Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle Summary and Analysis of Chapters 24-34

A "wampeter" is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve; that is, it is of primary concern to a karass group. Jonah is now convinced that the wampeter of his karass is ice-nine, but immediately following his interview with Dr. Breed he did not know this fact. After leaving Dr. Breed's office, Jonah chats with Miss Faust, who tells him what she knows about Dr. Hoenikker. She seems perplexed by Felix's ability to push aside the sources of normal human pleasure like family and love in exchange for an unobstructed search for truth. Miss Faust explains that no one really knew Felix because his main concern was truth, not people, but she does not believe that truth alone is enough for a person. One time, when Miss Faust said to Felix, "God is love," he replied, "What is God? What is love?" She takes Jonah to Felix's old office, where he marvels at the collection of old broken toys and piles of letters. A plaque on the wall lauds Felix's contributions as invaluable to mankind.

After leaving the laboratory, Jonah visits Felix's tombstone in Ilium. The taxi driver that takes him to the cemetery points out the Hoenikker gravesite, upon which sits a twenty-foot by three-foot monument made of alabaster. Jonah is surprised by the stature of this memorial, and he is even more shocked when he learns that the structure is actually Emily Hoenikker's memorial. Engraved in the memorial are poems from her two oldest children. The poems reveal their devotion to their mother and show their desire for her continued presence in their lives. Curious about what kind of memorial the children have built for their father, one of the greatest American scientists, Jonah treks farther into the cemetery to find a small marble cube that is forty centimeters wide on each side. There is only one word written on it: Father.

After leaving the cemetery, the taxi driver gets the urge to check on his own mother's grave and asks to take a detour to look at it. He then asks to make a short visit to a tombstone salesman across the street from the cemetery. At the shop, Jonah is fascinated by a stone angel that is covered in mistletoe and Christmas decorations. The owner, Marvin Breed, says he is Dr. Asa Breed's brother, and he refuses to sell the angel because it was carved a hundred years earlier by his great-grandfather. Jonah asks Marvin about Felix Hoenikker and the tombstones that the Hoenikker children picked for their parents. Marvin assures him that Felix was not involved in buying Emily's memorial, but that the children got a lot of consolation from the structure and used to visit it many times a year. They bought the monument with the money Felix won for the Nobel Prize. Jonah notes that the namesake of that award is famous for inventing dynamite.

Marvin adds that he was in love with Emily Hoenikker in high school, so much so that he quit playing football in favor of the violin in order to impress her. His older brother Asa then stole her affection on a visit home from college, and Marvin never got over the hurt that he felt from losing Emily. He notes that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and that she could have had any man she wanted because of her wonderful personality and spirit. When Felix arrived in Ilium, she was smitten with him because she said his mind was tuned to the music of the stars. Marvin sees it as a tragedy that Felix could not appreciate Emily's true beauty, and he shows a great deal of continuing anger toward Dr. Hoenikker.

Marvin acknowledges that Felix was always in a dreamy and gentle state, almost to the point of complete innocence. His seeming disregard for humanity makes Marvin wonder whether Felix was "born dead." Marvin postulates that the reason the world has so many problems is that too many powerful people act like they are dead or have no ties to humanity.

Marvin also expresses concern for Felix's children. He recounts seeing Frank Hoenikker leave in the middle of his father's funeral. He hitchhiked across the street from the cemetery and got into a car with Florida tags, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him. Marvin asserts that Frank's encounter with the police in Florida for running stolen cars to Cuba was a mistake. He believes that Frank accidentally became employed with a model-making shop that was a front for the illegal operation. All he ever wanted to do was make models of cars and battleships. Marvin believes that Frank is dead and that is why no one has heard from him.

Marvin expresses similar concern for Newt Hoenikker, who flunked out of school and was dumped by a Russian midget, and for Angela Hoenikker, whom Felix pulled out of high school her sophomore year to take care of him and the other children. Angela never had any friends, and her only hobby was to play the clarinet. Marvin considers it a miracle that Angela ever found a husband.

During Marvin's and Jonah's conversation, the taxi driver becomes obsessed with the idea of purchasing the stone angel for his mother's tombstone. He offers to buy it from Marvin, but Marvin refuses because of the angel's history. Jonah remarks that it would be impossible to recreate the quality of stone cutting of the angel, but Marvin corrects him, saying that his nephew would be able to do so. His nephew, Dr. Breed's son, worked at the laboratory before the atomic bomb was dropped, but after Hiroshima he quit his job and became a sculptor in Rome.

Marvin tells the story of how the angel was created for a German immigrant whose wife had died of smallpox on their travels west. He ordered the angel for her grave, but then he was robbed of all of his money and could not afford the memorial. He left the state for Indiana and promised to return, but he never did, and the angel stayed in the shop with the immigrant's last name engraved on it. Marvin pulls away the mistletoe on the angel to reveal the man's name. It is the same as Jonah's last name.


The exodus of Dr. Breed's son from the world of scientific research to the world of art is another commentary on the destructiveness of technology and its effects on humanity. Vonnegut used Dr. Breed's son as a counterexample to the scientist without a conscience who inflicts his creations on humanity with no concern for their effects. His decision to leave science following the destruction of Hiroshima reveals his discomfort with the implications of his work and again suggests that science is not an absolute good (as Dr. Breed believes). This point is directly tied to Vonnegut's rejection of the truth as innately good, considering his emphasis on the fact that the miraculous discovery of splitting atoms led to destruction and evil results.

Felix's response to Miss Faust's statement that "God is love" supports the characterization of Felix Hoenikker as basically innocent. He presumably has so little interest in the human race that he has not even taken the time to contemplate his own existence on Earth. Without a scientific account of God or love, he has no reason to be concerned about poetic accounts of such things. Further, his question about the definition of love reveals his indifference to human feeling. If he does not know what love is, he probably has never experienced the emotion and does not feel the same ties to other humans that most people feel. This deficiency makes him unable to take into consideration the moral implications of his work. He cannot understand basic concerns about survival or personal wellbeing, so his work is ultimately amoral. If science is amoral, the search for truth is not simply good; one must seek truth for the right reasons and then use knowledge wisely and morally.

When Miss Faust makes her comment about God, she is responding to Felix's request that she tell him an absolute truth. Miss Faust offers a religious kind of truth, but Felix asks for a scientific kind. This miscommunication highlights the dichotomy between science and religion, because at their most basic levels, they are operating in two separate dimensions, the natural and the divine. Miss Faust sees God as a real being who exists, but if God is ineffable, science can find nothing testable about God in nature. The quest for truth must confront this tension, and many people choose science or religion without making sense of the tension. Miss Faust's belief that scientific truth is not enough to sustain a person, however, is a separate issue that Vonnegut addresses later. Although truth seemed to be enough for Felix, he is presented as almost inhuman and, therefore, unrepresentative of humanity.

Jonah finds intriguing the different ways in which the Hoenikker parents were memorialized in light of their respective contributions to humanity. The Hoenikker children used their father's Nobel Peace Prize money to create a gigantic tombstone for their mother, representative of the extremely large role she played in their lives. On it they wrote poems about their relationship with her, and Marvin comments that they visited the monument often. Felix, in contrast, requested to be memorialized with a relatively small cube that simply reads "Father." This may seem disproportionate, since Felix is presumably one of the more important figures of the 20th century, but the idea of creating a huge memorial to someone who did not understand or care about other human beings would be even more out of joint. Though Felix wanted a small memorial and his children were not given a choice in the matter, it is unclear whether his children would have done more for him were they given the chance. They chose to memorialize their parents on the basis of their parenting rather than their world significance. Angela seems to be the only person who really appreciates her father as he was, and she appears to be the only Hoenikker child with any motivation to build him a shrine. Frank Hoenikker did not even stay for his father's entire memorial service. Instead, he left Ilium never to be seen again.

Marvin's portrayal of the Hoenikker children is one of great pity and sympathy. As a man who has worked at the intersection between the living and the dead, he seems to have the most insight about the struggles the Hoenikkers faced with their father. Marvin did not see Felix Hoenikker as innocent, because he brought great pain to the world and his family. He always got everything he wanted, and he selfishly used his daughter to continue his childlike existence following his wife's death. As long as he was comfortable and had some idea or toy to amuse him, Felix could not care less about anyone else in the world.

The stone angel is another example of how God's will brings individuals to a certain place at a certain time, much as had happened to Jonah. The series of fateful events leading to Jonah's discovery of his last name on the angel seem to be perfectly orchestrated, reaffirming his idea that whatever will be, will be.