Cat's Cradle: the Destructive Nature of Humans

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  • Topic: Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Bokononism
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  • Published : September 4, 2006
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Everyone has heard the expression "curiosity killed the cat." That is to say, the search for new wisdom can often have unpleasant consequences; a child curious about the kitchen stove is bound to get burned. This is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates in Cat's Cradle with the example of ice-nine, which is developed by the fictional creator of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. It is symbolic of the atom bomb in that it has the power to end human life. Hoenikker is obviously an exceedingly smart man; however, it can be inferred from his inventions that he does not always consider the negative consequences of his new discoveries. He is merely on a quest for further knowledge, not a quest to better our society. The game of cat's cradle, which Hoenikker was playing on the day of Hiroshima, can be understood to represent both the naîve, infantile nature of Hoenikker as well as the great destruction caused by his invention. Vonnegut counters the scientific aspects of the novel with the bizarre religion of Bokononism. Overall, Cat's Cradle is used by Vonnegut to point out the flaws in modern society. Through the analogous ice-nine, Vonnegut shows that humankind's search for knowledge is prone to end up in destruction.

This fictional substance, coincidentally, has many similar characteristics as the atom bomb. Chiefly, they are both symbols of the destructive power of human technology run amok (Peacock vol.44 210). They also highlight humans' flaws, showing that we are too careless to be responsible for anything as dangerous as ice-nine or the atom bomb. Vonnegut exaggerates this carelessness by giving immediate ownership of ice-nine to the three obviously irresponsible children of Dr. Hoenikker (Student Resource Center 1). Ultimately, Vonnegut uses ice-nine to demonstrate the fundamentally destructive nature of humans (Bloom 40). The novel ends with the complete destruction of the world, showing Vonnegut's interpretation of nuclear holocaust (Vonnegut 191). In all these ways, ice-nine is almost synonymous with the atom bomb.

Hoenikker can be seen as representational of our entire race. He is a scientist and inventor on a search for knowledge, just as we are a race on a search for knowledge. It is apparent that this search often yields negative results, as in the child and stove example. Though Hoenikker may be responsible for the atom bomb and ice-nine, he emerges not as a monster or villain but as a giant child (Kennard 1). Hoenikker was actually largely based on a man Kurt Vonnegut knew named Irving Langmuir:

A man that my brother worked with…a Nobel Prize winner named Irving Langmuir, was more or less the model for Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Langmuir was absolutely indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he dug out of the rock and handed out to whomever was around. But any truth he found was beautiful in its own right, and he didn't give a damn who got it next (Peacock vol.6 208).

That is to say that Hoenikker cared not about what his discoveries were used for, only that he kept making discoveries and furthering his knowledge. This is just part of the strangeness of Hoenikker; he always seems to look at matters from a different perspective than everyone else (Vonnegut 46). It is possibly this skewed perspective that causes him to care so little about the effects his discoveries can have.

Vonnegut uses imagery of the cat's cradle string game in clever ways. The ‘X's that are clearly described as part of the cradle can be understood to represent negation and destruction (Student Resource Center 1). This is only appropriate considering that Felix Hoenikker was playing with a cat's cradle on the day of the Hiroshima bombing. He plays with it in an attempt to impress his young son, Newt (Vonnegut 17). Newt, however, is unimpressed and points out that there is neither a cat nor a cradle in a cat's cradle, and therefore it is illusory and unreal (Bloom 45). In this sense the cat's cradle can be seen as symbolic...
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