Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Mother Night, Vonnegut’s third novel, differs from its predecessors in having no emphasis on technology or use of a fictional future. It is the first to be written with a first-person narrator, which deepens the characterization of the protagonist and intensifies the soul-searching, both on his part and the author’s, that goes on in this novel. Mother Night is also the first of his novels to have an autobiographical introduction, added to the 1966 edition, in which Vonnegut ruminates about his own wartime experience and his being of German origin. He notes: “If I’d been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.” That thought illustrates the moral that Vonnegut sees in this novel: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
The pretense in this story concerns Howard Campbell, an American playwright living in Germany with a German wife as World War II breaks out. Campbell is persuaded to remain in Germany, cultivate the Nazis, and become an American agent. He becomes increasingly successful as a Nazi propagandist, although his broadcasts contain coded information vital to the Allies. At war’s end he is spirited back to New York because his secret role cannot be revealed and he is generally thought to be a Nazi. He is...
(The entire section is 832 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Mother Night—the title comes from a speech by Mephistopheles in Faust—is presented as the written memoir or confession of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. It has supposedly been edited by “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,” who offers a signed editor’s note concluding that Campbell “served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.” Yet it is evident that Campbell speaks for Vonnegut—as an unpretentious Everyman.
Against his better judgment, Campbell, an American who lived for a dozen years in Germany, agreed to become an intelligence agent for the United States. Throughout the war, pretending to be a Nazi, he insinuated secret messages into his regular radio broadcasts extolling Nazism and anti-Semitism. By the end of the war, Campbell is a world-famous Nazi; only three persons know he actually was a spy. Almost reluctantly, the United States government helps him escape a war-crimes trial by arranging for him to go underground in Manhattan. In 1960, however, after betrayal by his best friend and the death of the woman he loves, he gives himself up to Israeli agents. He writes his memoirs while awaiting trial in Jerusalem. The last chapter is written on the eve of his trial. He has just received a letter from Frank Wirtanen, who had recruited him as a spy, offering to testify in his behalf. Campbell, however, finds the prospect of freedom nauseating and proposes to execute himself that night “for crimes against himself.”...
(The entire section is 616 words.)