Study Guide to Chapters 1-35 of Cat's Cradle

Indexing convention for this study guide

Each main question unit begins with a decimal number.  The first number (i.e., on the left of the point) refers to the chapter of the book in which the question if anchored.  The second number (i.e., to the right of the point) places the question in the entire series of questions emerging from that chapter.  The third number (in parentheses) indicates the page in the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group paperback edition of the text (1988).

Thus 1.3 indicated the third question concerning Chapter 1, and 2.5 points to the fifth question in the series of questions over Chapter 2.

  Tips for using the study guides designed for this course

Well, of course, even before we read the novel, it would make sense to be curious about the title.  Here are some ideas we might keep in mind at the outset, remembering that not all of them might end up being confirmed as relevant to what we have before us.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged, Chicago, 1981) has this to say:

 cat’s cradle

1:  a game in which an endless string looped in a cradlelike pattern on the fingers of one person’s hands is transferred to the hands of another in such a way as to form a different symmetrical figure at each transfer — compare — string figure

2a: any of the figures formed with string in the game of cat’s cradle.

2b: something resembling one of these figures esp. in intricacy.   <trees…latticed and knitted and strung together by a cat’s cradle of lianas and creepers — Nadine Gordimer.>

cat’s-cradle, pl cat’s-cradles: -- ribgrass


string figure

a figure representing any of various objects that is made by passing a string around the fingers of both hands sometimes with the help of a second person  <anthropologists find the making of string figures common in many simple cultures>— compare cat’s cradle

Read to following questions after, rather than befoee, ()

1.1  Who was Jonah in the Bible?  (The Book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible is very short -- only two chapters.  When you finish the novel, you might want to return to the opening sentence, and then go read the Biblical story of Jonah.)

What does the narrator say made him "a Jonah"?

Whenever you notice something happen in the story that seems to square with this idea, make a point of writing a "J" in the margin.

Are there some additional elements in the life of the Biblical Jonah that you notice showing up in the course of the narrative -- even if the narrator himself doesn't explicitly point them out as such?

What might Vonnegut (the creator of this character) be getting at by constructing his protagonist's life in this fashion?

1.2  The way Cat's Cradle starts out may strike us as a "novelistic" move, since it recalls the first sentence of Herman Melville's Moby Dick:  "Call me Ishmael."

Are we to take this as a move on the part of the narrator, who also consciously wants us to seek for analogies between himself (in what he is presenting as his real life siguation) and the protagonist/narrator of Melville's famous novel?

Or is this something we are to take as 

What, by the way, was Melville's purpose (there may have been more than one point) in naming his protagonist/narrator "Ishmael"?   (The original Ishmael, like Jonah, is a Biblical figure.)

1.3  The narrator says that he was a Christian when he set out to write a book called The Day the World Ended.  Then he tells us what the particular focus of that book was to be.

(a) Of course the world must have ended for the people who were killed in Hiroshima.  But the title of the book must have been meant figuratively?  Why?  How do you imagine the would-be author intended it to be taken?

(b) Why might a person be motivated as a Christian to write such a book?

(c) The narrator also tells us that he is no longer a Christian.  What (as we read further in his narrative) do we figure might have led him to reject certain beliefs (and which, specifically?) that are definitive of what he means by "Christianity"?

(d) He tells us that he has since become a "Bokanist."  What (as we learn more) does "Bokanism" consist in?

(e) Bokanism and Christianity are both described, by the narrator, as "religions."  What do we figure he means by this term?

(f) Apart from the fact that Christianity and Bokonism share whatever features are sufficient to qualify them both to be regarded as "religions," are there any other particular beliefs and practices that these two religions have in common?

(g) In how many distinct respects do they diverge?

(h) What factors might have played a role in inducing the narrator to become a Bokonist?

(i) The narrator measures the distance between when he set out as a Christian to write The Day the World Ended and the present in which he is addressing in terms that will not fail to strike us:  "two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago."  Where, in this span of time, are we to locate his abandonment of Christianity?  How about his becoming a Bokonist?  (These might of course turn out to be the same moment, but is conceivable -- for us, as readers, at the beginning of the novel -- that they are not.)  

What difference would it make where we end up imagining these two decisive points in the narrator's life?  What would different the possibilities imply

1.4  The narrator says he never did finish the book The Day the World Ended.  Where, as the novel unfolds, do we discover pieces of an overall explanation as to why this was?

When you have finished reading a work of literature, it is often useful to return back to the beginning to see if it might have been so designed as now to appear in some interesting new light.  (If it does, the question is then on the table as to why the author might have been interested in arranging for whatever issues this new light brings into prominence to be put before us with such emphasis.)

2.1  Apart from strange idea it articulates, the Bokonon's "Fifty-third Calypso" might strike us a pretty pretty banal set of lyrics.  But we know that it often happens that quite effective songs can be made out of words that, printed on a page, come across as pretty flat or sappy.

Could you imagine a Calypso setting that would make these lyrics into a song catchy enough that, if you were to hear it over the radio, you might find yourself singing along?

What possibilities are open, in tone of voice, for handling the three successive occurrences of the apparently bland line "Nice, nice, very nice"?

3.1  The narrator describes the theme of Bokonon's autobiographical parable as "the folly of trying to discover, to understand."  Does the parable in your view signify the futility of trying to discover anything at all, to understand "in general"?  Or is it concerned with a particular sort of discovery or understanding?

4.1  What does the title of this chapter refer to?

4.2  In light of the conclusion of Bokonon's parable (in Chapter 3), how do we make sense of the narrator's determination to use what he calls "this book" to "examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we [the members of his karass] have been up to"?  Why undertake something that you've just characterized as senseless?  (Or is this what the narrator has done?  Does the characterization of his project as "senseless" leave out of account something important that he said in the previous chapter?)

4.3  What is the narrator referring to as "this book"?  It's not the book that he intended to write but never finished, since that was in the past, and he speaks of "this book" as one he "intend[s]" to write.  For the same reason, it's not The Book of Bokonon, referred to just before, in Chapter 3.  

But is it the book we are reading?  That is, does it consist of the narration he is right now presenting to us?  

Or are we to understand the voice addressing us now to be in the preparatory stages of gathering the material for some book that 

4.4  How are we to understand the first sentence in The Book of Bokonon?  Is there any way to construe it so that it doesn't end up being a senseless contradiction, like "Yesterday I drew a quadrilateral triangle"?

4.5  The narrator declares that "[a]nyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book."

In what ways might a religion founded upon lies be "useful"?  Useful to whom?  To what ends?  What are we to think of these ends:  is "useful" always the same as "good"?

13.1(29) Why does the story of George Minor Moakley get introduced at exactly the point in which it does?  How are we to understand the tone of the narrator’s comment, “The mind reels”?

15.1  What are we to make of Miss Pefko?  Note that this question breaks down into several distinct issues.  

Note that a key element of the scene in which we encounter Miss Pefko is Dr. Asa Breed.  Consider that Vonnegut may be using Breed not only as a causal factor in Miss Pefko's behavior, but using the two to clarify each other by contrast.  That is:  we want to exploit the possibility that the two are constructed to relate to each other as foils

The questions we've posed about the scene that comprises Chapter 15 have to do with the general topic of characterization in fiction.  This is a large topic, and it is not a good idea to interrupt your reading of the novel at this moment in order to inquire further into it.  But you should schedule some occasion in the near future to work through a couple of the essays in our online glossary of critical concepts:

15.2  When you return to the title of this chapter after reaching the end of it, what do you take to be the spirit in which Vonnegut attached this title to the chapter?  (We could rephrase this question this way:  what do we take to be the "tone" of the title to be?)

18.1  What does the title of this chapter end up being made to refer to?  

Why does the narrator say, at the end, that "[h]ad I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl?"

What is that statement?  What issues might Vonnegut be using that statement, and this reaction by the narrator, to put on the table?

Tip:  make it a point, from now on in your reading of the novel, to put a note in the margin -- T/L, say -- whenever the idea of Truth or Lies emerges in the narrative.  (Some of these occasions, these ideas will be explicit:  they will show up in some variant of the word "truth" or "lie."  But be alert, too, to the possibility that Vonnegut is at work on this thematic cluster on occasions in which these notions are only implicitly involved in the action.)

[Where, by the way, do we now realize we were confronted by this complex of issues back in Chapter 4?]

22.1(48-50):  What point does this chapter make about the kind of thinking at work in Dr. Breed’s anecdote?

Is Dr. Breed justified in his reaction to the narrator’s line of inquiry?

23.1(50):  How should we take the phrase “just reward” in ¶3?

24.1(52):  A coherence question:  the paragraph begins, “Which brings me to the concept of a wampeter.”  What is being referred to by the pronoun “which,” and how does it bring the narrator to this subject?

24.2(51-2):  The narrator resorts to a series of distinct metaphors here (a wampeter “blooming”; a “gem”; a “seed of doom”; a “chip off the old block”).

One of these, by the way, is closer to being literal than the others, which are “more” metaphorical.  Can you see which?

What is the metaphorical force of each?

Keep an eye out for the possibility that one or more of these ideas might develop into motif.  If you see them turning up, set a mark in the margin of the text.

Is there anything else you think it might be worth tracing in connection with the ideas associated with the phrase “a chip off the old block”?

25.1(55):  What issues are raised for us by the questions Dr. Hoenikker posed to Miss Faust’s proposal in their bet?

27.1(56):  Dr. Hoenikker’s laboratory, Miss Faust points out, is just as he left it, “except that there were rubber bands all over one counter.”   This fact then gets highlighted in virtue of the brief dialogue that ensues.

“The old man had left the laboratory a mess.”

Actually, we might notice that we have already encountered one idea of a “mess” in Chapter 19, when the Marine general seeks help with his problem.  Notice the way Dr. Breed ends his triumphant demonstration with his anecdote 21(48:last sentence).

Make a point of marking any point at which you notice that this idea is (explicitly) or might be (implicitly) at work.

Here’s a question that might occur to us even now, on a first reading:  are there other respects in which Felix Hoenikker might be said to have “left things in a mess”?

27.2(57):  Why might F.H. have been so interested in cannonballs stacked on courthouse lawns?

31.1(63-4):  How does the title of this chapter strike us, on reflection, as a clever pun?

34.1(74):  The narrator has a visionary moment at the end of this chapter.  Pay careful attention to the language in which this moment is described.  What seem to be the implications of the following notions?

The narrator describes this vision as “Bokononist.” Since we don’t yet know enough about Bokononism, this is one more fragment that we are being goaded into holding in our mind until we have enough at our disposal so that it can start to “fall in place.”

We’ll also want to stay open to the question of evaluation.  Once we know what this vision supposedly means — what it implicitly asserts to be to case — we’ll want to ask whether this is to be taken as sound, within the story as a whole.  Is it, within the story as it turns out, supposed to represent an insight into how things are?  a delusion that some characters are subject to?

How about beyond the story — in the world as you understand it to be constructed?  Does Vonnegut mean to assert this vision to hold outside the boundaries of his novel?  Or is he inviting us to dismiss it as insane?  Or is he asserting it metaphorically but not literally — so that its truth, within the novel, is supposed to be taken symbolically, but not straightforwardly, as true of the world we live in?

Revelatory moments that stand out as “node points” in a story’s plot are sometimes termed epiphanies.  This is an idea that eventually you will want to become thoroughly familiar with.

35.1(74-77):  How many details reported by the narrator in connection with Jack, the owner of the hobby shop, suggest a possible parallel between him and the narrator himself?

35.2(74):  At one point, Jack explains the unkempt appearance of his apartment:  a week ago his wife left him, and “I’m still trying to pull the strings of my life back together.”  The phrase “pulling the strings of one’s life back together” is what we call a dead metaphor:  it is so clichéd that we often don’t stop to take stock of how, figuratively, it originally meant what it does.  Could you explicate it to someone who has never heard it before?

It might occur to us, though, that Vonnegut might have more than one reason for working in this particular phrase.  For example:  what seemingly important ideas have we already been introduce to that might be brushed up against here by the idea of “strings” being “pulled”?

35.3(74):  “And then he turned on a switch, and the far end of the basement was filled with a blinding light.”  How does what follows throw light in turn on Frank?

35.4(75):  “And everywhere ran a spaghetti pattern of railroad tracks.”

Other parts of this Study Guide to Cat's Cradle

  SG to Chapters 36-65
  SG to Chapters 66-96
  SG to Chapters 97-127
  SG:  San Lorenzo dialect & Bokononisms:  a list of first occurrences 

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  This page last updated 27 February 2003 .