Questioning the villain in Mother Night.

Mother Night, written by Kurt Vonnegut, is a novel perhaps entirely centred on the concept of the ‘villain,’ and perhaps morality as a whole.

The novel is a piece of meta-fiction claiming to be the edited autobiography of Howard W. Campbell Jnr, a fictional American playwright who lived in Germany and continued living there during WWII, when he then became a Nazi Propagandist.

After beginning to read the novel, it became clear that this apparent straightforward telling of causes and events leading to Howard W. Campbell Jnr’s arrest was not quite so simple at all. In fact, it left me questioning my entire understanding of ethics.

Vonnegut gives us a foreshadowing of what is to come- that is to say that he will entirely change the way we look at and judge everyone around us, from Nazi war criminals to our closest friends- in the introduction, with the line ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’(Mother Night, vii).

Not so far into the novel we learn that Howard W. Campbell Jnr is in fact politically apathetic and all he wants to do with his life is write plays, poems, and novels, and be with his German wife, Helga. Vonnegut places we, the readers, in a position to empathise with the character of Campbell. Isn’t he just a victim of circumstance? Is it his fault he ended up writing Nazi propaganda because his audience were powerful Nazi figureheads? He is, after all, just doing what he was told. And we like him, don’t we?

After the war while Campbell is hiding alone in an attic apartment in Greenwich, New York, he befriends a Russian man, named Kraft, in his building who later turns out to be a spy who wants to take him back to Russia and try him for his crimes. Even after finding this out for himself, Campbell still refers to Kraft as his ‘best friend.’ Does it matter that his friendship was perhaps faked in order to secure his arrest?

Along with the Russian, Campbell also attracts the attention of a group of American racists who want to praise him ‘for having courage to tell the truth during the war…when everybody else was telling lies’ (pg. 70). Vonnegut gives us no indication throughout the novel if Campbell is ashamed of the atrocities he encouraged, and gives no clue as to whether he appreciates or loathes the attention given to him by the group of racists. Does it matter? We like him, don’t we?

Vonnegut is exposing the human weakness for labels. We must inevitably label Campbell a criminal, or a villain, for his crimes against humanity. But this by no means makes him an entirely bad person. All he wanted to do was love his wife and write his plays. Is Campbell a villain, or is he a writer? Is Kraft a villain, or is he, as he claims to be a painter? Is anyone a villain? Are we forced to take on a Machiavellian view of morality; that is to say we should only be moral if the time calls for it? But then, we are reminded of Vonnegut’s introduction, ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’ So Campbell is the villain then, but Vonnegut certainly made us think about it.

    • jennafooj
    • February 10th, 2012

    please comment and let me know what you think – be as critical as you like, I really don’t mind x

    • Adam Howes
    • February 10th, 2012

    Really good Jen bit worried about writing my own now, But really good 🙂 x

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