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Literature / Mother Night

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"All people are insane. They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons."

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Mother Night is a 1961 novel by Kurt Vonnegut that tells of the life of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an expatriate American who moved to Germany with his parents shortly after World War I. Despite being an infamous Nazi radio personality and propagandist under Joseph Goebbels, Campbell is actually an author who writes sappy idealistic Medieval European Fantasy plays and spends all of his time obsessing over his wife; in actuality he has no interest in politics, the Nazi movement, its resulting World War II or anything besides his plays and wife. However, he's also a Double Agent under a minor division of the US and sends coded messages for reasons he doesn't even understand.note 

Continuing indifferently even following his beloved wife's death, Campbell soon finds the war over, and himself a war criminal. Left in New York City by his recruiters without evidence to prove his innocence, Campbell spends 15 years surprisingly happy in almost isolation with his only friend, George Kraft. This changes when a white supremacist newspaper, which publicizes Campbell's history and current life, makes his past and crimes resurface again, attracting the attention of Israel and a number of old enemies who want justice.

Made into a 1996 film directed by Keith Gordon (Back to School, The Chocolate War) and starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman. It's quite faithful to the source material.

Not to be confused with 'night, Mother.

Tropes in this book include:

  • Arch-Enemy: Subverted. Bernard O'Hare, the American soldier who took Campbell prisoner at the end of the war, thinks he's Campbell's arch-enemy and that he's destined to hunt him down and bring him to justice. In fact, Campbell hasn't given him a second thought since the first time they met, and their second meeting ends with Campbell breaking his arm, kicking him out and giving him one hell of a "The Reason You Suck" Speech along the way.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Wirtanen only has to ask Campbell half of one to get his message through, but the full version is something like, "if Germany had won, had conquered the world - would you have done anything to fight the Nazis, or would you have just continued pretending to be one for the rest of your life?" Campbell has to admit that the answer is the latter, and that makes him realise that he really is a Nazi for all intents and purposes.
  • An Aesop: Vonnegut states in the introduction that this is his only story whose moral he knows: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." What you do is more important than what you believe. You are good or evil based on your acts, not whether or not you think you are good or evil. Campbell was asked to become a Nazi by an American agent and the information he provided the Allies throughout the war was of great help. The aesop is illustrated when near the end of the war a Nazi friend tells him he knew the protagonist was a spy but never reported him because whatever damage he did as a spy would be more than offset by the help he was giving the Nazis in his cover role. Obviously, that would bother any anti-Nazi person, which he was.
  • Becoming the Mask: While arguably the moral and the point of the story, since Campbell has no opinions or feelings on nearly anything, the disturbing conclusion is that there was nothing under the mask to begin with.
  • Bittersweet Ending: When Campbell is soon to be sentenced to death, he receives a letter from Wirtanen; in it, he goes against orders and vindicates Campbell of all blame. Campbell, however, decides freedom would be a less happy ending for a man who doesn't have a reason to live, and chooses execution anyway.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The book explores how morally responsible Campbell was for his words and actions while posing as a Nazi collaborator, even if they were part of an espionage ruse.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Howard Sterling Wilson "The Black Fuhrer of Harlem." He willingly associates with white Neo-Nazis who despise Black people.
  • Broken Aesop: The intended Aesop seems to have been Becoming the Mask is bad, but the text seems to spell out that all of Campbell's problems stem from him refusing to care about anything other than his wife and maintaining his staunch neutrality in the face of everything that happens around him and to him.
  • Code Name: "Blue Fairy Godmother" is the code name of Campbell's contact with the U.S. War Department.
  • Completely Off-Topic Report: The The American Nazi Lionel Jones was thrown out of dental school, because his examination papers all devolved into detailing how the teeth of Jews and black people "proved beyond question that both groups were degenerate."
  • Crapsack World: As is usually the case in Vonnegut novels, with an emphasis on how corruption, dishonesty, and political fanaticism have made the world so.
  • Creator Cameo: In The Film of the Book, Kurt Vonnegut appears briefly as a by-stander who pauses to stare at Howard Campbell as the latter just stops and stands still on the sidewalk all day.
  • Cruel Mercy: Subverted, when Campbell confesses to the Jewish American doctor neighbor he wanted to turn himself in with his and his Holocaust survivor mother's assistance after his true identity is exposed to them, the neighbor initially vehemently denies his request and shuts the door in his face. The neighbor would have left him to continue his suffering with his guilt as a Karma Houdini, but after an argument with his mother, in which the neighbor believes that Vengeance Feels Empty as his mother wants to bring justice for her and her fellow comrades, the mother ensures Campbell's Karma Houdini Warranty and contacts her Nazi Hunter acquaintances to take Campbell in.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Campbell.
    "The New York Daily News suggested that my biggest war crime was not killing myself like a gentleman. Presumably Hitler was a gentleman."
  • Dead Person Impersonation Resi Noth pretends to be her sister, Helga.
  • Dedication: Campbell dedicated the book to Mata Hari, who "whored in the interest of espionage" like him. However, in a foreword, he writes that it should've been dedicated to someone less exotic and more contemporary. He ends up dedicating it to himself: "to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."
  • Direct Line to the Author: There are two introductions - one by Vonnegut that speaks about the book plainly, another where Vonnegut speaks as the editor of Campbell's autobiography.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Campbell lived his entire life like this.
  • Enemy Mine: The alliance between American Nazi white supremacist Dr. Lionel Jones, "black Führer" Robert Sterling Wilson, and Catholic priest Father Patrick Keeley.
  • Epic Fail: Bernard O'Hare, the soldier who captured and beat up Campbell after the war, makes it his life's goal to find Campbell and kill him with his bare hands once he discovered that Campbell was alive and free in the US. Unfortunately for O'Hare, he's no longer the lean, mean fighting machine that he was when he first encountered Campbell (in fact, he's a frail, pathetic drunk), and when O'Hare finally succeeds in finding his enemy, Campbell breaks his arm in self defense and throws him out of his apartment.
  • False Friend: Heinz, Campbell's best friend, was a member of the Jewish underground who hates him enough to testify against him. Also, Kraft and Resi are Communists (but the latter falls for Campbell instead).
  • Epigraph: A quote about patriotism from Walter Scott's poem "The Lay of the Last Minstrel":
    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?
  • For the Evulz: Inversion. Campbell becomes a spy, but possibly more because he found it entertaining than out of a sense of good or loyalty.
    "Generally speaking, espionage offers each spy an opportunity to go crazy in a way he finds irresistible."
  • Gone Horribly Right: Campbell's ruse of posing as a Nazi propagandist while spying for the US worked so well that he became a hero to Neo-Nazis and a pariah to everyone else after the war.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: Not exactly a suicide note, but sort of. In the last chapter, Campbell describes that he got a letter from Wirtanen which would absolve him, but he decides to hang himself anyways. He ends the book with these words: "Goodbye, cruel world! Auf wiedersehen?"
  • Harmless Villain: The American Nazis who give Campbell their unwanted and counterproductive support are portrayed as such abject failures that they inspire nothing but pity, in spite of their horrific beliefs. Their collective Establishing Character Moment shows that at least two of them are so decrepit that they can't even make it up a flight of stairs without stopping to rest every few steps.
  • Anti-Heroic BSOD: At one point, Campbell realises that there is precisely nothing he can do that won't make his situation even worse, and so simply remains standing on a New York sidewalk for hours, not moving a muscle.
    "What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction. What had made me move through so many dead and pointless years was curiosity. Now even that flickered out."
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Arpad Kovacs, a Jew who managed to pass as Aryan and rise to a high position in the Nazi Party, was put in a special detachment to find who was leaking information to the Jews about S.S. activities. The leak, of course, was Kovacs himself.
  • Humans Are Bastards
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: Subverted. Campbell provides a full biography for Lionel Jones "in order to contrast with myself a race-baiter who is ignorant and insane. I am neither ignorant nor insane." However, he then strongly implies that he considers himself to be worse than Jones, because Jones is crazy enough to believe in what he's saying, while Campbell said many of the same things despite knowing full well how wrong they were.
  • Lack of Empathy: Campbell.
  • May–December Romance: Both of Lionel Jones' marriages were to much older women but seems to have been happy ones. The first one was even enough to keep him away from his race-baiting ways while it lasted.
  • The Mole: Campbell takes up this role during the war, secretly conveying messages for the American agents through his Nazi broadcasts. Whether or not he does so out of "goodness" however, is a different matter.
  • Mysterious Protector: Frank Wirtanen, the American who made Campbell a spy during the war, takes this role in Campbell's life after the war, showing up out of nowhere and helping him out of trouble. The only reason he fails is because Campbell doesn't care much about being saved.
  • Nazi Protagonist: Howard Campbell is one of "The Mole" variety. He is hired by an American agent to become a propagandist for the Nazi Party, running a radio show which contains encoded intel for the US. Unfortunately for him, the pro-Nazi messages he makes up end up being just as effective as real propaganda, and he ends up influencing many racists. The fact that his work was really for the US government has been lost, and he turns himself in to stand trial for war crimes. He's full of self-loathing as a result of his propaganda inspiring neo-Nazis, and thus plans to hang himself when the information to exonerate him is uncovered.
  • Oh, and X Dies: We're told in the introduction that Resi Noth will die in Chapter 39.
  • One-Tract Mind: The American Nazi Lionel Jones. He was thrown out of dental school, because his examination papers all devolved into detailing how the teeth of Jews and black people "proved beyond question that both groups were degenerate."
  • Public Secret Message: This is how Campbell passes on information to the Americans. One of his editors is given a list of things they want him to find out about the Nazis, and after he finds them out he annotates Campbell's speeches with, say, a cough in the middle of a certain sentence if the answer is "yes," or a word he wouldn't otherwise use, etc.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Campbell gives one to Bernard O'Hare after breaking his arm in self-defense. Campbell says that people like O'Hare, who fanatically believe that they're on the side of the angels while their opponents are devils, are the reason the world is as screwed up a place as it is.
  • Shout-Out: The title comes from a translation of Goethe's Faust.
  • Shout-Out Theme Naming: While thinking of aliases to use on the run, Kraft suggests Don Quixote for Campbell, Dulcina del Toboso for Resi, and Sancho Panza for himself.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Campbell to Bernard B. O'Hare near the end, after Bernard's long rant about how Howard is pure evil, possibly even the devil. Campbell's response also serves as a rant against blind faith and radical hatred.
  • Smart People Play Chess: When Campbell first meets Kraft, the first thing they do is play a gentlemanly game of chess using pieces Campbell carved himself. Both are highly experienced players, and Campbell notes that he "was able to come up with enough intuitively interesting moves to give my new friend entertainment while he beat me."
  • Stealth Insult: Campbell has to deliver an eulogy for August Krapptauer, a neo-Nazi who died of a heart attack after carrying Camplbell's luggage. Campbell says something he believes: that "Krapptauer's sort of truth would probably be with mankind forever, as long as there were men and women around who listened to their hearts instead of their minds." The audience of neo-Nazis applauds him.
  • Stealth Parody: What Campbell hoped he would be, but he ran badly afoul of Poe's Law.
  • Subpar Supremacist: Lionel Jones and the other Neo-Nazis who seek out Campbell's support and friendship are pathetic and ridiculous rather than menacing. One of them was so frail that he died of a heart attack after walking up a flight of steps, another is a black man who likes dressing up in Nazi regalia and calls himself "The Black Fuhrer of Harlem".
  • Suicide by Cop: What Campbell wanted when he turned himself over to the Israelis. He wasn't successful, and after realizing that he will be exonerated and released, he decides to do it himself.
  • Suicide Is Painless: Despite a letter from Wirtanen proving his innocence, Campbell accepts he still has nothing left to do with his life, and decides to hang himself anyways.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: The premise of the book; Campbell, a deep-cover spy for the Allies, has been left with only his ruined reputation in New York City by the people he risked everything for.
  • True Neutral: Campbell, so much so it's explained In-Universe. He cares about his art and his wife and their "Nation of Two", and no one and nothing else.
    "You hate America, don't you?" she said."
    "That would be as silly as loving it," I said. "It's impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn't interest me. It's no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can't think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can't believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will."
  • Unreliable Narrator: Vonnegut warns that Campbell is this in the novel's introduction. In the film, when he thinks back to his speeches, they're portrayed as halfhearted and undermined by his pauses - until he actually sees one with an audience of Nazis, and it's shockingly rousing.
  • Writer on Board: Campbell, mostly neutral and silent on American politics and society, suddenly bursts out with revulsion at the conversion of Armistice Day to Veterans' Day. Vonnegut, in Breakfast of Champions, made it quite clear that Campbell's reaction mirrors his own.