The title of the book comes from the children’s string game called “cat’s cradle” in which string is wound around the fingers and changed into different patterns. It can be played alone or with others.
It was the game Dr. Felix Hoenikker, father of the atom bomb, was playing with his youngest son, Newton, on the day the atomic bomb went off in Hiroshima. The game is a major symbol for evil in the book, for the lies humans construct and then get entangled by. Newt tells Jonah that it is “One of the oldest games there is” (Chpt. 74, p. 165). That is why it is difficult to know how it started or how to undo it. It connects everything in a meaningless complexity. For instance, the string that Felix used to play the game was ironically taken from the manuscript of a novel about the end of the world by a bomb invented by mad scientists. This clearly connects the string game with the atomic bomb and the end of the world. The image suggests that evil is constructed by humans.
Later Newt paints an ugly picture looking like a spider’s web that suggests to the narrator “the sticky nets of human frailty”(Chpt. 74, p. 164). Newt tells him it is a cat’s cradle: “For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces . . . no wonder kids grow up crazy” (Chpt. 74, p. 165). Newt is outraged by this hypocritical game, because he sees “No damn cat, and no damn cradle” (Chpt. 74, p. 166). Every time another lie is exposed, Newt jokes, “See the cat? See the cradle?” (Chpt. 80, p. 179).
Ice-Nine and Images of Death
Ice-nine is the invention Hoenikker comes up with after the atomic bomb and is even more deadly than the bomb, for it ends life on earth. It is more dangerous, because it is easily carried around in little thermos jugs. Jonah the narrator is a reporter, and he tends to see images that relate to death clustered around the Hoenikkers. Ice-nine like the bomb was invented for the military to use in warfare, and violent military images abound. There are police guarding the Lab where Hoenikker worked. A Marine General gets Felix to work on the ice-nine. Angela’s husband is a military weapons manufacturer. The United States gives warplanes painted with violent cartoons on them as a gift or bribe to San Lorenzo, and one of them accidentally starts the end of the world with a crash. Papa Monzano is a military dictator who wears a shoulder holster, and his home is a medieval castle with torture chambers, and the infamous hook for criminals to hang by out front. A Nazi doctor from Auschwitz attends to Papa in his last illness.
The Breed family makes death their business. Asa runs the Lab that invents weapons, while Marvin Breed makes the tombstones. When Jonah remarks that it’s a small world, Marvin says, “When you put it in a cemetery, it is” (Chpt. 31, p. 64). This is how everyone will end up—dead, and Julian Castle can only laugh when the bubonic plague piles up corpses outside his hospital. Mona similarly laughs at the mass ice-nine suicide when she sees thousands of frozen corpses. Papa’s death by cancer is a morbid scene, with people vying to give him absurd versions of the last rites. The macabre humor makes the reader aware of the pointless death awaiting humans, speeded up by their own hands.
Animal imagery is often used by authors to depict less than admirable human behavior. In keeping with Vonnegut’s opinion of human stupidity, he portrays people as mindless or vicious animals. Frank Hoenikker is a “fox-faced, immature young man” out to get what he can by cunning (Chpt. 37, p.80). Papa Monzano is a “gorilla in his late seventies” (Chpt. 37, p. 80), blatantly brutal without apologies. Bolivar is the “barracuda capital of the world” (Chpt. 38, p. 81) where everyone is ribbed to shreds in no time; Angela is “a horse-faced woman with platinum blonde hair” (Chpt.47. p. 101), and the capitalist, H. Lowe Crosby, engages in “barn-yard clownishness” (Chpt. 43, p. 92), thinking he is a civilized American. Jonah thinks that the mountains of San Lorenzo look like “pigs at a trough” (Chpt. 60, p. 132). Dr. Vox Humana’s Christianity is symbolized by a chicken in a hatbox, which he is ready to butcher in a bloody rite. The ant farm and bugs in a jar that Frank likes to observe are extended metaphors for human life. They suggest futility, cruelty, and claustrophobia. Even Jonah’s spiritual group, his karass, is described as “free-form as an amoeba” (Chpt. 2, p. 3), engulfing many lives in its shapeless spread towards total destruction.