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Cat’s Cradle Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
Cat’s Cradle (1963), a satirical science fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut, tells the story of the hunt for a deadly weapon that could destroy the world. It satirizes the arms race, technology, and religion. It was nominated for the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it received widespread critical acclaim upon publication. Vonnegut was the New York State Author between 2001 and 2003. A novelist and graphic artist, he is best known for his combination of science fiction, black comedy, and satire. He once trained as a chemist, which informs his work.
John, the narrator, has written as an “everyman”—someone we are all able to relate to. John is a freelance journalist looking for a new challenge in his writing life. Fascinated by Hiroshima and the power of nuclear weapons, he decides to write a nonfiction book about it, which he provisionally titles The Day the World Ended.
To ensure his book is as authentic as possible, he wants to speak with the family of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Dr. Hoenikker is a Noble prize-winning physicist and one of the “fathers” of the nuclear bomb. John wonders how his family feels about his legacy. He writes to Dr. Hoenikker’s son Newt Hoenikker, who lives in New York. Newt is willing to speak to John.
When they meet, John asks Newt what he remembers about Hiroshima. He wonders if Newt sensed anything different about the day, and how he felt when the bomb dropped. Newt, however, doesn’t remember much about it. He was only six at the time, and he was too busy playing with his toys to notice the news. One thing he does vaguely remember about the day is his father playing cat’s cradle with a piece of string—a game he never normally played.
John asks Newt about his brother, Frank. Frank, a fugitive wanted by the FBI, is hiding out somewhere very remote. Upon speaking to some of Frank’s friends, John learns that Frank was always secretive and even his friends didn’t know him very well. It doesn’t surprise anyone that Frank has secrets about the bomb and his father that he’s still hiding. John knows that to write the best book possible, he really must find Frank and interview him.
First, John meets Dr. Hoenikker’s former supervisor, Asa. She gives him a tour of the old research lab. While looking around, John asks Asa what other projects they worked on together. She tells him about “ice-nine,” an isotope of water that is solid at room temperature. In theory, you could reproduce such a water droplet and freeze all the water in the world. John muses that this could be the latest technological development in warfare. It is potentially even more dangerous than an atom bomb, and it would cause mass destruction. John asks Asa how far Dr. Hoenikker was in his research before he died, but he doesn’t receive an answer. Suspecting that Asa is hiding something, he starts an investigation of his own.
John quickly discovers that Dr. Hoenikker managed to create a prototype based on ice-nine. He didn’t keep clear records, but he showed the prototype to his children. When he died, his children split the prototype up, keeping one part each. Further research reveals that Frank is living on the island San Lorenzo; he used his share of ice-nine to buy his safety and a comfortable job. John decides to visit San Lorenzo to speak with Frank. While he still wants to write about Hiroshima, John is keen to learn all he can about ice-nine.
When he gets to San Lorenzo, John finds Frank’s ice-nine particle. A scientist in control of the particle accidentally releases it into the ocean. This freezes the ocean, killing plants and sea life. On San Lorenzo, everyone soon becomes diseased, hungry, and poor. Their economy depends on the ocean and marine life. Wondering how the accident happened in the first place, John learns there is a war brewing about which he knows nothing.
The three children—Newt, Frank, and Angela—are at war with each other, leading to an “arms race.” Releasing the particle into the ocean was a show of strength. Horrified, John doesn’t know what to do. He needs to secure the other particles and destroy all the research before the world becomes uninhabitable—all because of sibling rivalry.
Meanwhile, a sick islander commits suicide by ingesting one of the particles. Confronting the siblings, John doesn’t leave them alone until they swear to melt the remaining ice-nine particles. They destroy the ice-nine and make amends. However, a landslide causes the dead islander to fall into the ocean, and the ice-nine freezes water across the world.
Now, hardly anyone on Earth is still alive. Instead of working on his Hiroshima book, John writes Cat’s Cradle. He hopes that, if anyone finds his book in the future, they will know what happened. John dies a few months after completing the book.