Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Cat's Cradle

Go To

"There are lots of good anecdotes about the bomb and Father ... For instance, do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamagordo? After the things went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, 'Science has now known sin.' And do you know what Father said? He said, 'What is sin?'"
"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."

Cat's Cradle is a 1963 novel by Kurt Vonnegut. The protagonist, who introduces himself to us in the first person narration as simply "Jonah", real name "John", begins the story intending to write a book about the atomic bomb. In his research, he comes to learn about the family of one of the chief scientists who created it: Dr. Felix Hoenikker. His research also uncovers the possibility that the man went on to create something else that could wipe out all life on Earth.

Some time afterwards, John winds up on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where he meets all three of Dr. Hoenikker's children, as well as the woman of his dreams. He also learns about the history of the island, and a man known as Bokonon, who has created a strange religion that almost every resident of the nation seems to practice, despite it being outlawed by the country's eccentric military dictatorship.

And then everything goes completely to hell.

No relation to a certain Harry Chapin song.

Tropes in this book include:

  • Absent-Minded Professor / Married to the Job: The only thing that interests Felix Hoenikker is his scientific work. He barely even notices his wife and children. Once, after a breakfast, he gave his wife a tip.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: Ice-nine is invented in Ilium, NY.
    • There's no such place, but "Ilium" was another name for "Troy", and there is a Troy, NY. Vonnegut used Ilium as a location in a bunch of his novels.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: The island of San Lorenzo has only one punishment for any crime: death by impalement on a giant hook. Though it's rare that anyone actually gets punished.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-Universe. John admits that he can't decide whether Mona's strange aloofness and detachment was a sign of a deep serenity making her "the highest form of female spirituality" or if she was just cold and empty inside.
  • Apocalypse How: Planetary-scale, and is implied to cause the eventual extinction of all life on earth (although this is not depicted). Except for ants, that is.
  • Arc Words: Bokononism has a lot of them. That Other Wiki has a full list.
    • "See the cat? See the cradle?"
  • Artistic License – Biology: After ice-nine is released into the ocean, turning all the seas into ice and destroying the world, the protagonist sees ants gathering around some ice-nine and melting it with their collective body heat for sustenance. Ants are too cold-blooded to do that, but it makes a nice twist of "life struggles on, at least a little".
  • Artistic License – Chemistry: Ice-nine. Formed of ordinary oxygen and hydrogen, it is able to freeze all liquid water that it touches into identical crystals of ice-nine via chain-reaction—eventually freezing all water on Earth. This is impossible in the real world due to the simple state of hydrogen-bonds that form liquid H2O and ice, preventing any such strange isomer-crystal. There are crystals that can react that way, just not water; the ice-nine crystal is supposed to "teach" any liquid water it comes in contact with to freeze as ice-nine.
    • Scientists have actually found new ways for water molecules to arrange themselves in crystals and have named these forms with the same convention (ice-one, ice-two, etc). So there is an ACTUAL ice-nine at this point, but neither it nor any of the other man-made ice-crystal formations have the apocalyptic features of the one in the book.
  • Author Tract: Readers of this book will not have a hard time figuring out how Vonnegut feels about the atomic bomb, or about scientific research without giving any consideration to the possible consequences.
  • Banana Republic: San Lorenzo.
  • Becoming the Mask: This happens to President Earl McCabe. Lampshaded by Bokonon in "Between Time and Timbuktu" when Bokonon repeats a line from the beginning of Mother Night: "We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful who we pretend to be."
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Bokonon and Earl McCabe, rulers of the fictional Caribbean country San Lorenzo, create a new religion, Bokononism, in order to ease the suffering of the people. To increase the new religion's appeal to the masses by giving them some entertaining drama, McCabe outlaws its practice upon pain of death (while practicing it in secret), whereupon Bokonon "flees" into the jungle, a "wanted" man. Over time, however, the two men become so habituated to their respective roles in the charade that they go insane and become enemies for real. Though when "Papa" Monzano (Mc Cabe's successor) dies, he rejects the Christian Last Rites - having declared Christianity the official religion of San Lorenzo — because "I have always been a Bokononist."
  • Benevolent Dictator: Bokonon and McCabe. They divided the country's total income between every adult (which amounted to six dollars each nonetheless...). Also, after being officially banned and every worshipper of his hunted, everyone is (secretly) still a Bokononist, including Papa Monzano, who made Christianity the state religion.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Monzano commits suicide with a piece of Ice-Nine, freezing his whole body. Later, a plane crashes into his seaside palace, causing his frozen body to fall into the ocean. The Ice-Nine attached to him instantly freezes all of the Earth's seas and freshwater sources, causing storms and tornadoes that wreck havoc across the globe. Everyone on Earth dies, but at least John finds out his final purpose in life.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dr. Felix Hoenikker. He was so easily distracted that, at one time, he completely abandoned the development of the atomic bomb to study the skeleton of turtles. His daughter suggested his desperate colleagues to simply remove anything turtle-related from his laboratory, and he'd forget about his fascination with them completely (they did, he did).
  • Chekhov's Gun: Played with when it comes to Ice-Nine, as the moment it's mentioned the narrator explains its importance, even though he didn't know it himself at the time.
  • Cosmic Deadline: Deaths only start piling on in the last 12 chapters, and en masse as the world comes to an end. Backstory about how ice-nine is divvied up between the Hoenikkers is filled in very late in the book as well.
  • Crapsack World: Starts bad, gets worse.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Castles and Newt Hoenikker.
  • Death World: After the release of Ice-Nine.
  • Depopulation Bomb: Ice-Nine instantly freezes any moisture it comes in contact with and turns it into Ice-Nine (including moisture contained within a living body), creating an unstoppable chain reaction. Some Ice-Nine ends up falling in the ocean.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: John's reaction to his first Boko-maru with Mona (which is literally just the two of them pressing the soles of their feet together) is a little....orgasmic.
  • Disaster Dominoes: A single small plane crashing leads pretty directly to the end of the world.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Mona.
  • Driven to Suicide: Angela starts playing a musical instrument she found in the ice, intentionally ignoring the real threat of Ice-Nine on the mouthpiece, which kills her. Mona, after she sees that everything has been or will be destroyed by Ice-Nine. The ending very strongly implies the state of the world drives the narrator to suicide as well.
  • Even the Gays Want Her: Mona is just that captivating.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: San Lorenzo is quite obviously based on Real Life Haiti - their dialectal speech, poverty, tyrannical rule, economy based on sugar, and also by their glimpse of history (San Lorenzo had a mad Emperor who built a gigantic and useless citadel). Though Haiti is also briefly mentioned in the novel.
  • Foregone Conclusion: John converts to Bokononism, the Mintons die together, and mentioned later on, nearly everyone else too.
  • For Science!: Dr. Felix Hoenikker's invention of ice-nine. He was conducting basic research and essentially motivated by curiosity, disregarding the potential disaster that his invention could cause.
  • Genius Ditz: Dr. Felix Hoenikker. A scientific genius, he worked on the atom bomb and created ice-nine, but for life outside science his wife looked after him the same as their children.
  • Grey Goo: Ice-nine turns any water it touches into more ice-nine.
  • How We Got Here: The events of the book are all one long flashback, and it's revealed near the end that John himself has been writing it for six months.
  • Humans Are Bastards: One of the central themes of the book, especially when it comes to the outlandishly cynical philosophies of Bokonon.
  • In Mysterious Ways: The Bokononist religion says that all living beings are arranged by God in groups called a karass, arranged around a person or object called a wampeter (in this case, ice-nine), in order to advance the divine will. The members of a karass may never even know each other, and their work may overlap in bizarre, coincidental ways, but they work together for a single purpose that they'll probably never know. John thinks he's figured his out by the end of the novel.
    • Bokonon also teaches that one should never decline travel suggestions from strangers, these are said to be God's dance directions.
    • It also teaches that one shouldn't assume a group they've fallen into is a karass. It may well be a granfalloon, a group that thinks they're joined together by fate but actually aren't.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: John's a Cornell alumnus, and Newt flunked out of the university.
  • Just Before the End: Having loaded Chekhov's Gun with the ice-nine, it was inevitably going to go off in everyone's face.
  • Lack of Empathy: Dr. Hoenikker's fatal flaw. He simply doesn't care about anything other than sating his curiosity. While this lets him perceive reality without Double Think beliefs (the aforementioned Cat's Cradle) and achieve technological marvels by tinkering every moment of his life, he could not see his own family as anything more than curiosities and conveniences, and gave Cold War powers dangerous and controlling technologies because he spared no thought as to what they would do with it. This eventually screws over the world.
  • Lensman Arms Race: The Americans, Soviet Union, and San Lorenzo all want to be the first to have ice-nine in their arsenal.
    • And by all accounts, they all DO have it by the time the protagonist arrives in San Lorenzo. The story points out the problem with this kind of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrent scenario: sooner or later somebody nuts (or about to die anyway) can get their hands on the doomsday device. And even if there are advisors and systems dedicated to preventing the doomsday devices from actually being used, all it would take is one unforeseen accident to kick-start the device and initiate the apocalypse.
  • Love at First Sight: The narrator falls in love with Mona before even meeting her, seeing her image in a magazine.
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: Dr. Hoenikker is completely oblivious to the fact that his puttering around in the lab inventing whatever pops into his head might have undesirable consequences, and if somebody were to point this out to him he seems to lack the ability to understand the seriousness of it or to care.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The main character is a writer. In the beginning he's doing research for a book. He later gets assigned to write an article about San Lorenzo, which necessitates him traveling there.
  • Mundane Utility: As revolutionary (and potentially destructive) as ice-nine is, it was only created so that American soldiers wouldn't have to spend so much time slogging through the mud and getting their boots dirty. It eventually ends up wiping out all life on Earth. Whoops...
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The quote at the top of the page provides an example of at least one scientist feeling this way. Dr. Hoenniker didn't get it.
  • Obi-Wan Moment: Mona calmly touches a bit of Ice-Nine to their lips after discovering that the entire surviving population of San Lorenzo committed a similar form of suicide at Bokonon's direction.
  • Oh, Crap!: The three Hoenikker siblings upon being shown "Papa" Monzano's Ice-Nine infected corpse. Newt goes one better and throws up.
  • Parental Neglect: Felix Hoenniker hardly ever showed any interest in his children. They were raised by their mother, and after her death, the oldest child, Angela.
  • Posthumous Character: Felix Hoenniker and to a lesser extent Earl McCabe.
  • Promotion to Parent: Angela Hoenniker has to take care of her two brothers and, to an extent, her father after her mother dies.
  • Sacred Scripture: The Books of Bokonon, which start with the handy warning: "All of the true facts I am about to tell you are shameless lies".
  • Science Is Bad: Or at least, science for its own sake is bad, because it doesn't know or really care about the consequences of what it creates.
  • Self-Deprecation: This exchange between John and Phillip Castle:
    "I'm not a drug salesman. I'm a writer."
    "What makes you think a writer isn't a drug salesman?"
    "I'll accept that. Guilty as charged."
  • Self-Proclaimed Liar: The first thing written in the books of Bokonon is that it's all made up. This doesn't stop it being a workable religion.
  • Short-Lived Leadership: John becomes the new President of San Lorenzo for at most a few hours before the world ends.
  • Spoiler Cover: As seen above, though the earlier hardback versions tended to be better about it, often showing, yes, a cat's cradle.
  • Stealth Pun: Boko-maru, the only real ritual of the Bokononists, is described as a meeting of souls. It is performed by having the two participants remove their footwear, and then press the soles of their feet together.
  • Together in Death: Horlick and Claire Minton die in this way.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The entire human race. From the beginning, we get the sense that humans are stupidly rushing themselves toward destruction and that it's just a question of how and when it happens.
  • Tropical Island Adventure: The novel is set on a fictional tropical island in the Caribbean.
  • True Companions: See In Mysterious Ways.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom:
    • "Papa" Monzano, twice. The first time when he commits suicide by swallowing the ice-nine, dramatically raising the risk of it getting into the world's water supply, and the second time when the ceremony arranged by him prior to his death results in an airplane crashing into his home and sending his ice-nine-infected corpse tumbling into the sea.
    • Also the unnamed US military officer who got Dr. Hoennikker interested in the idea of Ice-Nine in the first place.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Newt and Angela both get played like violins in the back-story by agents of the U.S. and Soviet governments looking to get control of some Ice-Nine.
  • Villain Song: The serial killer George Minor Moakely wrote and performed a song at his execution in 1782 about how he killed twenty-six people and didn't feel a shred of remorse about it. The lyrics can be found over at the Historical Society.
  • What Does She See in Him?: People don't understand why Emily Hoenikker, who was a very beautiful and popular woman, married Felix, who only cared about science and barely noticed her.

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.