Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
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 remained that many Nazis found him inspirational. What sustained Campbell during the war was the love of his actress wife, Helga Noth. They would retreat into a private world of love, defined by their big double bed, and become a separate “Nation of Two.” That escape is denied when Helga disappears while entertaining German troops.
Clearly, this novel raises questions of the “good Germans” who opposed the Nazis but never spoke out against them or their atrocities, and it probably looks back to the Joseph McCarthy hearings of the early 1950’s, when the American government was involved in a “witch-hunt” for suspected Communists. Almost certainly it reflects some doubts on Vonnegut’s part about his former role as a public relations person at General Electric. It also prompts readers to ask themselves about those situations in which they may have believed they remained inwardly loyal to certain values while doing nothing publicly to oppose their violation. The novel takes a hard look at how people survive in such times as the Nazi reign, either believing themselves secretly aloof or escaping into narrow personal worlds, or by what Vonnegut calls “schizophrenia”—simply obliterating a part of their consciousness.
In the end, Campbell commits suicide, condemning himself for “crimes against myself.” He is unable to unravel the pros and cons of his public role; what he does know is that he betrayed his conscience and misused both his love for Helga and his integrity as a writer. The issue of a writer’s integrity comes up in several of Vonnegut’s novels, starting with Player Piano. His writers frequently have to decide whether to compromise in order to achieve sales, for example, or determine what responsibility they bear for actions to which they may prompt their readers.
Campbell goes from being a romantic playwright dealing in pure fantasy to a propagandist contributing to hideous atrocities. Mother Night also extends the moral issue to include everyone, inasmuch as they may try to author parts of their lives, create illusions for themselves, and manipulate others like characters. Mother Night, especially with its added introduction, reflects Vonnegut’s ruminations about Dresden and about the contradictions implicit in his being a German American fighting against Germans, who then is nearly killed by the Americans. It reflects his concerns about the Allies’ destruction of historic, nonmilitary Dresden and thousands of civilian lives in the name of a noble cause. It also shows him moving to a first-person voice, which enables him to explore directly the inner doubts such issues raise. The novel is especially compelling because its questions are not easy to resolve. Howard Campbell’s dilemma is no easier for the reader to resolve than it is for him. He remains one of Vonnegut’s most complete characterizations, the more haunting because the reader may think, on a smaller scale, that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”