by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Dell Publishing, originally published in 1963. Dell Pulishing, 1998. 304pp. Paper. $14.00. ISBN: 9780385333481.

Reviewed by Stephen McDougal, Department of Political Science/Public Administration, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Email: mcdougal.step [at]


Maybe it’s because CAT’S CRADLE (first published in 1963) was one of Kurt Vonnegut’s earlier novels, and I found his later works so much more captivating.

Maybe it’s because so many of those New Left issues, which seemed so vital forty-something years ago, nowadays don’t.

Maybe it’s because I caught the flu over the holiday break, and I ended up re-reading the novel two or three pages at a time, which wasn’t bad since it is presented in 127 chapters of about two pages each.

Maybe it’s because years ago at Carroll College in Wisconsin, I had the privilege of introducing Vonnegut as the college’s annual “big speaker,” and as we visited beforehand, he admitted to me he didn’t really remember much about the novel.

But, for whatever reasons – and combinations of reasons – I found that as a fictional basis for undergraduate classroom exercises in law, courts and society, CAT’S CRADLE is probably pretty much a bust. I couldn’t keep myself from viewing it as something of a period piece, a reflection of the growing angst of the 1960s. The novel says much more about religion than about law. Law is a minor character in the narrative, and it is painted as only bombastic, superficial and ineffectual, yet perhaps (like the explicit depiction of religion) filled with very “useful lies” (ch.4). Aside from the literary merits of, the novel, all these things must be weighed carefully by anyone considering its classroom use.

But first, my story of Vonnegut’s story: Using a first-person narrative style, Vonnegut (calling himself Jonah, although his parents had actually named him John) tells of following a tenuous thread of human relations in pursuit of a book he once wanted to write about the lives of famous and ordinary people in the United States on the day Hiroshima was obliterated by the U.S. Army Air Force. He starts by contacting the children of Nobel Prize physicist Felix Hoenikker, one of the so-called fathers of the atomic bomb, only to learn how utterly dysfunctional Hoenikker’s life truly was. A visit to the family’s hometown fills in the story of Felix, the egomaniacal genius detached from human life both socially and emotionally, and his three alienated children: Frank, the eldest who spent all of his time in a model train shop before disappearing after his father died; Angela, whose life was ruined by being her father’s caretaker after their mother passed many years earlier; and Newt, whose various talents were never recognized by his father, much less acknowledged. No “law”, here, save perhaps a perspective of “moral law” violated in a father’s neglect of his children and his myopic, amoral commitment to professional science. [*366]

Just before his death, Dr. Hoenikker was working on one last project for the U.S. military – a technical means to make the muddy, sloppy ground of a battlefield hard and therefore easier to conduct operations upon. The Nobel laureate’s technical solution was “ice-nine” – a tiny seed of water crystal, wherein the atoms are arranged in a way entirely new on earth, and in a way from which they would form a solid up to 114°F. By tossing a seed of ice-nine into a mud bog, for instance, the seed would “teach” the atoms of the water molecules already there how to stack themselves into near-permanent solidness. The problem would be, of course, that any ordinary water molecule coming into contact with ice-nine would both change into ice-nine and continue the chain reaction by passing on to its neighbor molecules that same ability. From the mud bog to the streams and rivers, to oceans and lakes, to (I’d presume) sinks and toilets, all water would freeze into ice-nine. In short, to release ice-nine into (what we today call) “The Environment” would effectively end life on earth. Does this narrative create scientific issues? Only scientific issues? Or any genuine legal issues at all? Would any of them really matter at the end of Jonah’s story?

When Hoenikker died, his children divided his tiny supply of ice-nine among themselves.

As it happened, Jonah eventually finds Frank through a NEW YORK TIMES advertising supplement. Frank is serving as Minister of Science and Progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo – an island dictatorship somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean. On a plane flight to its capital, Bolivar, Jonah meets the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to San Lorenzo, who happens to have with him the only written history of the island. From the unpublished manuscript, Jonah learns of Bokononism, the dominant – and utterly illegal – religion of San Lorenzo. Practicing any form of Bokononism is punishable by death on The Hook – a giant iron fishhook hung from a crossbeam between two tall poles. The Condemned is impaled through the stomach and left to die. As one admiring American businessman on the plane comments, in terms most U.S. students will grasp as cultural intuition –

“No fines, no probation, no thirty days in jail. It’s the hook. The hook for stealing, for murder, for arson, for treason, for rape, for being a peeping Tom. Break a law – any damn law at all – and it’s the hook. Everybody can understand that, and San Lorenzo is the best-behaved country in the world.” (ch.43)

In Jonah’s tale, needless to say, everyone on San Lorenzo is a devoted Bokononist, “despite” this horrific punishment. In conventional law and society terms, the law of San Lorenzo has no efficacy whatsoever, and only slightly less efficacy than the speed limit signs along any U.S. Interstate. But, in Vonnegut’s world, this is not at all problematic; it is, rather, given – taken-for-granted. The law of the state is implicitly depicted as inherently alien to (some vague New Left-ish notion of) true human community, yet this is not Vonnegut’s theme, nor the outcome of the story.

Also on the plane are Dr. Hoenikker’s other children, traveling to their brother’s wedding, and both are carrying their slivers of ice-nine. (ch.77)

San Lorenzo turns out to be a worthless lump of rock to all but its native [*367] inhabitants. It is the only Caribbean island not fought over by the European colonial powers. Its population descends mostly from a British slave ship that was run aground in 1786 after the cargo successfully mutinied. When the Castle Sugar Corporation showed up in 1916, pursuing profits from the sugar boom during World War I, there was no government. Did there need to be? Vonnegut gives us no hints.

When two shipwrecked sailors – McCabe and Johnson – washed up naked onto the island in 1922 and declared that they were now in charge, no one complained and Castle Sugar quietly left. According to the manuscript, McCabe and Johnson wanted to make San Lorenzo a “true” utopia. So, McCabe overhauled the economy, while Johnson [now, Bokonon] invented a new religion. And, of course, their efforts failed in their eyes. (ch.60)

when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies. (ch.78)

To this end, Bokonon convinced McCabe to make Bokononism illegal in order to make it more effective. Even The Hook was Bokonon’s idea, “something he’d seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s” (ch.78). McCabe cooperated, and while Bokonon went into “cozy hiding,” McCabe organized the unemployed, which was just about everyone, into great Bokonon-hunts. Routinely, Bokonon would be surrounded and helpless, only to escape miraculously until next time, beloved of the people. There’s even an unpublished poem by Bokonon:

So I said good-bye to government,
And I gave my reason:
That a really good religion
Is a form of treason. (ch. 78)

Is this “resistance” as discussed in so much contemporary critical legal scholarship? Or, is it one more example of an elite using law as a form (albeit a unique form, perhaps) of formal law to mask “ultimate” power? Probably, yes on both counts, but I’m not sure Jonah cares.

Jonah arrives on San Lorenzo, and being one of very few U.S. citizens, he gains instant status, which he alone does not take for granted. He weaves his way through the halls of power – such as they are – and ends up being the presumptive new President of San Lorenzo. The current dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is dying, and his designated heir, Frank, doesn’t want the job.

More to the point, everywhere the narrator goes he encounters Bokononism, and everyone he talks to is a devoted Bokononist – Western migrants as much as natives – even as they publicly deny it. The law of the state – such as it is – means nothing! The contradiction is obvious, and so repeated as to only have been intended as an essential narrative characteristic. Even “Papa” Monzano (if made into the supreme symbol of legal positivism) contributes on his death bed; he rejects a conventional clergyman, declaring, “I am a member of the Bokononist faith...Get out, you stinking Christian.” (ch.97) [*368]

In the end, of course, and by the most bazaar circumstances, ice-nine is loosed, and in an instant, the world freezes. Tornadoes of ice-nine particles pummel the world and only a handful of people – including the narrator, of course – survive. Little pellets of ice-nine lay everywhere – which also turns out to perfectly preserve all food stuffs. Plants and animal carcasses, handled carefully and heated to 114°F, become safely edible. But, to touch the ground with one’s finger and then one’s finger to one’s lips is instant death.

In the final chapter – number 127 – the narrator finally meets Bokonon, who is trying to think of the last sentence of his extended Books of Bokonon, the sacred texts of Bokononism, because (as he says), “‘The time for last sentences has come.’...It read:

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

Somebody cue that little bird!

This makes CAT’S CRADLE a bust in a law-related class? Could easily be! Maybe it’s because CAT’S CRADLE is a postmodern work created long before the term was coined, and certainly long before Vonnegut’s genius at it was fully honed. As a (proto?) postmodern work, of course, the novel carries no pointed theme or modernist plot. Characters are not developed for our benefit; they are just as they are at the narrative moment, with a little personal biography sometimes thrown in to highlight the narrator’s editorial insights.

This postmodern device of the off-hand comment is clearest in Vonnegut’s use of irony, which runs through all levels of his narrative. The text is replete with odd comments and observations which were pithy, controversial criticisms in the early Sixties, before U.S. society started its agonizing journey through Vietnam, Watergate, bungled energy policies, Reaganomics, Clinton scandals, oil wars, etc., etc. etc. But, how many of Vonnegut’s 1963 jokes would be hard to explain? Maybe, you just had to be there? More likely, Vonnegut’s 1960s insights have become the millennial generation’s conventional wisdom.

Todd Davis, a real literary critic, recently wrote that Vonnegut “is more concerned with our response to existence than with the philosophical nature of that existence.” (Davis, 2001, 151) As an ordinary reader of Vonnegut for decades, this seems very plausible to me, a useful insight into the great author’s artistry. But, if my purposes are teaching about law, the novel’s brilliantly segmented narrative and fragmented observations offer only a thin thread of legal commentary, far from anything plausibly argued as the artistic, literary purpose or effect of the novel.

Maybe, then, it’s the difference between the practices of postmodern literature and the practices of undergraduate university education.

Maybe, in my readings and intended use as a classroom device, the “postmodern point” is just clearer now. [*369]

Q: What does the novel mean?
A: Anything the reader makes of it; the meaning will reflect the reader more than the pretended intensions of the author.
Q: What can CAT’S CRADLE teach your students about The Law? Anything that you choose?
A: Not really!
Q: But, with so many possible themes – the uselessness of law, law as an oppressive power, law masking powerful political interests, resistance and the attraction of the illegal, the contestable claims of deterrence and control, even law as “useful lies” – how can you control the readings your students will create?
A: Why would I want to? The students must do it themselves, or worse, come to treat someone else as “authority” and let that “authority” do it for them, and not always to their advantage, either…as we all know. But, in Vonnegut’s spirit as an author (as read by Davis), I can only prod my students into thinking about law in the diverse ways contemporary scholarship of all stripes offers. The choice is – and should always be – theirs. Therein, as foil as much as insight, the novel may have classroom potential.

Davis, Todd F. 2001. “Apocalyptic Grumbling: Postmodern Humanism in the World of Kurt Vonnegut,” in Boon, ed.. AT MILLENIUM’S END: NEW ESSAYS ON THE WORKS OF KURT VONNEGUT. Albany: SUNY Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Stephen McDougal.