Study Guide

Cat's Cradle

By Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle Introduction

They say laughter is the best medicine, and they might actually be right. And if laughter really is tops in a well-supplied medicine cabinet, then Cat's Cradle is easily the one of the most potent forms of the drug on the market today. Don't worry, though. Shmoop has its prescription pad at the ready, and some of us are even doctors.

Although maybe not the kind you'd want to call in an emergency. Unless you were having a literary emergency.

Anyway, Cat's Cradle dropped into bookstores in 1963. It was the fourth book by the one-and-only Kurt Vonnegut. While no means a runaway success, the novel was a turning point in Vonnegut's career, because it drew more attention than any of his previous works. Graham Greene even called it one of the three best novels of that year. Pretty soon, students on college campuses all across the nation were telling their professors to check out this Vonnegut guy (Source).

The novel tells the story of one John, um, something-or-other. His last name's unimportant. What is important is that he starts the novel attempting to write a novel chronicling what important Americans were doing the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. John's research focuses on Felix Hoenikker and his family, leading him to unknowingly discover the existence of Hoenikker's deadly invention, ice-nine.

Although John eventually gives up on his book, it sets him on the path toward a chance encounter with ice-nine and the end of the world as we know it.

And he does, in fact, feel mostly fine.

Vonnegut's story may look to be another tale mixing equal parts comedy and apocalyptic woe, but that's just the sugary coating to help the medicine go down. The medicine? Biting satire about the ability of scientific and technological progress to actually, you know, offer progress. The heart of this satire revolves around a concern of scientific and technological progress. That was pretty serious stuff in the '60s, when the atomic bomb was looming over humanity's head like the axe of an executioner with a twitchy arm.

No wonder the novel was (and is) so controversial. Thanks to Vonnegut's hilarious prose, it also remains a quirky and engaging work of satire. And like all forms of satirical medicine, this one will cure what ails you—although the side effects may include upset stomach, nausea, uncontrollable rage, laughter aches, and death.

Always read the warning label.

What is Cat's Cradle About and Why Should I Care?

Since the dawn of time… okay, that's a bit exaggerated. (Pro tip, Shmoopers: never start your papers that way; your teachers will love you for it.)

Since at least the trial of Galileo (that's better), science and religion have been arguing over whose way of understanding the world is better. Just take the continued bickering over the theory of evolution. The debate has become an intrinsic part of our culture—and Cat's Cradle has its own take on the issue.

Opponents of religion might say that religion is nothing but a pack of lies. In response, Kurt Vonnegut gives them Bokononism, a religion that freely admits that it's a … pack of lies. But it's still a good thing. Its lies help John, his friends, and the natives of San Lorenzo through what amounts to a pretty miserable existence.

And what about opponents of science? People who might insist that science doesn't offer the only path to truth? In Cat's Cradle, the question isn't whether or not science is true—it is, always—but whether it can actually contribute to humanity's progress. If science helps people live better lives, great; but if science creates something that harms or kills people—like the atomic bomb or ice-nine—then it's pointless.

Or worse than pointless.

Should you agree with the worldview as presented by Cat's Cradle? Well, that's up to you. But you should still care about Cat's Cradle, because it really does present an original, honest way to see some of our culture's largest problems in a light distinct from the typical "us versus them" mentality. And maybe that mentality is finally catching on.

Cat's Cradle Resources

Websites

Vintage Vonnegut
The official website of one Kurt Vonnegut. It's even got that official website glow about it.

Oh Bio
Biography.com follows the life and times of Kurt Vonnegut. Just what you'd except from a place called Biography.com.

Lucky Number 28
Vonnegut's novel gets top honors on NPR's list of top 100 science fiction novels. Okay, it's not top 10—but it's still top 50.

Go Figure
A writer writing stuff that can be quoted? Unbelievable! Here's an entire page of Vonnegut quotations to ease you into believing.

Movie or TV Productions

Runner Up
No productions of Cat's Cradle yet—but here's one of Slaughterhouse Five.

Articles and Interviews

Re-viewing Vonnegut
The review at Strange Horizons looks back on Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and enjoys a hearty laugh with him.

Critical Considerations
The New York Times gives Cat's Cradle a look with the old critical eye.

This Be the Verse
This New York Times obituary gives Vonnegut a fine send off.

Saying It Best
The A.V. Club counts down the fifteen things Vonnegut said better than everyone else. Considering we've never said anything better than everyone else, fifteen seems pretty darn impressive.

Big Old Book
An entire book of interviews with the one and only Kurt Vonnegut.

Two parts rye, one part vermouth, some bitters…
Sorry, wrong Manhattan. This short article details the Manhattan Project, the think tank that created the atomic bomb.

Good Talk
The Paris Review interviews Kurt Vonnegut. The conversation starts with a discussion on how he wants to be buried and goes from there.

Not Cool
When Vonnegut learned that Drake High School was burning his books, he sent them a very polite letter telling them how very unpolite they were being to him.

Video

Vonnegut in Vogue
PBS gives a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut with special guest Kurt Vonnegut. Wait, don't tributes usually wait for after death?

Dynamic Duo
Jon Stewart and Kurt Vonnegut? Chitchatting? Yes, please!

How-To Do
MissDanceButt—not her birth name, we assume—gives you the 101 on the Cat's Cradle and other string tricks.

The Charlie Rose Show
Charlie Rose does love to talk with authors, and we're glad he does. Care to guess whom he's chatting with at this link?

The Dresden Files
Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five was famously influenced by the Dresden Bombings of WWII, but Cat's Cradle and arguably all of his works also share this dark history with their author.

Want Vonnegut's Job?
Kurt Vonnegut tells you how to get a job like his and all without any 900 numbers to dial or DVDs to buy.

Audio

Audio Awesomeness
Pick up the audiobook of Cat's Cradle at Amazon. Read by Woody Allen alum Tony Roberts.

Instrumental Apocalypse
Joe Satriani's Surfing with the Alien includes a track dedicated to Vonnegut's Ice.9. Warning: the guitar be loud, adjust volume accordingly.

Images

With a Plan
Vonnegut's the man with the plan, er, book at least.

College Bound
A young Vonnegut totally rocking that sweater.

Lifetime Smoker
Vonnegut famously smoked Pall Malls his entire life in what he called a "classy way to commit suicide" (source). Sadly, it was head trauma that ultimately got him.

Inspirational Poster
Forget cats or penguins: from now on, only Vonnegut gets to be on inspirational posters.

We're #1
The first editions of Cat's Cradle in all their old-timey glory. Hardcover and paperback present because we're like that.

V for Victory
A more contemporary cover with a big-old V on it—just in case you forget the first letter in Vonnegut is V.

The Charmer
Third time's a charm. Another cover for you to admire in all its blueness.

See the Cat? See the Cradle?
An image of an actual cat's cradle because you might not have seen one if you grew up in a post-video game era.

Ancient Origins
Just how old is the game of cat's cradle? It's at least as old as Tokugawa era Japan, as evidenced by this woodblock painting. The game might have originated even further back, in China or Korea.

El Gato Gigante
A giant cat's cradle created at Burning Man. That's Burning Man for you.