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Book Review

This satirical sci-fi novel by Kurt Vonnegut was originally published by Holt, Rineheart and Winston in 1963 and is now published by others, such as Dial Press, a division of Random House Inc. Although written for adults, it is found on high school reading lists. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

John (whose last name is never given) tells readers he began writing a book thousands of cigarettes, numerous bottles of booze and two wives ago. He planned to call it The Day the World Ended and to focus on the day the first atomic bomb was dropped. John's book actually becomes another story entirely. His tale begins as he researches the deceased Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the scientist known as the father of the atomic bomb. He writes to the doctor's youngest son, Newt, whom he later learns is an artist, a pre-med flunkee and a small person. Newt responds in a candid letter about the man who single-handedly raised him and his two siblings, Frank and Angela. Newt's account highlights the doctor's self-absorption, indifference and ignorance to the danger he brought into the world and sets the stage for the book's critique of modern man.

John visits Dr. Hoenikker's hometown and his former supervisor, Dr. Breed. He learns more about Dr. Hoenikker's obsession with his scientific tinkerings and his neglect of all human beings, including his family. Dr. Breed tells John about a hypothetical substance called ice-nine with which Dr. Hoenikker was tinkering at the time of his death. In theory, ice-nine would stack atoms in such a way as to freeze any water it touched with a melting point of 114.4 degrees. While Breed insists the substance never really existed, John learns much later that the doctor had actually created it. Upon his death, his three children secretly divided the remaining shards of ice-nine among themselves.

John learns that Newt's older brother, Frank, is the Minister of Science and Progress on a small, remote island called San Lorenzo. John wonders how the troubled Frank landed such a position and decides to visit him. The nation has a colorful history. Though many countries have ruled it at various times, no one fought for it when another country took over. The natives live in extreme poverty, ruled by a dictator called "Papa" Monzano. "Papa" has a hauntingly beautiful daughter named Mona, and John falls for her the moment he sees her picture in the San Lorenzo guidebook.

En route to San Lorenzo, John also reads about the country's rogue spiritual leader called Bokonon. The Books of Bokonon contain the prophet's writings in the form of short rhymes, calypso songs and re-tooled famous quotes and biblical principles. Bokonon makes it clear that his book is made up entirely of lies, yet nearly all San Lorenzo residents follow him. John learns that some years earlier, two men named McCabe and Johnson washed ashore on San Lorenzo and decided to rule it. They determined that since they couldn't improve the economic situation to make the people less miserable, they would use religion to give the people hope. They further believed that if religion were outlawed, people would become all the more passionate about following it. So Johnson became Bokonon and created his own religion. McCabe ruled the nation with an iron fist, threatening residents with impalement on a giant hook if they were caught following Bokonon. Despite the clearly false, cynical underpinnings of Bokononism, John becomes a follower as well. His newfound beliefs thread throughout the entire novel.

John flies to San Lorenzo with the nation's new American ambassador and his wife. Also aboard the plane are an American bicycle builder and his wife looking for cheap laborers, and Newt and his sister, Angela. To John’s chagrin, they announce they’ll be attending Frank's marriage to Mona Monzano. "Papa," already in poor health, nearly dies at the ceremony to welcome the group. A panicked Frank, who doesn't have the social skills to rule in his future father-in-law's stead, begs John to become the next leader of San Lorenzo. He promises to handle the technical details, and even insists John should marry Mona. John reluctantly agrees when Mona becomes part of the package. He meets the beautiful Mona at last, only to discover she is strange and passive. He and Frank go to "Papa" when they learn the end is near. Though "Papa" keeps calling for ice, he will not accept it when it's given. The men are finally called in to see his strangely stiff dead body, and John realizes the ice "Papa" wanted was ice-nine. "Papa" had used it to kill himself. Frank admits he bought his way into his position in San Lorenzo by telling "Papa" about a powerful substance he possessed. The man giving "Papa" last rites touches the ice-nine to his lips and dies also. John and Dr. Hoenikker's three children secretly and cautiously clean up the ice-nine mess and hide the bodies. John learns that, like Frank, the other siblings used their ice-nine for selfish gain. The unattractive Angela got herself a trophy husband, who sold the secrets of ice-nine to the U.S. government. Newt got himself a week of passion with a Ukrainian ballerina, who promptly left him and shared ice-nine with Russia.

A ceremony involving the ambassador is already in progress at the castle. John decides to wait until it is completed to tell the others that "Papa" is dead and that he is taking over. At the ceremony, a military plane explodes and hits the castle, causing part to crumble and "Papa's" body to be thrown into the sea. The water immediately turns to ice-nine, tornados form and the sky darkens. Mona and John run for safety to "Papa's" underground bunker, where they hole up for several days until they stop hearing tornados outside. When they venture out, they see the ice-nine has caused mass devastation. They come upon a mountain of dead native bodies who, at Bokonon's suggestion, all killed themselves by tasting ice-nine. Mona feels it's a simple solution, and she does the same. John finds the bicycle manufacturer, his wife, Newt and Frank alive. They seem to be the only ones left on earth. Just as John wonders what he's supposed to do, he and Newt see Bokonon on the roadside. Bokonon says if he were a younger man, he would write a book, climb a mountain, ingest some ice-nine and thumb his nose at God as he died. Readers are left to assume that's what John does.

Christian Beliefs

John says to call him Jonah because something has always compelled him to be at certain places at certain times. As he writes his presidential acceptance speech, he says he finds it impossible not to lean on God, though he had never felt the need for such support before. He finds he actually believes the support is there for him.

Other Belief Systems

John ditches Christianity to become a Bokononist. Bokonon is a religion unabashedly founded on foma (lies), because truth doesn't fulfill human needs. Bokonon himself warns in the front of his book that people shouldn't read it since none of it is true. John still contends that comforting lies are useful and says anyone who can't see that won't understand the book he is writing. Bokononists believe humanity is organized into God-ordained teams that do His will without ever discovering what they are doing. Each team is called a karass. Members of a karass are people who become tangled up in each other's lives for no apparent logical reasons. He scoffs at silly and pointless granfalloons, which are groups with which people associate themselves based on where they live, where they attended college or church, etc. Bokonon considers anyone a fool who thinks he can see what God is doing. Bokonon believes that the only good society can come when great good and great evil are pitted against one another, causing high tension at all times. When John asks Frank what Bokononists do hold sacred, Frank says not even God as far as he can tell.

Christianity and God are frequently ridiculed. One character says Dr. Hoenikker (creator of several highly destructive inventions) was as harmless, gentle and innocent as Jesus, minus the Son of God part. John describes another man as a platinum blond Jesus. The man ends up trashing John’s house, hanging his cat and writing a poem on his kitchen floor in excrement.

In an essay ghost-written for publicity, Frank reports having washed up on the shores of San Lorenzo after having lifted his eyes to the Maker and asking His will to be done. San Lorenzo is marketed as a Christian nation, a statement in which the bicycle manufacturer and his wife take great comfort, but everyone on the island is a Bokononist. As "Papa" lies on his deathbed, a Christian minister with a bell, a butcher knife, a live chicken in a hatbox and a Bible wait to meet any spiritual needs that may arise. He tells John he attended a Bible college in Little Rock, which he learned about in a Popular Mechanics ad. Since both Catholicism and Protestantism had been outlawed on San Lorenzo, the minister says he had no choice but to make up a lot of new stuff on his own.

"Papa," who has supposedly been hunting Bokonon all his career, makes a deathbed confession that he's a Bokononist. He calls the minister a stinking Christian and tells him to get out. "Papa" receives the light-hearted Bokononian last rites, which state that God created man out of mud because He was lonely. Man looked around and realized he could only feel important because he got up and walked around, while the other mud near him did not. It continues that man saw lots of interesting things and couldn't wait to get to heaven to see what good things he had done for God. Later, John learns a Bokononist passage that shows God creating man out of mud. Man sits up and asks what is the purpose of all this. God tells man He will leave it to him to think of a purpose. Then He goes away. One character sings the praises of Jesus, only to admit later it was just something to say because people must say something to keep their voice boxes in working order.

Bokonon's writings sometimes consist of the author's version of biblical ideas. For example, rather than the Bible's call to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, Bokonon says to pay no attention to Caesar because he hasn't got the slightest idea what's going on. However, when Bokonon tries to overhaul the 23rd Psalm, he finds he is unable to change a word.

Bokononists practice boko-maru, where two people take off their shoes and touch their feet together. Bokonon created it to make people feel better about each other and the world.

Authority Roles

Dr. Felix Hoenikker, brilliant scientist and father of the atomic bomb, has little concern for other people, his own motherless children included. He tinkers and invents deadly creations for his own pleasure with no thought to how they may impact the world. God is depicted as a comical being who creates man because He's lonely. But then He tells man to discover a reason for his own existence. McCabe and Johnson wash up on San Lorenzo and decide to rule by creating a complex system of lies.


Expletives including b--tard, b--ch, fugging (used in place of the f-word), d--n, h---, crap, p---ant, s---, screw and various forms of the Lord's name used in vain appear frequently. One Bokononist word is simultaneously translated as "s--- storm" and "the wrath of God."

Frank tortures bugs by putting many in a jar together and shaking it violently. He punches his sister hard in the stomach, making her roll around on the ground in pain. John allows a man to use his house, and the man ends up hanging and killing John’s cat.


Newt recalls a fiction book someone sent his father that included a huge sex orgy before the atomic bomb blew up the world. Newt and his brother, Frank, secretly keep the book for themselves and read it often. When John visits the Hoenikkers' hometown, he gets drunk and sleeps with a woman he calls a whore. A bartender says Frank Hoenikker was one of those kids who made model airplanes and jerked off all the time. Frank later admits that while working at a hobby shop, he was having sex with the owner's wife. The ambassador's wife, who writes book indexes as a career, claims she can tell a person's character by reading an index he or she has written. She says she can tell that the man who indexed the book about San Lorenzo is a homosexual. When John arrives on San Lorenzo, he briefly describes the women's breasts and men's genetalia sticking out from beneath their loincloths. John later says Mona's breasts are like pomegranates.

While boko-maru (Bokonon's foot touching) isn't inherently sexual, it is the ultimate sensual experience for Mona. John describes his first boko-maru with her as a passionate, almost religious experience that leaves him in awe. He says he's had sex with more than 53 women and seen them undress in every way possible, but nothing made him groan like this. When he tells Mona she must not do that with any other man, she's disappointed because she likes promiscuity. When he later describes their first sexual experience together, he calls it a repulsive, unpleasant tussle. Mona sees sex as nothing more than a means for reproduction. After ice-nine kills nearly everyone, John and Newt discuss whether either has any sexual urges left. They decide they don't and realize that the excitement in bed must have had more to do with the desire to keep the human race going than they realized.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Cat’s Cradle mocks science and religion and their claims to truth. Vonnegut suggests the ignorance, indifference and self-absorption of modern man, not some form of evil, are the root of the world’s problems. Like the game of cat's cradle itself – where, Newt points out, there is no cat and there is no cradle – life, religion and everything else are false and meaningless. God playfully sends out His creation to follow endless rabbit trails.

Drugs, tobacco and alcohol: Various characters smoke cigars or cigarettes and drink alcohol, some in excess. John recalls himself as a younger man, 250,000 cigarettes and 3,000 quarts of booze ago. John says hearing Angela's haunting clarinet playing is a little like experiencing a heroin nightmare.

Political incorrectness: People frequently refer to Newt, a dwarf, as "little Newt." The bicycle manufacturer's wife refers to someone as a Jap.

Suicide:"Papa," Mona and numerous San Lorenzens kill themselves by taking ice-nine. McCabe shoots himself when he gets tired of living.

This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can't find at reviewrequests@family.org.

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