The Construction of Identity in Mother Night: Character Analysis
In today’s society, almost anything is possible to achieve, a fact that makes it so that nothing is ever as it appears. Things change constantly, whether we agree with such changes or not. This idea is especially notable in the people of the modern world, who undergo phases in life when they change who they have become to then truly discover who they were meant to be. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, there are several characters that create various identities for themselves for various reasons. It is imperative to understand why characters pretend to be something they are not in order to understand how it can affect someone internally, and how becoming fixated with remaining loyal to your country or leaving behind an old life can lead to a character’s demise.
Howard Campbell was the prime character that had duel identities. His intentions can be immediately questioned because he grew up in Germany, and serving as an American spy never made sense because he was no longer familiar with the American culture. This is supported when Campbell’s “Blue Fairy Godmother” Frank Wirtanen confuses him for being an Englishman due to the way he spoke. Campbell’s change in identities challenged his way of living. Prior to becoming an American spy, Campbell lived a simple happy life with his wife Helga. Nevertheless, his dual identities challenged his beliefs because he had no political stance. With the war coming, Campbell would eventually have to pick a side. Wirtanen supports this by saying, “’This war isn’t going to let anybody stay in a peaceful trade.’” (Vonnegut 38) Whether he wanted to accept it or not, Campbell was eventually going to be involved in the war because he was associating with the Nazis. As the book progresses, the line between American spy and German propagandist is blurred. It became to difficult to know which Campbell was authentic. In trying to leave behind memories of the war (and the disappearance of his wife), Campbell wanted to let go of what he had done in the past. It became such a central focus that it led to his pending suicide. At the end of the book, Frank Wirtanen proved Campbell’s innocence, but he wanted nothing to do with it. He stated, “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. Not even that had flickered out.” (Vonnegut 232) This demonstrates how Campbell was disgusted with himself and did not wish to continue living with the past that haunted him. As a result, he had no other choice but to commit suicide so that he could live in peace with himself.
Iona Potapov, alias George Kraft, was another character that had an alternate personage. Campbell became best friends with George Kraft because they were neighbors and they shared their sorrows. Kraft made Campbell believe that he had also lost his wife. Since Campbell was still grieving about his wife, Kraft was the favorable company. Although Kraft was a Russian agent he grew to like Campbell and was willing to assist him by whatever means possible, even if in the end he was going to hand him over to the Russians. Nevertheless, he was also learning to let go of some things in his life because he was dedicated to fighting for the cause of the war. When Campbell found out that Kraft was an agent he said, “’With a few well-chosen words you have wiped me out. How much poorer I am in this minute than I was in the minute before!’” (Vonnegut 197) Campbell was genuinely hurt when he found out that Kraft was going to betray him and he did not deny it when Campbell made it obvious to Resi and him that he knew what they were up to. Kraft’s biggest downfall is that he also became a confusing character due to the way he supported Campbell. In not fully revealing his past or his purpose for being a Russian agent, readers must assume that he was simply a traitor that had the interest of his country at heart. Such a fixation led to his arrest.
Resi Noth was a complex character both as herself and as her sister Helga. She went about becoming Helga because she wanted to be with the man she loved, even if it meant making him believe temporarily that she was his long lost wife. She also wanted to leave behind her past; in becoming Helga, Resi was able to forget about the difficult life she led once she ran away from Berlin. Resi explained to Campbell why she impersonated her sister by saying, “I could be Resi Noth, cigarette-machine operator with no relatives anywhere. Or I could be Helga Noth, actress wife of a handsome, adorable, brilliant playwright in the U.S.A. You tell me which one should I have been?” (Vonnegut 138) Resi did not want Campbell to judge her because her only focus was in forgetting about how she had lost all those that she cared about. With her sister’s disappearance, she was able to recuperate a part of her by being with her husband even if she already loved him. Regardless, she became too fixated in wanting to obtain Campbell’s love. Such an obsession is what led to her also committing suicide. She states, “’Then tell me what to live for- anything at all. It doesn’t have to be love’.” (Vonnegut 221) Once she knew that Campbell gave up on love, she no longer knew what to live for. Since she had already lost it all she concluded that she fulfilled her purpose and was free to die.
Characters that create multiple personages for themselves will always have various motives, whether it is for a change or wishing to make amends for their mistakes. Nevertheless, this is something society still does. It might not be as drastic as literally creating a new identity for yourself, but the need for reinvention is the same. The important message to get out of creating a new identity for yourself is that the past always catches up to us. As much as we try to forget who we were, we must still keep a part of ourselves genuine before we recreate ourselves. It is imperative that we make sure we know who we are before we change ourselves because, if not, that new persona can take over our lives.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Mother Night. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 1966. Print.
Intertextuality in Mother Night
Allusions occur around us everyday. Neighbors make jokes about the most recent episode of The Voice, your best friend responds to your texts using only Taylor Swift lyrics, and your mom quotes Mean Girls nonstop. These allusions add depth to daily conversations; they would be meaningless if you hadn’t watched the latest episode or listened to the recent album. In the same way that allusions are used in daily conversations, authors use intertextuality in poems, novels, and other works of writing. These allusions are never random or accidental; the author carefully selects every word in their work of writing. Adding depth and complexity to the writing; intertextuality signifies a comparison the author wants you to make. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, Campbell’s narrative is shaped in relation to prior texts through the use of direct quotations and related writings.
The most obvious allusion in Mother Night is actually the title itself, Mother Night. This personification of darkness was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust. Within the editor’s notes of Mother Night, Vonnegut writes, “The title of the book is Campbell’s. It is taken from a speech by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust” (Vonnegut xii). Spoken by Mephistopheles, an evil spirit, the speech goes, “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 cannot succeed” (Goethe 55). With this speech, Mephistopheles tries to defend his evil actions by pointing out that there can be no light without first the darkness. Never does Vonnegut directly reference this speech in the actual novel, just within the editor’s notes. The reader is left to decipher the connection between Goethe’s Faust, the Mother Night, and Vonnegut’s own novel. Faust, undeniably Goethe’s greatest work, is based on the German medieval legend of a man who agrees to sell his soul to the devil. Albeit an intelligent and successful scholar, Faust feels that none of his knowledge or achievements has granted him real fulfillment in life. He aches to know the true meaning of life, and knows that this is the only thing that will truly satisfy him. Not knowing how to gain life’s meaning, Faust turns to magic and ultimately makes a pact with the devil. Faust agrees to sell his soul to the devil in return for one experience that is so rewarding it becomes the meaning of his life and expels his torturous loneliness. In the first part of the play, the devil tries to help Faust experience happiness through an epic love affair. After this love turns tragic, the devil gives Faust a series of accomplishments and exposes him to all the gratification the world can offer. None of these experiences are fulfilling for Faust, though, and he ultimately dies bitter and alone (Goethe). The main characters in both Faust and Mother Night struggle with their feelings of alienation and their inability to know what role they play in the world. Neither Faust nor Campbell feels fulfilled in life, even though both have accomplished many magnificent feats. Faust turns to the devil to find fulfillment, while Campbell turns toward the mission presented by Frank Wirtanen. Wirtanen promises Campbell a role that would make him, “An authentic hero, about a hundred times braver than any ordinary man” (Vonnegut 38). Ultimately unfulfilled by this romantic and gratifying role, Campbell dies alone at his own hand.
After Campbell discovers and accepts the truth about Resi’s real identity, the two of them, along with Kraft, decide to run away to Mexico City. Campbell has been reinvigorated by Resi’s love and has even decided to begin writing again. Resi asks Campbell what his new name in Mexico City will be, as he cannot remain Howard W. Campbell, Jr. Kraft suggests a collection of familiar pseudonyms for the three of them: “What about Don Quixote? That would make you [Resi] Dulcinea del Toboso and I would sign my paintings Sancho Panza” (Vonnegut 171). Kraft’s suggestion alludes to three characters from a famous Spanish tale. Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote tells the tale of a disillusioned man on a quest to restore chivalry to seventeenth century Spain. The main character, Alonso Quixano, reads and rereads so many chivalric romances, that he gets caught up in the rush of restoring justice to the world and reviving chivalry. He changes his name to Don Quixote and recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, to accompany him on his quest. Although Quixote believes himself to be battling giants and visiting castles along his journey, this is far from the truth. So caught up in his romantic visions, Quixote has an impossible time seeing his ordinary life for what it really is (Cervantes). Vonnegut’s allusion to Don Quixote is certainly not accidental – these two works have a plethora in common. For the majority of the novel, Don Quixote does not see the world for what it really is, and instead prefers to imagine that he is living out a knightly story.
Campbell also does not view the world accurately. Seeing only the ultimate acting role of a Nazi propagandist turned American spy, Campbell chooses not to see what effect his actions are having on the war around him. After Wirtanen offers him the position of an American spy, Campbell considers to himself the role: “I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out” (Vonnegut 39). Both Quixote and Campbell are infatuated with romance stories and have very romantic ideals. Quixote is obsessed with reading romance stories, and his books are his most valuable possession. Campbell is enamored with writing romantic plays and poetry – he even keeps a journal of every romantic experience he shares with Helga. These manuscripts and journals mean more to him than any other physical possession in the world. Incredibly, Don Quixote is not Quixote’s real name. But, rather it is his own renaming in an attempt to re-personify himself before his chivalrous adventures began. Kraft’s suggestion to re-personify Campbell as Don Quixote is exactly what the real Quixote would have done. After Campbell’s brief arrest and detainment in the Empire State Building, he heads for his attic home. Upon arriving at the top of the apartment’s staircase, he feels the air, cold and sharp, surround him. Every window in his attic had been broken, and fresh air had quickly replaced the old smells of dust and sweat. Campbell recounts the other two times that he had climbed a staircase to find fresh air where there once had been the familiar scent of society. Both times were the result of a bombing in Berlin.
After all the bombs had fallen and the dust had finally settled, there would be nothing left for Helga and Campbell to do but climb the staircase to empty air. Although everything around the two of them had been destroyed, Campbell can’t help but feel victorious, if only for a moment: “But, for a minute or two, anyway, Helga and I felt like Noah and his wife on Mount Ararat” (Vonnegut 240). After this moment of singular bliss, the air raid sirens blew again and Campbell, “Realized that we were ordinary people, without dove or covenant, and that the flood, far from being over, had scarcely begun” (Vonnegut 240). This allusion to Noah’s Ark allows the reader to imagine the overwhelming feelings belonging to Campbell after the bombings. Within the book of Genesis in the Old Testament lies the story of Noah and his life-saving ark. God had been planning to destroy the entire Earth and all of the people on the planet with a devastating flood. But, Noah found favor in the eyes of God and thus was given instructions detailing how to be saved. By building a large ark and bringing his family and two of every animal aboard during the flood, Noah would be able to repopulate the Earth after the flood had receded. Noah was criticized for his faith, as he had to start building the ark many years before the flood actually came. After the rain ended and every living thing not in the ark was dead, Noah landed on top of Mount Ararat. There he waited for the flooded earth to become dry again. A dove was sent out to look for dry ground, and this is how Noah kept track of the receding waters beneath him. When the flood had finally ended, God made a covenant with Noah – a promise to never flood the Earth and kill all of His creation again (New Oxford Annotated Bible, Gen. 6. 8-22). The story of Noah and his ark strikes many similarities to the story of Howard J. Campbell. Noah endures a flood that wipes out every living creature in the world, while Campbell suffers through a terrible war that kills millions of human beings, including his friends and family. Both of these tragedies occurred in an attempt to exterminate evil in the world: sinners and the Nazis. Although evil is not ultimately defeated, Noah and Campbell experience the momentary bliss of hearing a quiet world. A comparison between the two is made, but Campbell knows that his situation is different. There will be no sign that the destruction is ending, no promise that this will be the last war. Ultimately, the comparison to Noah and his wife categorizes Campbell and Helga as fundamentally good people.
Through his extensive use of intertextuality, Vonnegut layers depth within the pages of Mother Night. Campbell’s narrative is strongly shaped in relation to the allusions and references Vonnegut uses. A great novel alone, Mother Night becomes an incredible read when examined within the context of its numerous allusions. Enjoyable conversation among friends is built upon inside jokes and references; enjoyable literature is built the same way. Be careful to not skip over a comparison that the author wants you to examine.