The exposition of Cat's Cradle takes up a hefty portion of the book—chapters 1-59 by our best guess. See, the exposition is the part of the novel where the information needed to understand the story is given. That requires the book to answer the following questions:
• Who are these characters?
• What world do they live in?
• How are they related?
• What do they want?
• What is the conflict between them?
John answers these questions as he gathers data for his book on the atomic bomb. Like, he learns who Felix Hoenikker is from Newt's letter. And he discovers the existence of ice-nine from Dr. Breed. Then, while hanging around Ilium, he gathers further information on the Hoenikker children.
Later, while on a plane to San Lorenzo, he is introduced to even more characters as well as the setting of San Lorenzo. Of course, we can't have these characters running around without some background information on them. So, it's time for even more exposition.
By the time the plane lands on San Lorenzo, the players are all on the stage, the setting has been detailed, and the story can head into its next stage. Whew.
The rising action introduces part two of the dramatic structure. Here, the plot is complicated, and the protagonist faces more challenges. This section of the story takes place on San Lorenzo, between the time of the landing and the ice-nine apocalypse, so…let's say chapters 60-115.
During these chapters, John discovers firsthand the poverty of San Lorenzo. He's put off by it, naturally, but he's given the chance to fix things when Frank offers him the job of President of San Lorenzo—along with two sources of conflict.
First, John becomes engaged to Mona, but his American value system butts heads with Mona's Bokononist view. Second, "Papa" Monzano commits suicide by swallowing a heap of ice-nine. John and the Hoenikkers clean up the mess to maintain secrecy and to keep ice-nine from destroying the world.
Of course, everything goes to plan, and the characters live happily-ever after.
Ha, ha! It's a little too early in the story for an ending….
The climax, or turning point, is when the ice-nine hits the fan. Only, in this case, instead of a fan it's the entire ocean. The climax takes place in chapter 116. Yep, it only takes up 1/127th of the novel's reading time. Yet, it may be the most important chapter in the book.
When "Papa" Monzano's corpse falls into the sea, it spreads ice-nine across the ocean. The world is thrown into an instant ice age, and life on Earth as we've come to know is kaput. The characters are now forced to survive in a post-apocalyptic world (how's that for a turning point?).
Well, or die. Death is always an option.
In a normal falling action, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist would begin to build up and head for the story's ending. And while Cat's Cradle is certainly heading toward its ending, we can't really say the conflict is heating up (pun intended). Ice-nine has clearly won.
The world is now an icicle of epic proportions. Angela Hoenikker dies. Mona commits suicide. The Castles also perish. Only John, Newt, Frank, and the Crosbys are known to survive, and they form a little group on the island. The only question now—in roughly chapters 117-125—is whether they can find some kind of answer to live by in this frozen waste of a world.
The resolution is the part of the story that wraps up what needs wrapping up and leaves us with that contented sigh as we put the book back on the shelf.
In its last two chapters, Cat's Cradle certainly wraps things up—although the sigh will definitely vary from person to person. John discusses with Newt the need to climb Mount McCabe, but he doesn't know what he's meant to bring up there. That's when they happen upon Bokonon writing the final line of the Book of Bokonon.
And what does Bokonon say?
That John should write a book on the history of human stupidity, bring it to the mountaintop, and commit suicide while "thumbing [his] nose at You Know Who" (127.9). If we assume Cat's Cradle to be the book on human stupidity, then we can guess what fate awaits John now that we've read the final words.
Is that sighworthy for you?