Since the dawn of literature and drama, comedyand tragedy have always been partitioned into separate genres. Certainly mosttragedies had comedic moments, and even the zaniest comedies were at timesserious. However, even the development of said tragicomedies left the divisionmore or less intact. Integrating a total comedy and a total tragedy into aholistic union that not only preserved both features, but also blended them intoa new and harmonious entity remained elusive. That is, until Catch-22. Using hisunique style and structure, Joseph Heller masterfully manages to interlay humorand terror, comedy and tragedy, and reveals in the process the perversions ofthe human character and of society gone mad.Order now
The first stroke of Heller’s defttouch is his presentation of outrageous characters, acting outrageously. Fromthe first chapter, we are presented with a slew of unbelievable characters whoseactions and ideologies are uproariously funny, and horrifically disturbing. Infact, the manner in which the reader recognizes the character’s dual nature willserve as the first example of Heller’s amalgamation of comedy and tragedy. Dunbar’s theory of life is first received with a burst of laughter from theaudience. Life is short, and Dunbar wishes to extend it as much as possible.
Iftime flies when one is having fun, then conversely, time must slow when one isbored. Dunbar endeavors to make his life as boring as possible, thus increasingthe length of its passing. Indeed, it is understandable why such an attitudeshould elicit a laugh, but the further implications are horrific. Society’semphasis on life over meaning comes as a shocking revelation to the audience. Heller further reinforces that idea with characters such as Doc Daneeka, whovalues self-preservation and money over responsibility and friendship, and Milowho values self-improvement and fortune over the lives of thousands of others. The motif that follows gives us characters that are, above all else, moreinterested in self (Cathcart, Mrs.
Daneeka, Duckett, the Old Man, Peckem, etc. ). Though they are initially humorous, their nature is ultimately revealed to befalse and horrific, arousing disgust and pity, a brilliant combination of comedyand tragedy. The perversion of society is revealed further in a second majortype of character, the deluded. Though most serve largely as foils to Yossarianand his philosophy, much can still be made of their condition. Clevinger isperhaps the best example of a deluded character.
His debate with Yossarianserves as an insightful evaluation of their psyche. He argues that, althougheveryone is trying to kill him, everyone is not trying to kill him. The humor ofthe debate cannot be denied, but horror and tragedy are equally present. Thedebate leaves the audience struggling to decide who is crazy. Clevinger fallsinto an obvious contradiction, but his argument still strikes as common sense. In face of Yossarian’s triumphant “What difference does that make?”the audience is left not only with the realization of its speciousness, but ofthe realization that they believed it.
The terror evoked by the deluded liesmainly in that the audience is equally deluded. Perhaps Clevinger, Appleby, andHavermeyer are fighting for “what they have been told” was theircountry– and perhaps so has the audience. The genius of Heller’scharacterization is further enhanced as the audience sees itself in the hollowrationale of the deluded, and is aghast with horror, even in face of such humor. With this revelation, Heller compels the audience to follow the rebellious pathof Yossarian, or fall victim to the indoctrination of society, and meet the samefate as the deluded.
As the audience is bombarded with insanely comedic ironiesof Catch-22, they are further aware of its horror. A primary example of irony isfound in Milo, when he is praised for bombing his own company when it is learnedthat he made a great deal of money. Again, this evokes a staunch laugh, and thenleaves the audience aghast with horror. Exaggeration makes this funny– an eventsuch as this occurring, and then inciting such a reaction by those affected isalmost unfathomable– but the ultimate truth provides the terror. Society trulydoes reward persons for profit, even if it results, as it often does, interrible distress.
The further instances of ridiculously backward behavior–Hungry Joe’s screaming, Havermeyer’s disregard for life, McWatt’s destructiveflying, Cathcart’s “list”, etc. — further provide the audience withhumorous instances of exaggeration, whose ultimate truth proves to behorrifying. Heller’s blend of hyperbole and truth create a horrifying, thoughcomedic, charge for his irony. Perhaps the most memorable attribute of Catch-22is its mind-boggling paradoxes, or, as they are more commonly referred to,catches.
These paradoxes range from the harmlessly absurd, to the insanelycatastrophic. When Yossarian and his friends begin asking clever questions todisrupt boring educational sessions, Colonel Korn decides that only those whonever ask questions may ask questions. When they want to discuss a problem withMajor Major, they are allowed into his office only when he is out. Even whenYossarian is offered an apparently harmless deal that would allow him to go homeas a hero, there is a catch.
He must betray his friends by praising the officerswho caused many of them to die. And as Heller shows, life is reduced to onefrustrating paradox after another. The most notable instance of the paradox isCatch-22. The first solid reference is Doc Daneeka’s version, presented toYossarian on the matter of groundings.
To be grounded, one must be insane, butone must also ask to be grounded. However, asking to be grounded shows thedesire for self-preservation, a sure sign of sanity. For, if one were trulyinsane, one would fly the missions voluntarily. Thus, no one is grounded. Thisis striking for its sophistry and circularity, and is certainly humorous, butits implications are equally grotesque– more and more deaths. As the novelcontinues, the paradoxes remain equally humorous, but their implications evenmore gruesome.
The Catch decays, moving into the civilian world with the Lucianamarriage conundrum. Later, it appears with official regulation stating thatone’s orders must be obeyed, even if they conflict with official regulation. Finally, the truth of Catch-22 is revealed in the MP’s destructive and inhumanerendition, they can do whatever you can’t stop them from doing. Ultimately,Catch-22 is the unwritten loophole that empowers authorities to revoke yourrights whenever it suits their cruel whims. It is, in short, the principle ofabsolute evil in a malevolent and incompetent world. As humorous as Catch-22 is(initially at least), the horror intertwined with it is strikingly evident.
Likely the most important element of Catch-22 is its absurdity. Absurditypervades the novel, creating dually humor and terror. The absurd Lt. , Col.
,Gen. , Sheishkopff’s obsession with parades is quite droll. Again, however, theimplications are ghastly. Sheishkopff views his soldiers as puppets, wanting atone point to wire them together to create a perfectly precise machine. Thisreflects society’s insane obsession with order and conformity, even at the costof individuality and humanity.
A further example of such dehumanizing absurdityoccurs at the hospital. Yossarian has suffered a leg injury and is told to takebetter care of his leg because it is government property. Soldiers, therefore,are not even people, but simply property that can be listed on an inventory. Ina bureaucracy, as Heller shows, individuality does not matter. Maybe the mostabsurd character in the novel is Colonel Cathcart. He continually raises thenumber of missions for no other reason than personal prestige.
Though heachieves nothing by this, he continually persists. Cathcart’s absurd drive forprestige is again emphasized in the Saturday Evening Post incident. He tries tocopy another squadron’s prayer meetings, not for morale, but for the absurdthought that he will be featured in the Saturday Evening Post. Even his reasonfor not going forward is absurd; he refuses to accept the enlisted men prayingto the same God as the officers. Perhaps Cathcart’s most ridiculously absurdaction is his “List”. Ultimately, his career is measured out in”Black Eyes” and “Feathers in His Cap” rather than insuccess, morale, or human life.
Cathcart remains one of the novel’s funniestcharacters, but his essential inhumanity and selfishness creates an equallycontemptible character. Cathcart presents another example of Heller’s beautifulweaving of comedy and tragedy. Final examples of the horrifically humorousabsurdity of the novel are the death scenes. Clevinger is the first to make hisdeparture, flying into a cloud and never returning. The unreasonable logisticsof his demise are certain to garner laughs. Likewise, Kid Sampson’s gruesomedeath at the blades of a propeller– followed by McWatt’s suicide– issadistically funny.
The absurdity of Dunbar being “disappeared” cloaksits awful truth. Even life and death can be at the whim of the army bureaucracy,as demonstrated by Mudd’s “life”, and Daneeka’s “death”. Atthe outset these deaths are indeed comically absurd, but the basic horror of itis enough to make one nauseous. Absurdity represents one of Heller’s mostskillful blends of comedy and tragedy in the entire novel. Though seeminglyirreconcilable genres, horror and tragedy are nimbly fused into a whole creationby Heller’s unique style and structure. Heller creates situations where theaudience laughs, and then must look back in horror at what they were laughingat.
Through brilliant characterizations, superb irony, mind-boggling paradoxes,and ingenious absurdity, Heller manages interlay humor and terror, comedy andtragedy into a beautiful whole as Catch-22.