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Cat's Cradle: Theme Analysis

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The Failure of Science

When Dr. Asa Breed delivers the graduation address at Ilium High School, he urges the students to get careers in science because “science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday” (Chpt. 11, p. 24). The narrator asks, “What is the secret of life?”  The bartender replies, “They found out something about protein” (Chpt. 11, p. 25).  Vonnegut exposes through such jokes the narrow focus of science as unequal to the real nature of life. The common hope of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that science would save the world is finally debunked in this satire on the failure of science, represented by the atomic bomb. Scientists discovered the atom only to use it as a weapon to wipe out life.

Newt Hoenikker reports that when the first atom bomb was tested at Almagordo, a scientist turned to Felix Hoenikker and said, “Science has now known sin” (Chpt. 6, p. 17). Hoenikker’s reply “What is sin?” (Chpt. 6, p. 17) is the point that science is largely an amoral body of knowledge that ends up in the hands of the ignorant or greedy.

Scientists are represented primarily by the character of Felix Hoenikker, brilliant in one dimension only. They are irresponsible children playing with fire, as illustrated in the anecdote of Felix considering science as the game of an eight-year-old. His lab is filled with toys that give him ideas for experiments. When he gets bored working on the atom bomb and begins studying turtles, the other scientists take away his turtles and give him things that only have to do with the bomb. He is not in the slightest bit interested in people or the terrible results of his games.

Scientists are highly overrated in the narrator’s opinion. Emily Hoenikker was lured into marriage with Felix thinking he was “a modern holy man” whose “mind was tuned to the biggest music there was, the music of the stars” (Chpt. 34, p. 69). The name of his secretary, Miss Faust, evokes the myth of the legendary figure who felt justified in the human ambition to control nature. Dr. Breed exalts Felix as such a scientist who does “pure research” without regard to its results (Chpt. 22, p. 49). Papa Monzano says “science is the strongest thing there is” (Chpt. 66, p. 146) and Felix is a Nobel prize winner who is called one of the most important men in the history of mankind (Chpt. 27, p.56). He is indeed. He invented “that seed of doom called ice-nine” (Chpt. 24, p. 53).

The Failure of Religion

On the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, the military base is called, “Fort Jesus.” This comic detail shows in a nutshell what became of the religion of universal love and forgiveness. Christianity doesn’t seem to have made much impression on the human race. It is now allied with the military and with capitalism, as exemplified by the Crosbys, who want to transfer their bicycle plant to a good Christian country with cheap labor. In the 1920s, the Castle Sugar Company exploited the starving natives, and relied on the “butterball priests” (Chpt. 56, p. 124) to minister to their distress. Vonnegut seems not so much to criticize Christ as what humans have done to twist his message, as exemplified in Dr. Vox Humana, who became a minister through an ad in Popular Mechanics for the Western Hemisphere University of the Bible at Little Rock, Arkansas.

Bokononism is introduced as an alternative faith that satirizes religion in general and offers a whimsical substitute that is more reasonable, because it centers on the sacredness of human beings rather than on a demanding otherworldly God (Chpt. 94, p. 211). Bokonon is upfront in admitting his religion is made of lies: “the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies” (Chpt. 78, p. 172). He doesn’t ask people to believe the lies, but to be happy and kind to one another: “Live by the foma [lies] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy” (frontispiece). For instance, Jonah wants to own Mona’s love exclusively, and she says, “Bokonon tells us it is very wrong not to love everyone exactly the same. What does your religion say?” (Chpt. 93, p.209)

Often the narrator uses Bokonon to comment on the absurdity of the world, governments, for instance: “Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on” (Chpt. 46, p. 101). Bokonon’s humorous sayings mock the failings of human beings, so they won’t take themselves seriously: “[Anyone is a fool] who thinks he sees what God is Doing” (Chpt. 3, p. 5). No one can get too dogmatic because Bokonon keeps adding contradictions to his own scriptures every day (Chpt. 81, p. 183). Even Bokonon fails in the end to come up with a creative explanation for the end of the world and suggests suicide as the only logical solution.

Existential Despair

The narrator admits that his second wife left him because he was too pessimistic, and he hopes the beautiful Mona Monzano can fill his “meaningless life” (Chpt. 40, p. 85). The other characters, who share his sense of the futility of life are Newt Hoenikker, the midget, who paints ugly pictures, and Julian Castle, who looks at Newt’s picture and remarks, “So this is a picture of the meaninglessness of it all! I couldn’t agree more” (Chpt. 76, p. 169).  Julian says, “Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing” (Chpt. 76, p. 169). Julian is the one who laughs at the pile of corpses outside his hospital because he cannot cure the natives of bubonic plague.

Bokonon is also trying to come to terms with existential despair in his religion. He depicts even God as having “cosmic loneliness” and creating creatures out of mud, “so the mud can see what We have done” (Chpt. 118, p. 265). His last rites depict humans who are humbly grateful for having been “some of the mud that got to sit up and look around” for a brief time (Chpt. 99, p. 221). The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Last Million Years?” consists of one word: “Nothing” (Chpt. 110, p. 245).

Yet the narrator stops short of the pessimism of Sherman Krebbs, the poet who destroys Jonah’s apartment in a “nihilistic debauch” (Chpt. 36, p. 77) and advocates nuclear war. Bokonon says that when Man politely asked God the purpose of it all, God said, “I leave it to you to think of one for all this” (Chpt. 118, p. 265). This is basically the existentialist philosophy that life has no inherent meaning but what we invest it with.




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