The Characters

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Like other Vonnegut protagonists, Howard Campbell tends to speak aphoristically. He tells the reader a number of things that are good for the reader to know or emulate. For example, in reply to the supposition that he hates America, Campbell replies, “That would be as silly as loving it. . . . It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me.” Elsewhere he says that “nationalities” do not interest him. He refers to himself as a “stateless person.” Once he draws a swastika, a hammer and sickle, and a United States flag on his window and says, “Hooray, hooray, hooray.” So much for patriotism. In this way Campbell presents one of the more important of Vonnegut’s teachings.

Another of Vonnegut’s lessons requires that Campbell (who was a successful playwright in Germany) admit that if Germany had won, there was every chance that he “would have become a sort of Nazi Edgar Guest, writing a daily [newspaper] column of optimistic doggerel. . . .” While this admission conflicts tentatively with the antipatriotic theme, it serves the equally important idea that most Americans probably would have behaved like most Nazis, placed in the same situation. As the reader comes to identify more closely with Campbell, he is led to the brink of seeking a way possibly to forgive the Nazis—to forgive unspeakable evil. This hope is perhaps thwarted, however, by Campbell’s inability to forgive himself (hence his suicide) for having furthered the cause of anti-Semitism so efficiently as to render his intelligence work insignificant.

Like Campbell, the other characters dramatize certain themes and ideas—though usually one motif dominates. Dr. Abraham Epstein, a survivor of Auschwitz, has only one message: “Forget Auschwitz. . . . I never think about it!” This, too, is a possibly healthy way of dealing with the Holocaust—though it conflicts with the very act of writing Mother Night. Similarly, Bernard B. O’Hare is brought onstage only to teach the reader the wrongness—and the futility—of vengeance.

Another minor character, Heinz Schildknecht, who, the reader is told, is Campbell’s best friend and whose precious motorcycle Campbell steals in the last days of the war, dramatizes but one thing: friendship betrayed. This motif is reinforced later, in New York, by Iona Potapov, alias George Kraft, who in some part of his being is genuinely Campbell’s friend. Yet he betrays Campbell. This more complex character also participates in the general investigation of schizophrenia that the novel undertakes. As a Russian spy, Potapov is insane; as an American spy, Campbell also exhibits schizophrenic traits. Finally, the absurd Nazi dentist Lionel Jones is insane to the degree that he is simply a caricature of a Fascist. His role appears to be to demonstrate that anti-Semitism is so crazy that no one could possibly countenance it. Then, one is forced to ask, how could the Holocaust have occurred? Great evil is a mystery, Vonnegut replies, and he proceeds with caution to seek its source.

The sisters Helga Noth and Resi Noth can almost be treated as one person, since each, in her relationship with Campbell, participates in acting out Campbell’s idea of the “Nation of Two”—the title of a romantic play he never got around to writing but which was to show “how a pair of lovers in a world gone mad could survive by being loyal only to a nation composed of themselves—a nation of two.” The implicit idea here, and a most tempting one, is that the best way to deal with gross political evil is to ignore it and retreat into sweet sexual love.

(This entire section contains 604 words.)

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Characters Discussed

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Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the protagonist, a pitiful, abandoned, forty-eight-year-old “citizen of nowhere.” American-born, he moved with his family to Berlin at the age of eleven. By 1938, at the age of twenty-six, he is a successful writer and producer of medieval romance plays, all starring his beloved wife, Helga. At this time, he is recruited by Major Frank Wirtanen to be an American secret agent posing as a Nazi radio propagandist. Thought to be a vile Nazi hatemonger (only three people know of his services as an American secret agent), Campbell is twice captured as a Nazi war criminal and twice released through Wirtanen’s secret machinations. Finally, Campbell, in despair over his Nazi-tainted past, turns himself in to Israeli authorities and is imprisoned in Jerusalem. When he is again ironically “saved” by Wirtanen and is faced with the nausea of being a free man, he hangs himself for “crimes against himself.”

Helga Noth

Helga Noth, Campbell’s wife, the daughter of the Berlin chief of police. She dies in the war. Campbell, without knowing it, had broadcast the news of Helga’s death in one of his coded radio broadcasts, but because he was ignorant of his broadcast’s secret contents, he was not privy to this information.

Resi Noth

Resi Noth, Helga’s younger sister, only ten years old when Campbell last sees her in Germany. Fifteen years later, Resi, now a Russian spy, poses as Helga and plots, with fellow spy George Kraft, to kidnap Campbell and transport him to Russia. Resi falls in love with Campbell, however, and tries to subvert the plans to take him to Moscow. When she is captured by American agents and faced with deportation and separation from Campbell, she takes a fatal dose of cyanide and dies “for love” in his arms.

Major Frank Wirtanen

Major Frank Wirtanen, an agent of the U.S. War Department who recruits Campbell as an American spy. Wirtanen, one of only three people who know of Campbell’s role, twice saves him from death or capture but can never be found to corroborate Campbell’s claim to be a spy. Finally, when Campbell is imprisoned in Jerusalem, Wirtanen, who really is Colonel Harold J. Sparrow of the U.S. Army, violates direct orders and reveals his role as Campbell’s recruiter to free Campbell from prison.

Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare

Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare, a rabid patriot and member of the American Third Army. He considers himself Campbell’s personal nemesis. He captures Campbell after World War II, only to have him released by Wirtanen. O’Hare waits fifteen years for his chance to capture Campbell again and tries to ensnare him in his New York apartment, but Campbell fights off the drunken, pitiful man by breaking his arm with a pair of fire tongs.

George Kraft

George Kraft, a lonely old painter, Campbell’s neighbor and best friend in New York. Kraft, who really is Russian spy Iona Potapov, plots with Resi Noth to kidnap Campbell and deliver him to the Soviets, but in his own loneliness he finds himself drawn to Campbell, becoming his closest companion. Kraft devises a plan whereby he, Resi, and Campbell can escape to Mexico, but he is arrested by American agents and sent to prison, where he becomes an influential painter. Kraft’s deep friendship with Campbell is ironic, considering that Kraft is an enemy spy.

Lionel Jason David Jones, D.D.S., D.D.

Lionel Jason David Jones, D.D.S., D.D., a neo-Nazi and publisher of the White Christian Minuteman. He extols Campbell as the greatest hero of embattled white men in their continuing struggle against the oppressive forces of Judaism, Unitarianism, and black nationalism. Campbell, however, agrees with none of Jones’s beliefs and thinks that Jones is insane.




Critical Essays