We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night is narrated by a fictional character, Howard W. Campbell Jr. Campbell is an American playwright who was living in Germany during World War II and became a well known Nazi propagandist and war criminal.
Campbell had accepted the task of being an American spy at the beginning of the war. He transmitted messages through deliberate pauses, coughing, etc. in his radio transmissions. Throughout the war, he was the most reliable agent of his kind that America had and survived the war undetected.
Living a secretive and quiet life in New York City after the war, Campbell’s identity is suddenly exposed. The novel is a memoir that he is writing from inside an Israeli prison awaiting trial for his war crimes.
Campbell seems to be both good and evil at the same time. But is he essentially good or essentially evil?
In an internal sense, his actions were good – the information he was passing through the airwaves was helpful to the Allies and it took a total sacrifice of his reputation and his life to provide this service. His career as an author and playwright was gone, he lost his wife, he would never be accepted as a member of society in his home country and he continued to do his work in spite of these things.
However, the external Campbell, the person that the world saw, was clearly evil. When his father-in-law, who would have “been delighted” to figure out that Campbell had been a spy, was speaking with him near the end of the war he says:
You could have never served the enemy as well as you served us, … I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler–but from you… You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.
When judging the morality of Campbell, which of these people matter, the inner or outer person?
This is perhaps the main question posed by the book. Which person is you? Vonnegut explicitly states the moral of the story at the beginning: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” You are the sum of all of your parts. The actions that you take as a means to accomplish something are as much a part of you as the something that is accomplished in the end. No matter the circumstances in which you find yourself, you still have to live with the actions that you take.
Campbell seems surprised by this concept when visited by his “Blue Fairy Godmother” (the man who recruited him as an American spy) long after the war. They are speaking about how only 3 people in the world knew that Campbell was a spy.
“Three people in the world knew me for what I was–” I said. “And all the rest–” I shrugged.
“They knew you for what you were, too,” he said abruptly.
“That wasn’t me,” I said, startled by his sharpness.
“Whoever it was… he was one of the most vicious sons of bitches who ever lived.”
No matter what his intentions, Campbell was a Nazi.
Campbell is a fitting main character to portray this moral. He is not quite a hero and not quite an antihero. He is a lucid protagonist who is neither ignorant nor insane. He knew what he was doing at all times and he realized that the orders he took were either ignorant or insane, and he did them anyway. He is a reminder that even in difficult times, we need to take our actions for what they are, and not what we hope they will be.