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Understanding ourselves and the surroundings that shape us is no small feat. Sci-fi novels time and time again have attempted to address such topics by manipulating and distorting the future in a different light. But Kurt Vonnegut takes a different approach, one that is unmistakably human: through comedy. In particular, Cat’s Cradle is a telling and enjoyable ride that pokes fun at humanity’s quirks and weaknesses. Vonnegut does so using a unique, laidback, and humorous style, which takes a story about the end of the world and pits science and religion against one another.
To begin, the story takes many jabs at how humans respond to and interpret innovative, ground-breaking science. Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the fictional father of the atomic bomb, is a prime example of how science warps truth and muddies morality. Despite creating a weapon that obliterated thousands upon thousands of innocent lives, he feels nothing, not even a smidge of responsibility. After the first test of the atomic bomb, one scientist bemoans, “Science has now known sin.” In response, Dr. Hoenikker ponders, “What is sin?” (Vonnegut 21). Such a distant and vacant outlook was, and still is, common among scientists. Most disregard implication and focus on research, ironically blinding these seekers of truth to the truth of reality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the common man who sees science not as fact, but as bewildering mysticism. A humorous take on this comes in the way of Felix Hoenikker’s children, Angela, Frank, and Newt. Upon discovering their dead father on Cape Cod, the trio divvied up the remainder of ice-nine, a substance so dangerous that even the slightest misstep could mean the end of the world (which soon ends up happening). Just as their father ignores the consequences of creating ice-nine, his children are ignorant to the consequences of selfishly holding onto it. In a fit of fury at his siblings, Frank asserts point-blank, “I bought myself a job, just the way [Angela] bought a husband, just the way Newt bought himself a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget,” (Vonnegut 163). Not only is this comedic fodder – each child traded the entire world away for a place to belong that inevitably was unfulfilling – but it also illustrates how those who do not understand science or take it seriously are prone to make horrific mistakes. The subject is often so obscure and convoluted that it makes less sense than religion.
In contrast to how science is a set of truths that cannot be properly grasped, religion is a collection of lies that are followed and embraced with extreme reverence. Specifically, in the context of this novel, it is the made-up religion of Bokononism, which is completely self-aware of its own absurdity and nonsense. The first sentence of the Books of Bokononism emphasizes that “All of the things I am about to tell you are shameless lies,” (Vonnegut 13). For such a religion to be so honest and straightforward is unheard of, but makes complete sense in Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut is purposefully turning religion, the humans who practice it, into a joke. What he is trying to get across is that humans need to believe in lies in order to retain hope, despite knowing deep down there is no real answer to life. The creation story of Bokononism conveys this reality in the same direct fashion. Man asks God, “What is the purpose of all this?” God then responds, “…I leave it to you to think of one…” (Vonnegut 177). By making such a satirical religion, it is clear how dependent humans are on having a purpose. People seek out faith in either religion or science, although it is a futile search because, in Vonnegut’s perspective, there is no answer. It is quite symbolic in the end, as science is the reason the world met its demise, and Bokononism does nothing to save those who die.
That being said, Cat’s Cradle is a book about nothing. The titular children’s game is an entanglement of string that comes together to form a cohesive whole. Newt Hoenikker points out the obvious; that there is “No damn cat, and no damn cradle,” (Vonnegut 114). Vonnegut, vicariously speaking through Newt, chastises the game for not containing what it is supposed to. In the same way, humans turn to science and religion to acquire guidance and truth, as they both promise. Instead, they offer nothing of the sort, just a distraction from reality. Similarly, reality is just a construct of random individuals’ actions, regardless of motivation. While this may sound nihilistic, Vonnegut is anything but. He is simply relishing in human uncertainty and foolishness. Cat’s Cradle is a book made up of idiosyncratic, insane characters woven into the fabric of a tangible narrative. All of them believe in falsehoods and misunderstandings. Humans, for time immemorial, have followed suit in this silly practice. But who’s to say what is right or wrong? God? Science? Kurt Vonnegut? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. The cat’s cradle is equally pointless for all who try to comprehend it.
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