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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
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
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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