Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9-23

Jonah does not follow up with Newt about his family, and his attempts to contact Angela Hoenikker go unanswered. When another journalistic opportunity leads Jonah to Ilium, he attempts to further investigate the Hoenikkers through the contacts they left there. He sets up his first appointment with Dr. Asa Breed, the Vice-President of the research laboratory where Felix had worked. The night before their meeting, Jonah goes to a bar where he meets a prostitute, Sondra, and two bartenders who had known the Hoenikkers. They confide that the whole town thinks of Dr. Hoenikker as an absent-minded professor, while his family is considered a dysfunctional group of losers. The three informants remember Frank Hoenikker as a loser who played with model airplanes and did not involve himself with any people or activities at school. Almost everyone in the town thinks that Dr. Breed is the father of the three Hoenikker children, because it has been rumored that he was in love with Felix's wife, Emily. Dr. Hoenikker was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the trio's graduation from high school, but he did not show up for the ceremony and Dr. Breed had to give a speech instead. He spoke about the virtues of science and argued that if people studied science more, there would not be as much trouble in the world. His words seem to have made an impression on Sandra and the bartender, and they appear excited by a recent report that scientists somewhere have discovered that protein is the secret of life.

The morning after this discussion, Dr. Breed picks up Jonah to escort him to the laboratory where he will conduct the interview about Felix Hoenikker. On the way to the laboratory, Dr. Breed comments on some of the more interesting nuggets of Ilium's history, telling Jonah about a mass murderer who had been hanged in the 16th century near the laboratory's current location. The murderer wrote a song for the occasion. It was primarily about his lack of remorse for the twenty-six people he killed. Dr. Breed, who supervised the creation of the atomic bomb and helped contribute to the deaths of thousands of Japanese citizens, thinks it is outrageous that the murderer had no regrets about directly killing twenty-six people.

Dr. Breed then shifts the subject of conversation to an accident that Emily Hoenikker had while driving a car that her husband had abandoned at an intersection. She was not accustomed to driving the car, and the accident was so serious that it damaged her pelvis. This damage caused her death when she was giving birth to her third child, Newt. Dr. Breed seems emotional when he tells Emily's story, supporting the claim that he might still have feelings for the late Mrs. Hoenikker.

When they arrive at the laboratory, Jonah and Dr. Breed run into a woman named Miss Pefko, who works as a secretary for another scientist at the company. For Jonah's benefit, Dr. Breed tries to get Miss Pefko to talk a little about the research on which her boss is working. Miss Pefko, however, insists that she does not understand anything that the scientist is doing and spends the whole day typing documents that she cannot decipher. She is clearly thrilled to be talking to someone as important as Dr. Breed, but she disappoints him by emphatically informing him about how little she understands of science and how magical it all seems to her. This characterization peeves Dr. Breed, because he thinks of science as a journey toward truth for humanity, and he wants to eliminate all aspects of superstition and misunderstanding from this venture. He urges Miss Pefko to ask the scientist for whom she works to explain his research to her, but she protests that she is too stupid to understand.

When they arrive at Dr. Breed's office, Jonah meets Dr. Breed's secretary, Miss Faust. She is decorating for the Christmas holiday, and she reminds Dr. Breed that the group of women who type documents for the scientists, the Girl Pool, will be coming later to carol and get their yearly gifts of chocolate bars. Dr. Breed and Jonah go into the inner office, where they begin the interview. The conversation is plagued by the fact that Jonah is hung over and unable to phrase his questions in a way that do not seem contentious to Dr. Breed. After a few questions, Dr. Breed begins to chastise Jonah for not understanding the research being done at the laboratory and thinking that science is just so many attempts to make softer face tissue or better windshield wipers. He argues that true science is an opportunity to increase knowledge, which will lead to increased riches. Although Dr. Breed was Felix's supervisor, he echoes Newt's characterization that Felix Hoenikker basically worked on whatever struck his fancy at the time, with no concern for schedules or reproach. Dr. Breed recalls a time, for example, when the Marines asked Felix to invent a way to eliminate mud. They were tired of wading through mushy terrain, so they asked Felix for a solution that would give them solid ground as they traveled. Although Felix did not appear to give the request much attention, when a Marine general interrupted Felix's lunch to inquire about a possible solution, Felix surmised that it would be possible to rearrange the atoms in water to make it arrange itself as a solid and not a liquid. This arrangement, while not dissimilar from normal ice (which Dr. Breed calls ice-one), would have a very high melting point and be able to turn any liquid to a solid upon contact.

Dr. Breed insists that such a substance does not exist, but Jonah is amazed at the implications of such an invention. It could freeze all of the liquids with which it came into contact, and every liquid with which that liquid came into contact, setting off a chain of events that could freeze all of the world's water sources. Thus, it is an effective and extremely deadly weapon.

Dr. Breed ejects Jonah from his office shortly after this conversation. He does not realize that Felix Hoenikker actually did create ice-nine as his last gift to humanity and, moreover, had told all of his children about his creation on Christmas Eve at their house on Cape Cod. Ice-nine is colored blue-white and has a melting point of 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit. After his death on the night of this revelation, Felix's three children divided the creation among themselves.


This section communicates the dangers of technological advancement and laypeople's misunderstanding of science. Vonnegut comically uses Sandra and the bartenders to exemplify this problem as they discuss Dr. Breed's graduation speech and reiterate his view that one day science will solve the world's problems. In a show of misunderstanding, they recall that only two days ago the news had reported that protein had been discovered as the basic secret of life. While protein may have been the most basic component of the report, it is doubtful that such a simple element would have been called the secret to life. But neither Sandra nor the bartender provides an explanation about why protein might be the secret, leading us to believe that they do not actually understand what they are discussing. Their deep faith in something that they ultimately do not understand is important because it relegates science to the level of religion in the minds of many common folk, in that they often see it as fantastic and magical. This misunderstanding is underlined by Dr. Breed's conversation with Miss Pefko. Despite his efforts to assure her of the commonsense aspects of science and the accessibility of scientific research to everyone, it is clear that she does not have the intelligence or motivation to truly understand, as she herself admits. His attempts to laud science as a panacea for ignorance that can be understood by all of humanity are severely contrasted by her response because, for her, science is no different from magic and not worthy of the pedestal where Dr. Breed seems to place it.

Another interesting aspect of Sandra's and the bartenders' conversation with Jonah about protein is that they seem to have derived little real benefit from the discovery. Presumably, scientific research's goal is to improve the wellbeing of humanity, but one of the themes here is research's potential destructiveness over against its contributions to human wellbeing. It may be possible to support scientific research toward concepts that lead to the atomic bomb if there is also a commitment to advancements with healthful instead of lethal effects. But Vonnegut shows through characters like Sandra that most research does little to improve the daily lives of humans. If normal human beings do not benefit in some way from the discovery of the "secret of life," why should they put such stock in science? It is likely that Sandra will spend many more nights in that bar and never see any "real" gains from the protein discovery.

This basic inability for most humans to understand scientific thought and its implications resonates with the lives of the Hoenikker children. All were outcasts from the greater society, and they could find no common ground with their father at home. They were not extraordinary in their desire to be loved and accepted for who they were, but they were uncommon in being so poorly raised by their father that they became social misfits. Their inheritance of ice-nine is dangerous because their conscientious use of the substance relies on their ability to understand both how it works and what larger implications its attributes have for humanity. This understanding is unlikely, though, because beside Dr. Breed and Felix Hoenikker, none of the characters thus far has shown any propensity to understand science.

This section introduces ice-nine, its properties, and its effects. It is important to keep in mind its very high melting point and ability to freeze whatever sources of water it contacts, because these properties will become important later. They help us assess the caution that Felix Hoenikker and his children exhibited in their handling of the substance and help us understand its effects when it finally is used.