The Purpose of Mother Night

The Purpose of Mother Night

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The  Purpose of  Mother Night

    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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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

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

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



     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.
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