Cat's Cradle: Novel Summary

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 Novel Summary

Summary of Chapter 1: The Day the World Ended

The first-person narrator says, “Call me Jonah” (p. 1). His name is really John, but Jonah suits him because like the prophet Jonah in the Bible, he has been “compelled to be certain places at certain times” (p. 1).  As a younger man he collected material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended, which was to be a factual account of what Americans were doing the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was going to tell it from a Christian point of view because he was a Christian then. Now he is a Bokononist, which religion he would have taken up sooner if it had been known beyond the borders of the Republic of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean. The Bokononists believe in the karass, the group of people brought together for a special purpose to do God’s will. 


Commentary on Chapter 1: The Day the World Ended

The opening sentence parodies the opening of Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” Like Melville, the author assumes a Biblical name for the first-person narrator, setting the tone for a cosmic story. Jonah was a prophet who was swallowed by a whale because he refused to do God’s will at first. John or Jonah implies this book he was writing, about the dropping of the bomb, was commanded by God, but he didn’t know it at the time because he was merely a Christian. Now he is a Bokononist. Bokononism is a fictitious religion made up by Vonnegut to satirize the failings of religion in general. Bokononism is full of “bittersweet lies” (p. 2) but because it teaches that humans are sacred, it makes more sense than most religions. The karass or fated group is a key concept in the book. Everything is happening according to a larger plan, though things appear random. The book Jonah was writing focuses on the atomic bomb, the symbol of the immorality of science. Throughout the book, Vonnegut maintains a two-pronged attack on science and religion because he is a humanist, and despite their claims, science and religion do not seem to be serving humanity.

Summary of Chapter 2: Nice, Nice, Very Nice

Jonah begins quoting the Books of Bokonon that state when your life gets tangled up with someone else’s for no logical reason, that person is probably part of your karass. A karass ignores social boundaries. He quotes a Bokonon poem that groups a “sleeping drunkard” and the British queen and a Chinese dentist as part of “the same device” (p.3).

Commentary on Chapter 2: Nice, Nice, Very Nice

The author sets the reader up for the seeming random grouping of bizarre characters in the book with the poem and sayings of Bokonon. Vonnegut contrasts those people who are spiritually significant in one’s life with those one associates with in social groups by occupation or family. The comic and satiric grouping of the Queen and a drunkard is typical of the humor that gets increasingly dark as the book progresses.

Summary of Chapter 3: Folly

According to Bokonon it is folly to try to observe the limits of one’s karass or the kind of work God wants it to do. Jonah quotes a parable of Bokonon’s about a woman who had definite ideas of what God wanted and didn’t want. Bokonon says anyone is a fool “who thinks he sees what God is Doing” (p. 5).

Commentary on Chapter 3: Folly

The narrator sets a tone of mystery for the story that is to come and frames it with the philosophy of Bokonon. Bokonon’s ideas and sayings are irreverent and funny and provocative. Before we hear this fantastic tale, we are set up to understand it is not logical and will not be according to our expectations, because life itself is not something one can make sense of.

Summary of Chapter 4: A Tentative Tangling of Tendrils

Jonah wants the book to contain as many members of his karass as possible to see “what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to” (p. 5). And whereas he does not mean it to be a tract on Bokononism, he has to quote the first sentence of Bokonon to the effect that all of the true things he is saying are “shameless lies” (p. 5).

Jonah’s karass includes the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, but he was dead before Jonah’s tendrils of life got entangled with his children’s. The first he became acquainted with was Newton Hoenikker, the youngest son of the famous Dr. Hoenikker. He found through the Delta Upsilon Quarterly that they belonged to the same fraternity at Cornell. This prompts him to write a letter asking Brother Newt for anecdotes about his father and the family on the day the bomb was dropped, to be included in his book.

Commentary on Chapter 4: A Tentative Tangling of Tendrils

As Jonah will explain later, a fraternity brother is an example of a granfalloon, as Bokonon calls it—a false group. But as a son of Hoenikker, the father of the bomb, Newt is a member of Jonah’s spiritual karass. He tells Newt that his book is going to emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb, which clues the reader in to the fact that there won’t be much of a positive nature to convey about the dropping of the bomb. The assumption is that Newt Hoenikker is being set up to divulge damaging information about his father.

The reader is in the dark at this point about who Bokonon is and why Jonah keeps quoting him, especially when it is revealed that Bokonon’s religion is truth based on lies. Jonah implies his book is the same. This paradox describes the genres of satire and science fiction. The story may be a literal lie, an exaggeration or joke, but the wisdom behind it yields some useful reflection.

Summary of Chapter 5: Letter from a Pre-Med

Newt Hoenikker writes back his life story, including what his father was doing on August 6, 1945, when the bomb fell on Hiroshima. Newt is currently living with his sister, Mrs. Harrison Connors, in Indianapolis because he flunked out of pre-med at Cornell. He was only six when the bomb dropped, playing in the living room of their home in Ilium, New York. His father worked on the Manhattan Project at home, and the only other place he liked to be was their home on Cape Cod, where he died on Christmas Eve.

The day of the bomb, Felix took a string and made the children’s game, cat’s cradle, on his fingers. He showed it to Newt, the first time that he had ever spoken to or acknowledged his son. Newt was frightened at his father’s ugliness, because his face was so close he could see his giant pores. Newt ran out in tears as his father tried to show him the “cat” in its “cradle.”

Commentary on Chapter 5: Letter from a Pre-Med

Newt’s letter is full of the seeming extraneous and absurd facts that characterize Vonnegut’s own style. They seem random but add up to a devastating portrait of Felix Hoenikker, a mad scientist. Part of Vonnegut’s satiric technique is to present deadpan observations on ironic situations. The main character, Jonah, is an unwilling witness of the bizarre nature of life. Newt’s letter gives a very clear picture of his father, the inventor of a deadly bomb, as a childish, irresponsible man, who has no interest in human beings, not even his own children. The Brobdinagian view of his father with giant pores is reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, where Gulliver is equally sickened at a close-up sight of giants. Hoenikker is likened to a brilliant but stupid giant with the power to wipe out millions without even knowing what he has done.

The game of cat’s cradle is introduced with Felix Hoenikker and is associated with his scientific mind. Newt quotes from his father’s Nobel Prize speech where he admits he is basically an eight-year-old child who has never stopped playing. Science is a game to him. His hapless children have had to fend for themselves, with the oldest daughter, Angela, acting as the mother to everyone, including her father, since their mother died giving birth to Newt.

Summary of Chapter 6: Bug Fights

Newt continues his letter with an account of his flunking out at school. He describes how two female students at Cornell committed suicide by holding hands and jumping into a gorge because they didn’t get into the sorority they wanted. Then he continues to describe his father as one of “the best-protected human beings” (p. 13) because he was not interested in people. He couldn’t even remember anything about his wife who died.

On the fateful day of the bomb, his brother Frank was in the yard “experimenting” with bugs in a bottle, making them fight each other. Angela, the 22-year-old, had given up her life to serve her father and science, revering his brilliance. She had no friends and her only consolation was to play the clarinet.

Commentary on Chapter 6: Bug Fights

The letter begins to show the warped personalities of the children as well as the father. Frank pretends he is experimenting with bugs, and Angela is a slave to her father. The other scientists think Hoenikker is a genius, and so they humor him. He becomes interested in turtles and stops working on the bomb. Angela tells them to take away his turtles. The scientists set up his laboratory as a parent sets up the environment for a child. They make sure Felix can only play with things that have to do with the bomb.

Summary of Chapter 7: The Illustrious Hoenikkers

Newt adds postscripts to his letter explaining he is a midget, four feet tall and engaged to another midget, Zinka, from the Ukraine. His brother Frank disappeared, and is wanted by the FBI and Florida police for running stolen cars to Cuba.

Commentary on Chapter 7: The Illustrious Hoenikkers

Newt’s tone in telling details about his family illustrates that he has the same mindset as the rest of them. Like their father, they seem unable to put two and two together. Newt does not seem the least embarrassed about confessing he flunked out, or that Frank is wanted by the police. He makes no comment about the college girls committing suicide because they could not get into a sorority. The Gulliver parallel is extended with Newt as small as his father is large (the Lilliputians and Brobdinagians). Angela is six feet tall and very thin and unattractive.

Summary of Chapter 8: Newt’s Thing with Zinka

Two weeks later the whole country knows about Newt’s fiancée, Zinka, a midget Russian dancer. Newt saw her perform and courted her. She asked for political asylum in the United States, and then she and Newt disappeared. She later went to the Russian embassy wanting to go home because Americans were too materialistic, she said. This made the papers. Newt claimed he was in love and had no regrets. It was found that out that Zinka was actually forty-two, old enough to be Newt’s mother.

Commentary on Chapter 8: Newt’s Thing with Zinka

The naïve Newt does not seem to realize he has been manipulated by a Russian spy, who knew he was Felix Hoenikker’s son. It is implied she got secrets from him and then went back to Russia. What she may have gotten is hinted at later.

Summary of Chapter 9: Vice President in Charge of Volcanoes

A year later Jonah is in Ilium, New York, doing another journalistic story, so he decides to interview someone who knew Felix Hoenikker, Dr. Asa Breed. Breed is the vice-president of the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company. Breed tells Jonah he did not really supervise Hoenikker, because Felix was like “a force of nature” (p. 21).

Commentary on Chapter 9: Vice President in Charge of Volcanoes

Breed and Jonah immediately dislike one another, but Jonah recognizes him as a member of his karass. Bokonon says you don’t have to like members of your fated group. The idea that Felix was not a force anyone could control is frightening. He is likened to a volcano. This does not give one confidence in the rationality of science.

Summary of Chapter 10: Secret Agent X-9

The bartender and the prostitute Sandra at the hotel bar in Ilium both knew Frank Hoenikker, the middle child. Sandra tells Jonah that Frank was called Secret Agent X-9 in high school because he was secretive.

Commentary on Chapter 10: Secret Agent X-9

Frank’s nickname is significant in terms of the story to come. Like his father, he is unable to form human relationships. Jonah comments that it is no accident he meets Sandra at the bar, quoting Bokonon, “it was meant to happen” (p. 22). This is an amusing excuse, since Jonah later leaves with Sandra and stays over night at her apartment.


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