lies” (ch.4). Aside from the literary merits of, the novel, all these things must be weighed carefully by anyone considering its classroom use. But first, my story of Vonnegut’s story: Using a first-person narrative style, Vonnegut (calling himself Jonah, although his parents had actually named him John) tells of following a tenuous thread of human relations in pursuit of a book he once wanted to write about the lives of famous and ordinary people in the United States on the day Hiroshima was obliterated by the U.S. Army Air Force. He starts by contacting the children of Nobel Prize physicist Felix Hoenikker, one of the so-called fathers of the atomic bomb, only to learn how utterly dysfunctional Hoenikker’s life truly was. A visit to the family’s hometown fills in the story of Felix, the egomaniacal genius detached from human life both socially and emotionally, and his three alienated children: Frank, the eldest who spent all of his time in a model train shop before disappearing after his father died; Angela, whose life was ruined by being her father’s caretaker after their mother passed many years earlier; and Newt, whose various talents were never recognized by his father, much less acknowledged. No “law”, here, save perhaps a perspective of “moral law” violated in a father’s neglect of his children and his myopic, amoral commitment to professional science. [*366]Just before his death, Dr. Hoenikker was working on one last project for the U.S. military – a technical means to make the muddy, sloppy ground of a battlefield hard and therefore easier to conduct operations upon. The Nobel laureate’s technical solution was “ice-nine” – a tiny seed of water crystal, wherein the atoms are arranged in a way entirely new on earth, and in a way from which they would form a solid up to 114°F. By tossing a seed of ice-nine into a mud bog, for instance, the seed would “teach” the atoms of the water molecules already there how to stack themselves into near-permanent solidness. The problem would be, of course, that any ordinary water molecule coming into contact with ice-nine would both change into ice-nine and continue the chain reaction by passing on to its neighbor molecules that same ability. From the mud bog to the streams and rivers, to oceans and lakes, to (I’d presume) sinks and toilets, all water would freeze into ice-nine. In short, to release ice-nine into (what we today call) “The Environment” would effectively end life on earth. Does this narrative create scientific issues? Only scientific issues? Or any genuine legal issues at all? Would any of them really matter at the end of Jonah’s story?When Hoenikker died, his children divided his tiny supply of ice-nine among themselves. As it happened, Jonah eventually finds Frank through a NEW YORK TIMES advertising supplement. Frank is serving as Minister of Science and Progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo – an island dictatorship somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean. On a plane flight to its capital, Bolivar, Jonah meets the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to San Lorenzo, who happens to have with him the only written history of the island. From the unpublished manuscript, Jonah learns of Bokononism, the dominant – and utterly illegal – religion of San Lorenzo. Practicing any form of Bokononism is punishable by death on The Hook – a giant iron fishhook hung from a crossbeam between two tall poles. The Condemned is impaled through the stomach and left to die. As one admiring American

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businessman on the plane comments, in terms most U.S. students will grasp as cultural intuition – “No fines, no probation, no thirty days in jail. It’s the hook. The hook for stealing, for murder, for arson, for treason, for rape, for being a peeping Tom. Break a law – any damn law at all – and it’s the hook. Everybody can understand that, and San Lorenzo is the best-behaved country in the world.” (ch.43)In Jonah’s tale, needless to say, everyone on San Lorenzo is a devoted Bokononist, “despite” this horrific punishment. In conventional law and society terms, the law of San Lorenzo has no efficacy whatsoever, and only slightly less efficacy than the speed limit signs along any U.S. Interstate. But, in Vonnegut’s world, this is not at all problematic; it is, rather, given – taken-for-granted. The law of the state is implicitly depicted as inherently alien to (some vague New Left-ish notion of) true human community, yet this is not Vonnegut’s theme, nor the outcome of the story.Also on the plane are Dr. Hoenikker’s other children, traveling to their brother’s wedding, and both are carrying their slivers of ice-nine. (ch.77)San Lorenzo turns out to be a worthless lump of rock to all but its native [*367] inhabitants. It is the only Caribbean island not fought over by the European colonial powers. Its population descends mostly from a British slave ship that was run aground in 1786 after the cargo successfully mutinied. When the Castle Sugar Corporation showed up in 1916, pursuing profits from the sugar boom during World War I, there was no government. Did there need to be? Vonnegut gives us no hints. When two shipwrecked sailors – McCabe and Johnson – washed up naked onto the island in 1922 and declared that they were now in charge, no one complained and Castle Sugar quietly left. According to the manuscript, McCabe and Johnson wanted to make San Lorenzo a “true” utopia. So, McCabe overhauled the economy, while Johnson [now, Bokonon] invented a new religion. And, of course, their efforts failed in their eyes. (ch.60)

when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies. (ch.78)

To this end, Bokonon convinced McCabe to make Bokononism illegal in order to make it more effective. Even The Hook was Bokonon’s idea, “something he’d seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s” (ch.78). McCabe cooperated, and while Bokonon went into “cozy hiding,” McCabe organized the unemployed, which was just about everyone, into great Bokonon-hunts. Routinely, Bokonon would be surrounded and helpless, only to escape miraculously until next time, beloved of the people. There’s even an unpublished poem by Bokonon:

So I said good-bye to government,And I gave my reason:That a really good religionIs a form of treason. (ch. 78)

Is this “resistance” as discussed in so much contemporary critical legal scholarship? Or, is it one more example of an elite using law as a form (albeit a unique form, perhaps) of formal law to mask “ultimate” power? Probably, yes on both counts, but I’m not sure Jonah cares.

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Jonah arrives on San Lorenzo, and being one of very few U.S. citizens, he gains instant status, which he alone does not take for granted. He weaves his way through the halls of power – such as they are – and ends up being the presumptive new President of San Lorenzo. The current dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is dying, and his designated heir, Frank, doesn’t want the job. More to the point, everywhere the narrator goes he encounters Bokononism, and everyone he talks to is a devoted Bokononist – Western migrants as much as natives – even as they publicly deny it. The law of the state – such as it is – means nothing! The contradiction is obvious, and so repeated as to only have been intended as an essential narrative characteristic. Even “Papa” Monzano (if made into the supreme symbol of legal positivism) contributes on his death bed; he rejects a conventional clergyman, declaring, “I am a member of the Bokononist faith...Get out, you stinking Christian.” (ch.97) [*368]In the end, of course, and by the most bazaar circumstances, ice-nine is loosed, and in an instant, the world freezes. Tornadoes of ice-nine particles pummel the world and only a handful of people – including the narrator, of course – survive. Little pellets of ice-nine lay everywhere – which also turns out to perfectly preserve all food stuffs. Plants and animal carcasses, handled carefully and heated to 114°F, become safely edible. But, to touch the ground with one’s finger and then one’s finger to one’s lips is instant death.In the final chapter – number 127 – the narrator finally meets Bokonon, who is trying to think of the last sentence of his extended Books of Bokonon, the sacred texts of Bokononism, because (as he says), “‘The time for last sentences has come.’...It read:

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 lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

Somebody cue that little bird! This makes CAT’S CRADLE a bust in a law-related class? Could easily be! Maybe it’s because CAT’S CRADLE is a postmodern work created long before the term was coined, and certainly long before Vonnegut’s genius at it was fully honed. As a (proto?) postmodern work, of course, the novel carries no pointed theme or modernist plot. Characters are not developed for our benefit; they are just as they are at the narrative moment, with a little personal biography sometimes thrown in to highlight the narrator’s editorial insights. This postmodern device of the off-hand comment is clearest in Vonnegut’s use of irony, which runs through all levels of his narrative. The text is replete with odd comments and observations which were pithy, controversial criticisms in the early Sixties, before U.S. society started its agonizing journey through Vietnam, Watergate, bungled energy policies, Reaganomics, Clinton scandals, oil wars, etc., etc. etc. But, how many of Vonnegut’s 1963 jokes would be hard to explain? Maybe, you just had to be there? More likely, Vonnegut’s 1960s insights have become the millennial generation’s conventional wisdom.Todd Davis, a real literary critic, recently wrote that Vonnegut “is more concerned with our response to existence than with the philosophical nature of that existence.” (Davis, 2001, 151) As an ordinary reader of Vonnegut for decades, this seems very plausible to me, a useful insight into the great author’s artistry. But, if my purposes are teaching about law, the novel’s brilliantly segmented narrative and fragmented observations offer only a

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thin thread of legal commentary, far from anything plausibly argued as the artistic, literary purpose or effect of the novel.Maybe, then, it’s the difference between the practices of postmodern literature and the practices of undergraduate university education. Maybe, in my readings and intended use as a classroom device, the “postmodern point” is just clearer now. [*369]Q: What does the novel mean? A: Anything the reader makes of it; the meaning will reflect the reader more than the pretended intensions of the author. Q: What can CAT’S CRADLE teach your students about The Law? Anything that you choose? A: Not really! Q: But, with so many possible themes – the uselessness of law, law as an oppressive power, law masking powerful political interests, resistance and the attraction of the illegal, the contestable claims of deterrence and control, even law as “useful lies” – how can you control the readings your students will create? A: Why would I want to? The students must do it themselves, or worse, come to treat someone else as “authority” and let that “authority” do it for them, and not always to their advantage, either…as we all know. But, in Vonnegut’s spirit as an author (as read by Davis), I can only prod my students into thinking about law in the diverse ways contemporary scholarship of all stripes offers. The choice is – and should always be – theirs. Therein, as foil as much as insight, the novel may have classroom potential.REFERENCES:Davis, Todd F. 2001. “Apocalyptic Grumbling: Postmodern Humanism in the World of


*********************© Copyright 2008 by the author, Stephen McDougal.