Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle Summary and Analysis of Chapters 77-83

Remembering that Julian Castle is the primary physician at the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle, Jonah inquires about the health of Papa. Julian replies that Papa hates him, because at the hospital it is customary to administer the last rites of the Bokononist church to those who want them. He shocks Jonah by informing him that everybody on San Lorenzo is a devout Bokononist, per Bokonon and Earl McCabe's agreement when they landed on the island. Castle notes that the religion of Bokononism is the only source of hope for the residents of San Lorenzo, and that all of the people accept Bokonon's lies. He assures Jonah that he too will one day be a Bokononist.

When they rejoin the Hoenikkers on the terrace, everyone has cocktails except Julian, who lost a kidney from his days as a playboy. Both Newt and Angela become very drunk, and Angela starts complaining about how underappreciated her father is and what a disgrace it is that so many people were paid more than he was. She is on the verge of tears when Newt suggests that she play her clarinet for Jonah and Julian to make her feel better. After Angela leaves to get her clarinet, Newt admits that she has been having a tough time because her husband is mistreating her and cheating with other women. When Jonah expresses his misunderstanding-he thought Angela's marriage was happy--Newt holds up his fingers and asks, "See the cat? See the cradle?"

When Angela returns, she begins to play her clarinet, and Jonah is shocked by the beauty and virtuosity of her music. He is so flabbergasted that such an unattractive woman can produce such a beautiful sound that he makes a comment to Julian Castle about the incomprehensibility of life. Castle discourages him from trying to understand life and tells him to simply pretend to understand it, as Bokonon teaches one should. Jonah then asks Castle for a copy of the Books of Bokonon. Castle replies that copies are hard to come by and incomplete because Bokonon adds to them every day. Newt scoffs at Jonah's interest, stating, "Religion... See the cat? See the cradle?"

Frank does not appear for dinner but phones Jonah to make sure that he will stay on the mountain that night. When Jonah asks why Frank needs to see him, Frank replies with the phrase "zah-mah-ki-bo," which Julian explains means fate or inevitable destiny. Julian then begins to explain that Papa Monzano is dying of cancer and that his physician is Dr. Schlichter von Koenigswald, who served as a camp physician at Auschwitz for six years. He now works at the House of Hope and Mercy. Castle estimates that at Koenigswald's current rate of healing, the number of people whose lives he has saved will equal the number of people he let die by the year 3010.


After they realized that a Utopia would be impossible, Bokonon and McCabe devised a religion as an instrument of hope for the people in response to the ineffectiveness of any governmental or economic reform. Bokonon saw truth as the enemy of the people, so he made it his life's mission to create better and better lies in order to give the people of San Lorenzo hope. One of the most important lies was that McCabe would take on the role of dictator to the people and condemn the religion of Bokononism, on the premise that conflict and oppression gives the religious life of the people more zest. Thus the conflict between science and religion, to the extent that it is represented by the conflict betwen the dictator and the prophet, is manufactured rather than real.

It is significant, moreover, that this lie ultimately had to confront reality. The people of San Lorenzo found themselves actors in a wonderful morality play that they could understand and from which they could derive hope, but this play seemed to require that the prophet be all good and the dictator to be all evil. Julian Castle believes the strain of these roles caused both men to go crazy. McCabe never made any real efforts to catch Bokonon, because it would have rendered his own position irrelevant. Papa Monzano also realized this truth, so his attempts to catch Bokonon were also somewhat half-hearted. The rulers cannot participate fully in the lies; they must respect reality in order to achieve their goals.

Angela's concern about her father's salary while in the midst of San Lorenzo's poverty shows her characteristic lack of concern for the suffering of humanity. She does not take into account that most San Lorenzans would have considered his salary a fortune, nor is she placated by the fact that his salary and prize money allowed him to afford a vacation house on Cape Cod and a twenty-foot memorial for Emily Hoenikker.

Vonnegut presents Dr. Koenigswald as another example of the pointlessness of human pursuits. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people in Germany, but now he has traveled to San Lorenzo with the intent of saving San Lorenzans' lives. It is unclear whether he believes that his work will release him of the guilt that he bears from his work with the Nazis, but Vonnegut creates the possibility that such work can serve as repentant penance. Likewise, Julian Castle has chosen to dedicate his life to the people of San Lorenzo and his hospital, despite his past as a playboy and womanizer. He, too, has much for which to repent, and perhaps San Lorenzo provides his opportunity to do so. But the novel challenges the idea that their work on the island will help erase the evil that they performed earlier in their lives. Moreover, there is something unjust about thinking that for Koenigswald to repent, he must create a 1:1 ratio of people he killed to people he later saves.