Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night is the fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., who is awaiting execution for crimes against humanity in a cell in Israel. He has been sentenced because of his role as a Nazi radio propagandist. Unbeknownst to those who sentenced him, Campbell was working as an American spy throughout the war, and using his radio broadcasts to send secret messages to the allies.
When the possibility of acquittal arrives, in the form of evidence which shows that he was indeed working for the Americans, Campbell is not relieved but “nauseated”. He declares that he deserves to die, not for crimes against humanity but for “crimes against himself”.
Vonnegut’s book raises questions about the relationship between what we do and who we are, and marks a place where appeals to ‘inner exile’, ‘clean conscience’ and ‘greater good’ are found lacking. Is the hypocrite a person who commits a ‘crime against himself’? If so, what kind of crime does he commit?
- Kurt Vonnegut. Mother Night