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Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle Summary


Here you will find a Cat's Cradle summary (Kurt Vonnegut's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Cat's Cradle Summary Overview

The protagonist is a writer named John, who decides to pen a book about the day Hiroshima was bombed. His research leads him to Newt Hoenikker, the son of Felix Hoenikker, a physicist instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb. Newt's recollection of that day is surprisingly mundane; a young child absorbed in play while his father played cat's cradle. Newt's memories of his father are unflattering, painting him as remote and disinterested. Newt, his sister Angela, and his brother Frank had a tumultuous relationship. Their life takes an unexpected turn when Newt gets engaged to a Russian dancer suspected to be a spy. To deepen his understanding of the Hoenikker family, John visits Ilium, their hometown during World War II. He learns about Frank's reclusive personality and Felix's scientific prowess. He also discovers that Felix, upon military request, had hypothesized a solution to tackle mud that plagued moving troops. This was ice-nine, an isotope of water that could solidify mud, albeit with the potential to freeze all water on Earth. John's curiosity about whether Felix actually created ice-nine is met with denial and hostility. At Felix's gravesite, he learns about Felix's apathy towards his wife from Martin Breed, the local tombstone shop owner. Unbeknownst to John and others, Felix had indeed created ice-nine, which his children later divided among themselves. Subsequently, they each use it for their personal gains. John is then assigned to write about a philanthropist in San Lorenzo, an island where Frank has become a major general by trading his portion of ice-nine. The island is a "utopian" society under the religion of Bokononism, invented for the comfort of its impoverished inhabitants. However, chaos ensues when the island's dictator and Frank's future father-in-law commits suicide by consuming ice-nine. The incident leads to a global catastrophe when the dictator's body, contaminated with ice-nine, falls into the sea, freezing all the world's water. The survivors, including John and the Hoenikker siblings, find themselves in a frozen world, reflecting on humanity's folly.

chapters 1-6

John, our storyteller in Cat's Cradle, once began penning a book named The Day the World Ended, recounting the day Hiroshima was hit by the atomic bomb. Back then, he followed Christianity but later converted to Bokononism. This faith posits that humans are part of groups named karasses, unconsciously enacting God's plans. Bokonon, the religion's creator, cautioned that trying to grasp one's karass purpose will only lead to partial understanding. Bokonon's scriptures commence with a notification that all within are "shameless lies." John acknowledges that if one can't comprehend a beneficial faith based on falsehoods, they won't appreciate Cat's Cradle. His other book, now unfinished, introduced him to his karass, including Angela, Frank, and Newt Hoenikker. These three are the offspring of Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel laureate physicist, and a creator of the atomic bomb. John once sent a letter to Newt, then studying medicine at Cornell, asking about his memories of the day Hiroshima was bombed. Newt responded to John's letter, saying he was just six-years-old at that time, playing with his toy trucks at their house in Ilium, New York. His father was engrossed in playing cat's cradle with a string, despite his general disinterest in games conceived by others. He was quoted once in Time magazine stating his preference for "real games" over imaginary ones. In an unexpected turn of events, a prisoner mailed a manuscript to Felix, desiring to know about a hypothetical bomb capable of annihilating all humanity. Felix wasn't intrigued by the book but was captivated by the string around it. He typically ignored books or people, even his own family. However, that morning, he tried to teach Newt to play cat's cradle. Approaching Newt, Felix appeared so monstrous and terrifying that Newt cried and ran away. Despite Angela later telling Newt he had upset his father, Newt doubted it, considering Felix's general indifference towards people. After his wife's death, Felix even seemed to forget about her. Newt joined Frank, a 12-year-old bug collector, who incited fights between his bugs. When asked by Angela about his actions, Frank claimed to be "experimenting." When Newt admitted to feeling scared of their father, Angela slapped him, and Frank retaliated by punching Angela. Angela called for Felix, but as Frank predicted, he didn't respond. While working on the atomic bomb, Felix developed an interest in turtles and left the Manhattan project. To redirect his focus to the bomb, Angela suggested removing the turtles from his lab. Once back with only the atomic bomb research to "play with and think about," Felix resumed his work. On the day the bomb was tested, another scientist warned Felix that science had now discovered sin, to which Felix simply inquired what sin was.

chapters 7-22

Newt, a dwarf and a school dropout, was briefly engaged to Zinka, another dwarf and dancer from Ukraine. The engagement didn't last long, as Zinka left for the Soviet Union and it was revealed she was actually 42, not 23 as previously stated. John then met up with Dr. Asa Breed, the head of the laboratory where Felix once worked. The night before the meet, he ran into Sandra, a sex worker, and a bartender who knew Frank from school. They described Frank as an introvert, nicknamed "Secret Agent X-9". They also mentioned that Felix missed giving a speech at Frank's graduation, and instead another scientist gave a speech celebrating science and its potential to unlock the mysteries of life. John was told about the day the atomic bomb dropped - a homeless man came into the bar asking for a free drink as he believed the world was ending, and Asa Breed's son quit his job at the lab, fearing the destructive potential of science. Sandra revealed that many thought Asa had an affair with Felix's wife, Emily, and some even suspected that Asa fathered Emily's children. The next day, Asa shared a story about Felix abandoning his car, which Emily picked up and subsequently had an accident in, injuring her pelvis. This injury, Asa believed, resulted in Emily's death during Newt's childbirth. Asa showed John around the lab, introducing him to secretaries who transcribed scientific documents they didn't understand. Asa became frustrated when John asked about the morality of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, claiming people didn't value "pure research". He shared a story about Felix being asked by a general to develop a solution for troops struggling with mud. Felix proposed creating an isotope of water, called ice-nine, which would crystallize at room temperature and could potentially crystalize all the water in the world, freezing it. John was terrified by the idea of ice-nine, but Asa denied its existence, ending the interview in annoyance at John's questions.

chapters 23-34

Felix, a scientist, made a secret breakthrough by inventing ice-nine, a version of water that remains solid until it hits 114 degrees Fahrenheit. He disclosed this to his children shortly before his death during a Christmas holiday in Cape Cod. After his passing, his offspring each kept a small piece of this creation. John, one of the characters, thinks this invention became a crucial point around which his karass, or team, operated as per Bokonon's beliefs. John also visited Felix's lab, which was filled with inexpensive toys and guided by Miss Faust. A plaque in the lab declared Felix's immeasurable contribution to humanity. Miss Faust expressed how Felix was solely focused on "truth," making him a mystery to those around him. During a conversation with Felix, Miss Faust was left questioning her belief that God is love, a truth questioned by Felix. During a trip to the cemetery to photograph Felix's grave, John saw Emily Hoenikker's tombstone, a colossal monument engraved with "Mother," two poems by her children, and a child's handprint with "Baby Newt." Felix's grave marker was a modest square with "Father" inscribed. Asa Breed's brother, Martin, told John that Felix's children used their father's Nobel Prize money to pay for their mother's grand tombstone. Martin had feelings for Emily in their teens, but lost her to his brother Asa and later to Felix. He had a cynical view of Felix's harmless perception because of his involvement in the atomic bomb's invention. Martin shared a suspicion that Frank, Felix's son, might have been killed because he got involved in a criminal car theft operation in Florida. Angela, Felix's tall daughter, was pulled out of school to care for the household after Emily's death. She had no social life and spent her time playing clarinet alone in her room. Meanwhile, Martin revealed that Asa's son had inherited the gift of stone carving, a skill displayed by a stone angel in his shop.

chapters 35-43

John speaks with Jack, the owner of a hobby shop, who maintains the belief that Florida mobsters were behind Frank's murder. Jack shows John an exceptional model city crafted by Frank, expressing both anger and sorrow over the loss of its creator. John leaves his New York apartment to the care of Sherman Krebbs, an impoverished poet, during his trip to Ilium. Upon his return, John discovers Krebbs has racked up huge phone bills, wrecked his apartment, and killed his cat. John sees Krebbs as a wrang-wrang (a term from Bokononism), an individual who forces others to see the absurdity in their beliefs. This encounter moves John away from his nihilistic views. John stumbles upon a travel advert for San Lorenzo in a Sunday newspaper. The ad features Mona Aamons Monzano, the striking adopted daughter of San Lorenzo's dictator, "Papa" Monzano, with whom John is instantly smitten. The ad also includes a photo of San Lorenzo's Minister of Science and Progress, Major General Franklin Hoenikker. The ad tells a story, supposedly by Frank, detailing his solitary journey to San Lorenzo, his arrest due to lack of passport, and his release when "Papa" Monzano learns of his identity as Felix Hoenikker's son. For a writing commission, John focuses on Julian Castle, an American tycoon who built a charity hospital in San Lorenzo. Despite Castle's reputation as a heavy-drinking womanizer, his only offspring is Philip Castle, owner of the hotel where John intends to stay. John dreams about a potential romance with Mona during his visit. John shares his flight to San Lorenzo with the newly appointed American ambassador, Horlick Minton, and his wife Claire. He perceives them as a duprass, a two-person karass, due to their seemingly perfect love for each other. Uninterested in John, he moves to the plane's bar, meeting H. Lowe Crosby and his wife, Hazel, who are relocating their bicycle business to San Lorenzo due to strict labor laws in the States. Hazel, thrilled to meet a fellow native of Indiana, insists John call her "Mom." She cites several instances of Hoosiers in influential positions, which John refers to as an example of a granfalloon, a group that falsely believes it has a shared destiny. The couple share their relief that San Lorenzo is a Christian, English-speaking country. They attribute its low crime rate to the brutal punishment of "the hook." They came across this horrifying punishment in a London wax museum, along with a wax figure of a man wrongly executed for murdering his son.

chapters 44-55

John learns from the Crosbys that Horlick Minton was dismissed from the State Department due to his lenient stance on Communism. His wife, Claire, had written to the New York Times while in Pakistan expressing her belief that Americans struggled to perceive themselves as anything other than American and were on a fruitless quest for non-existent forms of love. Published during McCarthyism, this was seen as a significant offense, implying that Americans could be disapproved of. John is handed a manuscript of an unpublished book, San Lorenzo: The Land, the History, the People by Philip Castle, by the Mintons. The book reveals that Bokonon, originally Lionel Boyd Johnson, a black Episcopalian from Tobago's wealthy class, had served as a soldier in World War I. After his discharge, Edward McCabe, a U.S. Marine runaway, paid Bokonon to sail him to Miami in 1922 but they ended up shipwrecked on San Lorenzo. Here, Johnson was renamed "Bokonon." His wrecked ship, painted gold, served as a bed for the island's president. Bokonon predicted this ship would sail once more at the world's end. Hazel reveals to John that Angela and Newt Hoenikker, fellow Hoosiers, were also en route to San Lorenzo. John later realizes they were carrying their supply of ice-nine, though he wasn't aware of it at the time. Angela apologizes for not writing about the day the atomic bomb was dropped. Her father Asa had discouraged Angela from assisting John with his book about Felix, fearing a negative portrayal. Angela and Newt were visiting San Lorenzo to celebrate Frank's engagement to Mona, whom John was infatuated with. John was surprised by the attractiveness of Angela's husband, Harrison C. Conners, a former lab assistant of Felix turned president of a company involved in classified weapons research. Angela and Harrison got married two weeks after discussing Felix's final days. Mona's actual father, Nestor Aamons, a Finnish architect, had encountered several captures during World War II until he managed to flee to Portugal. Here he met American draft-evader, Julian Castle. Nestor designed Julian's charity hospital in San Lorenzo, married a local woman, and fathered Mona before he died. Philip's book's index had equal mentions of Mona and her adoptive father. Mona was adopted by Monzano to boost his popularity, using her beauty as a national icon. She grew up in Julian's hospital compound and was briefly engaged to Philip during their childhood, under Bokonon's tutelage. Distraught by her status as a national erotic figure, Mona attempted to uglify herself. Claire comments on how authors inadvertently reveal themselves when indexing their own books. Through Philip's index, she deduced his insecurity, mixed feelings towards his father, his love for Mona, and his homosexuality.

chapters 56-72

John delved further into Philip's book on San Lorenzo's history. Upon their arrival, Bokonon and McCabe found San Lorenzo in dire straits, with rampant poverty and disease. The Catholic Church and Julian Castle's sugar corporation owned most of the land, even though the company wasn't profitable. The island lacked a government, and Castle Sugar exploited this absence for their gain. McCabe and Bokonon seized control, aiming to create a utopia. The unprofitable sugar company withdrew, leaving Bokonon to create a religion and McCabe to shape the economy and laws. Upon landing in San Lorenzo, Lowe explained the term "pissant" to John, Newt, and others. Discovering their shared Cornell experience, Lowe wondered if Newt was connected to a rumored Russian spy-dancer due to his surname. Newt tactfully changed the topic. San Lorenzo remained impoverished, with only a pocket of modernity in Bolivar, its capital. Bokononism was outlawed and Bokonon was wanted dead or alive. Mona, Frank, and ailing "Papa" Monzano welcomed the plane's passengers. Monzano mistook Lowe for an ambassador until redirected to Horlick. After informing Horlick about the upcoming national holiday commemorating the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy, Monzano collapsed and designated Frank as his successor due to Frank's scientific knowledge and access to "ice." Once Monzano was taken away, John and the Crosbys headed to their hotel. Their taxi driver labeled Bokonon a probable Communist and a "very bad man." He recounted the tale of the Hundred Martyrs - San Lorenzo soldiers who perished while en route to the US after the Pearl Harbor bombing. As the first-ever guests at the Casa Mona Hotel, the Crosbys and John were met with hostility from a mosaic artist, who turned out to be Philip Castle, the hotel owner. After the awkward interaction, the Crosbys decided to stay at the American embassy instead. In the embassy, John stumbled upon two staff performing a Bokononist ritual, boku-maru, causing them to fear punishment with the hook.

chapters 73-81

Philip, at 15, experienced the bubonic plague in San Lorenzo, originating from a shipwrecked German boat. He and his father couldn't locate a single living patient in their hospital, triggering his father's hysterical laughter and odd comment about possessing the hospital one day. During this conversation with John, Frank called John to meet immediately. Frank's house, nestled on a waterfall, was architect Nestor Aamons's design. Frank was absent when John arrived, but he found Newt asleep on the terrace. Newt had been creating a painting resembling a spider web, all black with scratched lines. He described it to John as a cat's cradle, a simple old game with no real cat or cradle. This, he believed, drove kids mad. Angela and Julian joined them. John brought up Julian's rumored admiration for Albert Schweitzer, which Julian denied, preferring to see Jesus Christ as a hero. Julian perceived Newt's painting as signifying life's emptiness, dismissing John's reminder of his Christ-based beliefs with a comment about the need to exercise vocal cords. He admitted his disdain for humanity, despite its inventions and "knowledge". Newt, agreeing, watched as Julian tossed his painting into the waterfall. John decided to focus his article on Julian's charitable actions, fearing his readers would reject Julian's bleak philosophy. John discovered from Julian that all in San Lorenzo were Bokononists. Bokonon and McCabe had decided that a new religion, Bokononism, would serve better than economic or legal changes in improving local living conditions. The religion was made illegal to heighten its appeal, with rumors of executions and Bokonon's subsequent disappearance adding intrigue. This gave the islanders a sense of purpose. However, the pressures of their roles eventually unbalanced Bokonon and McCabe, with McCabe executing some citizens. Monzano succeeded McCabe, keeping up the pretense with sporadic executions. Angela lamented the world's ingratitude towards Felix's scientific contributions, his paltry salary, and meager patent bonuses. Julian discussed San Lorenzo's poverty while Newt proposed Angela play her clarinet. Alone with John, Newt revealed Angela's marital troubles - her husband's alcoholism and infidelity. Surprised at the news of Angela's unhappy marriage, John received Newt's cryptic response, "See the cat? See the cradle?" Meanwhile, Angela played her clarinet beautifully in the other room. Julian quoted a Bokonon poem about man's need for understanding and shared that The Books of Bokonon were all hand-crafted. Newt dismissed religion with his repeated phrase, "See the cat? See the cradle?"

chapters 82-97

Frank urgently called John, insisting he stay at his home, revealing only that Monzano was near death and somehow John was involved. Julian disclosed that Monzano was dying from cancer, treated by former-Nazi Koenigswald who was trying to make amends for his past by assisting San Lorenzo's needy. Julian humorously noted that by 3010, Koenigswald would have saved as many lives as he took during his time at Auschwitz. Soldiers at Fort Jesus began preparations for protection, though the reason remained unknown. John passed the time reading Frank's Bokononist books and chatting with Newt and Angela about Felix's family. When power was restored, John discovered Frank and Mona outside working on a generator, making John realize his deep need for Mona. Frank eventually shared his proposal for John to become San Lorenzo's president upon Monzano's death, as Frank was ill-suited for public roles. John initially declined, causing Frank to become defensive and reminiscing about his painful high school days. Frank also mentioned his secret affair with Jack's wife during those times. Frank disclosed a Bokononist prophecy that Mona, as the president's wife, would belong to John if he accepted the presidency. This enticed John to accept the role. After a heated ritual with Mona, he confessed his love and tried to monopolize her affections, but she refused, calling him a sin-wat. John then adopted Bokononism, recognizing the sanctity of humankind. The next day, John and Frank visited the ailing Monzano, who wore a necklace holding unknown ice-nine. Monzano advised John to kill Bokonon and urged Frank to enlighten the people with real science. He rejected a Christian minister's last rites, driving him away.

chapters 98-105

Monzano, despite wanting John to kill Bokonon, sought Bokononist last rites. Dr. von Koenigswald agreed to administer the rites, confessing his readiness to comfort others even if it meant being a poor scientist. Both von Koenigswald and Bokononists shared the belief that all religions were based on untruths. He recited the Bokononist creation story during boku-maru with Monzano. Frank refused to help John beyond his role as the minister of technology when John requested advice about his upcoming presidency. John acknowledged that by accepting the presidency, he'd fulfilled Frank's desires: status without the weight of leadership. John contemplated ending San Lorenzo's longstanding pretenses by permitting Bokononism and installing Bokonon in a government role. However, he realized neither he nor Bokonon could provide essential services, so he opted to maintain the ban on Bokononism, continuing the perpetual struggle between good and evil. The Hundred Martyrs event took place, with tables filled with albatross meat and faux rum actually being acetone. The meat sickened John, but Lowe drank the 'rum' without issue. Cutouts of various infamous leaders floated in the sea, ready to be shot down by the San Lorenzo airforce, an act Lowe admired. The crowd was unaware of John's impending presidency announcement. Julian and Philip were puzzled by their invitation, considering their adversarial relationship with Monzano. Philip discussed a potential writers' strike with John, who argued that writers, like policemen and firemen, had a duty to serve society. Mona, unaffected by Monzano's imminent death, gave no outward signs of affection for John, leading him to question her emotional state. Frank informed Lowe and Hazel of Bokonon's anti-science stance, much to their surprise. John fell ill from the albatross meat and sought refuge in a nearby restroom. Meanwhile, Monzano died from eating the contents of a small container hanging around his neck, instantly freezing into a statue. John recognized this as death by ice-nine. He wrote down Monzano's death, referencing Bokonon's belief in the importance of recording history to avoid repeating past mistakes, but also noting the futility of this belief as history often repeats itself.

chapters 106-114

When Dr. von Koenigswald touches the lips of the deceased Monzano, he instantly drops dead, becoming the second victim of ice-nine. This revelation forces John to confront Angela, Newt, and Frank about their careless handling of the deadly substance. Frank proposes to eliminate the ice-nine threat by burning the bodies and scorching the room. John understands that both the U.S. and Soviet governments have access to ice-nine through Harrison, a weapons researcher, and Zinka, a spy. Angela reveals it was Zinka who stole ice-nine from Newt. In a quote from The Books of Bokonon, Bokonon poses a question about mankind's future, answering it with a single word: "Nothing." The Hoenikkers share the story of their father's death, revealing he had informed his children about ice-nine shortly before he passed away. After creating ice-nine in their kitchen, Felix took a break, during which he died. The siblings could not justify why they each took a piece of ice-nine before cleaning up. Overwhelmed, John and the Hoenikkers decide to attend a commemorative ceremony for the Hundred Martyrs. At the ceremony, Horlick criticizes the celebrations of fallen soldiers, suggesting they are merely glorified memories of murdered children. He argues that humanity should condemn the circumstances causing these deaths instead of blindly celebrating patriotism. Horlick proposes focusing on diminishing human foolishness and brutality as a more fitting tribute. Simultaneously, the San Lorenzo air force engages in firing practice using floating cardboard effigies.

chapters 115-127

A disaster unfolds when a plane in San Lorenzo's air force, shooting at mock enemies at sea, catches fire and crashes into a cliff above Monzano's castle. This triggers a massive rockslide, causing a tower of the castle to crumble into the sea. The Mintons are sadly killed by the rockslide, which also sweeps Monzano's body out into the sea. The world is quickly encased in ice-nine, causing tornadoes to wreak havoc over the frozen ocean. John and Mona hide in Monzano's underground bomb shelter to escape the tornadoes. They distract themselves with passionate lovemaking and John reads The Books of Bokonon to pass the time. The book asserts that everything in it is pure 'foma', or lies, and it recounts a tale of God creating life from mud. The humans question the purpose of all life, and God tasks them with finding it. Once the storm subsides, Mona and John venture to the top of Mount McCabe, finding an eerie scene of frozen San Lorenzo citizens. A message from Bokonon on a boulder reveals that he had recommended the people die when they brought him to the peak seeking answers about God's cruel act. John is enraged by his cynical response, while Mona questions whether John would want any of the dead revived. When he doesn't respond, she touches ice-nine to her lips and dies. John is taken by Lowe and Hazel to Frank's house, where they meet with surviving Newt and Frank. Angela died from ice-nine from a contaminated clarinet, while Philip and Julian passed away helping at Julian's hospital. For half a year, John, the Crosbys and the Hoenikker brothers survive on canned food and melted ice-nine water. Hazel sews an American flag, Lowe cooks, Frank builds a transmitter to send distress signals, and John writes the events of Cat's Cradle. Frank manages to find some ants that survived the disaster and observes how they adapt to the ice-nine environment. Despite John's sarcastic responses to his observations, Frank insists he has matured and doesn't take "silly answers seriously." John retorts that he's addressed his social anxieties by nearly wiping out all life on the planet. In a conversation with Newt, John admits to losing his sexual drive now that reproduction seems pointless in their bleak world. He later encounters Bokonon, who is penning the final words of his religious texts. Bokonon wishes he had time to write about human stupidity before deciding to end his life by touching ice-nine, in a final act of defiance against God.

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