Cat's Cradle is laced with irony and parody, but it is necessary to recognize the underlying implications of Vonnegut's humor. Although Vonnegut clearly intends for his readers to laugh while reading his book, Cat's Cradle is not merely a playful frolic through human foibles. Vonnegut employs humor as a means to make his reader assume a critical stance toward the "sacred cows" of their culture, of which science, religion, nation, and family are only a few. Underlying Vonnegut's playful humor is a sobering exploration of the dangers inherent in the combination of human stupidity and indifference with mankind's technological capacity for mass destruction.
The twentieth century added an ever-increasing pace of scientific advancement and industrialization to a pre-existing cauldron of religious, class, and international conflict. Although industrialization and scientific advancement offered millions of people a better standard of living, they also produced or exacerbated human suffering on many levels. The same scientific community that discovered antibiotics also produced the atomic bomb, nerve gas, automatic firearms, and a host of other efficient means to kill and maim human beings. The same process of industrialization that produced cheaper, standardized material goods came hand in hand with abusive labor practices and unsafe working conditions.
Vonnegut offers his readers a puzzling, disturbing portrait of "innocence" in Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel-prize-winning physicist, who approaches all of his research as a child would an amusing game. Felix lacks the malicious intent we associate with people we term "evil." He is as interested in researching the atomic bomb as he is in researching the behavior of turtles. He cares little for money, fame, or prestige, but he also cares little for other people, even his family; nor does he care for the implications his research could have for humanity. This seemingly harmless man helps build the atomic bomb and later produces ice-nine, an isotope of water that is solid at room temperature. By the end of Cat's Cradle, this second invention is responsible for the death of almost every living thing on earth.
Felix's neglected children also seem fairly harmless at first. At heart, Newt, Angela, and Frank simply want to be happy. However, their seemingly innocuous attempts to gain an impossible happiness leads to the destruction of life on earth. In this way, the Hoenikker children come to represent the people of the world; the search for happiness is perhaps the most universal of human endeavors and a noble goal. But, Vonnegut portrays this very human effort as being neither as simple, nor as simplistically moral, as it is generally perceived to be. Like their father, the Hoenikkers lack the malicious intent usually associated with people termed as "evil." Instead, they are careless, sometimes indifferent, often stupid, and ultimately caught up in their own lives. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut demonstrates that these traits--none of them evil--combined with man's technological power are enough to destroy the world.
Recorded history is replete with examples of violent religious, ethnic, and international conflict. None of this changed with the twentieth century. Nevertheless, many people in the twentieth century took the egotistical position that humanity had reached a new pinnacle of maturity. Science became a revered institution of truth and knowledge, and few people seriously questioned whether the truth and knowledge of modern science were necessarily beneficial. Cat's Cradle ridicules this hubris by emphasizing that sheer human stupidity is not only alive and well in the twentieth century but armed to the teeth.
Vonnegut often juxtaposes science and religion in Cat's Cradle. He characterizes science as a form of discovering truth, while he characterizes religion as a form of creating lies. Despite this negative depiction of religion, Vonnegut's most severe criticisms are reserved for science and its goal of seeking and discovering truth. Vonnegut attacks the idea that truth is innately desirable and good, seeing it as a pervasive belief in our culture. He describes a realistic world in which truth is used for material and personal gain without concern for the lasting effects those truths will have on humanity.
Felix Hoenikker's invention, ice-nine, was created to address the military's need for a way to get through mud quickly while traveling in the field. Ice-nine, which effectively freezes any liquid with which it comes in contact, could be heralded as a great success for science and a considerable asset to the U.S. military. But Hoenikker also realized the extremely destructive nature of his invention, which could be used as a biological weapon to permanently destroy a nation's water supply and ensure its eventual demise. Thus, the truth that he created through science was at once a danger to humanity.
Felix and Frank Hoenikker's experiences as scientists seem to reveal that scientific knowledge does not provide sufficient answers to human problems, although many people think that it can. Science is frequently exploited to create human problems, and scientists like the Hoenikkers usually do little to prevent this result because they are too concerned with discovering truths to weigh the consequences of their discoveries.
Felix Hoenikker, sensing the gravity of his discovery, hid ice-nine from the research company for which he worked. Unfortunately, he did not have the presence of mind to realize that the remnants he left for his children to find would ultimately lead the world to the fate that he was trying to avoid, simply because his children could not resist the power that his discovery would give them. His truth led to their deaths and ultimately to the death of everyone on the planet.
Vonnegut presents religion as more useful and less dangerous than science, despite its paradoxes and shortcomings. In the novel, religion is beneficial not because it conveys some truth about the world, but rather because it gives people elaborate lies in which to believe. Bokonon's lies prove more liberating than the Hoenikkers' truths, because his lies have the means for making men feel better about their lack of purpose and destitute existence.
One of Bokononism's central ideas is that man has always been responsible for giving life meaning, since it inherently lacks meaning. Thus, the possibility of happiness exists in this world if only man gives life the "right" meanings. Bokononism's purpose is to provide people with better and better lies that will keep them from seeing the Hobbesian truth that life is short and brutal. It is their belief in his lies that keeps the people of San Lorenzo alive, and this creates a paradox for Bokonon. Although he is making people's lives better with his lies by giving them a reason to continue their unhappy existence, his encouraging them to continue that existence actually leads them to experience more real suffering (such as starvation and injuries). His lies are both their source of hope and the reason for their continued acceptance of their destitution, and by the end of the novel it is unclear whether he is right or wrong for propagating his lies.
Vonnegut's allusion to the Book of Jonah may provide some clarification of the paradoxical characterization of Bokonon's lies. In the biblical tale, Jonah the prophet tried to resist God's command to pass judgment on the people of Nineveh, which caused God to interfere with his life and trap him in the belly of a whale for three days. When Jonah finally conceded to God's will and was released from the whale, he did what God had commanded. Later, God saved the people of Nineveh, which made Jonah's prophecy a paradox if not a lie. But if Jonah's prophecy against Nineveh was necessary for the salvation of the people of Nineveh, then perhaps paradoxes and lies serve noble purposes. Such an argument might lend moral credence to Bokonon's approach.
When Julian Castle throws Newt Hoenikker's painting into the waterfall on Mount McCabe, he does so to make a point about the meaninglessness of life. Newt had painted a cat's cradle as a symbol of the pointless games that adults teach children, ascribing meaning to them when there is none. Castle took it a step further when he acknowledged that even making commentary on the meaninglessness of these activities was a waste of time, because the world does not learn or benefit from experience. When Vonnegut depicts Bokonon as a holy wanderer finding nothing but junk, lies, and idiocy, he is talking about the creations of humanity and their attempts to convince themselves and others of the importance of their pursuits. Bokonon laughs when he thinks of these fools, because human pursuits will never matter, and it will never even matter whether he laughs or cries.
The dichotomy between religion and science is epitomized by the opposite worlds of Ilium and San Lorenzo. The first is the setting where scientists create in a moral vacuum, while the other is a society deeply entrenched in the "foma" or untruths of a madman whose only purpose in life is give them hope. Each is the product of a separate intellectual system, but they are twin states of being because they each provide a faÃ§ade with which one can obscure a horrible life. Both serve as examples to Jonah that improving the human condition is futile.
In the end, neither Ilium's science nor San Lorenzo's religion could truly save any of Vonnegut's characters from their wretched existences. The world had no real concern for their happiness. God, like many of the scientists in the novel, was interested in putting humans in interesting situations, but in the end had no emotional investment in their final plight. Bokonon writes that people should just be happy for the memories that they will bring with them when they return to the mud, because crying over one's fate is just as meaningless as laughing about it.
An overriding theme of the novel is that technological advancement could lead to the destruction of the human race because of science's frequent disinterest in humanity's survival. Vonnegut attempts to show that humans' temptation to control life, death, and nature has led to advances like the atomic bomb and other novel ways of bringing death in exchange for power. Scientists such as Felix Hoenikker are one of Vonnegut's primary concerns, because they seem to lack the moral capacity to care about other people. Because Felix is portrayed as somewhat childlike, there is almost the assumption that others were been more responsible for his moral transgressions than he was. Indeed, since he was a man who could become distracted by almost any toy or trick, much of the blame for his creation of deadly weapons lay on the shoulders of the politicians and government officials who filled his laboratory with materials for building weapons.
Most of the characters in the novel were involved in a number of interpersonal relationships took the form of specific groups. These "karasses" and "granfalloons" had differing degrees of importance, and because it was almost impossible for a human to know the limits of one's karass or the work it was supposed to do on Earth, many characters placed an undue amount of importance on the granfalloons in their lives. Often, Jonah would note some of the superficial characteristics he and other characters had in common, such as his and Newt's ties to Delta Upsilon. Hazel Crosby was a perfect example of humans' overemphasis on granfalloons, in that she took an unnatural pride in the number of successful Hoosiers she met.
In contrast, the Mintons never mentioned any granfalloons of which they might be members and were proud members of the only duprass in the novel. Their seeming concern with only their God-given team exempted them from the comical light in which other groups were portrayed, almost as if their perfect union exempted them from other human flaws.
The novel questions the idea of self-determination, the ability of a person to control one's individual destiny. Being reasonably able to determine one's destiny relies on the assumption that one lives in a fairly predictable, meaningful universe. If this is not true, the events that occur are better characterized as chaotic and absurd, and people are simply creating their own meanings to mask their ignorance.
Jonah repeatedly experienced feelings that he was being compelled to do certain things or visit certain places. His always being in the right place at the right time seemed to him to be an indication that God was controlling his life and leading him to his destiny. Yet, it is unclear whether Jonah was destined to end up in a certain place simply because that just happened to be where he did end up. The idea of destiny, therefore, could be interpreted as either an unalterable series of events or the set of events that one sets in motion through one's choices. Bokonon, as a prophet, supported the idea of an unalterable destiny because he would predict the future. Even so, his predictions were often public knowledge, and it is unclear whether individuals made his predictions come true because they believed such things would come to pass and prepared the way for them to happen.
The theme of desire and its effect on happiness provides some of the most lugubrious if not fully tragic moments in the novel. Frank's primary desire was to create a world that he could orchestrate technically, like that of the model town he built in Ilium. He pursued this desire to the destruction of the human race, because he used his father's ice-nine to bribe "Papa" Monzano for power. Angela desired a companion after being left alone by her brothers and deceased father, but she was so desperate that she could not see that Harrison Conners was using her for her piece of ice-nine. She thus found herself stuck in a loveless marriage. Newt, likewise, was searching for love. His desire for a companion allowed him to be fooled by a Ukrainian spy into thinking that she was half her actual age and in love with him, which allowed her to steal a piece of his ice-nine.
All of the Hoenikkers were given the opportunity to make their greatest desires come true, but when they got what they asked for in some form or another, none of them became happy. The reader ends up with the suggestion that it is better to want nothing at all, as though all human pursuits really are meaningless and nothing can bring happiness.