Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle Summary and Analysis of Chapters 67-76

Papa does not die that day. The travelers are all taken to their respective lodgings for the evening. The Crosbys and Jonah are taken to the Casa Mona hotel, and on the way they learn more about San Lorenzo and Bokonon from the cab driver. The driver says Bokonon is a very bad man whom no San Lorenzan is stupid enough to follow because that person would be punished with the hook if captured. Jonah discovers that he understands the San Lorenzan dialect very well, so he translates for the Crosbys. When they arrive at the hotel, they find that they are the first and only guests. Crosby does not want to be the first person to sign the register, so he wanders off to talk to a man who is creating a mosaic of Mona Monzano's face. He returns shortly and declares that he wants the man fired because he is a puissant. A clerk informs Crosby that the man, Philip Castle, owns the hotel. The Crosbys leave the hotel and demand to be housed with the Mintons at the American embassy instead. Jonah has a conversation with Philip that reveals Philip to be very sarcastic and smart. Philip grew up with Mona Monzano and is a devout Bokononist. Because he is American, he does not have to fear punishment for his religion, and he reveals that Bokonon was his and Mona's tutor when they were growing up.

Jonah is shown to his room, which he discovers does not have sheets on the bed or toilet paper in the bathroom. The hotel is built with walls of stone on three of its sides and a wall of glass on the fourth side, so tourists can view the harbor and the airport without having to see the dilapidation of the rest of San Lorenzo. As Jonah travels the hallways looking for a maid to give him toilet paper, he accidentally walks in on a couple of painters lying on a bookshelf in one of the hotel's rooms. Each is on his back with his ankles in his hands and eyes closed, and they are pressing the soles of their bare feet together. Jonah interrupts them, and they fall to the ground in fear and beg that he not tell anyone what he has seen. They are afraid of being put on the hook, since they were engaging in the Bokononist ritual of boko-maru. Bokononists believe it is impossible to be sole to sole with a person without loving that person, so the practice is like a mingling of awareness.

Jonah returns to his room to find Philip Castle putting rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. They begin to discuss why Philip built a hotel instead of following in his father's footsteps at the hospital, and he tells Jonah about a time that a ship transporting wicker furniture was wrecked on the island. The only survivors of the wreck were the furniture and some rats, so some people on the island got new furniture and others got the bubonic plague. Over a thousand San Lorenzans died from the plague, and his father could do nothing to stop the epidemic. One night, Philip stayed up with his father at the hospital to look for patients who were still alive and could be treated. After going from bed to bed and finding only dead bodies, his father began giggling uncontrollably as he put his hand on his son's head. His father turned to Philip and told him, "Someday this will all be yours."

During Jonah's conversation with Philip, Frank calls to request Jonah's presence at his house that evening. Jonah leaves the hotel for Frank's house on Mount McCabe, and when he arrives he meets the only plump San Lorenzan, Frank's servant Stanley. After being shown the room in which he will sleep for the night, Jonah goes to Frank's balcony to admire the waterfall around which the building is built. Newt is sleeping out there, and Jonah surveys one of his paintings, which appears to be a series of black scratches on the canvas. When Newt is stirred by a noise in the distance, they begin discussing the painting, which Newt says is a depiction of a "cat's cradle." He expresses dismay at the fact that millions of parents teach their children that a twisted string is supposed to represent a cat in a cradle and then wonder why their children grow up crazy. Newt believes the parents must be the crazy ones, because it is obvious that there is "no damn cat, and no damn cradle."

A little later, the rest of the Hoenikkers and Julian Castle join Jonah and Newt on the balcony. Julian Castle appears rather disagreeable and does not like the idea of assigning meanings to things experienced or created by humans. He at first likens Newt's painting to a rendering of hell, but after learning that it is a cat's cradle, he is impressed at the idea that the painting is about meaninglessness. He asserts that "man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing." With this statement, Castle flings the painting out into the waterfall.


Philip Castle's story about his night at the hospital with his father reveals the state of humanity in its efforts to save itself. Julian Castle was fighting a lost battle by trying to save the sufferers of the bubonic plague, and he appreciated the irony of his efforts to ignore the hopelessness of the situation. When he could not deny the ridiculous situation of being a doctor with no way to cure, he could not help but laugh. Further, he realized that his frustration would only be passed on to his son. This transfer expresses the futility of preparing future generations to bring happiness and peace to mankind.

It therefore becomes more apparent why Philip Castle has taken up a more relaxed lifestyle of painting and running a hotel. Although both Philip and Julian are Bokononists who believe firmly in the fruitlessness of human pursuits, they dedicate their time to ambitious activities such as running a hospital and writing a book. Knowing the hopelessness of life could have made it easy for them to choose to give up and spend the rest of their lives basking in the sun or making random choices, but they instead seem relatively driven and even somewhat successful. Perhaps, knowing that their failure to make a difference in the world is due to their being human rather than their particular inadequacies makes it easier for them to work without worrying about the outcome. Since they have nothing to lose, they can spend time doing the things that they find fulfilling in the moment, even if it all turns out to be worthless in the end. Thus, Philip Castle's empty hotel is not strictly a failure; it is a manifestation of his ability to pursue whatever dreams he wants, without concern for success or for anyone else's happiness.

Newt's painting and his constant reference to the cat and the cradle deepen the symbolism of the title of the novel. Cat's cradle is the game that Felix chose to play as the atomic bomb destroyed part of the world, and it is a perfect example of the meaninglessness of all human pursuits. There is no cat or cradle in the strings that comprise the game, yet millions of children are encouraged to imagine them for entertainment alone. There is no truth in the game, where the referent "cat's cradle" does not appropriately refer to a cat or a cradle. The oddly shaped string hardly even represents a cat's cradle. Thus, the object is an exemplar of the novel's suggestions about life and humanity insofar as it represents life as an assortment of lies and misunderstandings that hardly make sense of the chaos.

Despite Newt's apparent agreement during Julian Castle's rant about the pointlessness of life, he undoubtedly is surprised when Castle tosses his work into the waterfall. To be consistent with his worldview, he should be completely uninterested in whether the painting survives or not, but his surprise at Castle's reaction reveals that he probably valued that painting as more than an immediate source of pleasure. It is easy for Newt to agree with the tenets of Bokononism in theory, but it is much more difficult for him to apply them to his own life, because there remain things that genuinely matter to him.

Jonah's first exposure to the ritual of boko-maru occurs when he catches workers performing it at the hotel. He has little understanding or concern for what they are doing. It is both comical and creative that Vonnegut chose "the mingling of awareness" through touching feet to be one of the most important rituals in Bokononism, and it likely speaks to the novel's presentation of the pointlessness and ridiculousness of religious rituals in general. Feet are not particularly revered in American culture, and they seem an unlikely route to the soul. Yet, there is a real intimacy in the act of touching feet. After all, human contact must begin somewhere.