Cat’s Cradle and Humanitarian Morality
The 1960s was a decade of great technological and social progress as the “modern world” that most people are familiar with today was coming to fruition. It was during this time period that attitudes prevalent in the national psyche needed to catch up to contemporary innovations in weapons technology. Cat’s Cradle was written and published during the height of the Cold War, where the grim reality of nuclear holocaust loomed over Kurt Vonnegut’s audience. The book is a dry satire that explores the results of collective human ineptitude and indifference combined with a capacity to create destruction on a scale the likes of which the world has never seen. The author observed that when lacking the “for humanity’s sake” purpose, scientists may do more harm than good to mankind. In the same breath, the author described his fear of ignorance and indifference which causes scientific inventions to lead to destruction when they were intended to help humanity. Underneath the irreverent prose, placid tone, and dead-end plot points, Vonnegut hoped to raise awareness about the importance of knowing reflective and critical thinking skills and to re-establish humanitarian morality such as compassion because the failure to do so could lead to one of many undesirable futures via the misuse of technology. This paper will examine the outstanding use of casual style in describing serious matter, the paradoxical relationship between willful ignorance, the need to let go of individual pride and finding the truth for the benefit of mankind, how science without humanity is disastrous, as well as a need for reflective thinking skills in the masses.
Starting from the title of the book, Cat’s Cradle, refers to a string game that is usually played by young children. Whenever a character in the book appears to be particularly self-righteous or self-serious, the cat’s cradle game is always brought up. As a metaphor, the game is used to draw parallels of people attempting to ascribe meaning where none exists. “See the cat? See the Cradle?” (Vonnegut 67) is a common phrase that Newt Hoenikker uses when he realizes how arbitrary and ridiculous the world could be. Vonnegut uses the game as a way to rein in the characters’ often competing prides as well as futily reminding them of pride’s pitfalls.
The story is told in the form of simple vignettes, with limited narrative structure, that resembles notes the narrator has quickly taken as he tries to remember the events of Cat’s Cradle. There is an “obvious dissonance as Jonah tries to artificially inject meaning into the story” (Tanner 112). This is especially true when Cat’s Cradle is intentionally written like a basic script that has not yet been polished into a novel. The dryly worded and documentative writing style is juxtaposed against the religious symbolism and numerous reinterpretations made by the narrator later on. What this clash of writing amounts to is a scathing critique on man’s attempt see meaning where none exists. The lack of narrative cohesion represents an indifferent universe that exists regardless of humanity’s role in it. Jonah or John is a representation of the man’s futile attempts to see himself as something greater than what he is. Jonah’s rejection of his reality as it is does not change anything, the denial only gives him a superficial peace that is easily broken by the reality. Realizations in one’s place in the global society are important in order to attain ethical, humanitarian growth. The masses of everyday people need to precisely understand their small but important part in the world. If people become too prideful in their ways then baser instincts will likely lead them down a path of ignorance. The tribalist, us-versus-them, mentality is harmful in an age of apocalyptic weapons.
Cat’s Cradle shows a dichotomy between science and religion. Science, represented by Ilium, prescribes meaning to all things that are substantive, but is prone to alienation and is not useful to the uneducated masses, “She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative of all mankind” (Vonnegut 30). The quote describes a secretary for one of the scientists. The secretary does not understand anything that she types and does not care to either as she feels alienated by science which might as well have been wizardry. In contrast, religion, represented by San Lorenzo, is capable of helping all people alleviate the pain of their undesirable yet inescapable reality, but is incapable of changing it. In the quote, “I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person” (Vonnegut 44), Vonnegut signi fies that people are not satisfied with their reality and science, in all of its attempts to understand the truths of the world, is not enough of a benefit to these people living in misery. For the easily subjugated people of San Lorenzo, the de facto lies of Bokononism, their only source of relief, are what they use to continue their lives. The truth that science so greatly values is completely meaningless to the people of San Lorenzo because their miserable reality is the last thing that they find meaning in. Vonnegut does not try delegitimize neither science nor religion because Cat’s Cradle goes through both viewpoints and acknowledges the good and bad of both. The author attacks the short sightedness of the people behind both ideological institutions for believing that one should exist in a vacuum without the other.
Bokononism is used as Vonnegut’s direct contrast to science as both revolve around the truths of the world. The “truth” as described by Cat’s Cradle is an unflattering, unequal, and arbitrary existence. Many times in the book, there are seemingly useless details and plot points that do nothing to service the narrative and are not paid off later on. One of the most prominent examples is the narrator returning to his apartment only to find it “wrecked by nihilistic debauch” (Vonnegut 60) . He allowed a homeless poet to stay there. Jonah, the narrator, describes various ambiguously worded poems strewn about the floor, the smoldering remains of his couch, and a dead cat on his wall. There are no call-backs later on or one-off chapters similar to this instance. All of this leads the reader to deduce that the entire segment is superfluous and actually parallels an ugly reality where occasionally, there is no deeper meaning to life’s actions. They are all a series of events that happened to take place. Bokononism actively rejects this reality because it does not congeal with the narrative of its followers. The religion denies reality, but at the same time does not recognize its own legitimacy. One of the first lines in the fictional Book of Bokonon asserts that “And what opinion did Bokonon have of his own cosmology? ‘Lies!’ he wrote” (Vonnegut 126). It can be inferred that Bokononism does not see the truth as something inherently good, only a source of unnecessary pain. The “ugly-reality narrative” (Kennard 112) and b y extension the sciences that place said narrative on a pedestal to be revered, is not practical for the people of San Lorenzo who have no agency over their lives. A similar effect is achieved when the narrator learns how the Hoenikkers were never as wholesome as t hey appear. The truth about the Hoenikkers only served to alienate the reader. The truth did not have any impact on the seemingly predestined events of the story. These ideas question the much sought after truths of the sciences as well. They ask “exactly how useful is an ugly-truth such as the atomic bomb?” (Reed 89). The author insists that some truths are too dangerous to be known. Cat’s Cradle considers if the need to endlessly search for the truth is a healthy one.
These revelations are very important as they reduce the self-important egos of great scientists and religious leaders alike. Their outdated attitudes are what lead to great tragedy as they have the audacity to believe themselves inhumanly capable of realizing the complexities that go into extremely destructive forces such as nuclear weapons. Vonnegut emphasizes that such pride is damaging because people do not believe that there will ever be a time when weapons of mass destruction will succeed the limits of human control. Cat’s Cradle criticizes the hubris of humanity’s leaders, who in their pride consider themselves to be beyond the petty squabbles of past generations. False moral superiority leads to tragedy because if people cannot acknowledge that there are things too great for flawed human hands to wield, such as thermonuclear weapons, then humanity will feel the full force of its giant ego collapse in on itself in the form of horrible war.
On the day of Jonah’s inauguration as the new dictator of San Lorenzo, the world is destroyed because a convoluted series worst case scenarios, strange coincidences, and freak accidents occur. Ice-9 is ultimately dropped in the ocean, instantly forcing the world into an eternal ice age. Cat’s Cradle challenges long held notions on the idea that every human being has complete autonomy over their own destiny. The belief that someone is able to reasonably determine his or her own destiny explicitly relies on the assumption that said person lives in a fairly predictable, meaningful universe. Such notions of a non-chaotic universe is constantly disproved as the story progresses and every character, no matter how socieitally important, is helpless to do anything but watch the events unfold, “I opened my eyes and all the sea was Ice-9. The moist green earth was a blue white pearl. The sky darkened, the sun became a sticky yellow ball, tiny and cruel. The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes” (Vonnegut 171). Vonnegut, in his attempts to remove any notion that human beings were in control of their own destinies to begin with, asserts that world-destroying weapons do nothing to solve these fundamentally human problems. A single group should not be so conceited as to trust itself to be in control of the destinies of the entire world because there are so many influencing details that cannot be measured. What Vonnegut’s characters fail to see is that the most seemingly powerful people could never control the destinies of so many others when they were never in control of themselves. He goes so far as to say that super weapons will only create more grief in the long run. The book asserts that there is no grand plan and every attempt to make one will be equally trivial, “Perhaps when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns” (Vonnegut 167). It is only on the day that humanity has reached a point of global maturity where the very existence of super weapons do not pose an existential threat to the world.
Reflective and critical thinking skills are key. Humanity and morality must be center of all scientific invention. It is imperative to have the intellectual and conscious awareness in decisions with irreversible consequences. A reflective practitioner has the ability to learn from their mistake, experience, and analyze life events to come to a proper plan of action. Mindless actions result in net losses and the responsible scientists, in contrast to Felix Hoenikker, should be the most cognizant of this.
The Hoenikker’s behaviors and actions indicate a lack of thoughtful analysis of consequences. Early on in the book, the reader learns how Felix is a great scientist, but is playfully distanced to anything else, through a fellow scientist’s testimony, “Dr Hoenikker, as a very young man, had simply abandoned his car in Ilium traffic one morning” (Vonnegut 29). His wife, who was not an experience driver, came to retrieve the family car and got into an accident. The Felix’s absent-mindedness results in his wife’s death. A reflective thinking practitioner would learn from this event and better prepare for life making decision. However, Felix created the atomic bomb with the same playful irresponsibility. His indifference toward humanity in inventing said weapon is catastrophic. Felix’s story demonstrates the disastrous consequences of technology when invented without thoughtful or reflective analysis in morals.
The lack of reflective thinking skills and compassion continues in the story of Frank, Newt, and Angela Hoenikker. The three siblings are indirectly responsible for the end of the world. The children despite not having any bad intentions, bring one of the last samples of Ice-9 to San Lorenzo and unwittingly set off a chain of events that end in deep freezing the oceans. It was not an act of active malevolence that destroyed the world, it was a series of inactions perpetuated by neglectful people who did not treat a super weapon with enough concern and seriousness out of a undeserved sense of pride. These behaviors are what the author fear the most: lack of compassion toward others and lack of reflective thinking skills resulting in a loss of progress.
With Dr. Hoenikker as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” (Vonnegut 13) Cat’s Cradle completes the parallels of Felix’s family life with his work as a weapons developing scientist because he treats both with the same nonchalant attitude that assumes no responsibility. Even though it is capable of freezing the world’s oceans, Ice-9 is stored in a flimsy thermos, representing how irresponsible people can be. The scientist’s lack of compassion, and indirect responsibility in the death of his wife, is then extended to his indirect responsibility in the death of hundreds of thousands of people during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Felix Hoenikker is a physical manifestation of science without humanity. The scientist’s role in the deaths of so many people is treated with complete disregard. He is unaffected by the gravity his actions. Although all innovations can be abused or unintentionally destructive, what prevents the tragic consequences of science is human compassion.
Cat’s Cradle explores the destructive consequences of science unrestrained by basic humanitarian principles of morality. “At no point does Dr. Hoenikker or any of the other atomic scientists consider if what they are doing should be done, they’re too busy wondering if these things could be done” (Southern 20). What the people in Vonnegut’s book fail to see is that pure science is not particularly helpful and may cause more problems than solutions. Science for humanity is key. When scientists are considerate of others, they will focus their energy to make positive contributions and solutions.
With the use of satire on a serious subject, Cat’s Cradle remains unflinchingly irreverent because it is sending a message about what goes wrong when humans become too self-important in its own trivial pursuits. It affirms that when people are perpetually on the pursuit of their goals, their happiness, or their religion, they tend to lose focus on what truly matters. Never in any previous time period has the world had a surefire way to destroy itself when advanced technology is in the hands of ignorant and compassionless individuals. Cat’s Cradle is a stalwart reminder to maintain reflective and critical thinking skills, as well as a love for mankind. Vonnegut’s message is one of transcending the initial pettiness, realizing that humanity and societal maturity is needed to able to take one step forward without taking two steps back .
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Grossman, Edward. “Vonnegut & His Audience.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Carolyn Riley and Phyllis Carmel Mendelson, vol. 5, Gale, 1976. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=william_fhsl&v=2.1&id=UQORUQ256348753&it=r&asid=34531d2350f0944d0e93aa481f00513c. Accessed 29 Jan. 2017. Originally published in Commentary, July 1974, pp. 40-46.
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Southern, Terry. “After the Bomb, Dad Came Up with Ice.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Dedria Bryfonski, vol. 12, Gale, 1980. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=william_fhsl&v=2.1&id=PFKMES388670551&it=r&asid=b53acfb58aa244346a1943ddbf7e00c6. Accessed 29 Jan. 2017. Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, 2 June 1963, p. 20.
Tanner, Tony. “The Uncertain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” DISCovering Authors, Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ2101208212/SUIC?u=william_fhsl&xid=dc97a05c. Accessed 29 Jan. 2017.
“Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle Expresses Alienation, 1963.” DISCovering U.S. History, Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ2104240978/SUIC?u=william_fhsl&xid=fa981239. Accessed 29 Jan. 2017.
Your essay was not complete as of Monday at 3PM. I have to deduct you -20% for a how late your completed essay was. Your essay was not complete until Feb. 21 at 11PM.
10-one sentence analysis
19-splice/can’t cite like this
10-Need to go deeper regarding his criticism of people
Your analysis lacks depth because your thesis lack focus and depth. Your argument is vague throughout your essay because you never fully establish it within your thesis. You needed a focused analysis to have a focused essay.
grade=C, -20% late=F
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