Black Humour and Cat’s Cradle
by Cathy Cupitt

Voltaire said that heaven has given us two things to compensate us for the many miseries of life, hope and sleep. He might have added laughter to the list.1

The phrase Black Humour has the broad meaning of poking “fun at subjects considered deadly serious or even taboo by some”2. This definition is simple, and yet embodies an important idea that is often lost in more complex definitions: the idea that Black Humour can actually be “fun”, and provoke laughter. This is not, of course, the only important aspect of the term, and I shall explore some of the other important defining features of Black Humour before moving on to discuss its use in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle3.

Many critics have attempted definitions of Black Humour, none of them entirely successfully. The most significant recurring features of these definitions are that Black Humour works with: absurdity, ironic detachment4; opposing moral views held in equipoise, humanity’s lack of a sense of purpose in the unpredictable nuclear age, the realisation of the complexity of moral and aesthetic experience which affects the individual’s ability to choose a course of action5; and a playing with the reader’s ideas of reality6.

On their own these elements don’t make up what we understand as Black Humour. Combine all of these ideas with the generation of humour, particularly through incongruity, and as a method of releasing tension,7 and I think that we are close to realising the complexities of Black Humour. But perhaps the best definition of all comes from a Black Humorist – Vonnegut himself.

Black humourists’ holy wanderers find nothing but junk and lies and idiocy wherever they go. A chewing gum wrapper or a used condom is often the best they can do for a Holy Grail.8

What, then, are Vonnegut’s uses for Black Humour in his novel Cat’s Cradle? I believe he has three primary uses, which are: entertainment; furthering the novel’s themes; and raising self awareness in the reader.


Vonnegut believes that writers can influence people’s ideas profoundly. In one of his many speeches he stated the following:

We will become influential when those who have listened to our myths have become influential. Those who are influential now are living in accordance with myths created for them by writers when they were young. It is perfectly clear that our rulers do not question those myths for even a minute during busy day after busy day. Let us pray that those terribly influential writers who created those our leaders’ were humane.9

But, he might as well add, writers can only be influential if they are read. I believe that Cat’s Cradle is short, pacy and humourous to make it as attractive a read, and as entertaining a read as possible, while still allowing Vonnegut to explore the themes that interest him. Furthermore, much of the humour seems simple and accessible. The form and language of Bokonon’s Calypsos are good examples. The reader is introduced to the first Calypso of the novel in Chapter 2, before there is any strong feeling for how subversive aspects of Bokononism really are. The result is amusement that has only a the merest smudge of blackness to it.

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen –

All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice –
So many different people
In the same device.10

That the type of humour used in the book is Black Humour is, I think, a direct consequence of the apocalyptic nature of the themes Vonnegut develops in Cat’s Cradle. What other kind of humour would work so cohesively? Satire or irony perhaps, but at the risk of making the book far less accessible. Of course Vonnegut uses both satire and irony in the novel, and yet these types of humour are not predominant. Cat’s Cradle is too absurd in places to be predominantly ironic, and too morally ambiguous in places to be predominantly satirical.

However, I don’t think that the presence of Black Humour in Cat’s Cradle can be entirely reduced to Vonnegut’s desire to be entertaining – he does more than ‘poke fun’ at serious ideas. The humour is present only in order to leaven the serious themes, but to further them.

Two central themes of the novel, religion and science, are simultaneously in opposition and in equipoise – one of the defining features of Black Humour as discussed in the introduction. Vonnegut sees laughter as one of only two ways of resolving fundamental frustrations such as these. He has said that “laughter is a response to frustration, just as tears are, and it solves nothing … the biggest laughs are based on the biggest disappointments and the biggest fears”.11

It is because the novel plays on the ‘biggest fear’ of the nuclear age – man-made apocalypse – that I believe that both the ‘blackness’ and ‘humorousness’ of Black Humour is central to the presentation and furtherance of Vonnegut’s themes.

Furtherance of Themes

I believe there are three themes which are central to Cat’s Cradle: the use of religion, the use of science, and whether individuals have any control over their destiny.

Religion and Science

In Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut attacks the idea that truth is innately desirable and good – an idea which is all pervasive in our culture, particularly within the two major competing explanitive philosophies of religion and science. He attacks these notions in many different ways, but primarily it is through the use of humour.

The opposing yet balanced forces in the book are represented by the differing ways Bokononism and the scientists of the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company treat truth. We have, in fact a “major opposition between the sinless scientist and the distinctly fallen religious prophet, Bokonon. As the scientist finds the truth that kills, the prophet looks for a saving lie”12.

The opposition is kept in equilibrium through the philosophies’ similarities.

Though each arises out of a separate intellectual system, they are twin states of being. Both [Science and Religion] have a facade of harmony that obscures a hideous life. Illium’s affluence compensates for its spiritual poverty; San Lorenzo proffers spirituality to fill its material want. Together they school Jonah in the futility of aspiring to improve or even understand the human condition.13

We can see this opposition in action in the following statements, firstly by Dr Asa Breed, head of the Research Laboratory, and secondly in one of Bokonon’s Calypsos.

New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.14

I wanted all things

To seem to make some sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And so I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise.15

The world of Cat’s Cradle, as represented by these two viewpoints, is a world searching for a sense of meaning and purpose. But in this topsy-turvy world where truth is death and lies are paradise, “understanding is the booby-prize”16. The people that do claim to understand anything are shown to be fools, like the “Episcopalian lady in Newport … She was a fool, and so am I” writes Bokonon, “and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing”17.

But the risk of seeming foolish doesn’t stop anyone from trying to understand. It doesn’t stop us from laughing at the absurdities arising from their attempts either. By the time we realise the novel is juxtaposing the two main cultural mainstays of ‘real world’ meaning, in their divided search for truth and purpose, the laughter has turned uncomfortable. In the ‘real’ world of possible nuclear annihilation and post-modernism, this joke is on us as well as with us – and Black Humour is at the core.

This search for meaning and truth takes many forms of play or invention. Vonnegut is in fact “pushing quite hard for a recognition of the deeply ambiguous creative/destructive aspects of the innate human instinct to play,” with the associated connotations that “we cannot know how our games will end”18.

For Felix Hoenikker the search was in the form of the ability to “stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn”19, no matter what the consequences might be. For Frank Hoenikker, the “chunk of the old man’s magic meat”, the search is for honour and creature comforts, without taking any responsibility20. “I know I’ve got limitations” he says to John when explaining why he can’t be president of San Lorenzo. “They’re the same limitations my father had. … I’ve got a lot of good ideas …but he was no good at facing the public, and neither am I” 21. And neither father nor son is interested in learning anything about the public or humans in general.

The scientists, Felix and Frank Hoenikker, seem to reveal that:

… scientific knowledge cannot provide the answers to essentially human problems, but that people all to often think it can; that science is frequently exploited to create human problems, while scientists do too little to prevent this; and that the scientist may put his incomprehensible truths before other people, but turn away from the human truths life may present him22.

This negative view of science is only marginally refuted by the medical practices of the two doctors on the island, Julian Castle and Dr Schlichter von Koenigswald, both of whom rely on ‘unscientific’ religious methods to relieve the suffering of their patients when medicines fail.

Bokonon, on the other hand, is interested in finding the best way to make people brave, kind, healthy and happy. He will tell any ‘foma’ to do so. But are ‘foma’ really as harmless as they seem? When the outside world intrudes, Bokonon’s lies lose their ‘Dynamic Tension’. His invented creation myth – “And God said, ‘Let Us make living creatures out of mud'” – is undone by Frank’s seed of Ice 9, which was designed to eliminate mud23.

And yet religion seems to be revealed as a more useful, and less dangerous, invention of meaning than science, despite its paradoxes and shortcomings. It has proven “helpful, having greater flexibility for suggesting purposes and at the same time the means for making man feel better about his lack of purpose”24. Bokonon’s lies prove more liberating that the Hoenikkers’ truths.

Despite this more positive representation of religion over science, lies over truth, the reader is left with no very definite idea of the ‘equipoise’ (or Dynamic Tension) between science and religion being morally resolved. The ending of John’s book remains enigmatic. We never find out the ‘truth’ about what happens at the end of the world we have been privy to through the novel, or the final destiny of our narrator. We are left instead with the overriding impression of laughing at death. As Bokonon puts it: “I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who”25. A fairly good example of Vonnegut’s holy wanderer finding nothing but “junk and lies and idiocy”, and yet laughing rather than crying26.

The end result of these searches is another of the elements present in Black Humour, as defined in the introduction. The multiplicity of searches, utilising either religion or science, brings on the realisation of the complexity of moral and aesthetic experiences. Bokonon’s, and eventually John’s, answer to this complexity which affects the individual’s ability to choose a course of action, is ironic detachment.

John’s tale about the ‘day the world ended’ is no sob story. And it is called by the much less bleak title Cat’s Cradle. Bokonon’s books, likewise, are laughing in the face of misery and death – gallows humour. Both of these fictional writers are Black Humorists, which is why Black Humour is fundamental to both our enjoyment and understanding of the novel.

Individual Destiny and Control

Not only does Cat’s Cradle cast doubt on the usefulness or wisdom of searching for truths, and our traditional ways of doing so, but the idea of self determination and the ability of a person to control their destiny is questioned. The idea of being able determine our own destiny does, after all, hinge on the assumption that we live in a sensible, predictable, meaningful universe. But do we? Or are we living in absurdity and constantly creating our own meanings?

An idea central to Bokononism is that “man [is] the one who has always been responsible for giving life meaning, lacking inherent meaning as it does, and so the possibility of happiness exists in his world if only we give life the ‘right’ meanings”27. But by the end of the novel, the reader has no firm idea about whether ‘right meanings’ are possible. This is summarised by John’s discovery of the Bokononist paradox, “the heartbreaking necessity to lie about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it”28; that there is no ‘true’ or ‘right’ answer to humanity’s lack of a sense of purpose in the unpredictable nuclear age. Except perhaps as Voltaire and Kant have suggested in hope, sleep and laughter29.

If there is one message that can, with any certainty, be read from the novel, it is perhaps that “there is no such thing as progress, or providence, or manifest destiny”30. Everything happens “as it was supposed to happen”, and that no chasing of destiny will ever fulfil our desires, even if we catch what we are chasing31. John gets Mona, and is not satisfied; Frank is offered the Presidency, and doesn’t want the responsibility that goes with the power; all three Hoenikker children buy what they dream of with Ice 9, and none are happy. So we might as well live as best we can in the moment we are in, and laugh. This is the essential position that Black Humour takes towards the meaninglessness of life – total cynicism without nihilism.

Self Awareness

“Nothing in this book is true,” writes Vonnegut in the disclaimer before the start of the book, a joke on the standard disclaimer. He adds “Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy”. Before the book is even begun, the reader’s sense of purpose and expectancy are shaken. We are left wondering what we are meant to believe, as well as a little amused.

From even before the start of the narrative, then, one attribute of Black Humour as described in the introduction is manifest: there is the sense of a lack of absolutes, of ultimate purpose and meaning. A novel is meant to be a fabric of fictions, woven for our entertainment, but suspension of disbelief is usually expected while reading these lies. As the book continues, the almost inescapable conclusion is that in Vonnegut’s world we must be aware of the lie and truths we are choosing to accept, that “the primary criterion for choosing a philosophy of life is pragmatic: not whether or not it is ‘true,’ but whether or not it works”32.

The metafictional nature of the novel also keeps the reader in a slightly uneasy awareness that they are ‘reading’ rather than immersing themselves unselfconsciously in the text. Just as we become used to the idea that we are reading about the writing of a book (The Day the World Ended) that turned into another book (Cat’s Cradle), we are thrown again by the introduction of another set of fictional books – The Books of Bokonon. Then Papa Monzano and Frank Hoenikker get a brief look-in with fictional ghost-written statements, and then Philip Castle’s fictional book on San Lorenzo. And so it goes.

This playing with our expectations continues with the content. In “books like Vonnegut’s … Cat’s Cradle … there is a different alignment of fantasy and reality. The two are portrayed side by side, as if both are equally fantastic and equally real”33. For example there is the Hiroshima bombing – real – and the apocalypse due to Ice 9 – unreal, and scientifically impossible34. And at the very opening of the novel, Vonnegut invokes “a famous novel [Moby Dick] and an improbable Old Testament story … as if to insist that the narrator is a purely fictional persona and his story all make-believe”35.

Why does Vonnegut paly with the reader in this way? It certainly creates ambiguity, absurdity and incongruity – all helpful in generating humour. But I believe it does more than this. It makes us aware of the text as a text, and self-aware in how the textual themes relate to us. This is an aim Vonnegut believes is fundamental to artists of all types: “Our purpose is to make mankind aware of itself, in all its complexity, and to dream its dreams. We have no choice in the matter”36.

Why he should consider this an important role of artists is, I think, revealed in an excerpt from his introduction to Mother Night.

If I’d been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around … warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides.37

It is only through self awareness of our own actions and responsibilities that individuals can potentially avoid never questioning the status quo, or our cultural myths. In this regard Black Humourists could be considered similar to satirists: “they would prevent us from ‘warming ourselves with our secretly virtuous insides’ while we condone the freezing of others … comically but relentlessly they seek to make us thoughtful”38. But unlike the satirists, there is not the “rhetoric of moral certainty” within the texts of the Black Humorists39.

Black Humour is not an easy concept to define, and yet those elements which do seem to be repeated across definitions all seem to lead towards the belief expressed by Voltaire and Kant. “Heaven has given us … things to compensate us for the many miseries of life, hope and sleep … [and] laughter” 40. Perhaps we have also been given Black Humour, for those times when the search for meaning fails, and we can no longer explain why there are such miseries.

In any case, I believe that this is what underpins Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. He aims to entertain, raise our self awareness, and nudge us towards questioning the fundamental ‘myths’ that underpin our society: science, religion, and a belief in our ability to make our own destinies. Inextricably intertwined with all of these aims is Black Humour, running through the novel like the tangle of strings in a cat’s cradle.


Dickstein, Morris.
“Black Humour and History”, in Gerald Howard (ed.), The Sixties. New York: Washington Square Press, 1982, 272-292.
Eco, Umberto.
“Frames of Comic ‘Freedom'” in T. A. Sebeok (ed.), Carnival! Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984, 1-9.
Giannone, Richard.
Vonnegut: A Preface to his Novels. Port Washington, NY/ London: Kennikat Press, 1977.
Kant, Immanuel.
Critique of Judgement: Book II Analytic of the Sublime. E307 Photocopy.
Mayo, Clark.
Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space. San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1977.
Meeter, Glenn.
“Vonnegut’s Formal and Moral Otherworldliness: Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five,” in Jerome Klinkowitz & John Somer (eds.), The Vonnegut Statement. USA: Delacourte Press/ Seymour Lawrence, 1973, 204-220.
Mustazza, Leonard.
Forever Pursuing Genesis: The Myth of Eden in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990.
Reed, Peter J.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. USA: Warner Paperback Library, 1974.
Scholes, Robert.
“Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night”, in Robert Merril (ed.), Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Boston, Massachusetts: GK Hall & Co, 1990, 74-82.
Scholes, Robert.
Fabulation and Metafiction. Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1979.
Schulz, Max F.
Black Humour Fiction of the Sixties. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1974.
Soucek, Victor.
Towards the Definitions of Black Humour: A Generic Approach to the Contemporary American Novel. Murdoch University: Thesis presented for the honours degree of the World Literature and Literary Theory course, 1978.
Tanner, Tony.
City of Words. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.
Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt.
Cat’s Cradle. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983.
Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt.
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.

End Notes

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement: Book II Analytic of the Sublime
    (E307 Photocopy), p. 201.
  2. E307 Handout 8 (University of Western Australia, 1996).
  3. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England:
    Penguin Books, 1983).
  4. Victor Soucek, Towards the Definitions of Black Humour: A Generic Approach to the Contemporary American Novel (Murdoch University: Thesis presented for the honours degree of the World Literature and Literary Theory course, 1978). These defining features were discussed in p. II & 1.
  5. Max F. Schulz, Black Humour Fiction of the Sixties (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1974). These ideas came from chapters I & III. The book gives a very thorough discussion of the ‘black’ side of Black Humour, but discusses the ‘humour’ more superficially.
  6. Morris Dickstein, “Black Humour and History”, in Gerald Howard (ed.), The Sixties (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982), p. 272-292.
  7. Umberto Eco, “Frames of Comic ‘Freedom'” in T. A. Sebeok (ed.), Carnival! (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984), p. 1-9.
  8. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975), p. 136.
  9. Vonnegut, Wampeters, p. 257.
  10. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 8.
  11. Vonnegut, Wampeters, p. 284-285.
  12. Robert Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1979), p. 158.
  13. Richard Giannone, Vonnegut: A Preface to his Novels (Port Washington, NY/ London: Kennikat Press, 1977), p. 62.
  14. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 31.
  15. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 82-83.
  16. Clark Mayo, Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space (San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1977), p. 31.
  17. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 9.
  18. Tony Tanner, City of Words (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), p.189.
  19. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 13.
  20. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 55.
  21. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 125.
  22. Peter J Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (USA: Warner Paperback Library, 1974), p.136.
  23. Mayo, p. 31. The connection between the purpose of Ice 9 and Bokonon’s creation myth is discussed.
  24. Reed, p. 136.
  25. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 179.
  26. Vonnegut, Wampeters, p. 136.
  27. 27 Leonard Mustazza, Forever Pursuing Genesis: The Myth of Eden in the Novels of KurtVonnegut (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990), p. 86.
  28. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 177.
  29. Kant, p. 201.
  30. Glenn Meeter, “Vonnegut’s Formal and Moral Otherworldliness: Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five,” in Jerome Klinkowitz & John Somer (eds.), The Vonnegut Statement (USA: Delacourte Press/ Seymour Lawrence, 1973), p. 215-216.
  31. Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 56. This phrase is repeated as a refrain throughout the book.
  32. Mayo, p. 28.
  33. Meeter, p. 205-206.
  34. Vonnegut, Wampeters, p. 125. Vonnegut tells an anecdote about a crystallographer who pronounces Ice 9 impossible.
  35. Reed, p. 125.
  36. Vonnegut, Wampeters, p. 256.
  37. Scholes, p. 160. Quoting from Vonnegut’s 1966 introduction to Mother Night.
  38. Scholes, p. 160.
  39. Robert Scholes, “Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night“, in Robert Merril (ed.), Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut (Boston, Massachusetts: GK Hall & Co, 1990), p. 82.
  40. Kant, p. 201.

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