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A Life Without Loyalty and Devotion Is Not a Life Worth Living

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A Life without Loyalty and Devotion is Not a Life worth Living

Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night is a novel that deals with the loyalties that humans form to each other, as well as things and places. However, Vonnegut does not address this issue by creating a cast of characters who are loyal and true to a particular person, place, or thing; instead, he places the reader in a world that is seemingly void of all sense of loyalty and trustworthiness. Almost every character in this novel is destitute of all ability to trust, and more significantly to be trusted. In his creation of this dark and uncertain world, Vonnegut is effectively emphasizing the importance of faithfulness in one’s life. Through characters like Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and Resi Noth, among others, he proves that “a life without loyalty and devotion is not a life worth living.” Every character in the novel has either a full-on duel identity or at least a major difference between the person that he or she tries to pretend to be and the person that he or she actually is. Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the main character of the novel, experiences the most severe and damaging lack of loyalty in his life. Howard’s problems begin when he agrees to become an American spy posing as a Minister of Propaganda for the Nazis during World War II. No one knows of his true identity except for himself and a couple other people; therefore, everyone believes Howard to be a Nazi. At times, it seems as though Howard himself is not really sure whether or not he is a Nazi, and he does not really seem to care either. He suffers from a lack of identity and sense of self because of this. Campbell first describes himself as “an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination” (Vonnegut 1). He later claims that he does not love nor hate America, or any country for that matter, because “hating it would be as silly as loving it” (Vonnegut 133). Campbell has no loyalty to, admiration of, or love for any nation. He does not truly belong to a specific one. Although he worked for America during the war, he also sort of worked for Nazi Germany. These are two very different countries with very conflicting beliefs. At some points, he acts as though he does not care what the world thinks of him and is not sorry for what he has done, saying things like, “Classify me as a Nazi…Hang me, if you think it would tend to raise the general level of morality” (Vonnegut 189). On the other hand, he sometimes appears upset about what he has done and the way the world views him. Guilt and regret seem to win out, and Howard finds that he is not able to forgive himself (the motive for his suicide) for having done such a wonderful job being an influential Nazi that the intelligence work he did for the right reasons became almost unimportant. These are all very valid explanations for Howard’s suicide, and all seem to have been driving factors in it. However, the most important factor in Howard’s decision to end his life was that he had nothing left to live for. He has no friends, no wife, no children, and it is very difficult for him to find someone who likes him after they find out about his past. For Howard, after everything and everyone that he was or could have been loyal to was gone. He could no longer find a reason to live. The only time Howard shows any sense of loyalty or true affection is when he is speaking of his relationship with Helga. He affectionately calls them a “nation of two”, and says that “nothing in his life makes sense except love…” (Vonnegut 43). He speaks of her death as the point when he “became what he is today and what he always will be, a stateless person” (Vonnegut 43). With the loss of his one true love and the end to his only experience with commitment, Howard gives up his ability and desire to ever belong to another person or country again. However, Howard was so completely in love with with Helga, he would never have thought twice about leaving her or Germany. Then again, his loyalty to and true feelings for Helga are questioned when he finds out that the woman he thought was Helga returned from the dead is actually her little sister Resi. Although he appears slightly shocked at first, Howard soon hold Resi close and begins a relationship with her. He says, “God forgive me, I accepted Resi as my Helga again” (Vonnegut 138). Even though it is possible that Howard is just lonely and in need of companionship, it is likely that because of his inability to experience true commitment and loyalty, he can easily forget about Helga and accept Resi as her replacement. It seems at one point that she has almost completely convinced even herself that she is her sister Helga; she says, “….Helga – that’s who I was….Resi….she simply disappeared…It’s who I am. I’m Helga, Helga, Helga” (Vonnegut 136-137). Later, it is discovered that not only does Resi lie about being Helga, but she is also a Russian spy sent to gain Howard’s trust and take him back to Moscow with her where he would be arrested and tried for his crimes against humanity. However, when Howard confronts her, she shows her first and last demonstration of loyalty. She says, “I am a communist agent…And our mission was to get you to Moscow. But I wasn’t going to go through with it – because I love you, because the love you gave me was the only love I’ve ever had, the only love I ever will have” (Vonnegut 218). Resi then goes on admitting her love for Howard and beg him for a reason to live; she says things like, “…tell me what to live for …Tell me what you live for, so I can live for it, too…Tell me why you want to go on being alive, so I can go on wanting to be alive, too!” (Vonnegut 221). Campbell is determined in his incoherent tone with her, however, and she eventually gives up, saying, “I am sorry I have nothing to live for…All I have is love for one man, but that man does not love me” (Vonnegut 230). She then puts cyanide into her mouth and says, “I will show you a woman who dies for love” (Vonnegut 230). Resi’s suicide is one of the only acts of pure loyalty and dedication seen in the entire novel. George Kraft also experiences a lack a loyalty. He introduces himself to Howard and becomes his most sincere friend and also the agent who is working to exploit him in Moscow. Kraft does this by slowly gaining Howard’s trust with made up stories. Eventually, Howard finds out that Kraft is really a Russian spy named Iona Potapov who, along with Resi, was ordered by the Russian government to find Howard and bring him back to Moscow for trial. Kraft tells Howard lies that will make him easier to relate to, for example, he tells him that he, like Howard, is a widower and does not have any children, which in fact is all not true. There are many other smaller occurrences of disloyalty throughout the book, involving several of the minor characters. A secondary character who also exhibits “schizophrenic” tendencies is Arpad Kovacs, one of Howard’s prison guards. Kovacs is a Jew who works for the S.S. in Germany to avoid execution. He becomes something truly terrible, aiding in and causing the murders of thousands of his own people, simply because he was too much of a coward to be true to himself. Arpad appears slightly “schizophrenic” when he says, “If any member of my S.S. platoon had spoken in…a friendly way about the Jews, I would have had him shot for treason!” (Vonnegut 13), and in the next breath, goes on to say of Adolf Eichmann: “I’m sorry I didn’t know…how important he was…I would have killed him.” Some other smaller examples of this “schizophrenic” behavior in minor characters are: Frank Wirtanen, such as when he calls Howard a Nazi even though he was the one who recruited him for the job as a spy, and Paul Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler being very big fans of the Gettysburg Address. All of these examples show you one mind set in a certain behavior that goes against what they actually do. Each of the characters in this novel has had some sort of negative event in their lives, and obviously carries many scars and doubts because of it. Through Howard’s poor judgment, Resi’s hopeless envy of her sister and unrequited love for Howard, Kraft’s pure betrayal of Howard, Kurt Vonnegut effectively proves that a life without the loyalties that go along with friendships, love affairs and other such relationships is not a life worth living at all.

A Life without Loyalty and Devotion is Not a Life worth Living

Tim Huber
A.P. English 12
Mr. Downes

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