Cat's Cradle: Novel Summary: Chapter 11 - Chapter 20

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Chapter 11 - Chapter 20

Summary of Chapter 11: Protein

Sandra continues talking about the Hoenikker family to Jonah. Felix was supposed to be the graduation speaker at the high school, but he forgot to come, so Dr. Breed had to come instead. Breed told the students he hoped they would all study science because there was too much superstition in the world.

Commentary on Chapter 11: Protein

Dr. Breed had told the students that science would discover the secret of life, and the bartender says, yes, he remembers it was something about protein. Vonnegut based the chapters about interviewing Breed on his own work interviewing scientists about their discoveries. He was appalled that many scientists during the Cold War were not thinking in terms of what their research meant in the big picture.

Summary of Chapter 12: End of the World Delight

An older bartender who looks like W. C. Fields joins the conversation and tells what he remembers about the day the bomb was dropped. A bum came into the bar and wanted a drink because he said the world was coming to an end. The bartender mixed him an “End of the World Delight” with crème de menthe in a pineapple. Another man came in for a drink, who had just quit his job at the Research Laboratory (Breed’s son), complaining that whatever people worked on ended up as weapons.

Commentary on Chapter 12: End of the World Delight

The bar has changed its name and décor several times, from the Navajo Tepee to the Pompeii Room. That, and the reference to the bomb being dropped on the Japanese, brings up the topic of doomed people and the sudden end of life. The response of the bar flies is somewhat apathetic in comparison to the enormity of the idea of the extinction of life. Yet, the man who quit at the Lab where deadly research was being had the right idea.

Summary of Chapter 13: The Jumping-Off Place

Dr. Breed picks up Jonah in his Lincoln sedan. Jonah had spent the night with Sandra and has a hangover, so he is not in the best mood. From Sandra, Jonah had learned the rumor that Dr. Breed had been in love with Hoenikker’s wife, Emily, and everyone was sure the three children were his. Dr. Breed starts talking about Ilium as a virtuous family town. The only negative history is a man called Moakely who killed 26 people there in 1782.

Commentary on Chapter 13: The Jumping-Off Place

The moral blindness of scientists is satirized by Breed’s outrage at the murder of 26 people, and yet he does not connect the bomb to the murder of millions. He brags about Ilium as a family town and yet slept with Hoenikker’s wife. By now, one realizes that Hoenikker would have been unaware of his wife’s infidelity, and would not have cared. Scientists are portrayed as generally insensitive and amoral.

Summary of Chapter 14: When Automobiles Had Cut-Glass Vases

The General Forge and Foundry Company (probably a satiric view of General Electric where Vonnegut worked as a publicist) employs thirty thousand people, and police have to direct traffic as Breed and Jonah drive up. Breed tells the story that once Felix Hoenikker got tired of waiting on his way to work and abandoned his car in traffic. The police found the car running, a Marmon, with little cut-glass vases on the doorposts that his wife Emily filled every day with flowers. When Breed speaks of Emily, he gets emotional. Emily had to drive the car home and had a wreck. It did something to her pelvis, and she died when Newt was born.

Commentary on Chapter 14: When Automobiles Had Cut-Glass Vases

The bizarre story confirms that Hoenikker was not aware of anyone but himself. The fact that he is so well paid and that science funds huge laboratories that contribute nothing to humanity but new ways to die is characteristic of Vonnegut’s black humor. In most scenes, Jonah plays the straight man, merely recording the absurdity around him and leaving the reader to catch the irony.

Summary of Chapter 15: Merry Christmas

In the Laboratory of the Company, they meet Francine Pefko, a dull and pretty office girl who laughs idiotically and tells Dr. Breed that scientists think too much. Dr. Breed talks down to the women in the office. He repeats that Hoenikker always said an eight-year-old child should be able to understand what they were doing.

Commentary on Chapter 15: Merry Christmas

At this time there were not many women scientists in America. Women are depicted as decorating the office for Christmas and humoring the men, as Angela mothered her famous father. Dr. Breed tells Miss Pefko that all people think the same amount, only some think in one way and some in another. Breed condescends to Miss Pefko, but his remark that scientific thinking can be understood by eight-year-olds again refers to the fact that Hoenikker had an arrested development.

Summary of Chapter 16: Back to Kindergarten

The Research Lab has heavily armed guards. Jonah smiles at one of the guards but gets no response: “There was nothing funny about national security” (p. 35). Miss Pefko says that if she were to understand science she would have to go back to kindergarten because she missed a lot. Breed replies, “We all missed a lot” (p. 35).

Commentary on Chapter 16: Back to Kindergarten

The chapter points out that scientists don’t know much more than anyone else, yet like Breed, they are not modest about their ignorance.

Summary of Chapter 17: The Girl Pool

Dr. Breed’s secretary, Naomi Faust, has served Breed all her life and stands on her desk to put up a banner that says “Peace on Earth: Good Will Toward Men.” Miss Faust prides herself on having remembered to buy chocolate bars for all typing pool girls in the basement.

Commentary on Chapter 17: The Girl Pool


“Faust” is the name of the legendary figure who felt justified in breaking any social or moral law for the sake of forbidden knowledge. The secretary ironically displays a message with the essence of Christian belief. The Laboratory is obviously a sign that Christian belief failed to stop something as evil as the atomic bomb. The Girl Pool in the basement is a reference to women’s status in this stunted society. Miss Faust explains, “The girls belong to anybody with access to a Dictaphone,” (p. 38) implying the girls are the equivalent of prostitutes in the world of science. They are allowed to surface once a year for chocolate bars at Christmas. Dr. Breed says, “They serve science too” (p. 38).

Summary of Chapter 18: The Most Valuable Commodity on Earth

When Jonah interviews Dr. Breed, he is unable to contain his scorn. Breed says he thought that it was going to be an objective interview, but Jonah’s questions seem to imply that scientists are indifferent to the human race.

Commentary on Chapter 18: The Most Valuable Commodity on Earth

Breed justifies his Laboratory saying that it is one of the few places that hires scientists to do “pure research” (p. 41). They are paid to increase knowledge, the most valuable commodity on earth. Breed enunciates one of the classic arguments for not having any restrictions on research. If the scientist is forbidden from some area of investigation (in 1940-1960, for instance, nuclear research, and today, stem cell research or genetic modifications), humanity is the poorer. Vonnegut obviously disagrees with the idea that scientists should have no checks and balances to their investigations. Like Faust, who also brooked no interference, scientists may think they are above the moral law, but they are fallible mortals.

Summary on Chapter 19: No More Mud

Jonah asks Breed if anyone ever suggested projects to Hoenikker? Breed tells him about the admirals and generals who thought of Hoenikker as a magician. A Marine general asked him to do something to help the Marines fighting in the mud. Felix, who liked puzzles, came up with the idea of a microscopic grain that could make mud or swamps solid as ice.

Commentary on Chapter 19: No More Mud

This is a key part of the narrative. Felix is like a child and can be manipulated by the military, as he was with the bomb. They have learned to keep him entertained by the projects. In this case a project to turn mud solid would help the soldiers fight in boggy areas, and Felix delights in the riddle. He comes up with the idea of a microscopic particle, described in the next chapter as the innocuous-sounding “ice-nine.”

Summary of Chapter 20: Ice-Nine

Dr. Breed explains Hoenikker’s discovery of ice-nine. He explains it was discovered as a rogue seed crystal that could make atoms in water stack in a different way when they froze. Regular ice could be called ice-one, but theoretically there could be an ice-nine, an isotope that would melt at a higher temperature instead of thirty-two degrees.

Commentary on Chapter 20: Ice-Nine

Breed tells Jonah about this monstrous discovery as though it is an interesting lesson in science class. As he concludes, the Girl Pool sings a new take on the Christmas carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years are here with us tonight” (p. 47). Ice-nine would obviously solve the marines’ problem of mire that melts when the temperature is 32 degrees. If it could only melt at a very hot temperature, say over 100 degrees, by throwing a seed crystal into the mire that would freeze it solid, they could walk over the muck. No one stops to think out the implications of this except for the horrified Jonah.

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