Mother Night
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Mother Night


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Mother Night

Copyright © 1961, 1966 by Kurt Vonnegut

Note (Hal’s):
This book is horribly dark, terribly cynical, a frightening thing to read. (It’s also, in places, pretty funny.) I consider it one of the most important books I have read in my entire life. Maybe it’s that the world is still, over half a century later, reeling from the effects of that war.

Then again, maybe it’s that moral.

Just so you know: the Introduction is written by Vonnegut as author of the book; the Editor’s Note is written by Vonnegut in the fictitious role of editor of the confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who is the main and narrating character. (Vonnegut also did a cameo appearance in the film, by the way.)

Howard W. Campbell is quoted and appears briefly in the later Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.

— end note


This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.




Editor’s Note

To say that he was a writer is to say that the demands of art alone were enough to make him lie, and to lie without seeing any harm in it. To say that he was a playwright is to offer an even harsher warning to the reader, for no one is a better liar than a man who has warped lives and passions onto something as grotesquely artificial as a stage.

And, now that I’ve said that about lying, I will risk the opinion that lies told for the sake of artistic effect—in the theater, for instance, and in Campbell’s confessions, perhaps—can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.




This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.

Note (Hal’s):
This quote, supplied by Vonnegut in his “editor” role, is purportedly from a discarded chapter of the book, commenting on the original dedication, “To Mata Hari.”

— end note

chapter Two
Special Detail...

“There was one announcement that was always crooned, like a nursery rhyme. Many times a day it came. It was the call for the Sonderkommando.”

“Oh?” I said.

Leichenträger zu Wache,” he crooned, his eyes still closed.

Translation: “Corpse-carriers to the guardhouse.” In an institution in which the purpose was to kill human beings by the millions, it was an understandably common cry.

“After two years of hearing that call over the loudspeakers, between the music,” Gutman said to me, “the position of corpse-carrier suddenly sounded like a very good job.”

“I can understand that,” I said.

“You can?” he said. He shook his head. “I can’t,” he said.

chapter Six

It was the sweetly mournful cry that meant a game of hide-and-seek was over, that those still hiding were to come out of hiding, that it was time to go home.

The cry was this: “Olly-olly-ox-in-free.”

And I, hiding from many people who might want to hurt or kill me, often longed for someone to give that cry for me, to end my endless game of hide-and-seek with a sweet and mournful—


chapter Ten

No young person on earth is so excellent in all respects as to need no uncritical love. Good Lord—as youngsters play their parts in political tragedies with casts of billions, uncritical love is the only real treasure they can look for.



chapter Thirteen
The Reverend Doctor Lionel Jason David Jones, D.D.S., D.D....

And he wrote and published at his own expense a book that combined not only dentistry and theology, but the fine arts as well. The name of the book was Christ Was Not a Jew. He proved his point by reproducing in the book fifty famous paintings of Jesus. According to Jones, not one painting showed Jewish jaws or teeth.


Books (particular)

chapter Twenty-one
My Best Friend...

“All people are insane,” he said. “They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.”

chapter Twenty-two
The Contents of an Old Trunk...

“It’s all I’ve seen, all I’ve been through,” I said, “that makes it damn nearly impossible for me to say anything. I’ve lost the knack of making sense. I speak gibberish to the civilized world, and it replies in kind.”

chapter Twenty-three
Chapter Six Hundred and Forty-three...

To be to each other, body and soul, sufficient reasons for living, though there might not be a single other satisfaction to be had.

“You hate America, don’t you?” she said.

“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.”



chapter Twenty-eight

Watching Kraft pop away at that target, I understood its popularity for the first time. The amateurishness of it made it look like something drawn on the wall of a public lavatory; it recalled the stink, diseased twilight, humid resonance, and vile privacy of a stall in a public lavatory—echoed exactly the soul’s condition in a man at war.

I had drawn better than I knew.

chapter Twenty-nine
Adolf Eichmann and Me...

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.



I doubt if there has ever been a society that has been without strong and young people eager to experiment with homicide, provided no very awful penalties are attached to it.

I always know when I tell a lie, am capable of imagining the cruel consequences of anybody’s believing my lies, know cruelty is wrong. I could no more lie without noticing it than I could unknowingly pass a kidney stone.

If there is another life after this one, I would like very much, in the next one, to be the sort of person of whom it could truly be said, “Forgive him—he knows not what he does.”

This cannot be said of me now.



chapter Thirty-one
“His Truth Goes Marching On...”

I delivered my eulogy of August Krapptauer, saying, incidentally, what I pretty much believe, that Krapptauer’s sort of truth would probably be with mankind forever, as long as there were men and women around who listened to their hearts instead of their minds.




chapter Thirty-two

“It’s almost never money,” he said. “Or patriotism, either.”

“What is it, then?” I said.

“Each person has to answer that question for himself—” said Wirtanen. “Generally speaking, espionage offers each spy an opportunity to go crazy in a way he finds irresistible.”



chapter Thirty-six
Everything But the Squeals...
“Plagiarism is the silliest of misdemeanors. What harm is there in writing what’s already been written? Real originality is a capital crime, often calling for cruel and unusual punishment in advance of the coupe de grâce.”




chapter Thirty-eight
Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life...

[...] you have a full life ahead of you.”

“I have a full life behind me—” she said, “all in those few sweet hours with you.”

“That sounds like a line I might have written as a young man,” I said.

“It is a line you wrote as a young man,” she said.

“Foolish young man,” I said.

“I adore that young man,” she said.

I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even a substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy, gaudy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell.



Since there is no one else to praise me, I will praise myself—will say that I have never tampered with a single tooth in my thought machine, such as it is. There are teeth missing, God knows—some I was born without, teeth that will never grow. And other teeth have been stripped by the clutchless shifts of history—

But never have I willfully destroyed a tooth on a gear of my thinking machine. Never have I said to myself, “This fact I can do without.”

chapter Forty-three
St. George and the Dragon...

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.

“It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”





text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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