Fictional Character Felix Hoenikker
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle is filled with existentialist ideas, which revolve around a“philosophical theory that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will”. Existentialism is particular to the individual; their life goals, their meaning of life, their viewpoints, etc. in others words, it is “The idea that philosophy and science can be combined to give us the best possible knowledge about the world and how to act within it is an old one, encapsulated by the classic concept of scientia, a Latin word that means knowledge” (Pigliucci 6). In the book Cat’s Cradle, the main topic of existential debate is evidently science versus religion. In many ways, these two topics are very different, but they are quite similar as well; Both science and religion have a common goal, to discover what is true in the world. Jonah, the protagonist in Cat’s Cradle, explores issues revolving around science, technology, and religion, while attempting to figure out the significance of each and their relevance to himself. Vonnegut often juxtaposes science and religion in Cat's Cradle, characterizing science as a form of discovering truth and religion as a form of creating lies. Jonah experiences this juxtaposition first hand as he sets out to write a book, titled The Day the World Ended, which is about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As he does research and writes his book, Jonah faces the existentialist struggle of understanding the significance of each of those factors: science, technology, and religion, on him and his life.
Cats Cradle was written during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis , which was a time where humankind was brought very close to becoming annihilated due to man-made creations. Writers of this time, such as Vonnegut, focused greatly on the absurdity of mankind, which is an existential concept. In existentialist beliefs, the absurdity of mankind refers to the conflict that is created between the struggle humans face when seeking value and meaning in their lives and the innate human struggle/inability to find any meaning. During this nuclear age, there was a great focus on the fragility of life and mankind as a whole, as well as how certain situations are painfully unavoidable. True power lied in the hands of a small number of individuals who did as they pleased, since their actions were not limited by outside and ulterior forces, such as intervention from god; the only fear these individuals possessed was “mutually assured destruction” which would occur if the opposing nation would retaliate and in turn harm them back, eliminating both nations. This idea connects to existentialism since these individuals did not fear any consequences other than being struck back. They believed they were improving the world with their new technological advancements (nuclear bombs), but continued to hesitate in utilizing them as they knew these advancements contained negative effects; they searched for meaning but failed to find it. One of these individuals may have been the fictional character Felix Hoenikker created by Vonnegut inCat’s Cradle.
In the beginning of the novel, Jonah wrote to Newt Hoenikker, the son of Felix Hoenikker who is a Nobel prize-winning physicist and one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, in order to find out if Newt remembered any significant events about his father's relationship and involvement in Hiroshima as research for his book. As Jonah works on the novel and continues to communicate with Newt, he uncovers that Hoenikker was a “monster” of scientific inquiries since his inventions caused great destruction to humanity; the atomic bomb on Hiroshima as well as ice-nine, which was his final invention before death. One may wonder why Felix Hoenikker created the atomic bomb while havingthe knowledge and understanding that it had the capacity to seriously harm millions of people. This brings upon the belief that science can somehow be considered separate from the atrocities it helps create, in this case the atomic bomb. Characters such as Felix Hoenikker consider their research seperate from the way the world decides to use them , but in Cat's Cradle, this viewpoint isn’t considered accurate, and science is held responsible for the chain of consequences brought about by its research. This chain of consequences is another idea of existentialism, where our own decisions have consequences which we will have to deal with, based off that one decision we made for ourselves. For example, Felix Hoenikker decide to create the atomic bomb which killed millions of people in Hiroshima which has had long lasting effects to this day. Additionally, the fact that a human would purposefully create a weapon of destruction that can be used on other humans related to the previously stated idea of human absurdity through an existential lense.
Another existential idea is the idea that in God’s absence, the responsibility of humankind rests entirely in the hands of men (and women). Sartre, an existentialist philosopher, believed that when God abandoned mankind, we become responsible for our own existence even though it is all meaningless without a predetermined purpose. This creates the point that self-awareness leads to morality. However, Vonnegut goes against this idea in Cat’s Cradle. Dr. Hoenikker leaves behind all morality in pursuit of scientific discovery; after the atomic bomb is confirmed to be destructive, he continues to deny the sins that come along with science. This mindset is often seen on the flip side: religion.
Many followers of religion act in a similar manner when their beliefs are questioned or rebutted against, they stick by their beliefs denying anything that may possibly be wrong about them.Cat’s Cradle tackles the topic of religion through a made up religion called Bokononism.Bokononism is not like most religions in today’s society, rather than asking the reader to believe in Bokononism based off of blind faith, it encourages the readers to think deeply for themselves and make judgements based off all the knowledge they can gain.Early on in the novel, after revealing that he has converted from Christianity to Bokononism, Jonah says,“I would have been a Bokononist then, if there had been anyone to teach me the bittersweet lies of Bokonon,”(pg. 2). Through Jonah’s use of the word “lies”, Vonnegut is explaining that every religion is full of lies. Vonnegut is mocking religion and the fact that so many people put their trust in something or someone they cannot see and have no proof exists. Religion also plays a role with Dr. Hoenikker. In the beginning of the book, Jonah shares a story in which Hoenikker did not think anything was absolutely true; When Miss. Faust replied with “God is love”, Hoenikker responded with, “‘What is God? What is love?’” (pg. 55). Vonnegut is trying to express that everyone has a different definition for everything, an idea of existentialism. For example, love to one person is not love at all for another and this is the same for religion; what one person classifies as their religion may not seem religious to another person. Additionally, religion plays a role on the island of San Lorenzo. Everyone on the island practices the same religion, which coincidentally happens to be banned on the island. Because of this, everyone has to practice religion in secret and make sure they are not found out. Vonnegut may be saying that many people today practice religion, but they so in “secret”. While Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism may not be banned in America, many people just go through the motions. It is what they are used to and expected of, but no one has a passion for it. It is almost as if Vonnegut is saying that if religions actually were banned, it would not be that big a deal, despite the issue of freedom of religion.
Generally, scientists and religion experts try to explain the world through different approaches; Scientists try to explain life with true facts, and followers of religion believe that there is a supernatural force who assigns purpose to everyone's lives. Even though these are two opposite approaches and viewpoints of life, both groups try to explain the world and give purpose to their lives. This relates to existentialism and how every person searched for personal meaning for their life. The characters in Cat’s Cradle are no exception to this,all the characters reject the truth of their circumstances in some way, relating back to the idea that all humans search for meaning in their lives; whether it being technologically, scientifically, or religiously related.