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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 German wife shortly after World War One. 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 war, the Nazi movement, or anything besides his wife. Acting as a Double Agent under a minor division of the US, Campbell unrelentingly destroys his reputation sending coded messages for reasons he doesn't even understand.[1]

Continuing indifferently even following his beloved wife's death, Campbell soon finds the war over, and himself a war criminal. Left in New York by his recruiters without evidence to prove his innocence, Campbell spends two decades 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 film directed by Keith Gordon (Back to School, The Chocolate War) and starring Nick Nolte in 1996. It's not bad, and quite faithful to the source material.


Tropes in this book include:

  • An Aesop: 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. He 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.
  • Author 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
    • You seem to be forgetting that he agreed to become a spy for the USA against Nazi Germany. Considering the penalty for doing so was death (and Fate Worse Than Death during the "interrogation"), he does care about the world.
  • Code Name: "Blue Fairy Godmother"
  • Crapsack World
  • Dead Person Impersonation
  • Dissonant Serenity: Campbell lived his entire life like this.
  • 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 Cambell instead).
  • 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.
  • He Who Fights Monsters
  • Humans Are Bastards
  • It Got Worse
  • Lack of Empathy
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: There are two introductions - one by Vonnegut that speaks about the book plainly, another where Vonnegut speaks as the editor of Campbell's autobiography.
  • Positive Discrimination: Averted hard. One of the people Campbell encounters is the Black Furher, who is an African American who sided with Japan during the war and dreams of dropping atomic bombs on anyone who isn't black or Japanese. Especially the damn Chinese! Who he considered white, because he doesn't like them.
  • Public Secret Message: This is how Campbell passes on information to the Americans. He's given a list of things they want him to find out about the Nazis, and after he finds them out he communicates the answer on his radio show by, say, coughing in the middle of a certain sentence if the answer is "yes" and not coughing if the answer is "no", or by using a certain word he wouldn't otherwise use, etc.
  • Stealth Parody: What Campbell hoped he would be, but he ran badly afoul of Poe's Law.
  • Strange Bedfellows: The alliance between American Nazi white supremacist Dr. Lionel Jones and "black Fuhrer" Robert Sterling Wilson
  • Suicide by Cop: What Campbell wanted when he turned himself over to the Israelis.
  • Suicide Is Painless: Despite a heartwarming letter from Wirtanen proving his innocence, Campbell accepts he still has nothing left to do with his life, and decides to hang for his crimes anyway.
  • 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 wife and their "Nation of Two", and no-one and nothing else.
  • Was It All a Lie?

Notes

  1. Several characters suggest he either did it out of his latent idealism, or more likely - he simply thought it was fun.
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