Kurt Vonnegut

Busy, Busy, Busy: Complexity and Simplicity in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

[In this essay, R.O. analyzes the use of a cat’s cradle as a symbol to represents life’s increasing complexity as time goes on and the ultimate degradation of such a network that comes with death in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle.]

“Call me Jonah…not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail” (Vonnegut 1). Such coincidence, or lack thereof, marks the life of the narrator in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. From more common experiences such as his frequent encounters with people from his own state, to the extraordinarily unlikely events that follow like his appointment to the Presidency of San Lorenzo just days after his arrival in this unknown land, the narrator’s life becomes increasingly intertwined with the lives and fates of others, forming a figurative cat’s cradle.

The narrator’s initial mission is to research content for his nonfiction book, The Day the World Ended, a book that would depict the lives of the creators of the atomic bomb on the day in which it was deployed. During this process, the narrator contacts Newton Hoenikker, the son of Felix Hoenikker- the famous father of the atomic bomb. While Newt was only a young child when the bomb was dropped, he recalls fearfully that on that day, his father, normally an antisocial man, tried to entertain him with a piece of string that he had shaped into a cat’s cradle, something that forever scarred the young Newt. Though he weakly attempts on several occasions to gather more information regarding the day that the bomb was dropped, the narrator effectively loses sight of his initial goal. However, in his research the narrator discovers that Felix Hoenikker had been designing a substance called ice-nice that could have a potentially disastrous impact on the world and he realizes that Hoenikker’s children have this substance in their possession.

After his interactions with Newt Hoenikker, the narrator is destined for the Republic of San Lorenzo in order to begin an article on a well-known resident of the island. On his flight to this remote Caribbean destination, the narrator encounters several people who begin to shape his view of the world. First, he finds that on this same plane are Newt and Angela Hoenikker, the people with whom he had discussed the ideas for his novel. They are on their way to attend the wedding of their brother Frank who had been reported missing since the day of their father’s funeral. Of all the times that the narrator could have been sent overseas, of all of the countries that he could have been sent to, of all of the people he could have met, the narrator finds himself in the company of those with whom he is already acquainted and who carry a substance that could quite possibly destroy the world.

On his flight to San Lorenzo, the narrator first discovers Bokononism, a religion founded by one of the island’s residents. As he reads about the preaching of Bokonon, the narrator finds beauty in the man’s poetic verses. Bokonon says that life’s complexity, whether apparent or not, is a result of God’s desire. “‘If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons,’ writes Bokonon, ‘that person may be a member of your karass’” (2). A karass, according to Bokonon, is a group of people who work together to accomplish God’s Will. Learning the ideas of Bokonon causes the narrator to believe that the Hoenikker children are members of his karass, and their interactions have formed a complex web that is leading them toward their goal in life.

Yet as the narrator’s life seems to become increasingly more complicated, the underlying simplicity of life presents itself in the novel. It soon becomes clear- all that is built up is destroyed. This idea is evident in the narrator’s readings:

The Fourteenth Book [of Bokonon] is entitled, ‘What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?’

It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.

This is it:

‘Nothing.’” (245)

This concept is soon demonstrated. During the ceremony that will officially make the narrator the President of San Lorenzo, a plane malfunctions and crashes into the palace. The palace holds a small amount of ice-nine that Frank Hoenikker had taken with him to the island. As a result of the crash, the ice-nine falls from the palace and into the ocean, freezing it completely. Not only the ocean, but all of the Earth’s water becomes contaminated, frozen solid, due to one simple drop of a vial.

The novel ends when the narrator encounters Bokonon on the side of the road, both of them (along with a few others) having survived the harsh environment that followed the contamination of the planet’s water by the deadly substance ice-nine. Bokonon is searching for the proper conclusion to the Books of Bokonon. This is what he writes:

“If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.” (287)

When faced with the presence of ice-nine in the world’s water, what is ultimately a death sentence, the true state of all things is exploited. Although Bokonon is revered as a god, it is clear that he is only human and will succumb to the fate of all men. Knowing this, Bokonon says that he will make his final act a gesture to the face of God, not an act of his own religion. In doing so, Bokonon has shed the notion of a multitude of religions and embraced the idea of one Creator, the universality of religion as a whole. All that he had advised in his own verses is voided when he realizes that he soon will die. The complicated interrelatedness that had been forged throughout the novel is, at that moment, deconstructed, broken into its basic form.

Maybe it does not require the end of the world, but the end of a man’s life to undo the knot of relationships made and events that transpired during his time on Earth. While his days are spent constantly spinning thoughts and weaving the fabric of new interactions with others into the cat’s cradle we call life, is this ultimately accomplishing any goal? As Newt Hoenikker holds up his hands and asks quite simply, “‘See the cat? See the cradle?’” (179)

R.O. 2012

The Ultimate Question Finally Answered: The Purpose of Human Existence in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan

[In this essay, R.O. analyzes the use of an allusion to Greek mythology in order to convey the meaning of human life in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, The Sirens of Titan]

“Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself” (Vonnegut 1). So begins Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. However, the novel chronicles a time in which people are not so fortunate, so self-aware. Winston Niles Rumfoord and his faithful dog are caught in a vicious cycle of materialization and dematerialization between Earth and the faraway reaches of the solar system. Yet as a man who has traveled so vast distances for much of his life, Rumfoord states, “‘I should still like to know just what the main point of this Solar System episode has been’” (292). The same is true for Malachi Constant, who at the onset of the novel is questioning his name, which means “faithful messenger” and wondering if this name bears any significance.

The search for meaning brings Rumfoord and eventually Constant to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which, in this novel at least, can support complex life forms. Stranded on this moon is Salo, an advanced machine from the planet Tralfamadore, sent to carry a message millions of light years across the universe from his home planet to a distant galaxy. Salo’s spaceship malfunctioned and he had been marooned on Titan for over 200,000 years. In his spare time, Salo viewed the occurrences on Earth, carving what he saw of human beings into statues made of Titanic peat. In Salo’s mind, “The Earthlings behaved at all times as though there were a big eye in the sky- as though that big eye were ravenous for entertainment” (281). These actions are captured in his statues.

Of the millions of statues that Salo has created, three in particular stand out among all others. Salo calls these statues the Sirens, a reference to Greek mythology. In ancient Greece, the Sirens were said to live on a remote island and to entice passing sailors with their beautiful voices that sang out the fates of those who listened. Any sailor who listened to the Sirens’ song was doomed to jump overboard and swim toward the island where he would be prey to the vicious Sirens when he reached the shore, if he ever did. In Vonnegut’s novel, the Sirens, though not living, have a similar impact. Four humans congregate in a building in front of which sit the statues of the Sirens, drawn to this desolate rock in the middle of the solar system. When the latter three arrive, Rumfoord has this grim message to tell his fellow human beings:

“‘Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tralfamadore.

How the Tralfamadorians controlled us, I don’t know. But I know to what end they controlled us. They controlled us in such a way as to make us deliver a replacement part to a Tralfamadorian messenger who was grounded right here on Titan.’” (302)

Not only are humans attracted to this remote place, but they are unknowingly the victims of a cruel scheme, just as those who were preyed upon by the Sirens of Greek lore. This connection to Greek mythology translates into the futility of human existence, as Rumfoord and his counterparts become aware of the ends worked toward by all human beings who ever lived. While this may be viewed as a worthy sacrifice if the ultimate goal is the benefit of the universe as a whole, it is a humiliating observation that the effort of every single human being was spent on a glorified delivery truck repair. And what was the vital message being carried by Salo, so crucial that he has sworn not to open it under any circumstances during his eighteen million light-year voyage? … “Greetings.”

While the immediate signs of life’s meaninglessness are clear when the Sirens are described and human progress has been reduced to shambles, the significance of the Sirens lingers beyond this point. As Malachi Constant grows old on Titan, he continues to maintain the area around the statues of the Sirens, keeping it clean so that the statues are always visible. The implications of this are quite apparent: only human beings would be so vain and naïve as to seek out meaning in the playthings of a machine who was mocking the behavior of their own race.

Even a machine, something so often associated with lifelessness and monotony recognizes the futility of mankind’s search for a sense of purpose. The legend of the creation of Salo’s race, preceded by a reign of humanlike beings is as follows:

“…These creatures spent most of their time trying to find out what their purpose was. And every time they found out what seemed to be a purpose of themselves, the purpose seemed so low that the creatures were filled with disgust and shame.

And, rather than serve such a low purpose, the creatures would make a machine to serve it. This left the creatures free to serve higher purposes. But whenever they found a higher purpose, the purpose still wasn’t high enough.” (280)

This race, much like the description of humans at the beginning of the novel, was ignorant to the truths that existed right in front of it, and therefore succumbed to the same Sirens to which humans fell victim.

Ultimately, the interactions between Rumfoord and Salo on Titan, as well as those between Constant and the statutes of the Sirens, demonstrate the ineffectuality associated with a man’s journey to discover his purpose in the world, or in this case, the universe. All that humanity has been working toward, has been motivated to do, and has achieved is a result of tampering by another race, one from a distant world. At its most basic state, human purpose is an illusory construct created to appease the helplessness of a people who work so fruitlessly toward an unknown goal, a people swayed by the Siren Song of a glorious meaning.


‘It’s an echo’” (296).

R.O. 2012

Fate, Destiny, and Disillusionment: Religion in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

Like most of Vonnegut’s works Cat’s Cradle brings to light the fundamental flaws in many prominent establishments of society. From the exaggerations of the differences which create contours in society to the commentary on the "deflated morals" upon which religion stands; Vonnegut meticulously dissects each cherished establishment, leaving no controversy unexplored. The novel Cat’s Cradle centers around a man, Jack, who ventures off on a journey to discover the truth about the great scientist Felix Hoenikker. Jack beings the novel as a young optimistic christian man; however, throughout the course of the novel his search causes him to become disillusioned with the ways of the universe and he chooses to adopt the religion of Bokonon, a religion based on nothing more than foma- or sweet lies. The novel begins with a warning, “Nothing in this book is true. Live by the foma that make you brave, and kind, and healthy, and happy,” (Vonnegut 1) a quote that means to live by the lies that can make life tolerable, is this the state of perpetual disillusionment Vonnegut sees religion as?

Jack was peculiarly interested in writing a book about the creators of the first atomic bomb and their reactions when it was first used in warfare. The creation of the novel, appropriately titled The Day The World Ended, led to his encounters with many important members of the Hoenikker family who eventually led to his discovery of the Bokono religion. During his trip to the island of San Lorenzo, Jack begins to become disillusioned with the universe as he sees that coincidence is part of the greater scheme of reality, and that no religion can explain how everyday occurrences happen. This realization hits when he realizes that the people he is traveling with, Newt and Angela Hoenikker, are the children of the great Felix. At this point he heeds the comments of the book of Bokono which says “She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing.” (Vonnegut 81) Understanding that he is part of some greater cosmic scheme he realizes the devastation that could be caused by the substance that the Hoenikker kids have in their possession. Amidst the calamity of confusion and in the face of potential danger Jack realizes his powerlessness in the situation and relies on fate to lead him forward. With faith however, he chooses to re-evaluate his and convert to Bokononism as it offers him sanctuary from the spontaneity of the universe.

The quality of Bokononism that is emphasized throughout the novel is that it is, as stated by it's own founder, nothing more than a collection of "shameless lies."(Vonnegut 98) That same founder proceeds to warn that "Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either." As the founder recognizes the emptiness of the religion. Rather than disguising this fact or attempting to draw attention from it, the fact is well acknowledged. Paradoxically, such a religion procures high levels of popularity; with every major character in the novel either originally practicing the religion, or choosing to convert. The protagonist of the novel falls into the latter of those choices. Jack on his search to understand the Hoenikker family realizes that he understands less and less of the world through the lens of christianity. How could god, if there be such an entity, allow for so little to make sense? He turns to the religion of Bokononism because it is absolutely nonsensical and because it has found a way to live a blissful lie. Jack converts to to the religion because it accepts that the world makes no sense. The Book of Bokononism says that “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.”(Vonnegut 102) Just as the foundation of the religion is based on shallow lies, so are the lives of those who follow it. Their lives are built upon the ideas that if they seem happy and align themselves with the “good” that they will actually become happy. The Fourteenth Book of Bokononism, which is said to explain what all of humanity should look to strive towards, consists of only one word, “Nothing.” (Vonnegut 245) This is the scripture upon which the members of the Bokan society lives upon, and yet no one finds it strange.

Young Newt summarized the religious phenomenon best when saying “ 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, no damn cradle.” (Vonnegut 114). While there are people like his father who look at the idea as a whole and dismiss all that makes it up, when looking at the foundation of such establishments, that is where you find their truth. The Bokononism is much like the Cat’s Cradle, observers of the religion would find a group of happy, satisfied members of a society; however, for those who take the time to look at what makes up the religion they would see the emptiness of those who follow it.

Strangely enough, Vonnegut and Jack seem to go against their initial moral values towards the end of the novel. By the end of the novel, all of the fears of the Felix have been realized. The devastating potential of his creation, Ice -nine are unleashed upon humanity and have destroyed a once great planet. Jack once more realizes the grand scheme of which he is a part. The irony of his situation is, that while he planned to write about a catastrophe that could have ended the world, he is writing about the act that actually ended it. The novel Cat’s Cradle is the last memoir of those who attempt to survive this apocalyptic occurrence, and outlines the actions that led them to that point.

Furthermore the side of religion that causes people to kill and commit horrid acts is explored later in the novel as the book of Bokono writes “To whom it may concern: These people around you are almost all of the survivors on San Lorenzo of the winds that followed the freezing of the sea. These people made a captive of the spurious holy man named Bokonon. They brought him here, placed him at their center, and commanded him to tell them exactly what God Almighty was up to and what they should now do. The mountebank told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possibly because he was through with them, and that they should have the good manners to die. This, as you can see, they did. Bokonon” (Vonnegut 251) However, as Bokononism appears towards the end as the grand savior of sanity amongst those on the island. At which point the true meaning of the religious views in the novel are stated. Death is imminent, If one can live happily in a sweet blissful lie till then with the veil of a false religion then it may be exactly what is needed. This can be seen by the reaction the survivors of the apocalypse have, they strive not to survive nor do they panic, they remain at peace with themselves.

Perhaps the only fate is the fated end of life, and between birth and death is all just an attempt to portray the illusion of happiness. That is at least what the story of Jack’s last hours on earth seem to portray. Is religion but a surrogate for happiness, a means by which one can remain in a state of perpetual disillusionment? Perhaps the warning that Vonnegut hopes to give is what he states in the very beginning of the novel, “ Live by the foma that make you brave, and kind, and healthy, and happy.” Yet this brings one to ask of themselves again... is life but an attempt to trick oneself into being happy in anticipation of death or can life be governed by more than cosmic fate?

S.S. 2013

The Ethics of War: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Throughout Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, the ethics of killing and warfare are a recurring theme. Recognizing the inevitability of war and the persistence of those who justify it’s need Vonnegut begins the novel with a quote “Do you know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books? . . . I say, 'Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?” (Vonnegut 3) War-of all man’s creations, is one of the resilient, adaptive, versatile, and persistent. The one flaw of humanity is that it may never overcome it’s need for violence to achieve their means. This semi-autobiographical novel depicts young Billy as a wimpy kid with the same moral mindset vonnegut and follows him through his gruesome experiences on the battlefield and at home after the war. The novel, while depictive of the grotesque nature of war, also pleads for sympathy of both sides. While he experiences the repercussions of his time in the war he also realizes all that his “enemies” have lost in the war.

The novel is written in a series of flashbacks, with many sections jumping from the past to the present to the far past. This stylistic attribute of the novel adds to the mindset of BIlly after the war, remorseful for all that he had done. Young Billy is drafted into the war effort and is forced to leave and fight in the war effort. Billy’s first experience in war was one of utter confusion and horror. He walks onto the battlefield, unarmed, running through enemy borders with no sense of direction. Uninterested in the war effort he has no apparent interest in saving his own life. His first encounter with the enemy remains when they take him as a prisoner of war in Germany. At this point he sees firsthand the horrors of the war, as a prisoner he notices the british soldiers, well nourished and healthy as opposed to the american soldiers who were malnourished and sickly. In the prison camps he meets professors, mad men, soldiers all the same and as he remains he notes the horrors of the camp. Weekly, a small group is taken and shot at point blank for attempting to gather food for their malnourished campmates. The horrific nature of this was enough to shock and mortify Billy, he later said “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” (Vonnegut 89)

However, the true horrors of war began when Billy and his companion from the previous camp were sent to a prisoner of war center in Dresden, Germany. The camp they are assigned to is an old slaughterhouse that has been abandoned. Only shortly after their arrival at the new camp american bomber planes attack and destroy most of the city. The lot of american prisoners are each assigned jobs to help deal with the carnage after the bombing and Billy is forced to dig through in search of bodies. The novel shows the loss of innocence of a boy forced to join the draft in this section as he digs through the rummage attempting not to look as mortified as he feels. Not only does the grotesque nature of the war show through in the scene but Billy’s personal resentment also is evident. As Billy says later “The americans came to a shed where a corporal with only one arm and one eye wrote the name and serial number of each prisoner in a big, red ledger. Everybody was legally alive now. Before they got their names and numbers in that book, they were missing in action and probably dead.”(Vonnegut 34) Vonnegut’s commentary on the brutality of war comes too from the personal experience he had as a heavy anti-war advocate forced to serve during the world war. The mortifyingly detailed descriptions of the slaughterhouse are symbolic for two reasons. The first being that the slaughterhouse is representative of all wars being no more than large slaughterhouses, and the second representative of the time Vonnegut spent in Slaughterhouse Five.

Vonnegut not only explores the impact of war on the soldiers during war but proceeds to detail their experiences after the war effort is over. Much of the novel is spent in the latter half of Billy’s life in which he copes with the horrors he saw in the war effort. After being freed from Slaughterhouse Five, he proceeded to return back to his homeland and attempt to continue the education he pursued before he left. As the novel alternates between times billy is then transported years into the future and we are shown the relationship he has with his children. Also revealed are glimpses of the paranoia and pain in the adjustment of billy post -war. As he says later to his children “That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.” (Vonnegut 157) there is difficulty in moving on, however, it is possible.

Vonnegut’s final testament to the horrors of warfare are depicted after Billy’s injury. During a plane trip with his father-in-law crashed billy was left as the sole survivor. After suffering major brain-injuries he was rushed to the hospital where he met a writer Betram Rumfoord who wants to write about billy’s time in Dresden. This causes billy to relapse into deep thought as the rush of emotion overwhelms him. While talking he says ““Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer.”(Vonnegut 187) This quote once more exemplifies the brutality of human nature and the effects that our lust and avarice have upon others. Furthermore, at this point in the novel Billy discusses in depth the horrors he saw inflicted upon the russians at dresden. He realizes that while they may be enemies they too are human and deserve far better than the hell to which they are damned. Vonnegut preaches sympathy and empathy for the soldiers on the opposing side, for they too believe to be the righteous cause. Vonnegut comments on the usage of soldiers as pawns for political actions and pleas for empathy for the soldiers. Billy says to one of his fellow american prisoners of war that what is to be hated are the ideas that the governments endorse, not those who give their life fighting for their country. Billy, while not the best soldier proved to have great moral standing and hoped to spread his ideals with others after the war effort.

While Vonnegut recognizes the persistent nature of human violence and the commonality of war he offers the often untold plea for the anti-war effort. The effort to decrease war activity is not understood by those who determine efficiency with calculators and who observe the war through their televisions, those who have lived and fought through it are the only ones who know the true horrors of the occurrence. Slaughterhouse Five a sorts of personal memoir serves to tell the untold story of the soldier in the war effort, highlighting the brutality and injustice found with war. Vonnegut’s warning in the beginning of the novel, that "even if the wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death,” depicts the utter incredulity of the situation, however, be it improbable the idea of a warless world has yet to be dubbed “hopeless” due to those like Vonnegut who seek to tell their stories.

S.S. 2013

Awareness of the Effects of War: Slaughterhouse-Five

The novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut can be considered the author’s most influential work. It explores the mind and thoughts of time-traveling veteran Billy Pilgrim, who was drafted into World War II as a young man. Vonnegut’s own experiences reflect in those of Pilgrim’s, making the work semi-autobiographical. Vonnegut uses frequent repetition of lines such as “so it goes” and “if you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming…”, a haphazard point-of-view, and a satirical tone to emphasize the short and long-term effects of war not only on the mind of the individual but the mind of society as a whole.

Death is eminent throughout the novel, as the storyline is based majorly on events of war. As each tragic event is told, the narrator says the line “so it goes…” The line is repeated several times throughout the novel and is used as a type of anthem for the story. The repetition creates the meaning of the phrase in the mind of the reader. Each time the phrase is repeated, the meaning resonates and becomes more concrete. “So it goes…” becomes a way for the narrator to say death is certain and it happens. Instead of dwelling over the tragic events, the narrator moves on and uses the phrase as a repetitive transition. Similarly, phrases like “if you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for wild Bob” become repeated in the novel. This particular phrase becomes reassuring to the main character, Billy Pilgrim, while he is going through his phases of insanity.

In addition, the novel’s haphazard point-of-view contributes greatly to emphasizing the negative effects of war. Billy Pilgrim’s use of time travel created a constantly changing setting and perspective in the novel. Although this could prove to be confusing, it highlights the mind of someone who has been affected by war. Due to posttraumatic stress, Billy Pilgrim deals with constant flashbacks of the gruesome scenes of World War II. This is depicted through the frequent time traveling Billy Pilgrim does. Traveling through time is the character’s way to relive war in all it’s honesty, and relive his life before, during, and after the war as well. The point-of-view clearly depicts the mindset of someone caught up in war.

The satirical tone of the novel is due to the fact that the novel is meant to be anti-war. Through the tone, the reader is aware of the stance on the issue. Vonnegut is providing social commentary by following the life of a simple man. He is aware of how to depict this in the novel because he himself was alive during the war. He fought in the war and survived the Dresden bombing, just like Billy Pilgrim. Through the narrator’s subtle comments, the reader is aware of the negative impacts war has on an oblivious society. Simultaneously, one is able to read into the mind of a veteran battling post traumatic stress - a major issue around the world. This disorder causes severe pain and suffering for soldiers. The novel’s satire highlights such important issues and pokes fun at a society oblivious to the issues in front of them.

Vonnegut, being a World War II veteran, creates an anti-war novel that he knows is not going to make a large difference. The narrator in the novel is aware that war is everlasting, and peace is unlikely reachable. What the narrator does hope, however, is that the effects of war are known to those who have not experienced the danger and horror first hand. Through constant and meaningful repetition, a startling and ever-changing point-of-view, and a satirical tone - Vonnegut manages to get his point across. Although war will always be present, it is important to be aware.

V.S. 2015