Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, one of the century’s greatest anthropological works, deals with religion, science, and the end of the world; its major theme involves the symbolic nature of the title of the book. The theme of the cat’s cradle is used throughout the book to represent many of the truths, as viewed by Vonnegut, that are found in society. A cat’s cradle is essentially a game played by all ages and almost all nationalities; “Even the Eskimos know it”(Cat’s Cradle 114). It is a game using an endless string, a loop, six feet in circumference, which is wound, looped, or strung between the hands of the players. It symbolically and historically is used to represent many things, like stories, or figures like the one figure which is its name sake, the cat’s cradle. In actuality it is still, according to Vonnegut, “nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands.” (C.C. 114) This in turn gives Vonnegut’s definition for many of Man’s creations in the world.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s major areas of examination or ridicule in Cat’s Cradle is the world’s religions. To elaborate on the point of religion, Vonnegut invents his own religion, Bokonism, in which the first essential rule is, according to Bokonon, the character inventor of the religion, that “all of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” (C.C. 14). Bokonon also states, as a warning, at the beginning of his first religious book, “Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma(lies)!”(C.C. 177). That is to say that the religion is nothing but lies that he makes up.
Bokonon creates the religion for the people of a small Caribbean island called San Larenzo; he then makes it a point that the religion be banned by his friend who runs the Government of the island. This is so the people will be happy and totally content, for by taking part in the religion that all people on the island practice, they partake in a rebellious action and can take the focus from their horribly useless lives. The idea is for the religion and the government to constantly oppose each other, with Bokonon the saintly outlaw hiding in the woods. By this entire scheme Vonnegut makes the point that religion is formed out of lies in order to make the lives of the people living by the religion bearable. The cat’s cradle relates to this because that is what a cat’s cradle is, a game of nothing or emptiness between thin string. Newt Hoenikker says directly that:
“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing by 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, and no damn cradle.” (C.C. 114)
The homegrown religion, Bokonism, is symbolically full of cat’s cradles. Two such examples are the karass and the granfalloon, each of them an organization of people. The karass is God’s grouping of people to move society; this grouping is a cat’s cradle because it is pointless to try to discern who is in your karass and who is not, resulting in emptiness. Granfalloons are groups set up by mankind to try and add importance to the relationships between people, but these are groupings of people who are falsely set together by man, thus also resulting in emptiness.
Newt, in the story, is introduced to the game by his father, Felix Hoenikker, when he held the strings in front of Newt’s face. This parallels religion because God is a concept passed down to each generation by the adults and parents of the world who were themselves force fed religion. Newt responds with terror and runs away, becoming an indication of what Vonnegut suggests people should do when faced with the empty and pointless games of the traditional world. John Simons points out, in his critical essay on the book, that this not only forced Newt to run in terror, but it also scarred his life forever, forcing him to paint dark pictures of the string figure to purge his troubled mind (Simons 97).
Simons says, “For Newt… cat’s cradles represent lies, betrayals, … [and] ‘X’ equals nothing”(100). Kurt Vonnegut even says in an interview, “Religions were exhibited and studied as Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” This reiterates the analogy between the cat’s cradle and religion by comparing it to the extremely complex machines designed by Goldberg to carry out menial pointless tasks of every day life.(Vonn Ency 108).
Vonnegut uses a great amount of Cat’s Cradle to focus on his opinions of the importance of science and the nuclear arms race. He, however, does not depict science as he does religion in relation to the symbolic string figure. Vonnegut’s scientific theme is the antithesis of that of religion, in that people commonly view science as a game, hence the cat’s cradle, when people really should carefully plan out the movements of science. This idea and the adverse apocalyptic affects of untamed science are written into the roles of Felix Hoenikker and his children, Newt, Angela, and Frank, as told by John/Jonah.
John is the narrator of the story who is writing a book about the day the first atomic bomb was used against Japan. He intends to show what the important people who built the bomb were doing on that day. Felix is one of the inventors mixed up in the Manhattan Project, but he has no realization of any of the implications of his work. He is a genius, even to the extent that he has no concept of common sense or reality; he approaches everything as a child would approach a game.
This is how Vonnegut relates the cradle to science, as a game. Felix, not thinking of his own responsibility to mankind, invents the atomic bomb, but this is not his only doomsday device. He also secretly devises a new form of ice, stable at room temperature, called Ice-9. Ice-9, after Felix’s death, ends up in the hands of his children. The children then carry it with them throughout life, but each one using it for their own power or aggrandizement. Ice-9 eventually ends up in the hands of the Soviets as well as the hands of “Papa” Monzana, the ruler of San Larenzo.
“Papa” uses the ice to take his own life by touching it to his mouth, instantly freezing him. Then within one chapter, due to accidental occurrences Papa ends up in the ocean, freezing the entire world’s water supply. According to Daniel Zins, ice-nine was Felix Hoenikker’s “final toy” which ended the world. Vonnegut uses Ice-9 to take the place of nuclear weapons throughout his novel for his own creative purpose of forcing society to reevaluate the danger of “unbridled technology”, nuclear weapons, and the arms race(Zins 171).
The children’s irresponsibility with the Ice-9 then parallels the potential results of society in its irresponsible use of nuclear power. Zins goes further to say that, “We may prefer to blame our nuclear predicament on an unbridled technology, but Vonnegut suggests that it is our failure to be fully human that especially endangers us.”(171) This means that people should take responsibility for what they produce with science. Science can not be treated like a game, or else we end up with a cat’s cradle of missile paths crossing over each other, covering the globe, targeting every major city of the known world.
Vonnegut’s unspoken metaphors to the cat’s cradle can be applied to almost any part of human culture, be it government, religion, marriage, or an endless number of aspects of society. Religion could just be a comforting game designed with harmless lies to allow humanity to maintain any its sanity. Cat’s Cradle is in actuality a book of “man’s stupidity”(C.C. 191), written by John/Jonah after the end of the world; this book is to be presented to God by him on the highest mountain as he freezes himself into a statue thumbing his nose at “You Know Who.” In Bokonism God gives no meaning to the world, but man asks the meaning. God only replies that if there is meaning then man must give everything meaning. “See the cat? See the cradle?”(C.C. 122)