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Graves and Death

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

You might have noticed grave imagery popping up often in Cat's Cradle. We don't mean grave as in serious—though it's that too—but grave as in tombstones and death and such. The novel is stuffed with images of graves and all-around death in general. Here are a few examples to refresh your memory:

• John visits Emily's grave believing it to be Felix Hoenikker's. (29.9)
• John talks with Marvin Breed in a tombstone shop.
After seeing what Krebbs did to his apartment, John discovers meaning in the stone angel headstone (not to mention his dead cat). (36.9)
Lionel Boyd Johnson's travels are littered with images of death. (Chapter 49)
The San Lorenzans killed by bubonic plague are pushed into a massive grave by a bulldozer. (73.23)
The wreath Minton tosses into the ocean serves as a type of tombstone for the 100 Martyrs. It reads "PRO PATRIA." (114.25)
The golden boat serves as "Papa" Monzano's bed and coffin. (116.10)
The San Lorenzans' mass suicide in the wake of ice-nine. (120.16)
Bokonon's suggestion at the novel's end to commit suicide in a way that would make one's own tombstone. (127.9)

And those are just the ones that toppled out of our heads. But why use so much of this imagery? What's the point? Here are two possible reasons:

Back in Black

The first reason is actually pretty simple. Vonnegut wanted to write a black comedy. Black comedy attempts to be worthy of a laugh despite the desperate, hopeless, and sometimes fatal situations it puts its characters through.

It's sometimes called gallows humor and, as that name suggests, one of the best ways to make your comedy black is to add a pinch of death to it. Or, in the case of Cat's Cradle, it's more of a heaping tablespoon.


The second reason is more thematic. In our "Themes" section, we mention that Cat's Cradle views life through the lens of memento mori. The phrase is Latin, and it means, "Remember, you will die." In the arts, the phrase can mean a genre in which works remind their audience of their own mortality.

Cat's Cradle's use of grave imagery makes it as much a memento mori as a piece black comedy. The novel's story is filled with reminders of death: deaths of individuals, deaths of family members, deaths of communities, and even the death of humanity itself. Like most works of memento mori, Cat's Cradle doesn't suggest a solution to this predicament.

What remedy could there possibly be? If there is a remedy, it would be laughter if "laughter can be said to remedy anything" (88.19). In which case, we might be able to say Cat's Cradle isn't so much memento mori as it is carpe diem.

Ah, Latin, is there nihil you don't have a phrase for?

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