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The Deft View Of Catch-22 Essay, Research Paper

The Deft Touch of Catch 22:

Heller’s Harmonious Unison of Comedy and Tragedy

Since the dawn of literature and drama, comedy and tragedy have always

been partitioned into separate genres. Certainly most tragedies had

comedic moments, and even the zaniest comedies were at times serious.

However, even the development of said tragicomedies left the division

more or less intact. Integrating a total comedy and a total tragedy

into a holistic union that not only preserved both features, but also

blended them into a new and harmonious entity remained elusive. That

is, until Catch-22. Using his unique style and structure, Joseph

Heller masterfully manages to interlay humor and terror, comedy and

tragedy, and reveals in the process the perversions of the human

character and of society gone mad.

The first stroke of Heller’s deft touch is his presentation of

outrageous characters, acting outrageously. From the first chapter, we

are presented with a slew of unbelievable characters whose actions and

ideologies are uproariously funny, and horrifically disturbing. In

fact, the manner in which the reader recognizes the character’s dual

nature will serve 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 the audience. Life is short, and Dunbar wishes

to extend it as much as possible. If time flies when one is having fun,

then conversely, time must slow when one is bored. Dunbar endeavors

to make his life as boring as possible, thus increasing the length of

its passing. Indeed, it is understandable why such an attitude should

elicit a laugh, but the further implications are horrific. Society’s

emphasis on life over meaning comes as a shocking revelation to the

audience. Heller further reinforces that idea with characters such as

Doc Daneeka, who values self-preservation and money over responsibility

and friendship, and Milo who values self-improvement and fortune over

the lives of thousands of others. The motif that follows gives us

characters that are, above all else, more interested in self (Cathcart,

Mrs. Daneeka, Duckett, the Old Man, Peckem, etc.). Though they are

initially humorous, their nature is ultimately revealed to be false and

horrific, arousing disgust and pity, a brilliant combination of comedy

and tragedy.

The perversion of society is revealed further in a second major type of

character, the deluded. Though most serve largely as foils to

Yossarian and his philosophy, much can still be made of their condition.

Clevinger is perhaps the best example of a deluded character. His

debate with Yossarian serves as an insightful evaluation of their

psyche. He argues that, although everyone is trying to kill him,

everyone is not trying to kill him. The humor of the debate cannot be

denied, but horror and tragedy are equally present. The debate leaves

the audience struggling to decide who is crazy. Clevinger falls into 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

of the realization that they believed it. The terror evoked by the

deluded lies mainly in that the audience is equally deluded. Perhaps

Clevinger, Appleby, and Havermeyer are fighting for “what they have

been told” was their country– and perhaps so has the audience. The

genius of Heller’s characterization is further enhanced as the audience

sees itself in the hollow rationale 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 path of Yossarian, or

fall victim to the indoctrination of society, and meet the same fate as

the deluded.

As the audience is bombarded with insanely comedic ironies of Catch-22,

they are further aware of its horror. A primary example of irony is

found in Milo, when he is praised for bombing his own company when it

is learned that he made a great deal of money. Again, this evokes a

staunch laugh, and then leaves the audience aghast with horror.

Exaggeration makes this funny– an event such as this occurring, and

then inciting such a reaction by those affected is almost unfathomable–

but the ultimate truth provides the terror. Society truly does reward

persons for profit, even if it results, as it often does, in terrible

distress. The further instances of ridiculously backward behavior–

Hungry Joe’s screaming, Havermeyer’s disregard for life, McWatt’s

destructive flying, Cathcart’s “list”, etc.– further provide the

audience with humorous instances of exaggeration, whose ultimate truth

proves to be horrifying. Heller’s blend of hyperbole and truth create

a horrifying, though comedic, charge for his irony.

Perhaps the most memorable attribute of Catch-22 is its mind-boggling

paradoxes, or, as they are more commonly referred to, catches. These

paradoxes range from the harmlessly absurd, to the insanely

catastrophic. When Yossarian and his friends begin asking clever

questions to disrupt boring educational sessions, Colonel Korn decides

that only those who never ask questions may ask questions. When they

want to discuss a problem with Major Major, they are allowed into his

office only when he is out. Even when Yossarian is offered an

apparently harmless deal that would allow him to go home as a hero,

there is a catch. He must betray his friends by praising the officers

who caused many of them to die. And as Heller shows, life is reduced

to one frustrating paradox after another.

The most notable instance of the paradox is Catch-22. The first solid

reference is Doc Daneeka’s version, presented to Yossarian on the

matter of groundings. To be grounded, one must be insane, but one must

also ask to be grounded. However, asking to be grounded shows the

desire for self-preservation, a sure sign of sanity. For, if one were

truly insane, one would fly the missions voluntarily. Thus, no one is

grounded. This is striking for its sophistry and circularity, and is

certainly humorous, but its implications are equally grotesque– more

and more deaths. As the novel continues, the paradoxes remain equally

humorous, but their implications even more gruesome. The Catch decays,

moving into the civilian world with the Luciana marriage conundrum.

Later, it appears with official regulation stating that one’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

inhumane rendition, they can do whatever you can’t stop them from doing.

Ultimately, Catch-22 is the unwritten loophole that empowers

authorities to revoke your rights whenever it suits their cruel whims.

It is, in short, the principle of absolute 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.

Absurdity pervades the novel, creating dually humor and terror. The

absurd Lt., Col., Gen., Sheishkopff’s obsession with parades is quite

droll. Again, however, the implications are ghastly. Sheishkopff

views his soldiers as puppets, wanting at one point to wire them

together to create a perfectly precise machine. This reflects

society’s insane obsession with order and conformity, even at the cost

of individuality and humanity. A further example of such dehumanizing

absurdity occurs at the hospital. Yossarian has suffered a leg injury

and is told to take better 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. In a bureaucracy, as Heller shows,

individuality does not matter.

Maybe the most absurd character in the novel is Colonel Cathcart. He

continually raises the number of missions for no other reason than

personal prestige. Though he achieves nothing by this, he continually

persists. Cathcart’s absurd drive for prestige is again emphasized in

the Saturday Evening Post incident. He tries to copy another

squadron’s prayer meetings, not for morale, but for the absurd thought

that he will be featured in the Saturday Evening Post. Even his reason

for not going forward is absurd; he refuses to accept the enlisted men

praying to the same God as the officers. Perhaps Cathcart’s most

ridiculously absurd action is his “List”. Ultimately, his career is

measured out in “Black Eyes” and “Feathers in His Cap” rather than in

success, morale, or human life. Cathcart remains one of the novel’s

funniest characters, but his essential inhumanity and selfishness

creates an equally contemptible character. Cathcart presents another

example of Heller’s beautiful weaving of comedy and tragedy.

Final examples of the horrifically humorous absurdity of the novel are

the death scenes. Clevinger is the first to make his departure, flying

into a cloud and never returning. The unreasonable logistics of his

demise are certain to garner laughs. Likewise, Kid Sampson’s gruesome

death at the blades of a propeller– followed by McWatt’s suicide– is

sadistically funny. The absurdity of Dunbar being “disappeared” cloaks

its 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”.

At the outset these deaths are indeed comically absurd, but the basic

horror of it is enough to make one nauseous. Absurdity represents one

of Heller’s most skillful blends of comedy and tragedy in the entire


Though seemingly irreconcilable genres, horror and tragedy are nimbly

fused into a whole creation by Heller’s unique style and structure.

Heller creates situations where the audience laughs, and then must look

back in horror at what they were laughing at. Through brilliant

characterizations, superb irony, mind-boggling paradoxes, and ingenious

absurdity, Heller manages interlay humor and terror, comedy and tragedy

into a beautiful whole as Catch-22.

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