Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mother Night is Vonnegut’s third novel, written well before he had attained best-seller status with Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade (1969). The latter is Vonnegut’s most complete statement about Nazi Germany and his survival of the firestorm that destroyed Dresden on February 13, 1945. With the latter novel, Vonnegut achieved his greatest critical success—while Mother Night was at first totally ignored; it was never even reviewed until it was reissued in 1966. For the new edition, Vonnegut wrote an introduction indicating, among other things, that Mother Night is in some sense an anticipation of Slaughterhouse Five. For example, he confesses that if he had been born in Germany, he “probably would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and Gypsies and Poles around. . . .” It is simply not true that the author, given his personal history, would have been a Nazi, but it is the right thing for him to say to help the reader understand that Nazis are human, as Americans are; it is not our duty to despise them for all time. This idea is developed more fully and successfully in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut also tells his readers in his introduction what the moral of Mother Night is—a typical Vonnegut aphorism that obviously fails to summarize this complex novel, but is well worth quoting: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”