Scientific Innovation and Cat’s Cradle: Do Our Beliefs Impede Progress?
Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle asserts that our attitudes—as well as the behaviors that stem from them—toward the implications of scientific innovation impact the decisions we make. In doing so, he provokes the reader to investigate the potential repercussions of viewing science as a holy grail of sorts, following it as if it is a religion. The individuals in the novel who rely solely on the acquisition of knowledge are those who contribute to the end of the world, a result that is meant to highlight the dangers of not looking past objective facts. This tendency to undermine the importance of anything but science is apparent in the behaviors of many of the novel’s characters, the first of which is Felix Hoenikker, a man instrumental in creating the atomic bomb who does not contemplate how his work might affect the world. As an individual who “just [i]sn’t interested in people” (Vonnegut 13), he routinely fails to relate what he does as a scientist to the moral implications that his work has on society at large.
With little to no regard for others, “people can’t get at [Felix],” and when faced with the concept of sin as it related to the creation of his atomic bomb, Felix replied, “‘what is sin?’” (Vonnegut 17). With no interest in the activity of humans and a focus placed solely on fixing the problems that he sees in front of him, Felix can’t know sin—something that exists only in the context of morality. Felix views science as an arbitrary act; thus, moral responsibility does not factor into his decisions. The reason that people could not “get at” Felix is because he acts as if part of a scientific machine—a device designed for a specific, methodical purpose—rather than as if part of a larger human society. Because of this, he does not recognize that he can affect others through science; he views his machine as a closed system. In his mind, not only can nothing get in to affect him, nothing he does can get out to affect anything but scientific innovation itself.
This complacent attitude toward the outcomes of technology is also present in Dr. Asa Breed, the director of the Research Laboratory, who very highly regards Felix and his work. Breed believes so fervently in science that he quickly expresses frustration about how his lab is “one of the few companies that actually hires men to do pure research”—research that he describes as “increas[ing] knowledge” and “work[ing] toward no end but that” (Vonnegut 41). Met with this idea, John suggests that it is “very generous” (Vonnegut 41) of them to do this, but is quickly dismissed by Breed when he urges that there is “nothing generous about it” because “[n]ew knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth” (Vonnegut 41). Like Felix, Breed does not concern himself with the repercussions of research or even what it is used for—even if it is “sure to wind up as a weapon, one way or another” (Vonnegut 26), as Breed’s own son claims. What Vonnegut suggests here, according to Zins, is that in order for “science [to be] rescued from a technocracy that blindly serves the nuclear state and exacerbates the militarism of the world … the individual scientist [must refuse] to be an accomplice in the terminal process” (Zins 173). Breed’s son chose to quit working at the laboratory because he looked past the objective research being conducted and saw the potential for its use; in other words, he refused to be an accomplice in the “crime” that was creating weapons. While Breed and Felix did not consciously decide to be accomplices in this process, their inability to acknowledge the importance of what their research truly meant inhibited them from refusing to take part in it.
Not only does this method of thinking provoke Felix to continue conducting science without moral regard, it is projected toward his children throughout their childhoods. He paid so little attention to them that when Newt was six and his father showed him the cat’s cradle, Newt was terrified because “not only had [Felix] never played with [him] before; he had hardly ever even spoken to him” (Vonnegut 12). The lack of love and familial support that his children received led them to trade away their ice-nine crystals: Angela used it to “buy [her]self a tomcat husband”, Frank used it to “buy [him]self a job”, and Newt used it to “buy himself a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget” (Vonnegut 243). They didn’t pawn off ice-nine in return for financial gain or a position of ultimate power; they traded it to earn a place in which they belonged—a place that their father’s lack of human interaction robbed them of. Being raised in a house that valued science alone led the Hoenikker children to grow up with the exact opposite problem that their father suffered from: instead of placing no importance on people and all of it on science, they placed very little importance on science and most of it on people. Comparable to how children forced to comply with strict religious practices often rebel fervently against their church as they come of age, Felix’s obsessive, religious affinity towards science left his children longing for anything but science. Because of this, they saw it fit to trade away ice-nine in return for companionship without pausing to consider the effects of the scientific technology they possessed.
We see this blind acceptance of science in “Papa” Monzano as well, who, despite his being a Bokononist, believed firmly in the power of science; this was made obvious to us not only through his firm opposition to allowing citizens to practice Bokononism, but through blatant remarks in which he claims that “science is the strongest thing there is” and that Frank will succeed as a leader because “[he] ha[s] science” (Vonnegut 146). In his lack of regard for Frank’s true leadership potential and emphasis on science alone, “Papa” is used by Vonnegut as a prime example of what can happen when we consider nothing more than the truth of science. Similar to the way in which he chose Frank to become the next president of San Lorenzo, the way in which he chose to kill himself by ingesting ice-nine displays his disregard for anything outside of technology.
It is interesting, given “Papa” Monzano’s affinity toward science, that “[he is] a member of the Bokononist faith” (Vonnegut 218), a religion that is founded on lies, and to which the only thing that is sacred is “man” (Vonnegut 210). Despite believing in Bokononism, he vehemently denounces it prior to his death, urging Frank to “kill [Bokonon] and teach [the people] truth”—the truth that he is referring to is science, what he also describes as “the magic that works” (Vonnegut 218). In juxtaposing belief in the truth of science with belief in the lies of Bokononism, Vonnegut asserts that while science may be the basis through which we earn knowledge and progress technologically, belief in man is what is truly of value. In the end, although “Papa” Monzano went through the last rites of Bokononism before he died, his choice to utilize science—in the form of ice-nine—to end his life, rather than letting things run their natural course, is what led to the end of the world. In choosing belief in science over belief in man, “Papa” places importance on solitary happiness over societal success. He took ice-nine because it was a solution to ending his pain—the same pain that he carelessly inflicted on others by choosing to cease his own suffering.
The ice-nine itself proves to be a symbol for solitude—this is what ultimately leads to the end of the world. Ice-nine spawned from “selfish thoughtlessness and isolation” that “is latent in the extreme alienation of [its] inventor from his children” (Faris 46). Like ice, Felix, described by his son Newt as “one of the best-protected human beings who ever lived” (Vonnegut 13), can easily be deemed as cold—a trait that Faris states arises “from a lack of [passion]” (47). The motivation for Felix’s creation of the atom bomb and of ice-nine stemmed from pure curiosity about the problems with which he was presented. He cared nothing about creating things for the good of man; instead, he lived his life by “look[ing] for things to play with and think about” (Vonnegut 16), rather than finding solutions for problems that he observed.
It is therefore no surprise that a man as inaccessible as Felix would create a substance that, isolated, will do no harm. Ice-nine is described as “a seed” that “teach[es] atoms [a] novel way in which to stack and lock” (Vonnegut 45). This means that when ice-nine is exposed to other water molecules, it causes a chain reaction through which every molecule in the chain turns into ice-nine. Isolated, though, ice-nine can do no harm, and the same can be said for Felix. Had he been left to his own devices and not been influenced by other scientists that wanted him to work on the atom bomb and on ice-nine, he couldn’t have done any damage. Felix didn’t care about the application of his experiments; if there were no one there to utilize his technology for something, then it would have no effect on the world, because Felix was otherwise isolated. Like “Papa” Monzano took the ice-nine and exposed the world to it, a Marine general induced the creation of ice-nine by “hounding [Felix] to do something about mud” (Vonnegut 42). In this respect, ice-nine is a recreation of Felix Hoenikker himself.
The way in which Vonnegut implicates those not directly involved in the dissemination of ice-nine—the Marine general, Felix’s children—employs a critique of the existing order that Jubouri Al Ogali & Babaee assert “provides a proposal that the authorial intentionality goes towards the existing political order” (97). When Marvin Breed makes a witty remark about how he “suppose[s] it’s high treason and ungrateful and ignorant and backward and anti-intellectual to call a dead man as famous as Felix Hoenikker a son of a bitch” (Vonnegut 42), he is complaining about how someone’s status as “famous” grants them immunity against warranted critique. In highlighting how uncomfortable this makes Marvin (and John), Vonnegut urges us to consider in whose hands we place responsibility; he leads us to wonder how our perceptions of power cloud our judgment of someone’s ability to act in our best interest. Allowing the people in power to take on all responsibility for competing in the arms race “results in alienation within human societies” (Jubouri Al Ogali & Babeee 97). In this way, Vonnegut is not only criticizing men like Felix and Dr. Breed for refusing responsibility for their actions, but also anyone who allows the people in power to behave in such an irresponsible manner.
It is also worth noting how Vonnegut characterizes the narrator of Cat’s Cradle, John. Despite having lived through the events leading up to the near destruction of the world, John appears to remain calm and “too puerile to respond personally or to describe emotions of others feelingly” (Hume 179). While he does a good job of describing the process of “collect[ing] material for [his] book” (Vonnegut 1), his attention to a purely journalistic account of what occurred lacks “empathy for the misery experienced by the victims, and personal reaction, specifically psychological damage which testifies to the effect that witnessing atrocities has on a sensitive and humane observer” (Hume 179). He is aware throughout his narration of the effects that Felix’s ice-nine will have on the fate of the world; yet, he alludes to it only through quips and playful remarks, calling Newt a “little son of a bitch” and Angela “miserable” for “ha[ving] a crystal of ice-nine in a thermos bottle in [their] luggage” as they flew above “God’s own amount of water” (Vonnegut 111). John’s affinity for detached analysis over emotional attachment ironically mirrors Felix’s attitude—the very attitude that Vonnegut is attempting to critique throughout the novel.
Perhaps, then, Vonnegut is making a statement through this choice. Readers do not question John’s objective account of how the world ended, despite it being just as isolated from emotion and humanity as Felix’s experiments. This leads to a paradoxical consideration of the text: if John is doing the same thing that his account of history is trying to steer us away from, should we also steer away from his account of history? Vonnegut allows John to tell a compelling tale in opposition to science without responsibility—responsibility that John himself does not demonstrate in his telling of events. This may be meant to show us that perhaps there is a place for emotional absence in research, though the novel appears to strongly urge against this.
Human Condition in Cat’s Cradle
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.
Organized Religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cats Cradle: See God? See Satan?
“See the cat? See the cradle?” retorts the midget Newt in an attempt to explain the inspiration for a grotesque and confounding painting of his. This singular quote is the namesake for Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, and embodies the leitmotif of this tongue-in-cheek canon on religion, sex, politics, and everything in between. In the years following its publication, Vonnegut’s novel became fodder for the counterculture movement of the 1960’s because it countered the restrictive societal norms of mainstream culture. Among the institutions he attacks throughout the novel, religion is the most conspicuous. Vonnegut dissects the very human inclination to have something to believe in, questioning not only the nature of organized religion, but its validity and role in society. Vonnegut creates a picturesque island named San Lorenzo, whose national religion is the work of a nihilistic poet. Vonnegut uses this religion, called “Bokononism”, as a vehicle for the revelation (no pun intended) that religion is as substantial as a “cat’s cradle.” Vonnegut introduces the “cat’s cradle” as a metaphor for different interpretations of life. “A cat’s cradle is nothing more than a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands” (165) says Newt, who had been traumatized as a child by the sight of his father dangling such “tangles of string” (165) in his face. And though there is “no damn cat, and no damn cradle”(166) the “little kids look and look and look at all those X’s (166). According to Newt’s cradle metaphor, one sees what one wants to. “See the cat? See the cradle?” (179) Newt says in response to inquiries about his sister’s seemingly perfect marriage and Jesus Christ, both of whom are not what they people may think they are. Here is the philosophy Vonnegut espouses throughout the novel. People tend to see what they want to, and read into what is there in reality. Religion is no exception to this. Vonnegut creates a religion in order to question the role of faith in society and the validity of traditional religioous assumptions. He first questions absolutes during a dialogue between the scientist Felix Hoenikker and a secretary, Miss Faust. “God is love” (55) claims the latter. “What is God? What is love?” (55) replies the former. According to the Books of Bokonon (the founder of Vonnegut’s fictitious religion), one should “believe in the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy” (i). To understand this assertion, one must take into account the Bokononist premise that “all religions are nothing but lies” (219). Thus, a “useful religion can be founded on lies”(6) so long as it inspires its followers to be “kind and healthy and happy.” Miss Faust is content to believe in the Christian presumption that God is love without any physical proof “no matter what Dr. Hoenikker said” (55). Yet, if this belief makes Miss Faust all those things aforementioned, her religion can be said to be “useful.” This is her “cat’s cradle.” She takes into account the nature of the world and interprets it in light of Christianity. Vonnegut later uses his fictitious religion to model how religion takes into account the nature of things, and interprets them based on assumptions. His vehicle for this point is the cosmogony found in the Books of Bokonon. In it, Bokonon observes the planetary orbits. The assumptions that a follower of Bokononism must make is that the sun is a living entity and has a name, “Borasisi”, and that he somehow produced children with another living entity, the moon, whose name is “Pabu.” Bokonon then relates a story of how Pabu bore unsatisfactory children (who became the planets who orbit “at safe distance” (191)) and Pabu’s exile to live with her “favorite child” who was earth. Bokonon claims that earth was her favorite because it harbored people who “looked up at her and loved her and sympathized” (191). Don’t all religions make claims such as the ones that Vonnegut presents in this cosmogony? This is where the principle if faith comes from. We cannot prove the claims that many religions make, yet people still have faith that they are true. The main difference between Bokononist cosmogony and that of more mainstream religion is that Bokonon is quick to admit that all of it is “foma” or “harmless lies.” Vonnegut intentionally does this in order for us to see how strange our religion would seem if we were approaching it for the first time. What proof is there that all religions do not consist of “foma,” carefully constructed to make people more orderly and happy? This is Vonnegut’s ultimate point, and one that attracts many to the book. Vonnegut also parallels religion’s attempts to explain the origin of the earth with his Creation story. “In the beginning,” he writes (referencing the book of Genesis) “God created the earth and looked upon it with his cosmic loneliness” (265). God then “created every living creature that now moveth” (265) out of mud. One of these creatures was Man. Man then inquired what the purpose of this creation was. God’s answer is “I leave it to you to think of one for all this” (265). Vonnegut is playing with the human belief that there must be a purpose for everything. This is what leads people to espouse religious beliefs in the first place. Religious people have tried for centuries to determine “the reason for all this” and have developed elaborate answers. Yet, if we are to believe Bokonon, all of it is “foma” and life doesn’t require a purpose. Religion, as Vonnegut would have it, has probably exceeded its authority in a world where so many people are hindered by their creed. If we are to assume that all religions are “foma”, religion serves its most useful purpose so long as it does not overstep its boundaries. Vonnegut is, in essence saying that religion is not to be taken too seriously. For all the faith people invest in their beliefs, religion can never be proven. Vonnegut wants the reader to ask, what if religion is nothing but lies? With Vonnegut, one must anticipate the next question. Does it really matter if religions are made up of lies so long as they make people “brave and kind and healthy and happy”? So long as we force ourselves to see what isn’t there, and attempt to explain what is, the world will always be tangled up in a “cat’s cradle.”
Felix Hoenikker: The Man, The Disorder, The Misperceptions
Post-World War II, scientists were considered the heroes of modern society. The nation’s science labs were heavily mobilized and federal spending on research development was over twenty times what it had been prior to the start of the war (Hampson). This society is what laid the ground work for Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical masterpiece Cat’s Cradle. In which, Vonnegut’s main character, Felix Hoenikker, is well known for being not only the father of the atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, but also an odd man in general. Hoenikker’s subsequent oddness can be explained by Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder first recognized by Hans Asperger in the mid 1940’s. Hans Asperger studied a group of boys with “autism-like behaviors and difficulties with social and communication skills in boys who had normal intelligence and language development. Many professionals felt Asperger’s syndrome was simply a milder form of autism and used the term ‘high-functioning autism’ to describe these individuals” (Autism Society). By modern standards, Dr. Hoenikker’s actions and aptitudes as well as his creation of multiple weapons of mass destruction is attributed to Felix having Asperger’s syndrome.
Although Asperger’s syndrome wasn’t a well-known phenomenon at the time Dr. Hoenikker did his most prevalent work, even his boss, Dr. Breed, knew that something was different about Hoenikker than all his other employees. For one, Breed knew he wasn’t truly in charge of Felix. When interviewed by the narrator, John, Dr. Breed stated that even he knew he was only Hoenikker’s boss “on paper” (21). He further described how difficult it was to control Felix saying that “if [he] actually supervised Felix, […] then [he’s] ready now to take charge of volcanoes, the tides, and the migration or birds and lemmings” (21). And that Dr. Hoenikker “was a force of nature no mortal could possibly control” (21). The behaviors in this situation give readers reason to believe that Felix is suffering from Asperger’s because of his “rigid inflexible behavior” (ASO) and his “problems understanding social cues” (ASO) both of which are characteristics defined by the Asperger’s society of Ontario to be markers for diagnosing a person with Asperger’s syndrome. Furthering the argument that Hoenikker’s Asperger’s are to blame for the destructive weapons created by Hoenikker is Matt Wallace in his article Dr. Felix Hoenikker in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: good or evil? Wallace builds his argument by creating reasonable doubt that Felix is responsible for both creating the deadly weapons and the destruction they caused. Instead, Wallace insists that Dr. Hoenikker is more childlike than evil and it is his child like wonder that makes him the pristine scientist he is known to be. Furthermore, Wallace points out that Felix is incapable of being a responsible adult. He blames the destruction of Dr. Hoenikker on those who have manipulated his child like mind which can be refocused by suggestions from others. Essentially, Wallace is defending Hoenikker and placing the blame of the atomic bomb and Ice-Nine on those responsible for him and responsible for using his child like mind to manipulate him.
While I believe that Wallace’s argument is valid, I also think he is missing key points that could even further validate it. First, with the theory that Hoenikker has Asperger’s in mind, Felix wouldn’t have been able to understand the concept of manipulation because of his Asperger’s. Therefore, if the other character were to manipulate Felix throughout his career he may never know he was being manipulated because nothing in his daily interactions had changed. Secondly, if Felix’s counterparts such as Dr. Breed were aware that he was mentally incompetent they would have given him the ethically debatable “chores”. By doing this, Breed could blame everything on Felix being mentally incompetent when things went wrong or the ethics of the laboratory were called into question. Essentially, the people in Hoenikker’s life are responsible for his actions and for not ensuring his and others protection.
Above and beyond not being able to comprehend the idea of having a boss, Dr. Hoenikker is unable to adapt to both new surroundings and the idea of changing his every day routine. When approached about working on the Manhattan project, an honor that anyone else would accept regardless of the stipulations, Felix made it clear that he would not leave Ilium to work on the project. If they wanted Dr. Hoenikker on the project he would work where he wanted to, how he wanted to (9). This is not the only time Dr. Hoenikker avoided change or socialization. Throughout the novel, John tells of times when Felix is avoiding contact with others. In an encounter with John, Ms. Faust reminisces that, “Felix ate alone […]in the cafeteria every day. It was a rule that no one was to sit with him, to interrupt his chain of thought” (49). His avoidance of change once again falls under the spectrum of traits possessed by someone with Asperger’s, as those with Asperger’s syndrome are known to be avoidant of social contact or events. Furthermore, when Felix did interact with others it was often times begrudgingly, he never initiated contact, and when others did initiate contact it wasn’t unusual for Felix to just walk away from them. As he did from his children, when he “stuck his head out a window, and he looked at Angela and [Newt] rolling on the ground, bawling, and Frank standing over [them], laughing. The old man pulled his head indoors again, and never asked later what all the fuss had been about.” (17). If Felix couldn’t interact with his children, his own flesh and blood, there is no other explanation than his lack of interaction with others being caused by his Asperger’s.
Other than avoidance of change and social conflict, another trait that is embodied in both Felix Hoenikker and those previously diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome is the inability to understand their fillings, and how to connect emotionally with others. Besides his wife dying from child birth and being left with their three children, Felix’s home life seems run of the mill. Their family goes on vacation to Cape Cod in the summers and winters, they go to school and to work, everything seems normal. Seems being the operative word. However, those things weren’t normal to Felix, if anything he saw those particular things as a bother. When characters spoke of “intimate things, family things, love things” (54). Ms. Faust tells readers that “Dr. Hoenikker had all those things in his life, the way every living thing has to, but they weren’t the main things to him” (54). His work, and his science were what he considered the “main things to him.” (54) From this characterization, readers can establish that personal relationships were of little to no interest to Hoenikker. He focused primarily on the scientific or factual side of life and because relationships weren’t factual Hoenikker couldn’t psychologically understand them. This leads to many readers thinking Felix is cold or inept when in actuality his lack of connection to other human beings is a symptom of his Asperger’s.
Often, those with Asperger’s syndrome experience frustration faster than those without it, and this coupled with their misunderstanding of social cues lead them to do things that can be perceived as unusual by others. Although Felix had an intellectually advanced mind, he was often frustrated quickly by simple, everyday tasks. Furthermore, socially Hoenikker wasn’t up to par where a normal adult male his age would have been. Dr. breed tells John that “Dr. Hoenikker, as a very young man, had simply abandoned his car in the middle of ilium traffic one morning” (30). As most individuals would tell you, this is an unusual thing for one to do. When a typical person leaves their car in the middle of traffic it is usually for a reason such as they ran out of gas, or the battery failed. In each of these cases one would think to pull the car off to the side of the road where it would not further impede traffic. However, Hoenikker just left his, in the middle of the road, still running. With no mechanical failures and no issues other than he was tired of traffic and frustrated.
Although throughout the novel Dr. Hoenikker’s characterization brings up clear elements relating to Asperger’s and the reasons he creates weapons of mass destruction is related to the obsession he has for science, caused by his Asperger’s syndrome. No one is as direct about Felix’s characterization as Ms. Faust. In her declaration, that Dr. Hoenikker was “an unusual man” (57). Ms. Faust elaborates on her declaration by stating that “maybe in a million years everybody will be as smart as he [Dr. Hoenikker] was and see things the way he did. But, compared with the average person of today, he was as different as a man from mars” (57). This quotation is one of the most vital to characterizing Felix as a person of Asperger’s because it emphasizes the fact that he is nowhere near average and exceptionally smart. Some of the main benefits to being a person of Asperger’s include “average to superior intelligence, a detail oriented approach to tasks which may result in missing the ‘bigger picture’, and a preference of technical and factual information over abstract concepts and theories” (ASO).
Having been compared to those already diagnosed with Asperger’s, it is logical to conclude that Felix Hoenikker too can be diagnosed with this syndrome. From his obsession with science, destructive science, to his emotional detachment to his wife and children, each of Hoenikker’s social and moral taboos can be explained by Asperger’s syndrome. Furthermore, it can be argued that Dr. Hoenikker’s co-workers took advantage of his situation and the weapons of mass destruction that came out of Felix’s time at the science laboratory weren’t his fault.
“Asperger’s Syndrome” Autism-society.org. N.d. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. “Common Traits” Aspergers.ca. N.d. Web. 1 Jul. 2016.
Hampson, Rick. “70 Years Later: How World War II Changed America.” USA Today 19 Jul. 2015. Web.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. Random house publishing group, 1963. Print Wallace, James Mathew. “Dr. Felix Hoenikker in Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s Cradle: Good or Evil?” Diss. University of North Carolina Greensboro, 2006. Print.
The Fulfillment of One’s Desire Does Not Lead to Happiness: A Central Paradox of ‘Cat’s Cradle’
What do people really want, and how far would they be willing to go to get that something? Is it always worth it – to get what one most desires, but not to be happy? These are the very questions that Kurt Vonnegut explores in his satirical novel Cat’s Cradle. The author illustrates that the fulfillment of one’s desire does not necessarily create happiness, through the characters of John, the narrator of the story; Felix Hoenikker, the creator of the first atomic bomb; and Felix’s three children.
John is a perfect example of someone who has had his wishes granted but is still not satisfied. At the beginning of the novel, John fixates on one thing: finishing his book about the atomic bomb. However, as John acquires more information about Felix Hoenikker and the Hoenikker children’s lives, he abandons the project. Although John gathers all the information he needs, he becomes discontented with his writing and decides to abandon his project, nevertheless remaining entwined in the history of the family. Later, when John sees an ad for San Lorenzo in the paper, he is initially eager to visit but when he arrives, is unimpressed when he realizes that San Lorenzo is nothing more than a crumbling dictatorship. Finally, John loves Mona from the second he first lays eyes on her, and wants nothing more than to keep her all for himself. However, after the Boku Maru ritual occurs and John declares to Mona that “as your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself. (Vonnegut, 208)” she refuses to grant his selfish wish. While John gets what he wants, Mona, he remains unsatisfied with the conditions she establishes regarding the marriage. John remains unhappy even after all his desires are fulfilled.
Felix Hoenikker does not value family, friendship, books, or games like most other people but instead values science and technology. “When asked what he did in his spare time he replied, ‘Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?’ (Vonnegut, 11).”, Felix is never satisfied with his inventions and is constantly pursuing new information. When he creates the atomic bomb with his fellow scientists, he sees it as a creation, one that could be endlessly improved, rather than as a deadly weapon. When Felix invents ice-nine, a substance which has the ability to wipe out the entire planet, he does not understand its significance and regards it as just another invention. Although Felix has what everyone desires: fame, money, children, intelligence, he is still not content. Despite his brilliance, Felix is unable to find happiness.
The Hoenikker children: Angela, Frank and Newt, all have desires of their own, but even after these are fulfilled, they remain unsatisfied. Angela Hoenikker, the eldest child of Felix Hoenikker, was displeased with the caretaker position she was forced to take after her mother died. In his letter to John, Newt described her as being, “the real head of the family since she was sixteen, since Mother died, since I was born. (Vonnegut, 15)” Angela wants to be loved, and sets her eyes on an man by the name of Harrison Conners. Angela is ultimately unsatisfied in her relationship with Harrison who is a cheater and heavy drinker. Although Angela finds what she initially desires, she is still not happy. Frank, the middle child, wants nothing more than military status and power. His desires are fulfilled once he gets control of ice-nine and is able to use it to access a powerful military position. However, despite Frank’s newfound position and power in San Lorenzo, he is not appeased and still wants more. Hoenikker’s youngest child, Newt, is a four-foot-tall midget, tired of being cast aside his entire life. Desperate for love and attention Newt begins a relationship impulsively with a midget named Zinka, a Soviet spy. Zinka is more than willing to play her part as a loving girlfriend, fooling Newt and ultimately stealing his ice-nine. Although Newt’s only desire was to be loved, the fulfillment of his desires does not make him happy. Each of the three Hoenikker children receive exactly what they most desire, whether it was love, affection or power, but none of them feel satisfied.
While the characters in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle aspire to fulfill their own needs, they each lack insight about the superficiality of their desires. John, Felix, and the Hoenikker children each have their desires fulfilled, yet none of them find contentment or happiness. Success does not lead to personal satisfaction and, as the novel repeatedly highlights, the fulfillment of one’s desires does not lead to happiness.
To Find a Purpose, To Find Foma
See the Cat? See the Cradle? These two all-important lines ring throughout the book, constantly confusing both the characters in the book and the reader themselves. It is used in comparison to Angela’s marriage and religion as a whole, although the title of the book itself hints at a larger meaning to the general themes and issues the book is attempting to satirize. Dr. Hoenikker, a major player in the scheme of Cat’s Cradle, states that he doesn’t need to bother with made-up games with all the “real games” going on, but seems oddly fascinated with Cat’s Cradle, “the closest [Newt] ever saw [his] father come to playing what anybody else would call a game.” (9) The importance of the empty and hollow game of Cat’s Cradle is a key aspect of the book to discover, especially in relation to the intriguingly complex character of Dr. Hoenikker.
A social recluse, Dr. Hoenikker is a paradox – he has the brilliant mind of a genius and advances technology by great strides, but he has the social mindset of a child, putting his needs above everyone else’s by ignoring his wife and callously pulling his own daughter out of school in order to serve his needs when his wife passed away. Despite his brilliant scientific brain, he ultimately did not understand the harm he was doing to not only the people around him, but the people of the world by creating such horrible inventions. Painted in a childlike light, he had the motivations and drive a normal, undeveloped, and immature child would possess – he sought only to distract himself and amuse himself with games – in this case, the so-called “real games” that he mentioned in the interview with the magazine. Equating building the bomb with experimenting with turtles, he had no regard for the ramifications of his creations – he only saw them as games in a selfishly childlike attitude. In fact, he created ice-nine carelessly, not documenting his actions, and didn’t even reconsider his choice when he gave them to his children. Dr. Hoenikker died an immature child with the scientific genius of Einstein – he was selfish, thought only of his own needs, and only sought to amuse himself with game after game each day, not considering the effects of his creations on the world. But why would the simplest and most meaningless of all games, Cat’s Cradle, intrigue and entertain his childlike mind so greatly? Vonnegut has a statement to make about Hoenikker’s mind and the world around him.
In essence, the game of Cat’s Cradle is all pretend. Newt repeatedly stresses that there’s no cat and no cradle – and yet, Hoenikker and so many children are fascinated with the game. The reason Hoenikker is so intrigued with this game is that it relates to what Bokonon and, by extension, Vonnegut, believes is man’s most basic and primal instinct, gleaned from this poem:
“Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.” (106)
Man’s endless effort to convince himself that he understands his existence and life is paralleled in the game of Cat’s Cradle – there is no cat, nor cradle, and yet children yearn to find a meaning behind nothingness. Hoenikker, having the immature mind of a child, also seeks to find meaning in this simple game, relating to his basic instincts as a man. In a larger scheme, it tells of an endless quest to find meaning where there is none, to discover purpose where none is to be found. This endless and ultimately fruitless quest for duty is hinted at throughout the book, from the central tenet of Bokononism (Bokonon’s own cosmogony is a “Pack of Foma!” (111)) to the final ending of the world itself due to a careless accident, where mankind is left still knowing nothing about themselves. The essence of both the game and the novel is that man’s search to find purpose and knowledge of their existence is all foma – meaningless lies. And just like creating ice-nine, the nuke, and turtle experiments, the game of Cat’s Cradle is another of Hoenikker’s amusements to pass his time – and yet, ironically, Hoenikker’s childlike tendencies to not make him innocent – in fact, he is the person to blame for the world’s suffering and eventually, the world’s end. His naivety and failure to comprehend the consequences of his deeds does not make him innocent and free of blame. In fact, it makes him even more guilty.
The meaningless and empty game of Cat’s Cradle echoes Vonnegut’s views of man’s most primal instinct – the drive to find a meaning behind everything, to find purpose in life where there is none. The child’s naive mind is the prime channel of this drive – a child seeks to discover a cause to explain all things, especially the outstanding meaninglessness of Cat’s Cradle. By showing Hoenikker’s fascination with the game, Vonnegut displays a selfish character, driven by his own needs and wants, unaware of the world around him and the potential consequences of his actions. With the contradictory mind of a socially unaware child and a man with genius-level intellect, Hoenikker represents a facet of mankind as a whole – we strive, like children, to find meaningless purpose, endlessly educating ourselves and expanding our knowledge but failing to expand beyond a childlike state of emotional mindset. Vonnegut’s novel and the character of Dr. Hoenikker himself echoes the uselessness of man’s ambitions, goals, and sacrifices – and when the world ends, we will find ourselves knowing just as much as we knew the day we began living.
The Futility of Human Endeavors
The book Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut utilizes satire and parody to comment on the critical issues of religion and science. The story takes place in fictitious settings, first in a town in New York, Ilium while the rest takes place in the island country, San Lorenzo (Vonnegut). The hardcover which was published in 1963 contrasts two human concepts, religion, and science, to determine their significance to the world and humanity. Vonnegut describes science as a means of unraveling the truth and religion as a construct built on lies and deception for the greater good. The truth behind science is a tool that is misused by humanity for financial gains and the destruction of the universe. Similarly, the lack of meaning in life or the pursuit of meaning creates lies through religion. The novel incorporates various literary devices such as satire and parody to criticize the idiocies and shortcomings of human constructs in society. The constant theme explored in the book is the covetous and self-centered nature of humanity in both science and religion. In the novel, the ideals of science as represented by Ilium, where the search for truth through science is viewed as constructive though Vonnegut criticizes scientific knowledge due to its damaging nature to humanity. Vonnegut implies that the scientific truths and facts do not give necessary answers to universal issues but rather bring devastation and death. On the other hand, Vonnegut criticizes the constructs of religion as being lies and deceptions in a pitiful attempt at giving hope to humanity. However, he later represents belief as more helpful and less precarious than science despite its inadequacies and lack of truth. The contradiction between religion and science as depicted in the book demonstrates the human deprivation brought on by both these constructs. The book which is a social commentary on religion and science explores the meaninglessness of human pursuits; as in the long run, the universe and humanity do not benefit from these constructs and only bring forth misery.
The article Hope and Despair by A.R.N. Hanuman which is a carnivalesque interpretation of Vonnegut’s novel examines the futility of human constructs and institutions as portrayed in the book. Hanuman describes and explores the themes, literary devices, and Vonnegut’s carnivalesque concepts of destabilizing the societal constructs in Cat’s Cradle (Hanuman 1)The article suggests that Vonnegut’s novel main concern is to attack the ideals or dogmas that society adhere to which subsequently inflict despair on humanity (Hanuman 1). It explores Vonnegut’s comparison of religion and science and how the institutions created on these constructs are damaging and degrading. Additionally, Hanuman suggests that society has put up the concepts of religion and science claiming to protect humanity from the unknown, but it’s just a façade. The scientific truth and advancement only lead to more damage because of humans’ tendency to control nature and life for power (Hanuman 5). It further states that the novel’s depiction of a world where lies in religion are more beneficial than scientific truth is a representation of the pointlessness of these social constructs. It highlights the futility of religion through the novel’s portrayal of Bokononism as a religion that relies on lies and idiocy to convince themselves of the significance of their endeavors. The article examines Vonnegut’s amalgam of parody and ironic comment on the novel’s realism as a mockery of philosophies and societal systems due to the meaningless of human endeavors in the long run. The title of the novel is interpreted in the article as the representation of life in general. The term cat’s cradle being derived from a game that is considered pointless is a direct metaphor for the theme of the novel. Hanuman elaborates on the Vonnegut’s depiction of religion as beneficial by suggesting the Bokonon’s deceptions are more redeeming than the scientific truths. He explains that it has the ability to encourage people to feel better about their deprived livelihood and futility (Hanuman 5). The article highlights that the novel doubts the practicality of seeking truths and presence of free will in a society operating in the confines of these constructs. It proposes that in the novel humanity need to be aware of the truths and deceits that they approve because the key criterion of choosing life philosophy is practicality. Hanuman concludes that Vonnegut implies that the institutions and concepts that give stability and structure to humanity are futile including life and the universe in general.
The article’s assertions on the Cat’s Cradle are concrete interpretations of the themes in the novel. Firstly, the article compares Vonnegut’s intent to the theory of carnivalesque where ones seek to subvert the false authoritarian system to acquire freedom. I concur with this illustration as the novel intends to condemn the concepts of religion and science and their subsequent outcomes. The look at religion and science as constructs that deny humanity free will and cause destruction prove their outcomes do not serve the greater good. It demonstrates the manner in which these ideas ultimately contribute to the human degradation and annihilation. I agree with the assertion of scientific truth as damaging despite the general assumption that it is essential in solving all problems. In the novel, the experiences of Hoenikkers showcases the exploitation of science to discover truths at the expense of humanity and the safety of the universe. The invention of ice-nine in the novel is viewed as a scientific triumph despite the fact that it was potentially fatal to humanity which is proven at the end of the story. I concur with the depiction of religion as an absurd concept that relies on deception to explain the meaning of life. However, I disagree with the article’s support for the benefits of the religion especially the claim that it is more redeeming than other constructs. On the surface, Bokononism seems like the construct that is more reliable than scientific knowledge or pursuit of truth. However, adhering to the ideas of religion has rendered the people of San Lorenzo into deprived living and more suffering. Both religion and science in the novel are equally negative and degrading. The usage of parody and satire in the novel to examine and scrutinize the philosophy, technological advancement and religion is an accurate evaluation by the article. I agree with the author’s assessment of the effect of Vonnegut’s literary devices to achieve the desired tone and convey the themes. The satirical tone enables the juxtaposing of science and belief and their consequences to take effect in the narrative. The symbolism of the title of the novel which is a game that is considered meaningless is used to achieve the theme of the futility of different interpretations of life. Lastly, I concur with the conclusion of the article that Vonnegut intends to attest the futility of human constructs and pursuits.
The novel Cat’s Cradle deals with the pointlessness of human constructs and pursuits and the concept that life is utterly without purpose or meaning. The author contrasts religion and science to imply the grave consequences of pursuing ideas made out of these perceptions. The Ice-Nine invention by Felix Hoenikker was intended to help the troops to maneuver with ease on marshy areas during the war as it has the ability to solidify water (Vonnegut). Hoenikker’s desire and concern to uncover scientific knowledge for advancement prevents him from seeing the impending danger of his discoveries. Ultimately, the invention brings total demise to humanity in conclusion by freezing all water disputing the belief that truths or science are inherently good and can solve all issues. Vonnegut criticizes the idea of truth as integrally desirable which is the universal belief by describing a world that truth is used for selfish gains at the expense of humanity in general. The proof that science is oddly exploited by authorities to create problems and bring demise to humanity than actually being integrated for resolutions attests the futility of human endeavors. The author also attempts to express the emptiness of religious conviction and how totalitarianism and religion bring more misery to the lives of already deprived people. The San Lorenzo government and Bokononism have fabricated concepts that they impose on the people in an attempt to improve the human condition and give meaning to life (Vonnegut). The constant search for meaning through religion and contrived concepts only prove to be meaningless at the end as attested by the demise of everyone despite their belief.
Vonnegut makes commentary on the futility of human endeavors and exposes society’s weaknesses. The nonsensical desolation caused by human constructs such as war that is brought on by the same ideas that claim to benefit humanity is a testament to societal failures. Vonnegut questions the aptitude of the concepts of truth and lies in science and religion respectively. Humanity’s confidence in these concepts renders futile as in the end neither the science nor religion could save anyone. Human endeavors such as the search for purpose and happiness are explored in the novel through Felix’s children. They represent the universal pursuit of happiness that is every individual’s endeavor despite its unattainable nature. The Hoenikkers get the chance to attain their true desires, but they are incapable of achieving happiness. Their bland efforts to attain happiness and obsessions in the long run only brings anguish to the universe. Vonnegut implies that pursuing human constructs to achieve contentment is pointless, as nothing will offer true satisfaction. Vonnegut’s literary style and techniques are truly effective in achieving the attitude and theme of the futility of human endeavors. The title of the novel is a representation of the leitmotif that relief and purpose is in the emptiness similar to the nothingness of the game, “No damn cat, and no damn cradle”. The novel implies the equivalent balance of lies and truths is the perfect ratio to prevent humanity from giving way to human errors and societal weaknesses. Cat’s Cradle is a commentary on the flawed universal systems and institutions and the repercussions of futile human endeavors in search of the meaning of life.
Works CitedHanuman, A.R.N. “Hope and Despair: A Carnivalesque Study of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.” The Criterion: An International Journal in English 2.1 (2011): 1-7. Web. 12 December 2017.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Spark Publishing, 2014. Web. 12 December 2017.