Vonnegut Mother Night Essay, Research Paper
Mother Night Research Paper
Over the years, such world-renowned authors as Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger have shown readers how literature reflects the era in which it is written. Another author who has also made significant contributions to American literature is Kurt Vonnegut, author of such well-known novels as Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat s Cradle.
Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana (”Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.”). Vonnegut attended Cornell University in 1940 where he wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun (”Chronology”). In 1943, Vonnegut joined the United States Infantry. He fought in World War II for the 106th Infantry Division until 1945 when he was captured by the Germans and shipped to a work camp in Dresden. It was here in the city of Dresden where Vonnegut witnessed the American/British firebombing that killed an estimated 135,000 people. “[Vonnegut] tried for many years to put into words what he had experienced during that horrific event…It took him more than twenty years, however, to produce Slaughterhouse Five” (”Vonnegut in WWII”).
Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut’s most famous work. In this book, Vonnegut fictionally recreates his experience in Dresden. However this book wasn’t published until 1969, and he had published several works before this. His first book, Player Piano, was published in 1952; and his third, Mother Night, was published in 1961 (”Chronology”). Even though Slaughterhouse Five was Vonnegut’s only novel to re-create his experience in Dresden, a strong anti-war theme can be found in his earlier literature as well. A fine example of one of his works that fits this description is Mother Night. The novel takes place in an open jail in Old Jerusalem. The protagonist introduces himself by saying, “My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination, The year in which I write this book [is] 1961″ (Vonnegut 17). In first-person narration Campbell accounts stories from before, during and post World War II. The reader learns that Campbell lived in Germany before the war entertaining Nazis as a playwright. He and his wife Helga had no intention of leaving Germany once war became a threat. Campbell tells the reader that in 1938 he was recruited as an American special agent who was to pose as a Nazi propagandist during the war. The reader learns that this is the reason Campbell is currently behind bars in; he is to be tried by Israel for severe war crimes of spreading propaganda. However, the book focuses more on Campbell’s life until the scene returns to the Old Jerusalem prison for the resolution.
As previously mentioned, Slaughterhouse Five was Vonnegut’s first book to deal directly with the Dresden firebombing. But Vonnegut has always had a strong dislike for war, and his novels reflect this.
“He alludes to [World War II] repeatedly in his fiction, as if compelled to somehow come to terms with it if not erase it. Mother Night does not deal directly with the bombing of Dresden- the raid has no part in the plot- but that in a sense is what the book is about” (CLC 3:496).
One of the most interesting things about Mother Night is the way the book reflects both the World War II era and the author’s personal reflections and opinions. Mother Night’s historical content includes the usage of characters that actually once existed and events that actually took place during the war. Vonnegut’s personal reflections are exhibited through his satiristic view of life and his use of sarcasm in the novel. A perfect example is when Campbell talking with Dr. Paul Joseph Goebels (historically the Head of the German Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda), and they are discussing the Gettysburg Address. Goebels finds the address enchanting and suggests that it should be sent to der Fuehrer (historically Adolf Hitler who served as the head of the Nazi party throughout World War II). A copy of the speech is sent to Hitler and he returns a note to Campbell regarding the address as a “fine piece of propaganda” (Vonnegut 27-8). This example alludes to two historical people of World War II but describes a situation which was not true. Hitler using the Gettysburg Address as propaganda is symbolic of the control and manipulation that he tried to gain over the English-speaking population. This example shows Vonnegut’s use of historical content and satire, therefore it verifies that Vonnegut’s work was reflective of both himself and of World War II era. Throughout the novel it is not difficult to find similar examples and observations.
World War II, having a huge impact on Vonnegut’s life, has quite a large role in Mother Night. And Vonnegut alludes to many of the famous names of the war throughout this novel. The first of these names mentioned is Paul Joseph Goebels. Campbell actually first mentioned his name to one of his guards in the prison (Vonnegut 19). Goebels, being the Head of the German Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda is actually Campbell’s old boss, under whom he daily spread German propaganda to the English- speaking world. The next famous name that appears in the reading is that of Adolf Hilter. The majority of the world most likely knows the name, for it is one of the most powerful in history. Next mentioned is “Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz” (Vonnegut 26). Auschwitz, of course, was one of the largest and most feared German death camps in the history of World War II. Campbell met Hoess at a New Year’s Eve Party in 1944.
So the first three historical characters met in Mother Night are all notorious names of World War II. Why did Vonnegut choose to include such dangerous people who left such a negative impact on history? As observed by critic Jean E. Kennard, “Mother Night is concerned with…the ways men use and destroy each other in the name of purpose” (CLC 12:612). Perhaps this was one of Vonnegut’s purposes for writing the novel.
The next person who is of some sort of historical significance is the Reverend Dr. Lionel J.D. Jones. Jones is a fictional character, but in the novel, he is responsible for the publishing of the “White Christian Minuteman” which was an “anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-Catholic hate sheet” (Vonnegut 55). Even though Jones was never real, he, combined with mention of the KKK (Vonnegut 63) is representative of the hate and racism exhibited both during the war and during the 50’s and 60’s.
One of Campbell’s most significant interactions with a historical character is when he meets Adolf Eichmann (architect of Auschwitz, introduced conveyor belts into crematoria, and was the “greatest customer in the world” for Cyklon-B (the gas used in the chambers in German death camps)). This interaction occurs in 1941 when both Campbell and Eichmann are on line to get their picture taken for identification purposes. They strike up a conversation and Campbell asks Eichmann a question. He asks him if he feels he is responsible for killing six million Jews. Eichmann answers, “Absolutely not.” Campbell replies with, “You were simply a soldier were you-…taking orders from higher- ups, like soldiers around the world?” Eichmann puzzled asks Campbell if he had seen his defense. After Campbell replies, “I haven’t seen it,” Eichmann says, “Then how do you know what my defense is going to be?” (Vonnegut 123). Vonnegut makes a very important statement through this conversation. The Nazis had no defense for the crimes they committed.
Vonnegut has always used literature as a way to express himself. It seems that even though many of his novels may be entertaining, he wrote them as a method of expressing himself rather than to please the reader. Vonnegut expresses himself primarily through satire. As pointed out by literary critic Clark Mayo about his writing, “Vonnegut continues to satirize science, religion, politics, sex, man’s understanding, nationalism, and love” (CLC 12:622). Vonnegut has a lot to say about the world; and this verifies true in Mother Night.
There is one chapter in Mother Night that almost seems misplaced. This is the twenty-first chapter entitled “My Best Friend…” (Vonnegut 89). The purpose of the chapter is to explain why Campbell had a motorcycle in his possession. He tells the reader how he had “borrowed” his best friends motorcycle and never returned it. The owner of this motorcycle is the widower Heinz Schildknecht, whom Campbell knew because they used to be Ping-Pong doubles partners. Campbell recalls one night when he and Heinz had been drinking and Heinz revealed something to him. “‘Howard-’ he said, ‘I love my motorcycle more than I loved my wife,’” (Vonnegut 90). Vonnegut is apparently satirizing love in this example. With this chapter Vonnegut is saying, ‘Society is more concerned with material possessions than it is with the true love and compassion of another human being.’
Vonnegut uses repeated themes in his work. As observed by Mayo, “[At several levels Mother Night] is about pretending, illusion, and multiple roles…” (CLC 12:618). Once the reader reads about how Campbell took his best friends most prized possession, he or she may realize that this is an example of illusion or even betrayal. Of course the most obvious exhibition of “pretending, illusion and multiple roles” is the idea of Campbell as a secret agent. As noted by critic Tony Tanner:
“Campbell is a special ‘agent’; but in Vonnegut’s vision we are all agents, and the perception that we can never be sure of the full content and effect of what we communicate to the world, by word or deed, is at the moral centre of [Mother Night]. It also carries the implicit warning that our lies may be more influential than our truths…” (CLC 12:606).
Aside from the theme of illusion, Vonnegut’s novel satirizes some of the vicious hate groups in society. Other than the Nazi party, Vonnegut mentions the KKK, the S.S., and the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution- a fictitious hate group composed of teen-age white supremacists. The reader knows that Vonnegut is not supportive of these groups because of the strong Anti-war theme in the book.
These examples reflect the author’s life- maybe not in a physical sense, but through symbolism and satire, the reader can sense Vonnegut’s emotional point of view. If nothing else, Vonnegut wishes to stress one specific point in his novel. In the introduction of Mother Night Vonnegut writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Vonnegut 5). Vonnegut introduces this as the moral of his book.
What is the purpose of Mother Night? Well, literary critic Richard Giannone says, “Mother Night lays bare for [the reader] the mechanism of the self-deceiving mind as it desperately tries to keep up with the uncontrollable distresses of life, which, for Vonnegut, are epitomized in the encompassing threat of war with its senseless violence” (CLC 12:622). This novel was most likely Vonnegut’s outlet to comment on war. This, however, is not a typical anti-war novel. Vonnegut’s unique style allows the reader to learn historical information from World War II and see inside the mind of the author at the same time.
Once again, Vonnegut’s novel historically reflects the World War II time period by effectively describing characters and events of that era. The novel reflects the author’s life by expressing his current views on life, politics, and society, his personal opinions, and his emotions of war and violence. As mentioned earlier, a fine example of this is when Hitler considers using the Gettysburg Address, one of the most well-noted speeches from American history, as a form of Nazi propaganda. Vonnegut was also trying to warn the reader of the horrible effects of war. His style is most effective because he uses such a powerful situation (World War II) and such a realistic protagonist that it is almost hard to believe that the events in the novel are fiction. And if nothing else, the moral of Mother Night was one which was both an observation and a warning about the surrounding society. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Works Cited :
Campbell, Colin. “Chronology” Sep. 1997
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 3. Detroit:
Gale Research Company, 1975.
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Detroit:
Gale Research Company, 1980.
“Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
CD-ROM. Grolier Electronic Publishing, 1996.
“Vonnegut in World War II”
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Mother Night. New York:
Dell Publishing Co., 1961.