by Kurt Vonnegut
Dr. Felix Hoenikker
Dr. Felix Hoenikker has some powerful genes: he's the father of Newt, Angela, and Frank; and he's also the father of the atomic bomb. No wonder his presence looms over the novel, even though he's been dead for years.
But don't bother Googling him, because you won't get far. This isn't real history.
The Mind of a Child
Although a father and a Nobel laureate, Dr. Hoenikker is depicted throughout the novel as being a little child-like. Here are a couple of examples to refresh your memory:
• Newt's first letter to John describes Hoenikker playing cat's cradle.
• Newt recounts how Angela had to bundle Newt, Frank, and her father on cold mornings, "treating [them] exactly the same" (6.9).
• Hoenikker's own speech when accepting the Nobel Prize compares him to "an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school" (5.11).
• Hoenikker's office is littered with cheap toys (27.9).
• One of Angela's pictures shows Hoenikker dressed in "an overcoat, scarf, galoshes, and a wool knit cap with a big pom-pom on the crown." John says the overall effect makes the famous doctor look like "an elf" (52.5-6).
The question is: why is it important that the father of the atomic bomb be detailed with such childish imagery?
We think it has something to do with the way that Cat's Cradle deals with science and humanism. Felix Hoenikker is the primary scientist in the novel, the big scientific kahuna if you will. And his childish nature hints at the view Hoenikker takes toward scientific research—i.e. with all the moral responsibility of a child.
When asked what games he plays to relax, Dr. Hoenikker responses, "Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?" (5.13). Hoenikker sees his scientific research as a game and treats it as such. Unfortunately, his game eventually leads to the invention of weapons of mass destruction that kill thousands of people: the very real atomic bomb and the fictional ice-nine.
If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like a humanist critique of scientific research, you'd be right. Dr. Hoenikker may not be "interested in people" (6.4), and when asked about science's relation with sin, he asks, "'What is sin?'" (6.15). From these instances, we can figure out that Hoenikker isn't too worked up about either people or morality.
But Cat's Cradle cares a lot about both of those things. It seems to be arguing that progress will inevitably affect the lives of human beings. When science results in something beneficial for humans (see penicillin), then it's all good.
But, in the case of the atomic bomb, the novel pulls no punches: such scientific research is morally unsound. There's no such thing as knowledge for the sake of knowledge: either your research is for the good of humanity, or it needs to stop. Immediately.
Just another Antagonist?
We want to ask you this question. Is Dr. Felix Hoenikker the antagonist in Cat's Cradle? On the one hand, he did create ice-nine, and his invention does destroy the entire world. On the other hand, he never meets our protagonist, John, and we're not convinced that the two are really in conflict with one another. John certainly dislikes what Hoenikker did, and each has a radically different outlook on life, but is that enough?