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Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut - Book Review

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.

Cat's Cradle is a science fiction novel that was published in 1963 and was written by Kurt Vonnegut and like most Vonnegut books, this book has is satirical, dark, and reflects upon deep topics, e.g., religion, science, and meaning in life.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

The story revolves around a character named John, who calls himself Jonah (perhaps a throwback to Moby Dick), and who aspires to write a book titled The Day the World Ended about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (and ironically, he would be one of the only people left to write a book about the real end of the world). As it would turn out, the co-creator of the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker, a noble prize winner, was a bit aloof. He only saw beauty in science, and pretty much nothing else—cared for nothing else. People didn't interest him. His wife, his children, friends and family—none of them interested him, and he was completely incapable of doing even the most basic things in life—like making a sandwich, or playing with his kids. When his wife died, he pulled this oldest child out of school, just to take care of him, to take care of his basic needs. Vonnegut here is trying to teach us that while our technology advances, our psychological development, our empathy and wisdom do not do so at the same pace, which is a dangerous precedent.

Vonnegut also introduces a religion called Bokononism, a completed fictional religion, based on foma (harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls). In fact, Bokononism was started just to create dynamic tension on the fictional Caribeean island of San Lorenzo. The island had no useful natural resources, was not agriculturally friendly, and wasn't even good for fishing. So people eat things like albatrosses. To give the people a bit of hope, something to live for, Bokononism was created, and simultaneously, outlawed. This was decided by two friends, one who would become the religious leader, Bokonon (aka Lionel Boyd Johnson), and the other that would become the president of the country, Corporal Earl McCabe. Outlawing the religion, of course, only made it more desirable to follow, which was the intended point.

The book also discusses nihilism in various parts. When Jonah went on a trip, he left an artist use his apartment. When he came home, the artist had killed his cat and avocado tree, set his couch on fire in multiple places, and pretty much destroyed the place. It was because of this that Jonah realized that nihilism was not for him. As he would reflect on the incident, he would call the artist a wrang-wrang, which is a Bokononist term for a person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line to an absurdity.

Various other characters in the book at some point in their lives talk about their lives either being or seaming meaningless—including Franklin Hoenikker (oldest son of Felix) when he first crashed on the island, Jonah again when the sirens of beauty push him towards Mona Aamons Monzano (the most beautiful woman on the island—perhaps even in the universe), Julian Castle and Newt Hoenikker (youngest son of Felix) which we'll talk about coming up, McCabe when he realized that without the war against Bokonon his life would be meaningless.

Another part of the book that talks about nihilism is when Newt made a piece of art that was basically just black canvas, perhaps with some lines. Jonah asks if it is hell, and Newt responds that it means whatever it means, before elaborating that it is a cat's cradle. Julian Castle chimes in that it is a painting that represents the meaninglessness of it all before tossing the painting over the waterfall. Julian also says, Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing.

At one point in the book, Julian quotes the Bokononist poem:

Tiger got to hunt,

Bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"

Tiger got to sleep,

Bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.

Later we get another amazing great quote:

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, "Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done." And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely.

"Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.

"Certainly," said man.

"Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God. And He went away.

We're taught in the book about the game Cat's Cradle, which is played using a string and our hands—one or more people.

As kids, we're taught to see the cat in the cradle, but in reality there is no cat. At the same time, we're taught to believe in whatever religion our parents believe, and so we do. Few ever stray from this path, because it is so ingrained in us that this religion must be correct, that every other religion must be wrong. The Bokononist religion takes more of a humanist approach, not even god is sacred, only man is.

What Vonnegut is likely trying to say here is, it is okay to believe in foma, to tell ourselves lies, if he helps us to better ourselves. This does not make life meaningless, rather, it empowers us to make our own meaning (of course, one could argue that us making our own meaning in a meaningless world is just more foma). As Vonnegut would put it,

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, and no damn cradle.

Ice-Nine, like atomic power, inevitably someone will make a mistake and end the world.

And, of course, the world ends when ice-nine is released and pretty much destroys the world.

The book ends with Bokonon talking about thumbing his nose at god and writing a history of human stupidity. Oh, and let's not forget, he tells the few remaining people that they should probably just kill themselves, and so they do. Bokonon does not kill himself, because as he would tell Joanh, he realizes his advise is just foma.

If you read the book, what did you think? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.

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