Study Guide

Newt Hoenikker in Cat's Cradle

By Kurt Vonnegut

Newt Hoenikker

Newt is a midget and the youngest of the Hoenikker children. He's got kind of a bummer of a life story: after being kicked out of Cornell, he eloped with midget dancer named Zinka who left him after nabbing his ice-nine and delivering it to the Russians. But you get the sense that his father wanted something different for him: Newt is short (zing!) for Newton, a reference to the famous Isaac Newton.

At first, Newt's main role is to lay on the exposition. Through his letters to John, we learn about the Hoenikker family and build our understanding about the infamous Dr. Hoenikker. But when the story gets to San Lorenzo, Newt's role in the novel drastically changes.

So you can understand that he has a rather cynical outlook on things. Still, John notes that he's never "seen a human being better adjusted to such a humiliating physical handicap" (59.5).

Future Peter Dinklage Role

Do you like analogies? You know, the questions on the old SATs that read like "A is to B as C is to ___."

Yeah, neither do we. But in this one case, we're going to make an exception. Newt Hoenikker is to art as Bokonon is to religion. Let's explore this, shall we?

At Frank's home, John watches Newt paint a canvas with "scratches made in a black, gummy impasto" (74.13). The painting turns out to be a cat's cradle, and Newt throws out some interesting ideas about his painting, ideas that we could—and will—compare to Bokonon's religion.

• Newt says that the cat's cradle is "[o]ne of the oldest games there is" (74.24). Like the cat's cradle, religion has been around for a while in human history and has spread across various cultures.
• When Julian Castle asks Newt what the painting is, Newt responds, "It means whatever it means" (76.4). This is similar to Bokonon's calypso about man having to "tell himself he understand" (81.22). In both cases, the artist and the prophet are telling their audience they'll need to discover meaning for themselves.
• And the coup de grâce, when Castle brings up the concept of religion, Newt snorts and responds, "'See the cat? […] See the cradle?'" (81.29). Making a very, very, very concrete link between his art and Bokonon's religion.

So, we guess the next question is, why? Well, like Bokonon's religion, Newt's art is meant to add a little beauty to the world—even if that beauty turns out to be a lie. At the very least, Newt seems to enjoy painting—and if anybody in this book could use some cheering up, then it's Newt after that Zinka affair.

If you're curious, there are many, many more instances of art in the novel as examples of beautiful lies. Jump over to our "Art & Culture" Theme for more.