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Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle


by Kurt Vonnegut


Character Analysis

For a guy who only shows up in the last chapter, Lionel Boyd Johnson—we mean, Bokonon—has his finger in a pretty big pie.


Bokonon is the head honcho of Bokononism, the religion of the mythical Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. Bokonon and Earl McCabe both came to San Lorenzo wanting to create a paradise on the island. When they couldn't make it an actual utopia, they decided to create a scenario that made the islanders feel better about their atrocious lots in life.

The result? Bokonon started a religion, and McCabe became an evil dictator who banned it. The two played their roles for years with Bokonon giving the San Lorenzans hope and a reason to live through his religion—and McCabe giving them the resistance they needed to keep believing it. (We all know that it's a lot more fun to believe something if someone else really, really wants you to stop.)

Lies a-Plenty

Bokonon built his entire religion on the concept of foma or harmless lies. He even tells his followers when he is lying to them—which is, oh, roughly all the time. Why? He saw "[t]ruth [as] the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies" (78.3).

In this light, Bokonon's religion can be seen as a piece of fiction—or art. It might not be true, but it at least brings a little beauty and happiness to the world. In a novel like Cat's Cradle, sometimes that's the best you can expect.

Saint or Sinner

But what about Bokonon himself? We only see him briefly in the novel, and all other information we get about him is secondhand. So, is he a good guy—or, considering that his entire religion is based on lies, is he bad?

Let's look at the evidence.

Good: Bokonon provides his followers with a religion that helps them cope with the pain of their lives. Sure, it's based on lies—but he's honest about those lies. For example, he teaches the people of San Lorenzo the ceremony of boko-maru. It may sound a little silly to us, but it really does help the islanders feel love toward one another, and as Mona says, "[l]ove is good, not bad" (93.26).

Bad: this guy is also responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. After the ice-nine incident, the people of San Lorenzo asked him what they should do. He told them they "should have the good manners to die" (120.16). And they do just that.

Hm, not looking too good now.

Just an Ordinary Man

But it's more complicated that just good or bad. Bokonon is the one who suggested that McCabe use the hook as a deterrent to Bokononism. He only wanted to add some "zest" to their society-wide play, but McCabe eventually went so far as to use the hook. Although Bokonon never intended for anyone to die from his invention, he is ultimately the one who came up with it—just like Hoenikker and ice-nine.

All this complication isn't eased by the fact that Bokonon is always held at a distance from the reader. Or, as a Bokononist would say, "[b]usy, busy, busy." (32.12).