Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Report
Cat’s Cradle was written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1963. It is a book about a young freelance writer writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped. It is basically a book about the end of the world as we know it.
Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, IN. He is the son of Kurt (an architect) and Edith Vonnegut. He had a sister, Alice, and a brother, Bernard, who later grew up to be an atmospheric scientist who discovered how to make it rain or snow by seeding clouds with silver iodide. Bernard recently died of cancer.
Vonnegut married twice. His first wife was Jane Marie Cox whom he married on September 1, 1945 and later divorced in 1979. With Jane he had a son, Mark, and two daughters, Edith and Nanette. His second wife, whom he married in November of 1979, was Jill Krementz, a photographer. He adopted a daughter, Lili, during this marriage. Also during one of his marriages he adopted his sister’s children James, Steven, and Kurt Adams, after she passed away.
Vonnegut began to show his writing talents at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis where he was a staff member of the school’s newspaper, the Shortridge Daily Echo. After high school he went to Cornell University where concentrated his studies in biochemistry. However, he was not too bright in that field and received poor grades. He was able to express his writing talents once more here where he wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun as the managing editor. Later, he transferred to Carnegie Institute of Technology and studied for a short time before he joined the US Infantry. After his second marriage, he attended the University of Chicago for his master’s degree and his thesis was rejected unanimously.
Vonnegut worked in many writing related and non-writing related jobs before he started writing stories. He was a teacher, a freelance writer, a police reporter, and many other things as well. For a time he also worked at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, NY as public relations official.
Between Vonnegut’s time at Cornell and the University of Chicago he joined the army. During this time he had several bad experiences. First, two years after he joined, his mother committed suicide on a sleeping pill overdose. Several months later he was captured by the German army in the Battle of the Bulge and, while being forced to work in a vitamin factory, he survived the firebombing of Dresden (which killed more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined).
It was after being freed by the Soviets that Vonnegut began working on his writing and later began to write books. In his books he incorporated much of his own life, in fact nearly all of his ideas come from his life. For example, the book Slaughter-House Five was about W.W.II and the bombing of Dresden both of which are things that Vonnegut himself experienced. Also in Cat’s Cradle, the main character is from Cornell college where Vonnegut also attended. Also he mentions that many people in the book are “Hoosiers” which means they are from Indiana; Vonnegut is also a “Hoosier.”
Vonnegut’s characters usually have a lot in common with himself; they share the same feelings and experiences. Vonnegut’s characters often have broken relationships with their fathers. Vonnegut also had a dysfunctional relationship with his father. In fact, after Kurt Sr. died, Vonnegut dropped the Jr. off of his name “in an act of Freudian cannibalism.”
In all of his books Vonnegut incorporated different feelings and experiences. There has been evidence of his mother’s suicide, his sister’s death, his first wife’s death. In Cat’s Cradle he incorporated a concept of one of his brother’s ideas. His brother, as mentioned earlier, knew how to make it rain or snow by seeding clouds. Well in Cat’s Cradle the oceans are seeded with a new form of water that freezes the world.
The plot of Cat’s Cradle revolves around a substance called “ice-nine” and the family behind it, the Hoenikkers. Felix Hoenikker was the “father” of the atomic bomb and he is long since dead when the story begins. He has three dysfunctional children. Angela is a girl who’s only friend is a clarinet; she had to be the mother to the family since the death of their real mother. Then there is Frank, the little scientist/ model builder who spent his high school years having sex with a model shop owner’s wife. Last but not least is Newt, the midget that flunked out of Cornell. All the children are involved in helping the narrator write a book about the day the atomic bomb dropped.
The substance that the book revolves around, as I said, is “ice-nine.” It is a form of water that Felix invented before he died that is solid at room temperature. If it is dropped into any water, that water will turn into “ice-nine” instantaneously. So in short if “ice-nine” were dropped on any water source, then the entire world would freeze because all water eventually goes to the same place… the ocean. Of course all of the dysfunctional children have some “ice-nine.”
Most of Vonnegut’s books often involve a central theme of fate. Fate plays a big role in Cat’s Cradle. Throughout the book there is a sort of bible that supports the theme of fate. There is a religion called Bokonism with the Books of Bokonon as their guide. Bokonism teaches much about fate. Often Vonnegut writes “as it happened- ‘as it was supposed to happen’ Bokonon would say.” Things don’t just happen, they are planned to happen to help each individual reach his or her final fate.
The thing Bokonism teaches that most involves fate is the karass. Your karass is like a family of people all involved in bringing you to your purpose in life. Bokonon writes “If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons, that person may be a member of your karass..” pg. 12. A karass “ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries” pg. 12, it simply functions to help you get to your destiny.
In a way the narrator, the Hoenikker family, and any others involved with “ice-nine” were part of the karass of the world. They all had a part in the final fate of the world. They caused the end of the world. It was Frank who gave “ice-nine” to the president of San Lorenzo (a tropical island where most of the book takes place), and that president ate the “ice-nine” to commit suicide. If Frank and the others disposed of the body quickly, then nothing would have happened; but they wait and the whole world ends up getting contaminated with the solid water.
The most important piece of the karass is the wampeter. A wampeter is the pivot of the karass, it is what the karass revolves around. Every karass has one.
Anything can be a wampeter: a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea, a book, a melody, the Holy Grail. Whatever it is, the members of its karass revolve about it in the majestic chaos of a spiral nebula. The orbits of the members of a karass about their common wampeter are spiritual orbits, naturally. It is souls and not bodies that revolve. As Bokonon invites us to sing:
Around and around and around we spin,
With feet of lead and wings of tin . . .pg. 42.
“Ice-nine” seems to be the wampeter in the narrator’s karass.
The development of the narrator is a key element in supporting the theme of fate. As was mentioned earlier the narrator, who says his name is John, is a freelance writer writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped. As the book progresses and as John collects information for his book, Vonnegut gives us information about John’s karass and about his apparent wampeter “ice-nine.”
As John searches for information on Felix Hoenikker he comes in contact with Newt Hoenikker and he talks of the rest of the family, all of whom are stated as being part of his karass. We first hear about “ice-nine” when John goes to Felix’s old place of work, the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company in Ilium, NY. A scientist there informs him of the idea of “ice-nine.” This is then realized to be a very important piece of John’s fate.
John ends up finding information that Frank Hoenikker is on the island of San Lorenzo and he immediately buys a ticket to the island. On the flight he sees Newt and Angela Hoenikker and other members of his karass. We can then make a pretty good assumption that John’s destiny takes place on the island.
Sure enough the island of San Lorenzo is where the “ice-nine” contaminates the world. This is thus the end of the world as we know it though not the end of the world all together. A few people lived through the freezing of the world including John. So the ones left on the island had to live the rest of their lives their.
In the end of the book John says that he now know what his karass was for. He said that his fate was to climb Mt. McCabe, the highest mountain on the island. Although I disagree. I think that his karass was just all about him getting to San Lorenzo to take part in destroying the world and to live out the rest of his life there.
Cat’s Cradle is the most interesting books I have ever read. He takes his theme to new levels by creating new words and creating an entire religion to coincide with it. He presents a plot that is brilliantly original. The story itself is fairly depressing but at the same time it is exciting and at times funny. It is definitely the best book of Vonnegut that I have read so far.