Mother Night  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Mother Night is a novel by American author Kurt Vonnegut, first published in February 1962. The title of the book is taken from Goethe's Faust.

It is the fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American, who moved to Germany in 1923 at age 11, and later became a well-known playwright and Nazi propagandist. The action of the novel is narrated (through the use of metafiction) by Campbell himself. The premise is that he is writing his memoirs while awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison. Howard W. Campbell also appears briefly in Vonnegut's later novel Slaughterhouse-Five.


Plot summary

The novel opens as Howard W. Campbell, Jr. sits in an Israeli jail cell awaiting trial, writing his memoir. He begins by recounting his childhood in 1930s Germany, as the Nazi Party is consolidating its power. Instead of leaving the country with his parents, Campbell continues his career as a playwright, his only social contacts being members of the Nazi Party. Being of sufficiently Aryan parentage, Campbell becomes a member of the party in name only. He is politically apathetic, caring only for his art and his wife Helga, who is also the starring actress in all of his plays.

Campbell encounters Frank Wirtanen, an agent of the U.S. War Department. Wirtanen wants Campbell to spy as a double agent for the United States in the impending world war. Campbell rejects the offer, but Wirtanen quickly adds that he wants Campbell to think about it. Once the war starts, Campbell begins to make his way up through Joseph Goebbels' propaganda organization, eventually becoming the "voice" of broadcasts aimed at converting Americans to the Nazi cause. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, all of the idiosyncrasies of Campbell's speeches – deliberate pauses, coughing, etc. – are part of the coded information he is passing to the American Office of Strategic Services. Campbell never discovers, nor is he ever told, the information that he is sending.

About halfway through the war, Helga goes to the Eastern Front to entertain German troops. Campbell is extremely distraught when he hears that the camp Helga visited in Crimea has been overrun by Soviet troops and she is presumed dead. In early 1945, just before the Red Army invades Berlin, Campbell visits his in-laws one last time. During the visit, he has an exchange with Helga's younger sister, Resi, that resonates with him for years afterward. After Campbell is captured by American forces, Wirtanen works out a deal in which he is set free and given passage to New York City.

Fifteen years later, Campbell lives an anonymous life, sustained only by memories of his wife and an indifferent curiosity about his eventual fate. His only friend is George Kraft, a likewise lonely neighbor—who, through an extraordinary coincidence, also happens to be a Soviet intelligence agent. He tries to trick Campbell into fleeing to Moscow by publicizing his identity and location. A white supremacist organization makes Campbell a cause célèbre, inviting him to speak to new recruits. The group's leader, a dentist named Lionel Jones, shows up at Campbell's apartment with a surprise: a woman claiming to be Helga, alive and well and professing her undying love. Campbell's will to live returns, and remains even after he finds out that she is not Helga, but rather Resi. They plan to escape to Mexico City after attending one of Jones' fascist meetings.

There, Wirtanen makes an appearance to warn Campbell of Kraft's plot and Resi's complicity. Heartbroken, Campbell decides to go along with the charade. He confronts Kraft and Resi, the latter swearing her feelings for him are genuine. The FBI then raids the meeting and takes Campbell into custody, while Resi commits suicide by taking a cyanide capsule. As before, Wirtanen uses his influence to have Campbell set free. Once Campbell returns to his apartment, however, he realizes that he has no real reason to continue living, and decides to turn himself in to the Israelis to stand trial.

Coincidentally, as he sits in custody, Campbell meets Adolf Eichmann and gives him advice on how to write an autobiography. At the very end of the book, he inserts a letter that he has just received from Wirtanen. The corroborating evidence that he was indeed an American spy has finally arrived, and Wirtanen writes that he will testify to Campbell's true loyalties in court. Rather than being relieved, Campbell feels "nauseated" by the idea that he will be saved from death and granted freedom only when he is no longer able to enjoy anything that life has to offer. In the last lines, Campbell tells us that he will hang himself not for crimes against humanity, but rather for "crimes against himself".

"The Moral of the Story"

"This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral, I just happen to know what it is..."

Vonnegut's "So-it-goes" nonchalance announces on the first page of the Introduction. "The moral of the story" appears again and throughout Mother Night from this point on, and Vonnegut periodically elaborates upon it after saying, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

As a minor adjunct to this moral, Vonnegut later offers the observation that "When you're dead, you're dead." The author then pauses and says, "And yet another moral occurs to me now: Make love when you can. It's good for you."

Literary devices

Throughout the novel Vonnegut uses meta-fiction devices to call attention to the text itself. Most notable is Vonnegut's framing of the novel as a historical document. The editor's note at the beginning of the novel suggests Campbell's writings, the text of the novel itself, are a manuscript that Vonnegut received and is editing for public view.

These devices of meta-fiction can also be expanded to include Vonnegut's approach to character introductions, and character development. In opposition to the common Show, don't tell rule in literature, Vonnegut observes his characters from an almost omniscient perspective; for example, "His name is Andor Gutman. Andor is a sleepy, not very bright Estonian Jew. He spent two years in the extermination camp at Auschwitz. According to his own reluctant account, he came this close to going up a smokestack of a crematorium there."

While this style of character deconstructionism is less prevalent in Mother Night than it is in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Breakfast of Champions, the pervading-style of prose throughout the book is largely intertwined with, as previously mentioned, meta-fiction techniques. Vonnegut's innovative literary omniscience is one of these techniques through which Vonnegut's trademark "so it goes..." attitude achieves a certain degree of meta-morality by virtue of its omniscient, dissociative and detached tone within the prose.


A film version was released in 1996, starring Nick Nolte as Campbell, Sheryl Lee as Helga/Resi, Alan Arkin as Kraft and John Goodman as Wirtanen.

In 2009, produced an audio version of Mother Night, narrated by Victor Bevine, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.

A theatrical version, adapted and directed by Brian Katz, was premiered at the Custom Made Theater Company in San Francisco in 2017. A revival, also directed by Katz, was presented at 59E59 Theatres in New York in October of 2018.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Mother Night" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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