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Existential Despair in Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

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“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (William Shakespeare). Kurt Vonnegut’s pessimistic view reflects Shakespeare’s lesson that life is too short to not find a purpose for your existence. Vonnegut uses existential despair as a way of thinking life is trivial and insignificant due to not finding a purpose for existence. The narrator of Cat’s Cradle, John, is reminiscing about what happened the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In order to gain insight for his book, The Day the World Ended, he departs for Illuim and San Lorenzo to interview the Hoenikker family. Interviewing the family will eventually lead John to meet a destined group of people, his karass, discover the religion of Bokononism, and lead to the end of the world. The end of the world connects to existential despair because it is a moment in which an individual questions the purpose, meaning, or value of life. The underlying message of futility is shown throughout the book in many different situations and characters. This message of vanity manifests through the three literary elements of symbolism, imagery and characterization. A reoccuring theme in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is existential despair which conveys the message that life is meaningless and futile.

Symbolism is used as a literary device in Cat’s Cradle to reveal the theme of existential despair. It represents materialistic things that are meaningless and futile. Newt Hoenikker, the youngest son of Hoenikker family, draws a picture on a canvas of what looks like black lines and scratches, then proceeds to say that it is whatever you want it to be. John comtemplates, then replies saying, “The scratches formed a sort of spider’s web, and I wondered if they might not be the sticky nets of human futility hung up on a moonless night to dry” (Vonnegut 164). He explains that the scratches on the cat’s cradle look like a spider web but are made up of humanity’s futility. The painting is an emblem of man’s emptiness because man can not find a reason to live. In addition, Angela explains that her marriage to Harrison Conners is excellent and that their relationship is loving. However, when Angela leaves to get her clarinet, Newt tells John that Angela’s marriage is all an illusion; explaining, “See the cat? See the cradle?” (Vonnegut 179). He further discloses that her husband has been involved in numerous affairs and has not been coming home. John theorizes that Harrison is only after Angela’s piece of ice nine. After acquiring it, he sells it to the U.S. government and obtained a contract with them. This also makes him the CEO of a weapons factory. The phrase Newt uses symbolizes what you see on the surface is not always what is happening; it could all be a facade. Symbolism reveals how hallow and insignificant life is without a meaning and that things may not always appear as what they seem.

Another key aspect that helps emphasize the theme of futility is allusion, which uses references to help connect one event to another. An allusion is used to represent the theme by making a biblical allusion to Mount McCabe. Relating back to the theme of existential despair, thousands of Bokononist gather on Mount McCabe and commit suicide because they lose hope and are having an existential crisis. They bring Bokonon to Mount McCabe and ask him what they should do, he tells them that God was done with them and wants them to end their lives, saying, “The mountebank told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possibly because He was through with them, and that they should have the good manners to die. This, as you can see, they did”. The Bokononists that gather on the mountain commit mass suicide due to feeling disheartened and thinking that there is no reason to continue living when the world has ended. Vonnegut is alluding to a biblical reference when all the Bokononist end their lives. It references the whale that swallowed Jonah, just like how the whale-shaped island swallowed the Bokononists. When Jonah defied God and traveled in the opposite direction instead of going to Nineveh and warning the people, he got devoured by a whale when the ship he was on crashed. Alluding to this biblical example further exemplifies the central idea of worthlessness in life because it gives examples of how people, specially Bokononists, lost all hope and fell into existential despair.

The characterization of Julian Castle aids the reader in explaining how the theme of existential despair is shown throughout Cat’s Cradle. Julian Castle, the founder of the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle Hospital, is an example of showing there is no meaning in life but rather a bottomless pit of despair as a result of not finding a goal in life. When looking at Newt’s painting, he comments, “So this is a picture of the meaningless of it all! I couldn’t agree more” after Newt states that the painting could represent whatever you want it to represent (Vonnegut 169). Julian Castle is an existentialist, but sometimes he can be a nihilist because he is overwhelmed by things he cannot control, like people dying due to the bubonic plague. Philip Castle, Julian’s son, explains

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was mak­ing the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head, and “do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.


“‘Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours. (Vonnegut. 162)

Julian Castle starts laughing at a pile of dead bodies because he realizes that he can not save them. He believes what is the point of trying if the outcome is all going to be death. He tries to help people, but he very quickly understands the futility in trying because there is no chance of saving them. Julian then proceeds to tell his son that he will pass down the hospital to him, and he soon will have to deal with all the pain of not being able to save everyone. The characterization of Julian Castle further supports the theme of the meaningless and futility of life.

A reappearing theme inVonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is existential despair. Symbolism expresses the theme of questioning one’s existence because it represents the meaningless and futility through different symbols. An allusion connects two ideas that link back to the pointlessness of trying in life. Characterization uses the traits of a character to help portray the theme of the uselessness of life in context, like for example when Julian Castle explains the meaning of Newt’s painting. This theme extends to depression and anxiety in the brain because these emotions leads to existential despair. People tend to overthink about pointless things, like life and death. They inquire about things like “who am I?” and “why am I here?”. A temporary loss of purpose creates an existential vacuum of anxiety which leads to the existential despair. The loss of meaning in life festers and builds up the anxiety inside which then leads one to question his/her purpose for living. Self-absorbing oneself in one’s own thoughts for too long may cause ones problems to seem more magnified and lead one back into an endless circle of rethinking.

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