Vonnegut’s Expresses 1960’s Alienation

Cat’s Cradle, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s four powerful 1960’s novels, reflected the fear of atomic annihilation and the rejection of establishment values but also showcased the author’s trademark satirical wit and cast of eccentric characters.

Summary of Event

By 1963, Kurt Vonnegut had already published two science-fiction novels and many short stories; he was established but not widely popular as a writer. He was becoming increasingly afraid of being associated permanently with the pulp-fiction world, where so much short science fiction was represented; in 1962, Mother Night
Mother Night (Vonnegut) signaled his move into experimental fiction. Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut)[Cats Cradle]
United States;counterculture
Literary movements;avant-garde[avant garde]
[kw]Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle Expresses 1960’s Alienation (1963)[Vonneguts Cats Cradle Expresses 1960s Alienation]
[kw]Cat’s Cradle Expresses 1960’s Alienation, Vonnegut’s (1963)[Cats Cradle Expresses 1960s Alienation, Vonneguts]
[kw]1960’s Alienation, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle Expresses (1963)[Nineteen sixties Alienation, Vonneguts Cats Cradle Expresses]
[kw]Alienation, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle Expresses 1960’s (1963)[Alienation, Vonneguts Cats Cradle Expresses 1960s]
Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut)[Cats Cradle]
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[g]North America;1963: Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle Expresses 1960’s Alienation[07480]
[g]United States;1963: Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle Expresses 1960’s Alienation[07480]
[c]Literature;1963: Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle Expresses 1960’s Alienation[07480]
Vonnegut, Kurt
Oppenheimer, J. Robert

Vonnegut worked after World War II as a publicist with the industrial giant General Electric, but he quickly became disillusioned with the thrust of the corporation’s research and its involvement with the U.S. military complex. What he viewed as the too-cozy relationship between industry and the military became central to his vision of what science should be and what it actually was. After leaving General Electric, he had stints as a teacher and a businessman.

The end of the 1950’s was turbulent for Vonnegut; his own family of three children was suddenly augmented by three of his sister Alice’s sons after she and her husband died almost simultaneously. This catastrophe particularly affected Vonnegut, as Alice had been his favorite sibling. W. R. Allen, in his 1991 study Understanding Kurt Vonnegut, points to critical agreement that Vonnegut’s almost exclusive choice of first-person narrative in much of his fiction was based on a personal belief that a narrator’s voice should address itself to an intimate. In Vonnegut’s case, he himself has said, that intimate was his sister Alice.

Scholars have also noted Vonnegut’s stated belief that “the writer’s function in society . . . is to respond to life.” Personal sadness appears to have exacerbated Vonnegut’s general pessimism about life in the post-World War II era, a pessimism that had begun in a childhood and young adulthood marked directly by other significant world events. His father’s success as one of Indianapolis’s leading architects and his mother’s position as heiress of a successful brewer had meant a wealthy start to life, but the family’s economic and social prominence was so shattered by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Depression that Vonnegut’s father never recovered his confidence, and his mother endured crushing depressions that ended only with her suicide in 1944.

As a prisoner of war in Dresden, Vonnegut survived, witnessed, and was compelled to clean up after Dresden’s devastation in the Allied bombings of February 13, 1945. On August 6 of that same year, the war was brought to a rapid close with the American destruction of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki three days later) with the atomic bomb. Vonnegut considered this latter event indeed as “the day the world ended.” It shaped his fictional themes from that point onward.

Both Vonnegut’s moral vision and his style in his best writing are shaped not only by the experiential but also by the academic track of his life since youth. His father’s profession as an architect must at least partly explain the familiarity with design and structure so strongly present in Vonnegut’s fictional worlds. Architectural design may also have shaped the experimental styles and structures of his writing, which have earned both critical praise and scorn.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

(© Jill Krementz)

As a high school and university student, Vonnegut wrote for his school newspapers, practicing and honing the factual and stylistic straightforwardness, brevity, and simplicity that also mark his writing. In college, he majored in chemistry as an undergraduate and in anthropology as a postwar graduate student—which perhaps explains his interest in the perceived moral problems inherent in the subjugation of “pure” science to technological wizardry. In a 1992 television interview, Vonnegut reiterated his belief that science and its implications for humankind remain among the twentieth century’s most pressing moral issues.

During the time Vonnegut was preparing to burst on the mass literary consciousness in the mid-1960’s, world events were occurring that probably did nothing to allay his pessimism. Yet some may also have served to affirm his enduring underlying faith in the joyous genius of humankind, a faith that saves his work from nihilism. After World War II, causes for both despair and exhilaration coexisted in unfolding world events. Throughout the 1950’s, the escalation of the Cold War precipitated a worldwide buildup of armaments, especially nuclear arms; Cold War escalation culminated in the 1961 erection of the Berlin Wall and the frightening Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when global atomic war was barely averted.

Also in 1962, the antinausea “wonder drug” thalidomide, dispensed to pregnant women, was found to have caused the severe deformity of thousands of children and was withdrawn from the market. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum, largely as a result of many ugly racial confrontations precipitated by 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruling segregation of public schools unconstitutional. In late 1963, just after Cat’s Cradle’s publication, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

At the same time, though, science and the imagination could cheer the global advances in space that began with 1957’s successful flight of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 and continued in 1962 with the American launching of Telstar, the satellite that allowed the first transmission of intercontinental television signals. The sordidness of Great Britain’s Profumo Scandal was counterbalanced by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which galvanized the huge March on Washington in 1963 and provided lasting inspiration. Thus, Cat’s Cradle’s informing irony has a solid basis in social reality.

Cat’s Cradle was not immediately popular, but its publication provoked much lasting contradictory critical opinion about both its themes and its style. The novel is an iconoclastic, satirical treatment of issues that profoundly affect twentieth century humankind: the loss of religious faith; science as a false god; humankind’s deceptive rationale for creativity (“No damn cat, and no damn cradle,” one character observes of the intricate, ancient child’s string game that gives the novel its title and is symbolic of science’s smoke-and-mirrors aspect); the unattractiveness of modern reality; a missing sense of human purpose; but finally, affirmation of humanity’s will to survive in a meaningful way.

All these are explored through narrator Jonah’s fatal involvement with the Hoenikker family when he begins research for his intended book The Day the World Ended, which is meant to discover “what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.” Clearly, Jonah had planned a stance of moral condemnation, as his work was to be “a Christian book” written by a man not yet converted to Bokononism, the informing antireligion of Cat’s Cradle. Instead, like his biblical counterpart, Jonah bears witness to apocalyptic events and heralds an unredemptive messiah.

In the novel, Felix Hoenikker, developer of the atom bomb, Nobel Prize winner, now dead, is kept vividly alive through the reminiscences of his three freakish offspring. Out of their memories, Hoenikker emerges not (as some critics allege) as a monster but more as a giant infant, limitlessly curious and inventive but totally incapable of forming reciprocal, loving human relationships or of comprehending morality or religious faith. “What is sin?” he asked a fellow scientist anguishing over the destructiveness of the atomic bomb; “What is God? What is love?” he inquired of a conventionally devout employee.

The three peculiar Hoenikker children, despite their physical and personality differences, are early united in their grief for their neglected, dead mother, their reverential horror of their father, and now by their shared, secret possession of crystals of “ice-nine,” the last of their father’s inventions. Now they, Jonah, and an assorted collection of outcasts, adventurers, and eccentrics, mostly American, are gathered on the rectangular Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, a travesty of a republic presided over by dying dictator “Papa” Monzano. The island is also inhabited by the elusive Bokonon, an adventurer and soldier of fortune whose banned religion nevertheless pervades and shapes life on the island and transforms Jonah.

On San Lorenzo, Jonah’s planned book becomes an after-the-fact narration of a descent to near-annihilation. The absurd events leading up to the magnificently described cataclysm of destruction by ice-nine exemplifies Vonnegut’s talent at juxtaposing the trivial and the grand, the absurd and the significant, the comic and the terrible that is his (and Bokonon’s) view of human existence. Ice-nine, the vehicle of humankind’s destruction by instant freezing, is kept in three picnic-sized flasks guarded by the Hoenikker siblings, who, for all their pathetic personal inadequacies, are thus the arbiters of human existence.

The novel ends when Jonah finally encounters Bokonon, now a mild-mannered old man surviving this holocaust with detached aplomb. He is preparing the conclusion of The Books of Bokonon, his antireligion’s testament. He dreams, he says, of destroying himself with ice-nine and of becoming frozen on his alluring San Lorenzo mountain peak into a position of rudely thumbing his nose at “You Know Who.” So humankind, Vonnegut implies, should spit bravely into the wind of the twentieth century, asserting its will to survive over its impulse to self-destruction. It is perhaps Bokonon’s outlook that most offended some of Cat’s Cradle’s critics; certainly, Jonah creates a conundrum by founding his artistic odyssey, the novel itself, on Bokononism’s paradoxical basic premise: “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Such a statement has provoked critical charges of Vonnegut’s flippancy and superficiality. Others commend the satirical wit that successfully enlivens the novel’s serious themes.


Cat’s Cradle’s style provoked as much critical discussion as its themes did. Critic James Mellard lists Vonnegut, along with literary contemporaries such as Jack Kerouac, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Richard Brautigan, as one of the prime creators of the “exploded” novel form. Such a fragmented style reflects the twentieth century’s anxious preoccupation with alienation, disintegration, even impending annihilation.

The novel has 127 chapters, many as brief as a page. The short, rapid bursts of narrative, delivered mostly in straightforward, unadorned prose, suit the tone taken by narrator Jonah: wry, often self-mocking, masking an underlying depth of seriousness.

The narrative frequently reads like notes toward a journalistic piece. In vignette after vignette, place, character, event, or mood is strongly evoked; dialogue, often choppy, is lent significance and overtone, even if the dialogue is trivial in subject; and cliff-hangers or implied logical conclusions tantalize at each chapter’s end. Thus, Jonah’s sense of urgency and mission is emphasized; after all, he is writing after the destruction of the known world by ice-nine. He feels even more the need to record, to set down, especially as this is his designated job within the little surviving group gaily referred to by one member as “the Swiss Family Robinson.”

Jonah’s resulting work—Cat’s Cradle—ultimately achieves an overall coherence and a compelling energy that makes it readable and probably does much to explain the novel’s eventual popular appeal. The younger reading generation, responding in the 1950’s to Cold War politics, accelerating materialism, and the more pessimistic premises of existentialism, was turning by 1963 to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. If at Cat’s Cradle’s publication there was only a small readership for the book, by the mid-1960’s and the acceleration of the anti-Vietnam War movement the audience was growing and enthusiastic, receptive to Vonnegut’s blend of despair and the comic and to his sense of both the absurdity and sublimity of human existence. Above all, Vonnegut celebrates human creativity, not so much in the science as in the artistry of life. Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut)[Cats Cradle]
United States;counterculture
Literary movements;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading

  • Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. An indispensable study, written in clear, accessible style. The book’s seven chapters consider Vonnegut’s major fiction chronologically; the exhaustive bibliography and index are probably the most inclusive in print.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002. Compilation of essays by leading scholars analyzing Vonnegut’s novel. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. A short but solid introduction to Vonnegut’s themes and art as a novelist, with illuminating analysis of Cat’s Cradle. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Methuen, 1982. An elegant short discourse on Vonnegut the novelist by the foremost Vonnegut expert.
  • Klinkowitz, Jerome, and Donald L. Lawler, eds. Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Delacorte Press, 1977. An omnibus work, essential to the serious student of Vonnegut. Presents a variety of scholarly essays on Vonnegut’s life and works. Includes a thorough bibliography and photographs.
  • Mustazza, Leonard. Forever Pursuing Genesis: The Myth of Eden in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1990. Chapter 5 in this thorough thematic study treats Cat’s Cradle. Also included are endnotes on each chapter and an index.
  • Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976. A meticulous study of Vonnegut’s major novels, with separate chapters on his short fiction, drama, and essays. Contains thorough notes, bibliography, and index.

Atomic Bombs Destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control

Golding’s Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of Human Nature

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite

First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched

Thalidomide Tragedy Prompts Passage of the Kefauver-Harris Amendment

King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech

President Kennedy Is Assassinated