Cat's Cradle: Novel Summary: Chapter 71 - Chapter 85

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Chapter 71 - Chapter 85

Summary of Chapter 71: The Happiness of Being an American

Crosby is angry at the insolence of Philip Castle whom he takes to be a rebellious worker in the hotel. Philip announces he is a Bokononist, and Crosby says it is against the law in San Lorenzo. Philip says he is an American. The two trade insults and Crosby goes to the desk clerk to complain about the artist. The clerk reveals that the insolent man owns the hotel.

Commentary on Chapter 71: The Happiness of Being an American

Crosby parades his privileged American businessman status everywhere he goes. He expects abject respect in a poor country, but another American, Philip, dishes out arrogance right back to him. Like Crosby, Philip Castle is an owner, not a worker.

Summary of Chapter 72: The Pissant Hilton

The Crosbys check out of Casa Mona and seek asylum in the American embassy. Now Jonah is the only guest in a one-hundred-room hotel. The hotel only faces the harbor and gives no view of the squalor behind it. Jonah goes to his room, but the hotel is still being finished, and he has no bedding. He looks around trying to find a maid. Instead, he finds two workers who have their shoes off, pressing their bare feet together. The workers beg Jonah not to tell, but he does not know why they are scared of being reported. Later he finds out they were doing the Bokononist practice of boko-maru, the mingling of awareness.

Commentary on Chapter 72: The Pissant Hilton

While Bokononism may be a tongue-in-cheek religion, it makes more humane sense than other creeds. Rubbing feet together is fairly innocent, yet Vonnegut shows how whatever is forbidden takes on an aura of criminality. Jonah is an outsider and does not see anything “worth mentioning” (p. 158) in the act.

Summary of Chapter 73: Black Death

Philip Castle puts a roll of toilet paper in Jonah’s room. They discuss Philip’s upbringing with Mona at his father’s hospital in the jungle. Philip tells of seeing a bubonic plague where fourteen hundred people died in ten days. His father worked day and night but did not save any lives.

The phone rings, and it is Frank Hoenikker begging Jonah to come to his house right away.

Commentary on Chapter 73: Black Death

The story of the bubonic plague is another pessimistic tale of how humans do not seem to be in control. The plague arbitrarily comes ashore with rats from a shipwreck. The great philanthropist, Julian Castle, cannot stop the plague with money or service. He ends up laughing hysterically while looking at a pile of corpses because there is nothing else to do. Julian Castle’s response to suffering is close to Vonnegut’s own response of making humor about death on a large scale. As a soldier, Vonnegut had to collect the German corpses after the bombing of Dresden.

Summary of Chapter 74: Cat’s Cradle

As the taxi takes Jonah to Frank’s house he passes “scenes of hideous want” (p. 163). On the slopes of Mount McCabe they find Frank’s house, once the home of Nestor Aamons, Mona’s father, the architect who designed the hospital in the jungle and this house which straddles a waterfall. The servant Stanley tells Jonah he is expected to stay for supper and the night.

On the terrace, Newt Hoenikker had fallen asleep in a chair in the middle of painting a picture. The painting looks like a spider’s web. Newt tells Jonah the painting is “a cat’s cradle” (p. 165). Newt says the string game is the oldest game there is, and it’s why kids grow up crazy, because, “No damn cat, and no damn cradle” (p. 166)

Commentary on Chapter 74: Cat’s Cradle

Newt’s one interaction with his father, Felix, happened when he was six years old on the day the atomic bomb went off. His father tried to teach him cat’s cradle. The string around the fingers resembles more a spider’s web than a cat’s cradle. Children are taught all sorts of things that do not make sense or prepare them for life. The game is a symbol of irrelevance and enmeshing lies.

Summary of Chapter 75: Give My Regards to Albert Schweitzer

Angela Hoenikker Connors enters with Julian Castle. Julian is the sixty-year-old man Jonah came to interview, and he is as contrary as his son Philip. Though he is supposed to be a saint, Julian smokes a cigar and talks out of the corner of his mouth like a gangster.

Julian does not claim to take the philanthropist Albert Schweitzer as his model. The only thing he admires is Schweitzer’s view of Jesus Christ. Jesus has become Julian’s hero.

Commentary on Chapter 75: Give My Regards to Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) admired Christ’s ethical teachings of reverence for all life. He felt the Christianity practiced in the world blasphemed what Christ taught. We do not treat others as our brothers. Julian went to the jungle to practice the ethics of the man Jesus towards other men.

Summary of Chapter 76: Julian Castle Agrees With Newt That Everything is Meaningless

Julian looks at Newt’s painting and thinks it is symbolic of hell. Angela thinks the painting is ugly and that Newt should take lessons. Julian decides the painting is about the meaninglessness of life and throws it over the balcony into the waterfall.

Commentary on Chapter 76: Julian Castle Agrees With Newt That Everything is Meaningless

Jonah realizes he is not going to have an easy time with the interview. He will have to concentrate on the saintly deeds and ignore “the satanic things” (p. 169) that Julian says. Julian seems to believe in Jesus and despair at the same time. Newt and Julian agree that everyone is “Self-taught” (p. 168) because life makes no sense and one has to improvise. Vonnegut is moving deeper into the darker message of the book.

Summary of Chapter 77: Aspirin and Boko-Maru

Jonah asks Dr. Castle if he is treating Papa Monzano. Julian says they are not on speaking terms. Papa does not like that the hospital administers the Bokononist last rites to whoever wants them. Julian is grateful for what works, and he says the rite of boko-maru, or foot touching, really works. Aspirin and boko-maru are the main stays of the hospital.

Commentary on Chapter 77: Aspirin and Boko-Maru

Jonah is surprised that there seems to be a lot of interest in Bokononism despite the hook. Julian laughs and tells him everyone on the island is a devout Bokononist.

Summary of Chapter 78: Ring of Steel

Julian tells more of the history of San Lorenzo. When Bokonon (Johnson) and McCabe took over the country, they threw out the priests and invented a new religion. They were not able to reform the economics, and so they made a religion of lies to give people hope. Bokonon invented the idea of becoming an outlaw. He told McCabe to make him an outlaw to give the religion more interest: “A really good religion/ is a form of treason” (p. 173). He also suggested the hook as a form of punishment. It was all make-believe with rumors circulated about executions. Bokonon has been in the jungle hidden and maintained by disciples.

Commentary on Chapter 78: Ring of Steel

Bokonon and McCabe are creative and improvise a social order that is like a drama with everyone playing a part. This is actually the way society works anyway, Vonnegut is implying. It’s just some arbitrary invention, so why not set it up to make people happier?

Summary of Chapter 79: Why McCabe’s Soul Grew Coarse

McCabe played the tyrant and Bokonon, the holy man. The people were diverted and stopped paying attention to the horrors of life, though their life was still brutal. The problem came with the young friends who were playing their parts. It made them both insane to be someone they weren’t. They kept up their acts to create meaning for the people. Papa Monzano understood this play and allowed it because it balanced his government. Castle reveals he is a Bokononist, and hints Jonah will become one too.

Commentary on Chapter 79: Why McCabe’s Soul Grew Coarse

This strange society plays on the principle of balance through opposites. Yet McCabe and Bokonon were alike to begin with. Both were “half-angel, half-pirate” (p. 175). When they had to polarize and pretend to be one or the other, it made them crazy. Vonnegut illuminates the social and psychological mistake of polarized personalities. One cannot accept part of one’s nature and submerge the rest. In truth, people are not rigid stereotypes.

Summary of Chapter 80: The Waterfall Strainers

The group at Frank’s house has cocktails on the terrace, and Jonah sees that Angela and Newt are heavy drinkers. They begin talking. Angela complains that her father was underpaid. Dr. Breed made more money than Hoenikker did. Julian Castle tells Jonah that at the end of the waterfall the villagers have a net to catch anything that floats by—a cigar butt, Newt’s painting, whatever they can get to sell or use. Newt tells Angela to get her clarinet to distract her from crying. He explains to the others that Angela’s husband is mean and unfaithful to her.

Commentary on Chapter 80: The Waterfall Strainers

Angela may have her problems, but her whining that her father was underpaid, and the islanders’ extreme poverty, are ironically contrasted. The people strain any item out of the stream they can find, like cigar butts, nails, old wrappers. They will use Newt’s painting for the canvas. Perhaps that is why Julian threw it in the water.

Summary of Chapter 81: A White Bride for The Son of a Pullman Porter

Everyone is surprised by Angela’s beautiful clarinet playing. Newt puts on a record of Meade Lux Lewis playing honky-tonk blues on the piano. Angela goes into a trance and improvises many moods on her instrument. Angela is as though possessed and speaking “fluent Babylonian” (p. 182).

Commentary on Chapter 81: A White Bride for The Son of a Pullman Porter

Angela appears to be shallow and ordinary, but when she plays the clarinet to the famous blues piano of a black son of a Pullman porter (Lewis), she speaks the same musical language. Meade Lux Lewis (1905-1964) was known for “Honky Tonk Train Blues.” That a white woman like Angela Hoenikker could team up with the black musical genius, Lewis, proves to Jonah one cannot understand the paradoxes of life.

Summary of Chapter 82: Zah-Mah-Ki-Bo

Frank Hoenikker phones to say he is at the deathbed of Papa Monzano. Papa is in great pain. Jonah tries to get Frank to tell him what he wants of him, but Frank only says the Bokononist phrase, “Zah-mah-ki-bo.” Julian tells him it means “Fate—inevitable destiny” (p. 184).

Commentary on Chapter 82: Zah-Mah-Ki-Bo

The Hoenikkers are all weak people and starting to pull Jonah into their family circle. Frank wants Jonah to help him, because he does not feel up to being president, so he is hinting at an important proposal he has for the journalist that will change his life.

Summary of Chapter 83: Dr. Schlichter Von Koenigswald Approaches the Break-Even Point

Julian Castle tells Jonah at dinner that Papa is dying of cancer, and that he is now at the point where the drugs and pain balance out. If he has any more drugs, it could kill him. Newt murmurs that he would kill himself in that situation. Julian says that’s what McCabe did. He named his major-domo, Monzano, as his successor and then shot himself. Whether he was sick or just depressed by playing an evil dictator, no one knows.


Dr. Schlichter von Koenigswald is Papa Monzano’s physician. He was the camp doctor at Auschwitz and is now doing penance at Julian’s hospital by saving lives there. Julian says that at this rate, von Koenigswald will be caught up with the number of deaths he was responsible for, in the year 3010. Jonah feels the German doctor is a member of his karass.

Commentary on Chapter 83: Dr. Schlichter Von Koenigswald Approaches the Break-Even Point

Jonah feels the German doctor is a member of his karass because he was involved in the mass murder at Auschwitz, the concentration camp, an atrocity like dropping the atom bomb. These acts of destruction are so unimaginable that Jonah has to tackle them as a journalist and as a human being even if he can’t find an answer. Von Koenigswald is repentant, but the number of lives he has to save in order to make up for his sin is too great for one lifetime. And thus Julian implies such an act cannot be atoned for.


The custom of the dictator of San Lorenzo naming a successor and then committing suicide does not sound like a promising legacy, a bit of black humor that foreshadows the reason for Frank’s offer to Jonah.

Summary of Chapter 84: Blackout

After dinner, Julian returns to the hospital and Angela, Newt, and Jonah sit on the terrace looking at the lights of Bolivar. Stanley shows them the lights of Fort Jesus, the training camp for soldiers. Just then a military convoy comes towards the house and the soldiers get out and dig foxholes in the yard. They say they have orders to protect the next president of San Lorenzo. Then there is a power outage in all of San Lorenzo.

Commentary on Chapter 84: Blackout

The irony of the military using Jesus as a name of their fort when he preached peace and non-violence is part of the hypocrisy and absurdity the satire exposes.


Summary of Chapter 85: A Pack of Foma

The servants bring lanterns while Jonah worries about the fate that Frank says is coming to him. Jonah asks Stanley for the Books of Bokonon. He goes to his bedroom to find out about the concept of fate but instead reads of the Bokononist cosmogony.

Commentary on Chapter 85: A Pack of Foma

The Bokononist cosmogony describes a fatherly deity, the sun, who is disgusted by his children, the planets, and throws them away. The moon or wife is also cast away and goes to live with the earth where there are people who love her. Bokonon calls the story he just made up, foma, or lies. This myth, however, describes the human anxiety of feeling abandoned by an angry father God. It also describes the Hoenikker family dynamics.


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