When I finished Cat’s Cradle, my first thought was this: “What was the point of this book?”
The final sentence stuck with me as a way to connect the entirety of the book together. They are the last words of The Books of Bokonon, and the piece of novel that helps the rest of it come together. “If I were a younger person, I would write a history of human stupidity…” which is essentially what the narrator (Jonah) has done. The characters in this book are idiots. The Hoenikker family, the San Lorenzans, the Bokononist religion, and all the other miscellaneous characters along the way. All stupid. And as the only way to fit it all together, it gave me my jumping point to figure out what the hell the point of this book was.
Let’s start with the Hoenikker family.
Felix, a.k.a. the Father of Death, is a brilliant, stupid man. He creates two of the most destructive forces on Earth: the atom bomb and ice-nine. Yet, his wife died of medical complications. The man could literally destroy the world, but didn’t (as far as we know) put any effort into creating something that could save his wife. And here we have our first critique: “Science has known sin” (17). Then, when she dies, he takes his daughter out of school so that she could basically become a housewife and take care of the family. A man whose life is devoted to science and knowledge condemns his daughter to a life of servitude without any way of increasing her own intelligence. This, along with the “Girl Pool” which is briefly mentioned, establishes a critique of how society treats women, as well as women who are not actively seeking to eradicate themselves from unfortunate situations.
Frank, the oldest son, is perhaps the character consumed with the most irony. I would make a million memes out of him if I could or cared enough. He is afraid of humanity and the public, which is why he gives up his chance at the Presidency, and then ends up being the cause of it’s utter destruction because he carelessly gave the ice-nine to “Papa” Monzano. Stupid. The ice-nine is what put him in the position to be President, which he didn’t want, and then ended the world. Great going, Frank. Then he spends the rest of his time watching ants and considering how they know to create enough heat to make water and simultaneously kill their ant family to have food and water. A serial killer in the making. Oh wait, already did that. Check.
Newt, fails medical school and gives ice-nine to the Soviet Union. As an American, I am obviously biased, but anyone giving any country, particularly one like the Soviet Union, a key to world destruction is stupid.
Next we have the San Lorenzans. They literally put themselves completely at the mercy of whoever feels like ruling them that day. They take no interest in their lives and allow a ridiculous man with a made up religion to construct all the meaning in their lives. …sound familiar? AKA representative of the entire world. And don’t forget how they have shown that socialism is a fail because of the $6 equal shares and that a dictatorship leads to passivity, so they’re just waiting to die. They have no technology or science, but die by it’s hand anyway. (This is not building towards a positive resolution to my initial question).
The Crosby’s represent Americans and how stupid and self-centered and greedy we are. They suck.
Dr. Breed and Jack are betrayed by Felix and Frank, respectively, yet continue to love, respect, and admire them for their work. Basically, a human is worth what he can create. So who cares that they stole their women. Breed goes as far as to say: “New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth” (41). Valuable or ruinous? It’s like Voldemort learning about Horcruxes. Yes, he knows more, but not for the benefit of humanity!
And we can’t forget about Castle, who built the House of Hope and Mercy while forcing “hope” to disappear completely because the hospital doesn’t have the resources and he doesn’t have the knowledge to help anyone. Ah, there’s a ironic point. With knowledge, the world is destroyed; without knowledge, the world is destroyed (do you see where I will find the answer to my question).
Finally, we have Bokononism. A completely made-up religion that the San Lorenzans follow whole-heartedly while “God” is clearly still there and interested because the end of the world begins when albatross is served. Whattup, Coleridge. Nice to see you here.
So where does that leave me with my question. Well, the narrator warned us against nihilism for the sake of the cats, so we know the book and life is not meaningless. However, a life with meaning does not necessarily mean it is a life full of hope, either. We, the readers, are challenged with the question of figuring out our own life’s meaning, while simultaneously accepting that there is little hope that the future will be better because of religion or politics. As we’ve seen, capitalism, socialism, and dictatorships all suck; science, technology, and knowledge are not being put to good use; and the only thing that gives life meaning on this little island is the tension between good and evil.
Did that bring me any resolution? Absolutely not. Most theory doesn’t, I’ll admit.
Let me know what you thought of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in the comments!