Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle



There are two parts to this assignment. Both parts are to be passed in on time as LATE PAPERS WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED.


Part 1: Do ONE of the following essay questions. (50%)


1. Cat's Cradle is a book that questions our sense of truth, beginning with the statement, "All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies" (A Tentative Tangling of Tendrils). "Nothing in this book is true," writes Vonnegut in the disclaimer before the start of the book, a joke on the standard disclaimer. He adds "Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy." Before the book is even begun, the reader's sense of purpose and expectancy are shaken. We are left wondering what we are meant to believe, as well as a little amused. Examine Cat's Cradle for incidence in which our relationship with truth is shaken. Why do you think Vonnegut would want to make his readers question in this way? Is there any lesson to be gleaned from this questioning of what is true?


2. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut describes religion as a useful lie. "Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either" (A Tentative Tangling of Tendrils). Explore Vonnegut's portrayal of religion in the novel. Pay particular attention to the portrayals of Christianity and Bokononism.


3.  Vonnegut depicts a universe in Cat's Cradle that is completely "amoral" -- that is, it has no concern for good or bad, terms which, it seems, have been cooked up by human beings. Discuss Vonnegut's portrayal of the amorality of the universe in Cat's Cradle, and how this might affect the way that we live if we take it seriously. Does Vonnegut encourage us to take him seriously? Why or why not?


4. In Cat's Cradle, Frank's character is frequently compared to God (ex. Bug Fights, Hobby Shop). Examine the manner in which Vonnegut relates experimentation, God, and amorality in the person of Frank.  What sorts of conclusions is Vonnegut encouraging us to draw from his novel? What sorts of questions is he bidding us to ask?


5. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, is famed to have said, "If something is sweet, you have to go ahead with it." At the time of the bomb's development and first test, there was no certainty that, once a nuclear chain reaction began, it could ever be stopped. Many scientists speculated that a nuclear explosion would burn up the entire Earth's atmosphere; but Oppenheimer, not knowing whether his weapon would destroy the entire earth, went ahead with it anyway. Cat's Cradle is very much a novel concerned with nuclearism and thoughts of apocalyptic destruction. Felix Hoenikker is very much like Robert Oppenheimer in that he, too, develops terrible weapons without any concern for their consequences. Write an essay that delves into the relationship between knowledge and moral responsibility. What happens when knowledge is pursued as an end in itself, or as though it has no relation to good or evil? Must true knowledge always concern goodness? How might we evaluate the modern technological drive to master the universe through knowledge, putting everything to the uses that we prescribe? Chapter 19 may be especially helpful in your analysis.


6. In the chapter entitled, "Letter from a Pre-med," Felix Hoenikker is made to say, "Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn. I am a very happy man"; and, "Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?" Examine the relationship between science, wonder, and play in the novel.


7. In the chapter entitled, "Bug Fights," Newt recounts the story of his father at the Alamagordo nuclear test site. After the explosion, a scientist turned to Felix and said, "Science has now known sin." Felix replied, "What is sin?" Vonnegut would have us ask this question, too. What is sin? What meaning can sin have if the universe is amoral, or if "good" and "evil" are simply constructs (or lies?) invented by human beings to give a sense of order to an otherwise chaotic, meaningless existence? Drawing on Vonnegut's text, respond to these questions.


8. In the chapter entitled, "Protein," Vonnegut satirizes "positivism," or the belief that the only real kind of knowledge is scientific knowledge (that is, knowledge derived from the application of the scientific method). Indeed, Dr. Breed is quoted as saying, "The trouble with the world was that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn't be all the trouble there was." Science is portrayed as the means to discover the "facts" of existence; the natural world is portrayed as amoral; consequently, considerations of good and evil have no real relation to knowledge at all. They are mere "superstitions." The "secret of life," as revealed in this chapter, has nothing to do with goodness or the Ground of all goodness; it is "protein." Analyze Vonnegut's novel for the satiric way it portrays the positivistic understanding of things.


9. Examine how Vonnegut personifies the forces of nature in the character of Felix Hoenikker (see, for instance, "Vice President in Charge of Volcanoes"). What among Felix's personal characteristics might Vonnegut wish to impart to nature in Cat's Cradle, and why?


10. Why would Vonnegut include the Chapter 13 concerning the murderer who "wasn't sorry about anything" in the novel? What relation does this chapter have to the rest of Cat's Cradle?


11. We sometimes suppose that there would be a lot less pain and suffering and misery in the world if only people would just think more carefully. Vonnegut's novel would have us question that assumption, or at least qualify its meaning. In chapter 15, Dr. Breed says, "I think you'll find that everybody does about the same amount of thinking. Scientists simply think about things in one way, and other people think about things in others." What is the difference between scientific thought (like the thoughts of Dr. Breed or Dr. Hoenikker) on the one hand, and the other people?


12. In Chapter 16 of Cat's Cradle, Dr. Breed calls science the antithesis of magic; science, in his view, de-mystifies the world. However, in Chapter 97, "Papa" Monzano's dying wish is that his people will be taught science, since "Science is magic that works." What are we as readers to think of this contradiction? What is magic? What is science? Does science mystify or de-mystify the world? Is it a good or a bad thing to be able to find the world mysterious?


13. The chapter entitled, "The Most Valuable Commodity on Earth," celebrates ironically the importance of "pure research," or knowledge for its own sake. However, the importance of truth is scoffed at by Bokononists. Following the logic of Vonnegut's novel, explain his criticism of "pure research" and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.


14. Vonnegut's writing often parallels the works of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche -- particularly in its amoralism, and its portrayal of useful lies in contradistinction to the truth. Read through the selected aphorisms of Nietzsche and draw some parallels between the thoughts of the two writers. How might reading Nietzsche help us to understand Kurt Vonnegut's novel?


15. In Chapter 25, Miss Faust admits, "I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person." Explain how this comment exemplifies Bokononism, and how it embodies a major theme in Vonnegut's novel.


16. Chapter 26 discusses the notion of "absolute truth" in terms of the question, "What is God?" Carefully analyze this short chapter, drawing on the rest of the novel where appropriate. Why would Vonnegut include this chapter in Cat's Cradle? What is the significance of Felix's retort, "What is love?" Relate this question to the Felix's positivism (i.e., the idea that only things that can be discovered through the application of the scientific method are real).


17. Felix admits that, as a scientist, he is filled with wonder at the world around him (Ch. 5); science, for him, is a playful kind of thing that he engages in because of his wonder. And yet, his attitude towards the wondrous is to de-mystify it -- to explain it and to master it in scientific terms. Science, for Felix, is a kind of play that destroys itself, ridding him of wonder through investigation. Scour Vonnegut's book for instances of characters wondering, being awestruck, amazed, or confused. Why is wonder important in the novel? Why might wonder be important in real life? What would life be like without wonder? Is science, as you understand it, the destruction of wonder, or is it the heightening of wonder? What might be the ramifications of science in either case?


18. Vonnegut makes frequent reference to imagery from Homer's Odyssey and his Iliad in Cat's Cradle. For instance, the city in which much of the action takes place in the novel is called Ilium -- a clear reference to the ancient city of Troy where Odysseus fought in the Trojan War, and from which Odysseus leaves and is lost at sea having offended Poseidon, god of the oceans. In Chapter 33 of Cat's Cradle, it is said "There wasn't a man in Ilium City who wasn't in love with her [Emily Hoenikker]" -- a clear reference to Helen of Troy, who is reputed in Homer's Iliad to have caused the Trojan War. Chapter 47 makes reference to Calypso -- a double entendre that hearkens the reader both to steel, Caribbean drums, as well as to the Sorceress who falls in love with Odysseus. Chapter 49, entitled, "A Fish Pitched Up By an Angry Sea," compares Bokonon's subjection to the anger of the sea, his shipwreck, and his washing up on shore with a similar scene in the Odyssey. Mona is compared with the Greek goddess Aphrodite in Chapter 64, and in Chapter 74, we learn that her father is named Nestor, after the archetypal wise old man in Homer's Iliad. Read through Homer's great works. Why would Vonnegut choose to make so many allusions to the Iliad and the Odyssey in Cat's Cradle?


19. Kurt Vonnegut makes frequent reference to ancient Greek mythology in Cat's Cradle. Chapter 28 compares the elevator man, Mr. Knowles, with the Ferryman over the River Styx. Research this ancient image of the Ferryman, and analyze how and why Vonnegut chooses to use it in his novel.


20. Emily Hoenikker is initially attracted to Felix because "his mind was tuned to the biggest music there was, the music of the stars" (Ch. 34). Here, Vonnegut is making reference to the ancient idea that the entire universe was musical. The universe was understood as a "cosmos," or a "good order of things" in which everyone had a place and, when they behaved with justice, participated in cosmic harmony. The music that we can hear with our ears was thought to be only an image of the cosmic music that one could only hear with one's heart or grasp with one's mind. This was the music of the "spheres." Music was thought to be everywhere at all times if we could but only hear it. Research the ancient idea of the music of the spheres in more depth. Then ask the questions, "Why would Vonnegut evoke this image in a book concerned with positivistic science and the de-mystification of the world? How could Emily see in Felix someone who was attuned to this music? Was Felix able to hear this music? Why or why not?"


21. In Chapter 34, John states, "I had a Bokononist vision of the unity in every second of all time and all wandering mankind, all wandering womankind, all wandering children." Explain what prompted this vision. Why is this vision particularly Bokononist? How can this vision be reconciled with the Bokononist insight concerning the importance of lies versus truth?


22. Why would it be significant that the main character in the story, John, wishes to be called Jonah? Read the story of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible. In your essay, provide an account of what happens in the book of Jonah, then offer your ideas on why Vonnegut would choose to begin his book, Cat's Cradle, with reference to Jonah. What similarities are there in the two stories?


23. Chapter 36 discusses John's rejection of nihilism. What is nihilism? Why does he reject it? How does Bokononism differ from nihilism?


24. Chapter 47 discusses the philosophy of Bokononism in terms of the old comic book advertisements that sold Charles Atlas' fitness plan. Typically, there's a little cartoon depiction of a puny guy on a beach with "his girl," and a big guy comes along and kicks sand in his face. Body-builder extraordinaire Charles Atlas is shown in the corner of the ad standing in a leopard skin bathing suit; after trying the Charles Atlas work-out method, the puny guy gets all bulked up and goes back and beats the bully figure. As John notes in Cat's Cradle, "It was the belief of Charles Atlas that muscles could be built without bar bells or spring exercisers," and that they "could be built by simply pitting one set of muscles against another." Philosophically, Bokononism shares an affinity with Charles Atlas, inasmuch as Bokonon treasured the "sense of a priceless equilibrium between good and evil." Moreover, "it was the belief of Bokonon that good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and by keeping the tension between the two high at all times." Explain what is meant by the maintenance of a tension between good and evil. Why ought one not, according to Bokonon, seek to eradicate evil entirely in the name of goodness? What do you think of this Bokononist viewpoint?


25. Compare the Bokononist "sense of a priceless equilibrium between good and evil" ("Dynamic Tension," Ch. 47) with the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas concerning dynamic tension in the soul. How might we understand Bokonon in terms of Nietzsche? How might we understand Nietzsche in terms of Bokonon? Do you think there is any insight in either Bokonon's or Nietzsche's account of the importance of tension in the soul? Why or why not?


26. Having lived through a tide of continuous misfortunes (Chapters 48 ff), Bokonon developed "a conviction that something was trying to get him somewhere for some reason." How does this idea develop into Bokononism? How do we reconcile the notions that truth is of less use than lies, that the universe is amoral, and that everything is arbitrary and random, with the notion that there is a purpose to things, that there is a pattern or a kind of fated nature to things (Also see Ch. 73)? Is it possible to reconcile the notion that religion is merely a useful lie with John's "belief that God was running my life and that He had work for me to do" (Ch. 90)? Why or why not?


27. Analyze Vonnegut's portrayal of San Lorenzo as a utopia described in Chapters 58 through 60 ("Tyranny With a Difference" to "An Underprivileged Nation"). What does Vonnegut see as the primary problem(s) with utopian social engineering? Give your own appraisal of utopias.


28. Chapter 74, entitled, "Cat's Cradle," appears near the middle of Vonnegut's novel, and it is central to our understanding of the book. Analyze the significance of the image of the cat's cradle throughout the book, in this particular chapter, as well as in the book's title as it is described by Newt: "For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grown-ups have been waving tangles of string in their children's faces... No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's... No damn cat, and no damn cradle."


29. Chapter 75 offers us a glimpse into the character of Julian Castle, who is described contradictorily as a "saint" with a "criminal sneer." Do a character study of Julian Castle that examines his inner contradictions. How does this exemplify his Bokononism?


30. Julian Castle, a Bokononist, is said, nonetheless, to be a follower of Albert Schweitzer (Research: Who is Albert Schweitzer?). Moreover, Castle says that Jesus is his hero. Examine Castle's various religious and humanitarian affiliations and how they affect the way that he lives. How do you assess Julian Castle and why?


31. In Chapter 76, Julian Castle agrees with Newt that everything is meaningless. Human beings are vile "garbage -- like everything else." How do we assess this statement in light of Castle's Bokononism? What are the tenants of Bokononism, and how can a Bokononist proclaim that human beings are "garbage" while, at the same time, adhering to the central Bokononist view that human beings are "sacred" (Ch. 94)?


32. There is an important discussion of the use of lies for happiness in Chapters 78-79. Julian Castle explains, "Religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies." Because of Bokonon's lies, "people didn't have to pay as much attention to the awful truth... the happiness of the people grew." Through the use of lies, "life became a work of art." Explore the relation between lies, art, and happiness in Cat's Cradle. What do you think? Is art beautiful and good because it tells us the truth about the goodness of existence? Or is art beautiful and good because it lies to us, and hides the "awful truth" of existence, making life bearable?


33. Examine the "aestheticism" (ideas on beauty and art) in Cat's Cradle in light of a few selected aphorisms by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, concerning the artful use of lies. How does Vonnegut's novel shed light on Nietzsche's writings? How does Nietzsche help us to understand Vonnegut?


34. Examine the relation between Angela's musical transports (Ch. 81) and her father's attunement to the celestial spheres (Ch. 34). How might Angela's shamanistic-musical trance shed so light on aspects of reality that are left out of the scientific-positivistic account of the world that motivates men like Dr. Breed? How might the Bokononist explain Angela's musical experiences?


35. The word "monster" comes from the Latin monstrare, meaning "to warn." Effectively, "monsters" appear from time to time in literature and, metaphorically, in real life, as "warnings" to the rest of us about something that we have done that has transgressed an important boundary, or crossed a line that human beings ought not to cross. Describe the family members in some detail (i.e., Emily, Felix, Frank, Angela, and Newt). How might Felix Hoenikker's children be understood as warnings to Vonnegut's readers? What might be the substance of this warning?


36. In Cat's Cradle, dramatic tension is maintained between the opposed ideas of free will and determinism. Vonnegut stretches his reader's mind between contradictory notions of fate, destiny, or the idea of purpose on the one hand, and the idea that all is meaninglessness on the other (cf. Chapters 82, 85, 91, for a few examples). What do you think? Is there such a thing as fate or destiny? Is it, contrary to what Mona says, possible to make a mistake, or is there no such thing as free will? If there is free will, can there still be such a thing as destiny? How do Bokononists resolve this tension? How might you make sense of it?


37. In Chapter 99, Vonnegut offers us a religious image of the Oneness of all things. Detail and explain the significance of this image. How do we understand this image? Is it a true image, or is it just another lie? Can a lie tell a deeper truth, or does a lie simply fool us into feeling happy about our lot in life, and conceal the "awful truth" from us?


38. Analyze Vonnegut's use of "black humour" in Cat's Cradle. Briefly, "black humour" is used by authors to expose the absurdity of the state of things; the use of "black humour" often entails ironic detachment; it often opposes antithetical moral understandings in a state of tension; "black humour" can be used to demonstrate humanity's lack of a sense of purpose in an unpredictable environment, or it can be used to emphasize realisations concerning the complexity of moral and aesthetic experience that affect the individual's ability to choose a course of action. "Black humour" most often plays with the reader's ideas of reality. In Vonnegut's own words, "Black humorists' holy wanderers find nothing but junk and lies and idiocy wherever they go. A chewing gum wrapper or a used condom is often the best they can do for a Holy Grail." Find incidents of "black humour" in Cat's Cradle and explain how they are used to convey a deeper meaning in the novel.


39. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut attacks the idea that truth is innately desirable and good - an idea that is all pervasive in our culture, particularly within the two major competing explanative philosophies of religion and science. Provide and explain examples from the novel of Vonnegut's attack on this idea. What is your own opinion about the importance of truth? Do you agree with Vonnegut? Why or why not?


40. Not only does Cat's Cradle cast doubt on the usefulness or wisdom of searching for truths, and our traditional ways of doing so, but the idea of self-determination and the ability of a person to control their destiny is questioned. The idea of being able determine our own destiny does, after all, hinge on the assumption that we live in a sensible, predictable, meaningful universe. But do we? Or are we living in absurdity and constantly creating our own meanings? Provide and explain examples from the novel that demonstrate Vonnegut's questioning of self-determination, and then offer your own thoughts on this question. To what extent do we have control over our own destiny? Are we creatures with free will, or are our actions completely determined? Is there some middle ground between these two positions that holds the truth?



Part 2: Do ONE of the following projects. (50%)


1. Create a "Decalogue" poster, or table of Ten Commandments for Bokononists, given your own understanding of Bokononism as it is described in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.


2. Design a book jacket for Cat's Cradle. It should include the author's name and title, along with some art relevant to the story on the front cover. On the front inside flap, include a brief synopsis of the book (details about the story that also serve to sell the book to prospective readers. On the back inside flap, include information about the author and his other books. On the back cover, include excerpts from glowing book reviews.


3. Do a movie review of Leonardo DiCapprio's recent interpretation of Cat's Cradle (Screenplay by Jake Hart, Richard Kelly, Appian Way Productions, 2007). Be sure to detail what you thought was good about the movie, as well as what you thought was bad about it. Was the movie true to the book? Did it leave too much out? Did it add things that took away from the book's message? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate this movie?


4. Do a poster that details your own karass (a group of people who, unknown to them, are working together to do God's will. The people can be thought of as fingers in a cat's cradle). Indicate what might be the two wampeters (waxing and waning central points) of your own karass. as well as at least one granfalloon (a false karass, i.e. a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist) of which you may, at times, feel you are a member.


5. Create a poster or a piece of art that compares and contrasts "Ice Nine" with the atomic bomb. The art should embody some of Vonnegut's questions and criticisms concerning the development of both doomsday weapons.


6. Artistically reproduce the travel brochure for San Lorenzo that is described in Cat's Cradle (Ch. 37).


7. Assume the role of Bokonon. Write a calypso that instructs your followers in the practice of Bokononism.


8. Create a poster or some form of visual representation that examines modern day scientific and technological "breakthroughs" in light of "Ice Nine," remarking on any similarities and differences. Are there any other current-day real crises that resemble the conundrums and menaces depicted in Cat's Cradle? Illustrate them visually/artistically.