Black Humor in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

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Black Humor in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

The phrase Black Humor 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 Humor 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 Humor before moving on to discuss its use in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle3.

Many critics have attempted definitions of Black Humor, none of them entirely successfully. The most significant recurring features of these definitions are that Black Humor 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 realization 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 Humor. Combine all of these ideas with the generation of humor, particularly through incongruity, and as a method of releasing tension, 7 and I think that we are close to realizing the complexities of Black Humor. But perhaps the best definition of all comes from a Black Humorist - Vonnegut himself.

Black humorists' 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 Humor 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.
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