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The Satirical Cat's Cradle
Few deny that Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is satirical, though exactly what is being satirized is sometimes questioned, as is whether Vonnegut believes there is any hope for humanity in the face of all we do that is self-destructive. Many critics rightfully point to science and religion as two of the main targets of satire in Cat’s Cradle. They often claim that while Vonnegut satirizes science and religion, he offers no alternative to belief in such systems. He thereby seems to suggest, according to these critics, that humanity is hopeless. Perhaps, some say, he even perpetuates, albeit humorously, the nihilistic view that ultimately existence is meaningless. Some critics agree with Jean Kennard who, in “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: The Sirens of Satire,” claims “Vonnegut is ultimately a pessimist” (8). Vonnegut, Kennard claims, is not even a true satirist; rather, “he has the look of the satirist, but has no answer to give us” (2).
Not that a satirist must suggest an answer to be a satirist, but Vonnegut does have an answer to give us—if we are willing to look deeper than science and religion as his only targets of satire. He does indeed satirize man’s willingness to believe that absolute truths can be found in science or religion, but his real target of satire is the root of such beliefs: man’s willingness to act or believe without real thought or consideration. He shows the results of such a pervasive lack of human thoughtfulness in three main aspects of life—the two previously mentioned, science and religion, and a third, love.
Vonnegut’s message is ultimately hopeful in Cat’s Cradle: thoughtfulness about how our actions impact others and constant questioning and reevaluation of the world around us and its institutions will perhaps lead to more productive and ethical scientific practices, as well as improve the real effectiveness of religion and our ability to truly love one another. Just as the targets of the San Lorenzan Air Force to fire upon are “cardboard cutouts shaped like men” (Vonnegut 154), so are the satirical targets of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. After all, what are we but cardboard cutouts of those who have come before us if we choose not to employ our distinctly human qualities of reason and thoughtfulness to evaluate and rework ideas that have come before us? Vonnegut does not suggest that life is meaningless; nor can he necessarily offer us the meaning of life. That would undermine what he does do—he invites us to create and understand meaning through our own thought processes, as opposed to blindly accepting what others offer us as meaningful.
As Peter J. Reed points out in his book Writers for the Seventies: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., there are three writers in Cat’s Cradle: Vonnegut, Jonah and Bokonon. “Each of these three writers,” Reed explains, “is concerned with truth, using the word repeatedly, and appears to feel great need to declare the truth of the human condition. Yet each also warns of the writer’s willingness to lie in behalf of his truths, and cautions that the truths that he sees may themselves be lies” (125). This, of course, is Vonnegut’s point. We create meaning in our lives by thinking about the world in which we live. What may be truths for Vonnegut (or for Jonah or Bokonon) may not be quite the same for his readers. Each of us must evaluate the value of these writers’ statements for ourselves. Some may ring true, while others do not. Our tendency, though, as is evident in the title, Cat’s Cradle, is to accept the “truths” passed on from one generation to another.
One way Vonnegut suggests hope for humanity is through Newt Hoenikker. His father, in his one attempt to play with Newt, makes a cat’s cradle and, as Newt explains, “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” (Vonnegut 17). The father follows up the cat’s cradle with a song that is meant to sooth children: “‘Rockabye catsy, in the tree top’; he sang, ‘when the wind blows, the cray-dull will rock. If the bough breaks, the cray-dull will fall. Down will come cray-dull, catsy and all’”(18). Young Newt is terrified and runs away in tears. What is intended to be play is frightening to the child. The adult has presented string between his fingers as a cat’s cradle and a song in which usually a baby (but in this case a “catsy”) falls from a broken tree limb. It makes little sense to expect a child to find amusement or comfort in either of these things, but that is what adults ask them to do. As Tony Tanner in “The Uncertain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” suggests, “In Newt’s view it is no wonder that children should grow up crazy, because when they look at the cross-crossed string, what do they see? ‘No damn cat, and no damn cradle’” (3). Adults pass on the illusions they have accepted without question. Later Newt relates the illusion of the cat’s cradle to religion, suggesting it, too, is an illusion. People continue to call the crossed strings a cat’s cradle, even though it offers no connection to a cat or a cradle; people continue to find comfort in religion, even though it promises no real answers and has been at the core of world strife for centuries. We perpetuate our own illusions, often simply because it is easier than thinking about why we do it or what life would be like if we did not do it.
As children we are taught fictions by adults and generally we do not have the capacity to evaluate such fictions, so we accept them as they are passed along to us. We learn to accept fictions with little or no evaluation, because it is those fictions that make the brutality of reality tolerable. Newt’s resistance to accepting such fictions, however, is Vonnegut’s way of showing that there is hope for humanity. There are some who are thoughtful enough to question what others offer as truth. For Vonnegut, Newt is a symbol of man as a hopeful and thoughtful being, though Newt is often overlooked by other characters in the book (and by extension in the world) because of his physical size. Perhaps Newt’s size is Vonnegut’s symbol for how much hope there seems to be at the moment—little. As Jonah explains, the quotation about midgets in The Books of Bokonon “captured in a couplet the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it. ‘Midget, midget, midget, how he struts and winks, For he knows a man’s as big as what he hopes and thinks’”(Vonnegut 189).
While the first line of The Books of Bokonon reads, “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” (14), we would be falling into the trap of human folly if we were to accept that statement without evaluation. Vonnegut’s work reminds us that we must take from a writer’s thoughts what we find meaningful for us. As explained by Frank Hoenikker, the one thing sacred to Boknonists is man. What makes man unique in this world is his ability to think and reason, to be thoughtful and considerate, to advance and create. Instead, Vonnegut points out, we often allow or expect what we call fate to determine our lives. It is easier and requires less responsibility to do this than to accept our humanity. If we believe in fate, then of course everything in life is meaningless because our lives could not be other than they are. It is this that Vonnegut satirizes every time he writes, “As it was supposed to happen” (63), rather than “As it happened.” It is this that Vonnegut satirizes with his cosmic irony. Critic Jerome Klinkowitz in his book Kurt Vonnegut explains that “the train of events is deliberately improbable” (57) in Cat’s Cradle, which shows how foolish belief in fate can be. We can drift along waiting for things to happen to us, to lead us wherever we are meant to be, as Bokonon does before he lands on San Lorenzo. We require no responses as human beings if it is fate that drives our existence. Vonnegut satirizes the idea that science, religion and love act upon us as a part of fate.
Most recently, we expect science, in and of itself, to provide truths for us. We forget that science comes from human thought and experimentation. Then we conveniently and dangerously neglect to consider long-term effects of science on humanity. In short, we often ignore the human side of science. Before science, and still today, we asked religion to provide us with answers. We generally refused to question the answers handed down from one generation to another. Finally, because we have accepted so many fictions in our lives as a way of comforting ourselves, we have tainted the most basic of human emotions, love. It has become falsified in a way that can only be undone by real human consideration of our actions and feelings. As is demonstrated in Cat’s Cradle, the willingness of humans to believe without question in order to find comfort, real or otherwise, actually satirizes what is potentially good about science, religion and love.
Science is revered by many in Cat’s Cradle. As “Papa” Monzano dies, he tells Jonah that Bokonon “teaches people lies and lies and lies” (147), and then asks Jonah to “kill him and teach the people the truth” (Ibid.). The truth, according to “Papa,” is science. Vonnegut shows the ridiculousness of jumping from one form of comfort, religion, to another, science, without careful consideration. Reed explains that:
What the novel would appear to conclude is that scientific knowledge cannot provide the answers to essentially human problems, but that people all too often think it can; that science is frequently exploited to create human problems, while scientists do too little to prevent this; and that the scientist may put his incomprehensible truths before other people, but turn away from the human truths life may present him. (136)
Dr. Hoenikker seems to exemplify such ideas. He is called a genius, but for all his intellect and childlike inquisitiveness that makes him a scientific genius, he is incapable of responding emotionally to people or thinking about the possible long-term outcomes of his scientific experimentation. He makes only one failed attempt to play with one of his children, and at one point he leaves his wife a tip after she serves him breakfast. While he does not actually appear as a character in the novel, his existence has long-term effects on his children and ultimately—and most importantly—on all of mankind. James Lundquist, in his book Kurt Vonnegut, agrees:
Dr. Hoenikker’s laboratory is littered with children’s puzzles and toys, suggestive of the scientific impulse toward reductionism, the notion that only through concentrated simplification (the movement toward the understanding of basic principles, elemental relationships), can knowledge be advanced. Dr. Hoenikker’s mistake is that he chooses not to consider the expanded implication of any of his discoveries. (36)
Again, Vonnegut points out the human folly of thoughtlessness, particularly when coupled with such a powerful thing as science. The combination proves self-destructive. In fact, Vonnegut’s “suggestion of authentic science…makes the apocalyptic ending of the novel horrifying, despite Vonnegut’s comic implications” (Lundquist 98). For some time during the novel, Dr. Hoenikker seems almost harmless to the reader; he is simply a playfully curious scientist, sadly incapable of quality human relationships. But as T. A. Shippey explains in an essay review of Cat’s Cradle, “Hoenikker is in a way a devil of the modern mythological imagination: a scientist whose curiosity has entirely devoured his conscience” (2). If Hoenikker’s involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb that landed on Hiroshima is not personal enough for the reader, Vonnegut reminds the reader that such thoughtlessness on the part of Hoenikker affects the world on a smaller level, too. Dr. Breed tells Jonah of the time Dr. Hoenikker left his car in the middle of traffic one morning, and his wife Emily had to retrieve it. “‘Emily wasn’t used to driving the Marmon. She got into a bad wreck on the way home. It did something to her pelvis…And that was why she died when little Newt was born’” (30). The act itself of walking away from the car seems simply “quirky”—until the result of that simple action is revealed.
Dr. Hoenikker, then, represents the carelessness of science, but Vonnegut does not stop there. The public, capable of but unwilling to question these scientists, instead trusts them to provide truths seemingly unavailable to the general public without science. As Reed points out, “The main weakness of science, the satires would indicate, is that the public stands excessively in awe of it as ‘truth,’ while the scientist tends to become so absorbed in its explanations of the parts that he forgets the whole” (134). It is no mistake that when visiting Dr. Hoenikker’s office, Jonah hears the women in the office sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and in particular notices the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are here with us tonight.” Science does provide hope in some aspects, but it provides equally as many fears if left unchecked by the human factors of foresight, thought and consideration.
Some who do not believe in science as the ultimate comfort, turn to religion, which is also satirized by Vonnegut as too blindly followed for the sake of making human misery seem bearable. “The action of Cat’s Cradle could be described as a movement from Hoenikker to Bokonon” (Shippey 2). Bokononism, as McCabe and Bokonon intend, give the people of San Lorenzo a sense of purpose amidst the misery and poverty on their island. Despite its absurdity, it provides something for the people to believe in—a way of justifying their existence without having to think about it. After all, it is all written down by Bokonon. As Lundquist explains, “To maintain order and to take the minds of the people off their wretched economic condition, [Bokonon and McCabe] concoct an ersatz religion based (among other ideas) on translating good vibrations from one believer to another by pressing the soles of the feet together” (35). Basically, Bokononism provides for man a pretense of understanding. There is a purpose, Bokononism seems to reveal, beyond the poverty of San Lorenzans. They want to find Bokonon; they want to learn from him and share his ideas with others. Bokonon even admits in a “Calypsos”:
To seem to make some sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they al fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise. (Vonnegut 90)
In the face of such sheer poverty, as the San Lorenzans experience, what could make them turn from comforting lies? Bokonon and McCabe understand this, so when their attempt to better the lives of the San Lorenzans fails, they turn to what works for the people—a legend. Since “the truth was that life was as short and brutish and mean as ever” (119), even after their attempt at improvement, they realize something else that Julian Castle explains to Jonah: “[The] people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud” (119). Religion, Vonnegut seems to claim, gives people purpose, without the burden of really explaining anything. If the illusion is comforting, the people will accept it. As Bokonon explains,
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. (124)
Our folly, Vonnegut shows, is our need to believe we understand—to accept lies to feign understanding, when really we should be accepting what we do not understand and working with the realities we are capable of understanding, changing or accepting them as we see fit and meaningful.
In fact, though, it seems San Lorenzans are in the habit of ignoring reality. They keep it out of sight whenever there is a way to comfort themselves or visitors with the illusion of something better. The one hotel on the island, called the Casa Mona, is built like a bookcase, with each room facing the richest street on the island. It has “solid sides and back and with a front of blue-green glass. The squalor and misery of the city, being to the sides and back of the Casa Mona, were impossible to see” (108). It is safer to create and perpetuate the illusion of happiness than bother to look behind the bookcase.
Vonnegut does not, however, condemn the human need to believe in something. He treats our need for religion compassionately but reminds us that we must first believe in ourselves. When Jonah asks Frank Hoenikker what is sacred to Bokononists, Frank answers, “Man…That’s all. Just man” (143). The idea seems to be that while religion is much like the cat’s cradle—a cross of string that seems to some to deserve its title, but actually mean nothing to someone who thinks about it—man is real. Man’s thoughts are real, man’s existence is real, and man’s hope is real. Vonnegut is an idealist, pointing out to us our need to change by moving away from blind acceptance of the misery of the world around us to recognition that we have some control over our world. He may not have a definitive answer, but he offers hope in the form of a step in the right direction—thoughtfulness. Reed explains that “if Bokonon goes a little mad in his role, as Julian Castle suggests, it is at least partially explained by his frustrating inability to do anything more concrete to remedy the human condition. Like most cynics, he can be seen as a frustrated idealist; and the same judgment might be ventured of Vonnegut” (140-1).
The human condition, though, is in very bad shape, as Vonnegut suggests through his treatment of love in Cat’s Cradle. Our need to believe in science, religion, or any other institution to create meaning in our lives has been taken so far as to hinder us from understanding in any real way such a basic emotion as love. We have become so engrossed in a search for a truth that is beyond us that we are unable to experience a truth that is most readily available to all of us as human beings. Love is distorted into the same kind of fictions as science and religion. Each character seems to have a warped sense of love in his life. Newt, who claims “There is love enough in this world for everybody, if people will just look” (Vonnegut 22), is duped by his Ukrainian girlfriend, Zinka. While Newt’s love for Zinka may be sincere, it results in Zinka’s stealing his ice-nine to give to the Soviet Russian government. Angela uses her ice-nine to get herself a beautiful husband who treats her poorly and gives the ice-nine to the American government. Frank, like his father before him, is simply incapable of love; it is a human emotion, and he is far more interested in science. Jonah’s experiences with “love” throughout the novel include sleeping with a prostitute he meets in a bar, falling in love with Mona Monzano based on her picture, accepting the passing on of Mona from Frank’s fiancé to his own, and sharing first the experience of book-maru and then sex during which he is “both repulsive and repulsed” (178). Ironically, it is partly because he has had “two wives and no wife” and “no love waiting for [him] anywhere” that Jonah accepts the presidency of San Lorenzo. Love for these characters has become a meaningless word rather than an emotion. It is without thought or feeling that these characters believe they are experiencing love.
The only characters who seem to have any real understanding of love are the Mintons. They demonstrate a perfect love for one another, forming what Bokonon calls a duprass, a karass made of only two people. While their love seems limited to one another, Mrs. Minton shows a very deep understanding of the concept of love. In relating a letter his wife has written, Mr. Minton quotes, “‘Americans…are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier’”(71). Mrs. Minton’s insight is that we are not thoughtful about love; we assume it exists simply because we want it to and are likely to miss it when it is present. Later Mr. Minton speaks to the people of San Lorenzo about his son, who died in a war and who he mourns with a heavy heart. Mr. Minton says, “Think of what paradise this world would be if men were kind and wise” (171). He, too, seems to make Vonnegut’s point: we need kindness and wisdom, both of which require thoughtfulness, to create paradise—and to realize this, we must first think about it.
The human folly that Vonnegut satirizes is our need for a comforting illusion in which to believe. This way of thinking, Vonnegut seems to suggest, can only be self-destructive, because it ignores reality. There is an obvious comfort in believing in fate, because human responsibility is diminished, but neither science nor religion can exist without man to perpetuate it. And neither is productive without the thoughtfulness of man, a thoughtfulness of which Dr. Hoenikker was incapable. Bokonon, while he seems thoughtful, requires his followers not to be.
Jonah tells us the following:
TheFourteenth Book of Bokonon is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”
It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
“Nothing.” (Vonnegut 164)
Bokonon, himself a “thoughtful man,” believes he has good reason to expect nothing from mankind. After all, consider all the war and misery in the world today, particularly evident in San Lorenzo. Vonnegut, on the other hand, sees hope for mankind. He offers many hints throughout Cat’s Cradle that suggest his remedy for the currently self-destructive state of mankind: thought. For instance, in TheSixth Book of Bokonon, tortures are discussed. Of the oubliette, Bokonon writes, “In any case, there’s bound to be much crying. / But the oubliette alone will let you think while dying” (176, italics mine). And finally we are forced to think, even though we should have been doing so from day one, as Vonnegut suggests only a page later. In the Bokononist rendition of the creation of man by God, God raises man from mud (incidentally exactly what ice-nine is created to eliminate—success!), and this is what follows:
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. (177)
Thought, then, creates meaning. Vonnegut shows us how far from that we have moved by making what could be very powerfully useful institutions look absurd and abused when examined. Vonnegut satirizes science, religion, and love to point out humanity’s hand in making them worthy of such satire. He asks us to understand and think about what is in our power to change. By doing so, there is hope for mankind. As Klinkowitz explains, “man must write his own meaning—in religions, in novels” (54). Also in science and love. Even then, though, that meaning must be constantly reworked, rethought, reinvented and again reconsidered.
(with additional works consulted)
Foster, Edward Halsey. “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” Reference Guide to American Literature (1994): 866-867. Reproduced in DISCovering Authors. Gale, 2003. Detroit: Gale Group. 30 Nov. 2003. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC/>.
Harris, Charles B. “Illusion and Absurdity: The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd (1971): 51-75. Reproduced in EXPLORING Novels. Gale, 2003. Detroit: Gale Group. 30 Nov. 2003. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC/>.
Kennard, Jean E. “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: The Sirens of Satire.” Number and Nightmare: Forms ofFantasy in Contemporary Fiction (1975): 101-128. Reproduced in DISCovering Authors.Gale, 2003. Detroit: Gale Group. 30 Nov. 2003. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC/>.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1982.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
Reed, Peter J. “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Broadening Views, 1968-1988 (1989): 300-318. Reproduced in DISCovering Authors. Gale, 2003. Detroit: Gale Group. 30 Nov. 2003. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC/>.
Reed, Peter J. Writers for the Seventies: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1972.
Shippey, T. A. “Cat’s Cradle: Essay Review.” Masterplots II: American Fiction Series— MagillOnLiterature. Salem Press, 2000.
Tanner, Tony. “The Uncertain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (1971): 181-201. Reproduced in DISCovering Authors. Gale, 2003. Detroit: Gale Group. 30 Nov. 2003. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC/>.
Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963.
Professor Kelly Bender is a Professor of English at Union County College. Professor Bender teaches the following courses: English Composition I and II, Fiction and Film, and American Literature II (post Civil War) She received her Master of Arts in English Literature from Rutgers University at Newark. In addition, Professor Bender has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Rutgers University at New Brunswick. Professor Bender's research and interests focus on American Contemporary Literature and the role women play in these texts. She has also conducted research and created a grading rubric that is used both in the classroom and for assessment purposes.