Mother Night Summary
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Mother Night, a Kurt Vonnegut novel published and set in 1961, presents itself as a fictionalized memoir of Howard W. Campbell Jr., who also appears briefly in one of Vonnegut’s other novels, Slaughterhouse-5. It is a first-person account narrated by Howard of his life prior, during and immediately following World War II, which is the major set piece of Howard’s life and what gives him the occasion to write his story down in the first place. Vonnegut uses metafiction to slip between the “present day” Howard in which he’s telling his story, and the “past” Howard where he’s living the events as they unfold. The novel opens as Howard languishes in a prison in Israel, awaiting a fair trial for the war crimes he is accused of committing during the Second World War. He appears to be composing his memoirs at the request of the Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals who is eager to add to the archive instances of “Nazi villainy” and has given Howard a typewriter and various other resources in order to aid him in this pursuit. It is revealed that Howard was first a playwright and later began composing Nazi radio propaganda while living in Germany. He refers to Goebbels specifically as his boss, and casually mentions the many connections he had to high-ranking Nazi officials who were the main patrons of his art.
Following a brief description of the newness of the prison he’s being held in, and of the various guards meant to look after him, Howard launches into his personal autobiography. He was born in Schenectady New York, on February 16, 1912, and his father worked as a technician for General Electric at first solely within the United States, but eventually moved the family to Germany when Howard was 11. However, once the Nazis begin their rise to political power in the late 1930’s Howard’s parents decide to leave Germany, while he decides to remain. He marries a German actress, Helga, and works relatively successfully as a dramatist when he is confronted by an agent of the U.S. War department, Frank Wirtanen. Wirtanen makes it clear that he knows precisely who Howard is, and the favor his plays enjoy by members of the Nazi party and asks Howard to become an American agent during the coming war. Howard initially refuses, though Wirtanen dismisses this refusal by saying both that Howard needn’t decide now, and that his true answer would come at a later date and could be understood through his actions. However, Howard is generally disinterested in politics and doesn’t necessarily consider himself a member of any nation other than the “nation of two,” a phrase he uses to describe his relationship with Helga to sum up how they can interact with, yet never ideologically become a part of the Nazi organization. Helga eventually disappears while performing for the German troops in Crimea, and while Howard spares no expense in trying to locate her, whether alive or dead, he is never able to find her.
Howard does in fact rise through the propaganda machine producing anti-Semitic messages for broadcast, and continues doing so until he is picked up by the Americans. He reveals that the only reason he was not convicted of high treason after this was because of Wirtanen’s intercession and the fact that Howard had worked as an American agent throughout the war and included coded messages in his propaganda he produced. Howard maintains that he does not know what information he passed through these messages—which appeared as coughs, dramatic pauses and forced stumbles—because , it was all passed to him by people he never met or interacted with in any other ways. Even though Howard is not convicted (Wirtanen actually sabotages the case against him, rather than out Howard as a spy for the Americans) he is smuggled to New York where he must live in relative secrecy.
His life is so lonely that Howard does continue to use his own name, even though it is recognizable as a famous Nazi propagandist, very few people draw the connection to who he really is. Eventually, Howard befriends a man, George Kraft living in his apartment building who also happens to be a spy for the Russians. Howard recounts all of this from the future perspective, where he can now realize all the lies Kraft had told him. In order to further the Russian cause, Kraft deliberately leaks news of Howard’s continued existence to a man, Reverend Doctor Lionel J. D. Jones, D.D.S., who publishes a white-supremacist newspaper and outs Howard by celebrating his seemingly anti-Semitic past. Jones is eager to involve Howard in his organization, and presents him with a woman he claims is Helga, but is actually Helga’s younger sister Resi, who had previously confessed to having real feeling for Howard. Together they plan to escape from Jones and Howard’s unwanted notoriety, until Wirtanen again appears to intercede on Howard’s behalf. Although Resi continues to swear to having genuine feelings for Howard she also had been working with Kraft in order to lure Howard to Moscow. During and FBI raid the fascist meeting Howard is taken into custody, where he is again freed by Wirtanen, while Resi commits suicide.
Howard again feels incredibly disconnected from his life, and decides to turn himself in to the Israeli government, who had been pressuring nations believed to be harboring war criminals in order to bring them to justice. Wirtanen sends Howard a letter promising the delivery of evidence that will secure his release, but the thought sickens Howard. Instead, Howard tells the reader that he will hang himself. In first few pages of Mother Night Vonnegut expressly states its moral, which is touched upon periodically throughout the novel: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
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Campbell is both a protagonist and an antagonist; he is like Janus, since it is possible to say that he has two faces; the first one belongs to a vicious Nazi, whose propaganda spreads like a cancer around the English-speaking world, while the second one belongs to a spy, who works against Nazis. Although Campbell does a lot for the victory over Nazi Germany, his lies cost millions of Jews their lives. When the war comes to its end, he manages to continue his life. How? Why does his conscience keep silence? The answer is rather unpredictable, he has schizophrenia. What is his real identity then? Both, a vicious Nazi and a merciful person, who sacrifices his future life for the victory, coexist peacefully in him. This proves that this world is not black-and-white, even the worst person might have something good in him/her and vice versa.
Absolute freedom is an attractive idea and an extremely beautiful utopia. Before the war starts, Campbell thinks that he and his Helga exist in their own world, the kingdom of two, where only love and mutual adoration exist. As it turns out to be later, their kingdom of two is not protected from the harsh reality. One might think that one is free, independent, a citizen of the world, but this illusion can burst like a bubble as soon as a war or a catastrophe happens. Then they have to make a choice. The only one kind of freedom exists and it is freedom of choice.
Obsession is a rather dangerous emotional state. As soon as a certain idea starts ruling one’s world, that person stops sensing the world around him/her. An idea of racial purity, thoughtless dedication to a certain ideology or a person can cause the most horrible tragedies. This story shows how important it is to think, analyze and make decisions carefully.
The World War II was the most horrible tragedy in history of mankind. Tragedies, horrors, injustice and many other dreadful things happened then. Although it was a nightmare, which came true, there were people, who managed to forget about it. They didn’t hold grudges and didn’t look for revenge. Dr. Epstein’s is the perfect example. He doesn’t want the war influence his life, doesn’t think that all ex-Nazis are his sworn enemies. He prefers to forget and this strategy seems to work fine for him, but others – his mother and his friends – want him to remember, to lead a life full of hatred. Dr. Epstein proves that it is possible not to lose hope in humanity even if you have seen hell.