Study Guide

Mother Night

By Kurt Vonnegut

Mother Night Introduction

Cards Against Humanity ain't got nothin' on Kurt Vonnegut.

No, really. What you're about to get in Mother Night, Vonnegut's dark postmodern tale from 1961, is a text full of Nazi jokes, dead people jokes, a wild and wacky cast of spies and war criminals, and a plot so twisted and mindboggling it'll make your head spin.

Of course you're interested.

Our hammy, beleaguered guide to the goings-on in Mother Night is Howard W. Campbell, Jr., as smarmy a narrator as you possibly could hope for. This guy spent World War II spying for the United States…by pretending to be a Nazi. And not just any Nazi: Campbell pretended to be a defector from the U.S., and as a Nazi, he put his skills as a poet and playwright to use writing propaganda so incredibly atrocious—and by that we mean effective—that pretty much everyone was in awe of his work. This guy was a little good at his job.

What we get in Mother Night is ostensibly Campbell's memoirs, written by himself. It's no surprise that he's an unreliable narrator, given the crazy life he's led. He starts in medias res in the early 1960s, from a prison cell in Israel, where he's about to be tried for his crimes. (No one seems to know that he was only pretending to be a Nazi.) After that, he jumps all over the place, discussing his life in Germany during the war and then later in New York City, where he was essentially in hiding.

All of this play with structure and chronology makes it difficult to ever really know for sure what's true and what's not in this novel. And that's just as it should be, because the central figure is a secret agent propagandist whose job it is to distort the truth. If you ask Vonnegut, this is some serious stuff: even though Campbell technically didn't mean any of the nasty things he wrote about Jews or the great things he wrote about Hitler, people still died because of it.

It turns out that you can't distort the truth without consequences.

Vonnegut has a lot to say about pretending that war is the beautiful and noble thing it is in most propaganda. Mother Night looks at our most self-serving assumptions about war and reminds us that it's a bloody endeavor that has more to do with real-life horror stories than shiny banners and ticker tape parades. But it also asks deeper questions about what makes us who we are, what makes us act the way we act, and what makes us justify things that shouldn't be justified.

But if that sounds too heavy, Shmoopers, don't fret. There are also jokes. Lots of jokes.

What is Mother Night About and Why Should I Care?

Who are you?

How do you know?

That's not a trick question—we promise. For realsies, who are you? What makes you you?

Putting your thoughts, beliefs, hopes, and dreams in one corner and your words, actions, and reactions in another, tell us: do they match up?

Are you the same around your friends as you are with your family? Do you make the same jokes or tell the same stories around them?

What about at work or school? How's your you-ness holding up now? Are there different yous—does your personality kind of splinter off?

Does one version of you ever mess things up for the other version? Say, Version A really looks up to your brother, who just happens to have really bad taste in food. Do you avoid eating pizza because he prefers grilled-bananas-and-cheese on toast? Or does Version B tell version A to shove it, and go for the pizza?

Are you a dancer if you never dance?

How about in reverse? Do you really hate Pokémon Go if you play it every single day in order to impress the person in class you have a crush on? If you never stop playing, which is the real you? Poké-player or Poké-hater?

What happens if your actions don't ever match up with your insides?

There's no easy answer to this question, but in his introduction to Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut gives us one way to look at the problem:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral, I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (Introduction.1)

There are a lot of opportunities in life to do things—for better or worse—that may not mesh with how we see ourselves or who we want to be. This novel raises those stakes by pointing out that sometimes, you wager not only everything that makes you you when you pretend to be what you're not, but you also wager everything that makes you human.

When it comes to gambling with your sense of decency, we think it's worth taking a peek at how the protagonist in this book places his bet.

Mother Night Resources

Movie or TV Productions

Mother Night, On Ice
Oh, actually, it was just a movie. Too bad. Anyway, be careful: this film adaptation with Nick Nolte and Alan Arkin only has a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Articles and Interviews

Doris Lessing to the Rescue
Maybe normal, boring reviewers didn't bother with Mother Night, but Doris Lessing is afraid of nothing, and she dives right in.

Could Be Better, But…
Here's a snappy little review of the film from a blog at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

Video

Trailer Full of Awkward
The trailer for the movie version of Mother Night starts out with an extended clip of one of Campbell's hate-filled broadcasts.

Audio

Audible Recording for the Win
Have a long car ride coming up? Planning to spend a lot of time in isolation apologizing for your life? Maybe take this along for a read.

Images

Grimace Behind Bars
The agonized figure on this baby makes this one of our favorite book covers for Mother Night.