Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle Study Guide

Cat's Cradle, like many of Vonnegut's other novels, gets considerable mileage from irony and humor as it makes serious points about the state of the world and humanity. His tone is often light, but his words have a considerable bite. The novel is a tale of caution. Vonnegut wrote it in the wake of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis, amid growing concerns about the American role in international relations and the ability of the world's greatest powers to destroy entire nations or the world with the click of a button. Cat's Cradle centers on this worry, with the main plot involving one of the developers of the atomic bomb and a deadly substance called ice-nine.

Vonnegut represents parts of his life in the novel through its characters. The family structure of the Hoenikkers is not unlike Vonnegut's, many of the characters hail from his home state of Indiana, and a few attended his alma mater, Cornell. These parallels allow the sometimes fantastical novel to be grounded in reality, creating the assumption that no matter how comical the characters may be, there are people in the world who act and think like they do. The result is a great example of the ironic, critical style that his readers love.

Throughout the novel, Vonnegut makes allusions to the Book of Jonah and Moby Dick. The novel opens with the lines, "Call me Jonah," which is a joint allusion to the opening statement of Melville's Ishmael and a biblical story of rebellion against God's will. Like Jonah of the Bible, Vonnegut's narrator will be required to follow a path that he neither wants nor understands, and his role in the events of the novel cannot be underestimated. At the end of the novel, he is one of the sole survivors, and he must tell his and the other characters' tales, much like Ishmael in Moby Dick. The dystopian world that Vonnegut creates is based on a rich literary tradition, and it is essential to his characterization of the world in which his characters and readers live.

One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is Vonnegut's distortion of the concepts of truth and lies. He warns that "Nothing in this book is true," yet the reader's historical and personal experiences make the novel's events seem real and valid. This disclosure is paralleled in the Books of Bokonon, which Bokonon repeatedly admits to be lies, but which are followed, religiously, by all of San Lorenzo's inhabitants. As the narrator of the story, Jonah is able to provide omniscient insight at different points in the story which help foreshadow certain events but also reveal the white lies and misunderstandings in which all of the characters become involved. Without Jonah to provide insight and clarification, it would not be clear who is lying or whose sense of reality is most accurate. Still, Jonah's involvement in telling the story helps highlight the fact that real life has no narrators, and what many readers might consider true in their own lives might simply not be so.