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Catch-22 & Charming Billy Essay, Research Paper

In structure, most novels use a straight-line approach: the plot unfolds from beginning to end. Even stories that start in the middle often return to a point in the past, and then tell events from that time up to the present. Both Catch-22 and Charming Billy, however, differ. They do not use time or order. The only way one can tell day from day, year from year, is by recalling certain landmark events in the plot. Yossarian and Billy are the main characters in each of the two books who regulate the time with their feelings about death. Past, present and future encounters with death guide each character?s thoughts, emotions and decisions daily, in turn, regulating interactions with other characters. The two protagonists differ, however, as Yossarian invariably endeavors to avoid death, while Billy has one foot in the grave practically his whole life. Both McDermott and Heller?s use of non-sequential structure provides for unique organization, as the imminent presence of death serves as the controlling force of time.

Catch-22, set in the closing months of World War II in an American bomber squadron off Italy, depicts the theme of a tenacious desire of Yossarian to escape his own pending death. By manipulating the war setting and language itself, Heller depicts a dark and twisted society. Everything about the squadron represents death, but no one seems to notice except Yossarian. ? ?They?re trying to kill me,? Yossarian told him calmly. ?No one?s trying to kill you ,? Clevinger cried. ?Then why are they shooting at me?? Yossarian asked. ?They?re shooting at everyone,? Clevinger answered. ?They?re trying to kill everyone?? (page 25). From the start of the novel, Yossarian is terrified of death. At first these references are comical; everyone wants to kill Yossarian? However, he is dead serious and runs into the hospital to escape flying more life-threatening missions. Throughout the novel, the bombardier Yossarian battles repeatedly with his superior officers over the dangerous number of missions to be flown. Each time the squadron raises the number of missions the men are required to fly, Yossarian?s life becomes more threatened and his hospital visits increase in frequency and seriousness, until the final time involves a life-threatening wound. By escaping into the hospital, Worst of all, his friends are dying, and they are dying horribly- not to win the war, though, just for the insane purpose of helping a colonel become a general. Yossarian ties to speed up time, hoping he can remain in the hospital until the war is over and he can go home. For the reality of a pending death for Yossarian and the other men in the squadron becomes more of a reality as each day goes by. There is still a ?dead man? in his tent. Yossarian watches Snowden die. He sees Kid Sampson get killed by a practical joke. ?Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive? (38). It’s only a matter of time until death overtakes Yossarian.

As the novel progresses, the only way to keep track of a given point in time is by the number of missions the men are required to fly and if certain scenes have already occurred, such as Orr?s disappearance and Snowden?s death. With each repeating scene in the book, there exists a spiral from the comic to the tragic. Yossarian’s sense of humor decreases as the comedy in each repeated scene becomes less farcical. An example of this pattern is the sequence of recollections Yossarian has about Snowden’s death. As it is one of the most significant events, Snowden?s death scene appears multiple times throughout the course of the novel and it deeply adds to Yossarian?s fear of death. The first memory Yossarian has is an almost comic play on words- “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” But as the novel progresses, one learns more and more details until the comic elements have faded entirely, and everyone knows exactly how horribly Snowden dies as Heller describes his gory death graphically. ?By the time of the mission to Bologna, Yossarian was brave enough not to go around the target even once? (150). Never again will Yossarian fly a single mission without scheming up a plan to elude his duty.

Confused thoughts of death permeate Yossarian?s mind constantly, growing worse as his superiors keep raising the number of missions he is obliged to fly before he can go home. He jokes about the dead man in his tent without any humor at all. This man was killed before he was even able to sign into the squadron! Time is running out. However, the structure of these interwoven plots are scattered in no order. The style itself involves twists, turns, reversals, and surprises. Partial flashbacks offer tantalizing hints of events, and other echoes add details, until finally the picture becomes clear. In this confusing book full of insanity, irreverence, and joking that doesn?t seem to be going anywhere, Yossarian?s fear of death starts to make sense, as does the non-sequential construction of the book. The pieces are organized into a psychological progression from the humorous to the grim although there is no continuous story line. Similarly, Yossarian?s ideas about death are confusing at the beginning, and the reader thinks he is insane for believing everyone wants to kill him, but by the end of the novel, one begins to understand how serious Yossarian’s situation is- everyone really is trying to kill him; both inside and outside the squadron.

In early chapters, the war is still something of a game to Yossarian. He can

deal with it playfully by having Snark put soap in the men’s food, or moving a bomb line to postpone a mission. Similarly, chapters are in a jumbled sequence analogous to his thoughts. By the end of the novel, however, things have changed drastically. Reality finally sets in. For missions can’t be delayed forever and Yossarian has already been seriously wounded in the leg. Most of his friends are dead and even in his one land of refuge, a whore is trying to kill him. In the final three chapters of the book, time and sequence straighten out to the present, paralleling Yossarian?s distinct decision to keep his pride and his life away from anyone at the squadron. His attention focuses on one predominant goal: to end the madness for himself, personally, since the Air Force won’t do it for him. Yossarian concludes he can save himself now only by deserting, thus escaping missions, power hungry officers and his inevitable death.

Charming Billy is a straightforward novel, which spans about thirty years in the mid twentieth century. As the novel begins at a funeral reception, death is an important subject from the very beginning. Unlike Catch-22, McDermott recounts her book using a straightforward tone as well as realistic characters and events. While no character thinks everyone is trying to kill him/her, death is an unavoidable subject that everyone affiliated with Billy has to come to terms with in his/her own way. ?Billy had drunk himself to death. He had, at some point, ripped apart, plowed through, as alcoholics tend to do, the great, deep tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life, the life of love, of everyone in the room. Everyone loved him? (4). Even after his death people have only nice things to say about Billy. Holding drinks in one hand and recalling pleasant Billy memories is how the people at the funeral choose to deal with ?charming? Billy?s death. Each person who was close to Billy, however, knows deep down that Billy brought this death upon himself. For Billy is hardly ever charming; more correctly a drunken mess who is blind to all the love bestowed upon him. He is trapped forever wallowing in his sorrows from the past.

As this novel proceeds, one realizes there is no order to this story about Billy?s past and his friends and families? futures. The narrator flashes back to Billy?s youth, conversations with friends while he is alive, and future episodes after Billy is dead. Similar to Catch-22, the only way to keep track of time is to recall certain events which are specified as past, present or future of Billy?s death as well as Billy?s knowledge of the lie encircling the reason for his built up misery. Billy?s fiancee Eva dies before they can marry. Everyone who knows Billy understands that her death scars him for life, as ?Billy had hardly been able to go twenty minutes without working around to say her name? (30) at one time. When he finds out the bad news, alcoholism set in and he becomes wrapped up in his misery for over thirty years, no longer valuing his own life or the people?s he affects. He continues to come home in the middle of the night in a puddle, leaving his wife and best friend to pick up the pieces. If he cared about anyone besides himself, Billy would have tried to help himself for the sake of the people who cared about him.

Even when Billy remarries, he is not over Eva and her death. He deals with his pain through drinking to the point of unconsciousness. Even though the episode that scars him occurred almost thirty years ago, Eva?s death still plagues him and forever alters his way of living. ?Drunk, when Billy turned his eyes to heaven was there. Heaven was there utterly necessary, utterly sensible, the only possible reconciliation of the way he?d felt that life meant something greater. The only redemption, the only compensation for the disappointment, the cruelty and pain that plagued the living, for love itself, because when he turned his eyes to heaven, heaven was there and Eva was in it? (187). Billy drinks to escape from his nonstop painful thoughts. He wants to speed up time to his death, or to escape from life all together. Drinking himself to death will bring him one step closer to Eva, his true love. Unlike Yossarian, Billy looses his will to live.

Thoughts of death never leave Billy as he proceeds through life killing himself with alcohol over his past. Analogous to Billy?s thoughts constantly returning to Eva and her unfair death, the non-sequential events jump around, yet continue backtracking to memories or images of Eva. Each time she is mentioned, one sees a clearer picture of who she was and how the lie built up around her affected Billy?s desire to live. The order of events twist and turn like a drunk person. One chapter the family is listening to a minister console Maeve, the next Billy is frolicking on the beach with Eva. Just as time is irrelevant in the novel, time is irrelevant to Billy. He comes home and passes out on the floor at two in the morning, leaving his wife and friends to take care of him night after night. He can never shake the notion that Eva has been cheated out of life ?A girl so young, her childhood behind her, her life-marriage, motherhood-just about to begin. Where was the sense in it? There was no sense in it,? drunk Billy proclaims one night at three in the morning (202-203). By the time Billy learns Eva is alive, and her death was all a lie, its too late. She?s not dead but after all this time Billy might as well be. His own death is approaching and he doesn?t care to stop it.

Death is inevitable for everyone, however, when someone dies, it causes a different reaction in everyone. In both novels, the main characters struggle to deal with death in distinct ways. Watching all of his friends die during the war for no good reason scares Yossarian out of his mind. Yet instead of succumbing to death himself, Yossarian is determined to avoid death at all costs. Even though his decision to live on the run isn?t ideal, he is happy knowing his destiny is in his own hands and that he doesn?t sell his soul to the corrupt colonels. Heller presents this theme of controlling one?s fated death masterfully as he makes the reader appreciate life and hate war. Similarly, Alice McDermott also bestows her readers with the chance to esteem life and understand how dwelling on the past is harmful not only to oneself but to all the people a part of that person?s life. Billy succeeds in controlling his destiny as he escapes his pain in life through alcohol and eventually death. Using time as a controlling force of the plots, both novels demonstrate how important structure can be to a theme and the development of characters.

catch 22

charming billu


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