First off, props to Vonnegut for one of the oddest titles on the bookshelf. A Tale of Two Cities is about two cities—London and Paris to be precise. The Great Gatsby is about a guy named Gatsby who is pretty awesome, nay, great.
But Cat's Cradle? How do you write a novel revolving around a child's string game?
By making the game an important symbol, of course. When Newt Hoenikker was a boy, his father, Dr. Hoenikker, tried to play cat's cradle with him. The event terrified Newt, but the cat's cradle becomes an important lesson for his adult self. As he puts it:
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….[And] No damn cat, and no damn cradle. (74.28-30)
As the story progresses, Newt refers to the cat's cradle when confronted with the lies people tell themselves to help themselves feel better. John discovers Angela hides her marital problems by pretending to be happy, and Newt answers, "See the cat? See the cradle?" (80.32). It's the exact same response he has to Bokononism.
The cat's cradle is an important symbol for the novel's exploration of truth and lies. Some characters lie to themselves for happiness, like a child pretending to see the cat and the cradle because they enjoy the game. Others can only see the Xs made of string because that's the truth of the matter—but that might just make them crazy.
When considered with the epigraph (Check out our "Epigraph" section!), the title creates a parallel between the book and the children's game. Just like the cat's cradle, this story isn't a true thing. It's a bunch words put together pretending to be something else. The question is: will you be one of the people who accept and find truth in the lie or will you shrug the story off as just another bit of fiction?
Vonnegut’s intriguing story of a writer sent to San Lorenzo pits science and truth against religion and lies. The few characters of Cat’s Cradle illustrate one trait or the other, with John, the main character and “writer” of the memoir which is the book, observing and attempting to understand each point of view. As John learns of San Lorenzo’s banned religion, Bokononism, and explores the lives of the scientists responsible for the atomic bomb and a new, dangerous, chemical called Ice-nine, he finds himself searching for his reason of living as well. Through John’s character, Vonnegut exemplifies this theme of an overall search for moral structure and a purpose for life.
In order to organize the development of the theme, Vonnegut begins his novel by creating a sense of pointlessness for the characters to build off of, a blank slate. Newt, the son of Felix Hoenikker, who was the creator of the Atomic Bomb and Ice-nine, creates this mood in his description of the yarn game “Cat’s Cradle”. He asks John to point out the cat and cradle in the yarn formation, which he obviously can’t; Vonnegut is commenting on humanity’s attempts to find meaning where no meaning exists. It is with this notion in mind that John begins his exploration of science and religion.
Science is John’s first stop in his search for purpose. The author points out that in scientist’s desperate search for truth, which seems to be the only thing with importance, they aren’t intelligent enough to realize that the “truth” is given a false connotation. In the Hoenikker’s case, the “truth” was the basis for millions of people being killed by the atomic bomb and the end of the world through Ice-nine. So, truth is rejected as innately good, which leaves John with nothing but lies and religion.
However, in San Lorenzo, lies and religion are a good combination. John is introduced to Bokononism when he gets his hands on a copy of The Books of Bokonon. The basis of this religion is that anything considered good, whether it be an organization, a cause, or a religion, is based on foma, or lies. Vonnegut comes back to his original point of humanity trying to give things meaning. John has only experienced the futility of this concept, but through Bokonon, he is able to see a different and more easily acceptable argument: “Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy (Vonnegut 265, The Books of Bokonon).” He begins to understand what Bokonon was getting at: that in attempting to give the world meaning, men lied in order to make life more interesting.
John’s character travels through Vonnegut’s moral maze, beginning with a supposedly meaningless world, finding that truth isn’t always “good”, and realizing that lies are not only behind everything, but are good for the soul. Vonnegut’s character and theme come to rest when Ice-nine has replaced the world’s water and brought to pass the end of the world. John, as one of the only people left living, finally understands and accepts Bokonon’s idea that, although foma may be dangerous or harmful, lies are what make life worth living.