“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know.” (Vonnegut, Introduction) Not only is this in the introduction of Mother Night, this is quite literally, the first line of writing to appear from Vonnegut in this book. If you are at all familiar with his writing, you will know that a statement like that, from a writer like him, carries a good deal of weight. And the moral? “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
From there, this book grows perplexing. The main character and narrator of Mother Night is Howard W. Campbell Jr., a Nazi propagandist, awaiting his trial in Israel for committing war crimes. The truth though, is that through his radio broadcasts, he was sending encrypted messages to the allied front: a spy of the highest order. But, he has no proof. “We are what we pretend to be.” And so, Campbell awaits his trial, knowing full well that he is an American hero, but will hang for it. In the interim, he writes out his memoirs.
As is the case with most Vonnegut books, the underlying theme is as fascinating and poignant as ever. And complex. “They were people,” (Vonnegut, 39) is a hard pill to swallow when you realize that the narrator is calling for sympathy for nazis. (Also interesting coming from a man that gave this interview.) There is almost a Vonnegut-ish suggestion that the reader should be sympathetic to these people we have so long considered evil because we are just as stupid. That, perhaps one lunatic with outrageous, amoral ideas could yell at crowds loud enough to start convincing them to act out these evil ways that he is preaching. And, of course, that could never happen in this country, in this day and age, right? Right? Right?! “We are never as modern, as far ahead of the past as we like to think.” (Vonnegut, 27)
What are we pretending to be? It is an important question to ask yourself. It is the question that weaves itself throughout all of Mother Night, and begs the reader for an answer long after he has closed the back flap.