Campbell thinks he's cool as a cucumber, but he's got a lot of feels. And he wants us to feel his feels, which is why he languishes in the tiny details of his experiences. No, really—we get a lot of emotionally charged detail that's meant to remind us that this is the Campbell show:
I confess to a ghastly lack in myself. Anything I see or hear or feel or taste or smell is real to me. I am so much a credulous plaything of my senses that nothing is unreal to me. This armor-plated credulity has been content even in times when I was struck on the head or drunk or, in one freakish adventure that need not concern this accounting, even under the influence of cocaine. (37.18)
As silly as it seems, following Campbell on a ride through his self-indulgent memories is an interesting read. If nothing else, dude's entertaining.
On second thought, it may be somewhat of a problem that Campbell knows this stuff about himself. See, he loves being the center of attention almost as much as he loves cheeseball humor. He's kind of like the king of dad jokes without actually being a dad. Want a gander at his level-10 camp? Some of his famous last words are "Goodbye, cruel world!" (45.58).
These attention-seeking lines are carefully chosen by Vonnegut as the hammiest way to sign-off on a suicide note. This is seriously like something out of a campy silent film. The phrase itself was used as early as the mid-1800s in novels depicting suicide letters. When our narrator says sayonara in this way, he knows he's offering up a whole lot of cheese.
At least the kind of cheese Campbell offers is the tasty, fun kind, and not some awful pile of blue cheese nastiness stinking up the salad bar and ruining our lives.
This is not your typical war drama. For one thing, the war is over. For another, our main character never even saw any fighting during WWII. Actually, everybody in this novel is a spy; nobody's out on the battlefields with a bazooka. Okay, yes, there are a few other odd jobs in there, but you get what we mean: this isn't your average shoot-'em-up.
So what's the deal? Well, this text deals with the aftermath of war. War's got far-reaching effects—especially a huge planetary war like WWII. Now it's 1961, and people are still dealing with their traumas. Trauma—that right there is the main reason this gets looped into the war drama genre. Whoa, say that three times fast.
Whose trauma drama are we reading about, anyway? Oh, yeah: this is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.'s autobiography. Sort of. He's a fictional character, so it's kind of hard to have an earnest memoir when you're not real. But this baby's got all the trappings of an autobio: childhood, love life, career angst, Blue Fairy Godmother. You get the idea. All told from the first-person perspective, from the character's own pen.
Wait a minute. ¿Qué? What's a Blue Fairy Godmother doing in this not-so-Cinderella war story? Oh, yeah: Vonnegut's novel is a postmodern piece, which means it's a little helter skelter. Just to clear things up a bit, Vonnegut isn't pulling a Donnie Darko—Blue Fairy Godmother is just a nickname for Campbell's handler once Campbell becomes a spy. See, it's all totally normal.
Well, kind of.
Anyway, so what is it that makes postmodernism tick? Well, lots of things. One is the dizzying array of characters, all of whom are a little—or a lot—paranoid. Another is the scope of the story, as it jumps from various times and places. A third characteristic is the text's willingness to be whackadoo and super self-aware at the same time. One last thing: we're not calling Vonnegut a nihilist, but one of the calling cards of postmodern works is that they question the validity of meaning and our ability to access any kind of objective truth.
Want a sample? Here's Resi, age ten:
'It doesn't mean anything,' she said. 'Nothing means anything. You go shoot the dog now.' (19.35-37)
Yeah, we're in postmod country here, folks. Don't worry about breaking anything. Nobody'll notice. Except Werner Noth.
As a text, Mother Night is pretty self-aware. It even offers us an explanation of its own title, if we look outside the borders of the story a bit.
Remember how Vonnegut plays at being the meticulous editor of a "found" memoir instead of admitting he's the author of this novel? Great. Well, in his carefully crafted Editor's Note, he offers an explanation for the title of the whole work:
The title of the book is Campbell's; it is taken from a speech by Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust. As translated by Carlyle F. Maclntyre (New Directions, 1941), the speech is this:
I am a part of the part that at first was all, part of the darkness that gave birth to light, that supercilious light which now disputes with Mother Night her ancient rank and space, and yet can not succeed; no matter how it struggles, it sticks to matter and can't get free. Light flows from substance, makes it beautiful; solids can check its path, so I hope it won't be long till light and the world's stuff are destroyed together. (Ed note.11)
Whoa, hold up. This title is from Faust? Okay, okay. We can parse this out. First off, we've got Doctor Faustus. That's a play written by Christopher Marlowe during the English Renaissance that was based on a pan-European legend. In this play, Doc F sells his soul the devil for knowledge of everything. Like, everything. It's tantamount to God's knowledge, which Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden for trying to taste.
So where does this Goethe person come in? Oh, we're so glad you asked. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German poet and playwright who wrote his own, even more famous version of the Faust legend. Are there any big differences between Marlowe's and Goethe's text? There are. Here's a big one: while in Marlowe's play, Faust gets sent straight to tarnation for his intellectual crimes, in Goethe's play, Faust gets to go to heaven because—get this—God rewards ambition.
Okay, it's a little more complicated than that, but dude, we know. A text like this has major implications in the 20th century, when the world is at war over Hitler's quest for world domination. The Nazis didn't care about the actual meaning of any text; they just used what they liked.
In any case, let's get back to that quote. Mephistopheles—that's the devil—gives us a little metaphysical backstory about himself, telling us he was part of the first "stuff" (darkness) that light sprang from (when God said "Let there be…"). He's more than ready for the time when Mother Night and capital-letter Light destroy themselves together. Fun. Translation: he's ready for the apocalypse.
Putting it all together, what do we get? We see that massive, overreaching ambition—and the attempt to prop it up with propaganda—is what can actually bring about the end of the world.
That's it? Campbell's just going to kill himself? After everything he's been through, after everything we've watched him go through, after all those escapes, he's just going to off himself?
Why did we even read this whole thing if Campbell was just going to throw it all away?
Well, as in the carnage of war, the ends don't necessarily justify the means. In this case, Campbell's death isn't for us; it's for him. It may make zero sense. That's often the point in postmodern lit: nothing is anything, anyway, so why bother? We're not just looking for meaning in all the wrong places, but we're wrong for looking for meaning in the first place, because there isn't any.
Counterpoint: maybe there's some method to this madness. After all, the one thing we know about Campbell is that he hasn't been able to fully punish himself, even though he's technically some version of innocent. He's sort of giving himself the death penalty even if he's cleared of all charges. That makes sense, because as Vonnegut likes to point out, on some fundamental level, we are what we pretend to be. That makes Campbell a pretty nasty person, even if he was just pretending.
Plus, buying the farm is Campbell's way of completing the "story" he's been writing about himself:
I think that tonight is the night I will hang Howard W. Campbell, Jr., for crimes against himself. I know that tonight is the night. (45.55-56)
Earlier, Campbell mentioned that he should have killed himself when Helga died, because that's what a romantic hero in one of his plays would do. But he didn't know then that that was his cue. It's as if this is his second chance on stage, and he's taking his final curtain call the right way. As he sees it.
Hey, live by the pen, die by the pen, we guess.
Campbell is writing to us from his jail cell in Israel. It's 1961, and from his vantage point—which is limited—he gets a sense of the shiny and modern glopped on top of the very, very old:
I am surrounded by ancient history. Though the cell in which I rot is new, some of the stones in it, I'm told, were cut in the time of King Solomon.
And sometimes, when I look out through my cell window at the gay and brassy youth of the infant Republic of Israel, I feel that I and my war crimes are as ancient as Solomon's old gray stones. (1.13-15)
Campbell's entombed in this new-but-old place telling us about the other places he's been. Most recently, he's been in purgatory, which is his pet name for New York City. It's where he's been hiding out since the end of WWII. Most of his NYC life is spent in a dingy attic apartment filled with U.S. military supply surplus goods. Like the souls in actual purgatory, Campbell is stuck in limbo: because of his past, he's not free to live his life normally, but he's also not in any actual prison at this point.
It's an interesting choice, as well, for this wealthy man (his parents invested well, and he inherited a ton) to live a meager existence while filling his room with stuff stamped "U.S.A." It's kind of like he's making up for the fact that as a spy in Germany, he didn't get to serve in the U.S. army openly.
As for his heyday in Germany, we don't get too much of a sense of setting. Campbell spends a lot of time in Berlin and moves around here and there throughout the country. We see bombed houses, and we see military academy buildings that pass by in a blur of rubble, but really the longest description we get is of the Noth home. It's fancy, bare, and freezing, because there's a shortage of heating during the war.
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
'This is my own, my native land!'
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand?
— Sir Walter Scott
In the novel, we learn that Campbell writes medieval romances—quest narratives with heroes, villains, and damsels in distress. His work sounds less like actual medieval texts, though, and more like 18th- and 19th-century renditions of medieval works.
This epigraph is a snippet of a longer 18th-century poem by Sir Walter Scott called The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was inspired by medieval ballads. This portion is from Canto VI, called, um, "Patriotism." The lines basically say that if you're not patriotic and super proud to be from your homeland, then you're dead inside. Ouch.
One tricky bit here is that Scott is from Scotland (right—who'd have guessed?), so he's mainly thinking about the complicated situation in Great Britain. That is, he's proud to be from Scotland, even though the English took control over it; similarly, he thinks the English should be proud to be English even in the face of Norman French influence. He's not really concerned about people who are foreign to him being patriotic, though—as in, dude's not losing sleep about Italian civic pride or anything.
Yeah, well, all those foggy patriotic and nationalistic ideas come with consequences, and you need look no further than Nazi Germany to see what those consequences can be. What differentiates Scott's text from propaganda? Does anything, really?
Mother Night offers pretty straightforward prose and a clipped pace. There's no tricky business here, folks. On the other hand, Vonnegut's narrator is a writer who prides himself on a good turn of phrase, so depending on where you are in your SAT vocab prep, you may need to look up a term here and there. But overall, there's nothing to worry about here.
Some of the cleanest, most energetic lines in this text are also the most poetic:
I am behind bars.
I am behind bars in a nice new jail in old Jerusalem.
I am awaiting a fair trial for my war crimes by the Republic of Israel. (1.7-9)
The lines add beats to the flow of reading, but they don't interrupt that flow. They also add detail while building suspense. In case you had forgotten, Campbell is a poet as well as a playwright, and he's not above sneaking a little of that flair into this particular text.
When Campbell's not being poetic, though, he's really into trying to sound official. Terribly official: the sentences are formal, almost dry. This hyper-academic attention to detail gives us the impression that this is all Very Important Stuff. At least until Campbell makes a pun.
Here's a snippet from the Editor's Notes that's supposed to be all Vonnegut:
I don't care to argue the point. My duties as an editor are in no sense polemic. They are simply to pass on, in the most satisfactory style, the confessions of Campbell. (Editor's Note.3)
And here is a very serious acknowledgement by Campbell for help with his fictional research:
I am indebted to the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals for the source material that makes it possible for me to include in this account a biography of Dr. Jones, publisher of The White Christian Minuteman. (13.1)
Both are examples of how the language is structured to deliver a sense of formality and legal backing. It's almost like the stuffier they can make their writing sound, the more they think people will believe them. Hmm…
It's a little-known fact, but soldiers wear uniforms.
Okay, yes, you knew that.
What's the point of a uniform? A uniform tells you who is friend and who is foe. That's important on a battlefield.
But beyond their utility in warfare, uniforms can symbolize a lot of other things, too. Campbell, for one, is hyperaware of who is wearing which kind of uniform: O'Hare's got an American Legion uniform; the Iron Guard members in Jones's basement wear white and sew special buttonholes into theirs. The list goes on.
It's all about status and identity, and Campbell, for one, is pretty jazzed by how these duds make meaning.
No, seriously. Uniforms are as much a part of the propaganda machine as Campbell's radio broadcasts. He's so attuned to the power of dress to shape thoughts and opinions that he develops his own kind of uniform while he's playing Nazi.
Campbell wears his custom-made, original uniform "in order to dazzle any Germans who might try to keep [him] from getting out of Berlin" (18.32) when he wants to feel cool. He even wears it while visiting his crazy Nazi father-in-law. It's a wild hodge-podge of symbols, and he knows it'll shock, if not awe.
So what does it all mean? Well, luckily for us, Campbell himself provides an answer when Werner Noth asks that very question:
I explained it to him, showed him the device on the hilt of my dagger. The device, silver on walnut, was an American eagle that clasped a swastika in its right claw and devoured a snake in its left claw. The snake was meant to represent international Jewish communism. There were thirteen stars around the head of the eagle, representing the thirteen original American colonies. I had made the original sketch of the device, and, since I don't draw very well, I had drawn six-pointed stars of David rather than five-pointed stars of the U.S.A. The silversmith, while lavishly improving on my eagle, had reproduced my six-pointed stars exactly. (18.70)
Basically, this outfit is an offensive mashup of different symbols with allegiances and agendas that conflict. It's absurd. In fact, it's almost like Campbell is performing his own shifty status: as a secret agent playing a dangerous role, he's everything and nothing. He cancels himself out. On top of that, it's almost like he's critiquing the way symbols are used every day to casually get people to believe something, the way branding does in an advertisement. It's all just make-believe—but it's dangerous make-believe.
Probably the two most significant images in this text are the American eagle and the swastika. They show up early and often. What's more, they show up together more often than they show up apart—which is kind of weird, since they represent opposing sides of the war.
It's also not that weird, because our protagonist is an unholy mixture of both sides of the war. Is he more of a Nazi or more of an American? No, really—it's a question that even Campbell asks about himself.
We also see the American eagle and swastika get mixed up—in another unappetizing way—by Jones. (Is anyone surprised?) Jones has his own eagle-swastika mash-up in the rings he wears, which leave his hands "glitter[ing] with rings like the hand of a Byzantine prince" (14.22). In addition to his two wedding rings, he sports:
…a diamond swastika on an onyx field presented to him in 1939 by Baron Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, then German Consul General of San Francisco, and an American eagle carved in jade and mounted in silver, a piece of Japanese craftsmanship… (14.22)
Yeah, that's not disturbing at all. What's even more unsettling is that Jones is a mirror image of Campbell. Jones has mixed up American and Nazi ideals into a nasty white supremacist mess. But Campbell is also a mixture of American and Nazi ideals, in the sense that he acts on and behaves according to both. Is Campbell's work as a spy really that different from Jones's work as a crazy hatemonger?
There is a muy bizarre moment about halfway through this novel when Campbell visits the Noths for the last time. A group of enslaved women from Russia are emptying out the Noth household and loading stuff onto wagons as part of Resi's move. Werner Noth is overseeing their labors, along with the man who owns them and another armed guard.
Yes, we said "the man who owns them," because they're actually out there doing it like that in Nazi Germany.
As they're working, one elderly woman almost drops an expensive blue vase. She's described as being sort of out of it—the vase means nothing to her, and she almost doesn't even notice it's about to slip.
Noth, however, notices—and he flips out. Majorly. He's angry pants. Luckily, she's not physically punished for this. However, things get real weird, real fast.
What was finally done with her was curious. She wasn't hurt.
She was deprived of the honor of carrying any more of Noth's things.
She was made to stand to one side while others continued to be trusted with treasures. Her punishment was to be made to feel like a fool. She had been given her opportunity to participate in civilization, and she had muffed it. (18.51)
It's chilling that an empty vase—even as an art object—gets to be a stand-in for civilization while an actual human's life is devalued. Noth doesn't let up even by the end of the chapter: he goes over to the woman and continues to harp about the blue vase in an effort to make her a "useful human being" (18,92).
That's the part that's so gross. Humans here are made slaves—use-oriented beings—while objects are hailed as invaluable emblems of humanity. It's a fact that many Nazis were art and music connoisseurs—in their downtime. During the workday, they just casually arranged the deaths of millions of people. But they did love their art. It's sick, it's freaky, and it happened. Turns out just being a cultivated, educated, elite person doesn't necessarily make you a good person.
That blue vase is here to remind us all about that.
Okay, we're about to get bleak.
You may remember Campbell's manuscript trunk. It's where he keeps all of his old papers. He likes to look at it. Actually, what he really likes to do look inside it and go, "These pieces of paper were me at one time" (22.15).
Um, yeah, that's not creepy at all.
This trunk is more like a crypt than anything else. Yeah, we know that some creep named Bodovskov totally ripped off Campbell's materials and made bank off them, which leads Wirtanen at one point to suggest that Campbell is living on through his work. But no. That's not actually happening. And why isn't it happening? Because Campbell is dead inside.
We're not making that up:
I passed my hand over the manuscripts. 'And in it were these,' I said. I remembered the trunk now, remembered when I'd closed it up at the start of the war, remembered when I'd thought of the trunk as a coffin for the young man I would never be again. (22.27)
Campbell has spent so much of his life writing plays—both for the stage, and for himself to perform in real life—that in fact, his life is really just a bunch of papers. He's never been himself—except perhaps with Helga, when the two were alone; he's just been playing various roles. He's got nothing real now, and it's pretty much his own doing.
So sad. Kind of. Maybe.
Right off the bat, Vonnegut tells us not to trust Campbell: he's a playwright, which means he lies for a living. More than once, Campbell's quick wit and penchant for verbal flare call his reliability into question.
What's really unique about this novel, though, is that Vonnegut sets us up to regard Campbell as a historical figure in real life, even though he's nice and fictional. What we get, then, is a confessional memoir written by a fictional character that Vonnegut tells us is a little sly.
Even if Campbell is fictional, we still see everything through his eyes. These are his memoirs, and the only perspective we really get is his. Is he as unreliable a narrator as Vonnegut suggests? That's for you to decide.
This tale is a sort of twisty version of voyage and return, since it's being related to us as a memoir. The anticipation stage comes out of order for us as readers, but know this: Campbell starts out his journey as kind of a naïve guy dazzled by the opportunity to be a spy. He's already used to playing at falling into other worlds, since he's a playwright married to a beautiful actress. Now's his chance to be the star.
Campbell sure does love being a spy delivering secret codes through Nazi propaganda. Maybe he likes it a little too much. After all, he doesn't have to be so creative and so enthusiastic in his hate speech, right? We know Campbell's conflicted about all this, because as fun as it is to play the bad guy, nobody else thinks it's a joke.
Nothing's more frustrating than people thinking you're somebody you're not. Eventually Campbell is asked to do more and more morally corrupt things. One time, he's even told to write a play that messes with history: it's about a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw that was attacked by German soldiers. The musical he's supposed to write about it flips the story to make it seem like the Germans were heroes. The musical never gets written, because the war ends first, but Campbell knows he would have done it. This knowledge haunts him.
This stage lasts a long, long time. It all starts when Campbell's wife Helga is captured in Russia. Bad news bears. Without Helga, life becomes meaningless. Campbell also has to keep his identity a secret everywhere he goes; he can trust almost no one. Actually, scratch that: he can trust no one. It turns out that just about every last thing he loves turns out to be fake.
So it turns out that you can't go home again: if what you've done is nightmarish enough, the nightmare stays with you. Every close call and narrow getaway Campbell experiences leaves him a little more broken. He tries a final escape from himself by giving up and going to jail, but it doesn't work because he's created his own mental hell.
Alone, imprisoned, misunderstood: that's the set-up we get when we find Campbell in an Israeli jail cell awaiting trial for war crimes during WWII. Campbell, our unreliable narrator, is writing the book you're reading right this second. Get ready for flashbacks, fast-forwards, and cycling back around again in the tale to come.
When is it? WWII? The late 50s or early 60s? All of the above. That is, the action builds incrementally by visiting various whens and wheres like Germany during the war, the fifteen years Campbell spent in New York City afterwards, his two-week stint in Israel, and even a quick romp through his childhood. The main event concerns Campbell's cover being blown, and the world coming after him.
Campbell spends a night in hiding with his buddy, Kraft, and his lover, Resi. Then Wirtanen tells Campbell these two are both undercover Soviet agents. We've known about Kraft for a while, since Campbell mentions it every time Kraft appears in the narrative, but the hit Campbell takes at this news during the climax changes how he moves in the world.
Instead of escaping, Campbell goes back to confront Kraft and Resi. He then turns himself in to Israel to be tried. Everything is falling into place rather nicely, wouldn't you say?
All this time, we've been thinking that the purpose of this memoir was to interrogate Campbell's innocence as well as prove it. But when Campbell gets his final—and literal—get-out-of-jail-free card, he decides to visit Death Valley instead.
Campbell's hanging out in Israel writing a memoir. He revisits the time he spent hanging out in New York City while he dealt with the aftermath of what he did in Germany: he was a spy for the U.S., pretending to be a propagandist for the Nazis. He was really good at being a propagandist.
Campbell's in hiding at the place of business of a Nazi sympathizer who runs a newspaper spreading hate. It's okay, though, because Campbell is there with his brother-from-another-mother and his honey. But it turns out they're traitors and spies, after all.
Everyone's arrested except Resi (who commits suicide) and Campbell (who is released). Feeling fancy free but oh-so-numb because nothing matters anymore, Campbell breaks a guy's arm, turns himself in to the Israelis, and then makes plans to kill himself when it looks like he'll be freed again.