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 hunted by vengeful patriots and by admiring neo-Nazis racists—and by the Israelis, to whom he eventually delivers himself.
Campbell’s narrative is written in an Israeli prison as he searches himself for the answers to the question of whether he was really the Nazi he pretended to be or the secret spy, whether he did more to further Nazi crimes than he needed to, and what he would have done if the Germans had won. He had always believed that his propaganda was too ludicrous to believe and that he could remain detached from the horrors around him, yet the fact...
(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.” One must assume that he does in fact...
(The entire section is 616 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Boon, Kevin, A. Chaos Theory and the Interpretation of Literary Texts: The Case of Kurt Vonnegut. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Extending the scientific theory of chaos to literary criticism, Boon uses words and phrases such as “strange attractors,” “fractals,” and the “micro/macro connection” to describe certain aspects of Vonnegut’s prose. A somewhat offbeat but astute analysis of Vonnegut’s work.
Broer, Lawrence. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. Broer offers an in-depth analysis of individual novels by Vonnegut, including Mother Night. His study gives the reader a unique perspective on the common themes that run throughout Vonnegut’s work.
Mustazza, Leonard, ed. The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Critical essays present a detailed study of Vonnegut’s various works, including Mother Night. A biographical introduction as well as a selected bibliography make this a valuable resource.
Reed, Peter J., and Mark Leeds, eds. The Vonnegut Chronicles. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Presenting a series of interviews and critical essays on Vonnegut’s writing, this volume offers a broad variety of opinions and observations from scholars and journalists. A good source of information that helps the reader see more clearly the unique characteristics of individual novels against the wider context of Vonnegut’s work.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991. A revealing look at Vonnegut’s life and state of the world. This collection of Vonnegut’s essays examines both the personal issues and social events that shaped his distinctive writing style as well as his view of modern culture. Vonnegut offers a rare glimpse of his heart in this intimate self-portrait.