In today’s world dominated by science, empirical truth holds an unprecedented amount of value. Facts and figures define our lives. This insurgence of knowledge has led to a divination of truth. Every movie follows the hero’s journey to find themselves and the meaning in all this chaos. Religion seeks to give meaning to our lives and teach us the way everything was meant to be. Our society teaches us in school to think critically: to participate in a Socratic manner. Like many great writers of his day, Kurt Vonnegut followed an existentialist school of thought. He saw life as lacking a deeper meaning and his use of satire and absurdity poke fun at its rationalization. While Vonnegut may not agree with the statement: ignorance is bliss, he did believe our civilization was built on a finely constructed web of lies. In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut utalizes a matter-of-fact tone, irony, and juxtaposition to illustrate the issue with society’s search for truth in a world thinly veiled by lies.
Vonnegut’s writings are characterized by absurdity and satire and Cat’s Cradle is no exception. Vonnegut throughout the novel creates a bleak tone bereft of emotion. In the Books of Bokonon (i.e. the bible of the fake religion on the island of San Lorenzo), the question of “what can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” is raised in its fourteenth book; it is joked that the book does not take long to read as the answer is “nothing” (Vonnegut, 110). This tone persists as the end of the world begins due to “ice nine” and a ritual suicide of Bokononists occurs on the island. The accidental nature of this catastrophe illustrates the unpredictability and meaningless nature of the universe. Vonnegut creates the antithesis of poetic justice as the world comes to an end due to a cruel sequence of ironies. At this point, John (i.e. the narrator) would be whispering “busy, busy, busy” (Vonnegut, 12) as all Bokononists say when the realization of “how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is” (Vonnegut, 34) becomes apparent. Vonnegut’s existentialist view shines though in the tone of Cat’s Cradle: the world has no deeper meaning. Vonnegut’s emotionless tone parallels the lack of emotions found in many of his characters. Most notable of these characters is Felix who created not only the atomic bomb but ice nine. He worked not for the advancement of humankind but merely as a game to challenge his mind. This love of truth over humanity contributes to Vonnegut’s message that “untruths” that keep people happy are much more important than real truths. Lies produce a meaning in life and end the monotony of a truth obsessed existence.
While the depressed tone of the novel drives readers to see the meaninglessness of life, Vonnegut’s irony demonstrates the importance of lies in our society and reinforces the satirical tone. Vonnegut’s irony takes form in absurdity; when describing how society celebrates wars he suggests “we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs” (Vonnegut, 56). This stark comment on the idolization of war reminds readers that the truth of events rarely shines through in our celebration of them. The absurdity continues as the reader realizes that the hundred martyrs died fighting a war they never reached. They were “murdered children” (Vonnegut, 57) dying for the cause of democracy while living under a dictatorship; their deaths were in vain. Having witnessed atrocities serving as a solider in World War Two, Vonnegut believed in pacifism fervently and this theme penetrates this novel through the weaponization of ice nine. The importance of lies can also be drawn from this irony of war; in order to give meaning to the lives lost, San Lorenzo does not dig into the truth. The story of San Lorenzo begins with the founding of Bokononism. McCabe wanted to create a utopia on the island but when finding he was unable to do so help found Bokononism. The religion kept the people of the island “brave and kind and healthy and happy” (Vonnegut, 75) and after outlawing the religion made it more purposeful to practice. The irony appears when ‘Papa’ (i.e. the ruler of San Lorenzo) takes his last rights as a member of the very faith he executes people for practicing. The book as a whole may be summed up to one line “anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either”. Bokononism creates meaning while openly being based purely on lies. Vonnegut demonstrates the integral part that lies play in our society. To maintain a state of bliss on the poverty stricken island, the people lie to themselves every day. Ignorance may not be bliss but in a world where truth seekers find none, lies create a world that can be understood.
Irony reminds the reader of the satirical nature of the novel while the juxtaposition found in the novel illustrates Vonnegut’s belief that the search for truth is a social issue. Vonnegut places the lack of human control, seen throughout the novel, alongside one of the most potent Bokonon beliefs, that “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’ Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand” (Vonnegut 98). Vonnegut juxtaposes the human nature to understand with its inability to. Newt speaks to Vonnegut’s belief that the search for knowledge is futile when he finds “no damn cat, no damn cradle” (Vonnegut, 120) in the string of a cat’s cradle. No wonder kids grow up crazy because a cat’s cradle is just a bunch of xs. Vonnegut’s acknowledgement of the human drive to understand and his belief that “when I’m dead, I’m going to forget everything” (Vonnegut, 110) outline the place lies serve in our society. “Science is magic that works” (Vonnegut, 56) and no more needs to be understood then that fact. Vonnegut warns “beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before” (Vonnegut, 65) because a man like this will be jealous of ignorance. To believe the lies of society and to have faith are virtues some do not possess. Vonnegut again employs juxtaposition when acknowledging “the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it” (Vonnegut, 124). On the island of San Lorenzo for example, the people are kept happy because Bokononism gives their lives meaning but it is all built on lies. Bokononists believe we must give our own meaning to life while the religion was founded on the fact that life cannot be improved or have meaning. Vonnegut’s juxtaposition creates grey areas between black and white realities. The world we live in must be constructed in this grey for “as stupid and vicious as men are, this is a lovely day” (Vonnegut, 115). Vonnegut believes look and you will find no meaning to life but do not look and believe the lies and you will find meaning.
Cat’s Cradle portrays the importance of “untruths” to society. Through satire and absurdity, Vonnegut portrays life as having no deeper meaning. Vonnegut criticizes humanity’s endless search for truth. Reality cannot be predicted or controlled and the world does not produce meaning but irony. The central theme of the novel is Bokononism: a religion founded on lies. Vonnegut’s belief in the importance of this as a function to a meaningful society outlines his belief in the necessity of lies. Through satire, Vonnegut shows his readers that there is “no damn cat, no damn cradle” when searching for the truths of life and that “untruths” can create happy people with meaningful lives. Searching for meaning produces no meaning. As a society we cannot go a single day without lying not only to ourselves but also those around us. White lies are seen universally as an integral part of our society. Ignorance may not be bliss but understanding the functionality of a religion based on lies remains central to appreciating the theme of the novel. Vonnegut demonstrates the “stupidity of mankind” and cherishes our ability to fall victim to our beliefs. Lying remains an integral tenant of Bokononism as the only time readers meet Bokonon is after the world has ended and he speaks only “nothing in this book is true” before vanishing. Vonnegut leaves his readers with a warning that humanity’s unending desire to know the truth cannot be sustained in a world built blissfully on its antithesis.