A Burkean Criticism of Vonnegut's Mother Night

Kurt Vonnegut was born the eleventh of November, 1922 in Indianapolis. He served in the U.S. army from 1942-1945. During this time, he was captured by the Nazis and sent to Dresden to work in a factory producing a liquid vitamin supplement for pregnant women. His imprisonment in Germany supplied Vonnegut with many insights into the German lifestyle of the time. In Dresden, he survived the infamous Allied firebombing of the city by hiding in an underground meat locker, able to hear and later see the devastation caused. He was awarded the Purple Heart upon his return to the United States. Vonnegut wrote Mother Night in a confessional style, prefaced with a fictional editor's note about the nature of the confession. The main character, Howard W. Campbell Jr. is awaiting trial in Israel for his part in the Nazi war propaganda effort, and this book is his explanation of the strange events surrounding his role in the war. It has been pointed out that this novel could have been prompted by the Italian government's response to radio broadcasting that Ezra Pound was performing; the Italians stated that they "mistrusted the [Pound's] broadcasts, even suspecting that they hid a code language"1. This is exactly the role that Campbell claims to have been playing, as a double agent in Germany, broadcasting Nazi propaganda enlaced with secret code to assist American and British troops. These roles and others make up the majority of the plot and stylistic characteristics of this novel; everything is seen through the eyes of the main character. The forewarning about these personae is right at the beginning of the text when, in the introduction, the author gives us the moral of the tale we are about to read; "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."(M N, p.v). Kenneth Burke, in The Philosophy of Literary Form (POLF) says that "When you begin to consider the situations behind the tactics of expression, you will find tactics that organize a work technically because they organize it emotionally."(P O L F p.92). This organization is technically performed, but it is indeed the emotional stages that serve best to illustrate the morality that Campbell must internalize on the way to a type of redemption. Therefore, this essay will focus on the separate emotive roles that Campbell is forced to play, and the attendant change in narrative style that attempts to relate these roles to the experiences and beliefs of the author as well as to prospective audiences



Heaven - Campbell as Prisoner

"I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination."(M N p.17). This serves as our first introduction to the main character in the book and is a good place to start in exploring Campbell's situational placement. In the beginning of the book (which is actually the end of Campbell's life, a favorite trick of Vonnegut's) Campbell is in a prison cell in Israel, awaiting trial for the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Vonnegut's characters are usually ambiguous in several ways; his characters are not heroes, in fact it is often hard to decide which side they are on. For instance, in the introduction, Vonnegut tells us that "If I'd been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides."(M N, p.vii). With this simple admission, Vonnegut slyly places each of us in Campbell's shoes, prompting the question "Could I have done that too?". This may not sound like Heaven, but for Campbell, it is the end of a long road. This road has led from evil in its most base form all the way to purgatory, and in prison, redemption. He has faced his past consciously, although he cannot disassociate himself from his actions unconsciously; his act is over and only death awaits.


Unconscious - Campbell as Lover

Campbell's wife, Helga, goes missing after the war, and he is without his primary support; he has lost his "nation of two". Campbell used his relationship with his wife as a buffer against the insane world he was living in. He tells us "Oh, how we clung, my Helga and I - how mindlessly we clung. We didn't listen to each other's words. We heard only the melodies in our voices. The things we listened for carried no more intelligence than the purrs and growls of big cats. If we had listened for more, had thought about what we heard, what a nauseated couple we would have been! Away from the sovereign territory of our nation of two, we talked like the patriotic lunatics all around us."(M N p.44). This telling word, mindlessly, allows us insight into their relationship. It was indeed unconscious, a fabrication that allowed both to switch off their minds and abandon themselves to their love. If then we consider that "... Burke himself explicitly distinguishes the biologically unique self in the realm of nonsymbolic motion from the culturally constructed person in the realm of symbolic action. ...an absolute dualism of realm is implicit in Burke's definition of man as the symbol-using animal."2. This duality of purpose and realm is exaggerated by Vonnegut, for the nonsymbolic part of Campbell is only apparent when he is with his wife; the symbolic actions he takes are myriad, with all his personae mixed into the melting pot of his character.



Devil/Saviour - Campbell as Nazi

Is Campbell a good character, or an evil one? Burke says: "In the arpeggio of biological, or temporal, growth, good does come of evil (as we improve ourselves by revising our excesses, the excesses thus being a necessary agent in the drama, or dialectic, of improvement: they are the ‘villain' who ‘competitively cooperates' as ‘criminal Christ' in the process of redemption). But when you collapse the arpeggio of development by the non temporal, nonhistorical forms of logic, you get simultaneous ‘polarity', which adds up to good and evil as consubstantial."(P O L F p.99). This description of the possible range and depth of good and evil applies well to Campbell; there does not appear to be any way to view him so that he is one or the other. However, when Campbell is speaking to his father-in-law near the end of the war, he is told: "... you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us, ...I realized that almost all the ideas 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."(M N p.81). Although inside himself Campbell felt justified in spouting the Nazi rhetoric and propaganda, his impact was much stronger on the Germans than needed in order to be effective. Essentially, the good in his character was too deep inside himself, too secret, and the evil counterpart of his psyche was too open and accessible. In the scene where he gets his secret wartime instructions from an American agent we are told: "... I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler's right-hand man, and nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside." (M N p.41).


Purgatory - Campbell as an American

Later in the story, Campbell has moved to New York City, in Greenwich village, and is trying to lead a quiet life in anonymity. He has retained his name from the war and lives in seclusion in a small apartment. In the jail in Israel, his guard offers that New York must have been like heaven to him compared to his jail cell. Campbell replies: "It might well be for you... ...It was Hell for me - or not Hell, something worse than Hell... ... Purgatory"(M N p.29). This purgatory is where Campbell stays for fourteen years, until a white supremacist group finds that one of their greatest heroes of the war is living in virtual poverty and loneliness. When Campbell meets Dr.Jones and his ensemble of neo-nazis in Greenwich Village, he tells us: "In order to contrast with myself a race-baiter who is ignorant and insane - I am neither ignorant nor insane. Those whose orders I carried out in Germany were as ignorant and insane as Dr. Jones. I knew it. God help me, I carried out their instructions anyway."( M N p.61). He was a part of the movement through choice, and yet he could not make the choice to stop his broadcasts; they defined his potential for good by being so evil.


In conclusion, Kenneth Burke supplies us with a methodology for realizing the symbolic and nonsymbolic acts that make up a character or plot in a text. These ideas are grounded in common philosophy; however, they may be taken a step further than traditional philosophy might, for they can be used to view the secret motives and inner workings of a fictional character. This character's motives may otherwise have been obscure or inaccessible to regular critical methodology. On the question of Good vs. Evil, or Love vs. Hate, we may note that "In the Burkean system, as in the Derridean, meaning is disseminated. However substantial distinctions may appear, they become meaningful insofar as their terms are cast inb opposition to each other, and they are forever capable of retreating into the moltenness of the alchemic centre and reemerging as something else."3. This sliding scale of morality and justness is a perfect tool to use in analyzing complex characters such as Vonnegut's Campbell. It allows for one to be simultaneously good and evil, caring and cold, just and unjust. Humans are not cut-and-dried specimens from a cheap psychology novel; there must be an acknowledgment of the shades of grey possible in everyone's system of morality.

Texts Consulted



Burke, Kenneth

The Philosophy of Literary Form

University of California Press,1973


Henderson, Grieg

Postmodern Burke - Journal Article

KIOSK:CBCA 97/06/11


Vonnegut, Kurt

Mother Night

Dell Publishing, New York, 1961

1 As quoted in: Book

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. , Schatt, Stanley

Twayne Publishers, Boston 1976


2 Article: Postmodern Burke

Henderson, Greig

KIOSK:CBCA 97/06/11


3 Article: Postmodern Burke

Henderson, Greig

KIOSK:CBCA 97/06/11




Thanks - interesting analysis

read this book for book club and ran across your analysis. i'm not familiar with burke, but it sounds very zen with the yin/yang of good coming FROM evil, etc. interesting. thanks for posting!

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