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.
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