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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.
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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
whichwas 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
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
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."
Campbell, Colin. "Chronology" Sep. 1997
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