|The Structure and Meaning of 'Catch-22'
The critical reputation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) is a curiosity. The book is often praised, even celebrated, yet most critics are still puzzled by such basic matters as the structure of the novel. Friends and foes alike tend to agree that the novel is hilarious but also that it is repetitious and essentially formless. Norman Mailer [see excerpt above] speaks for all those who share this view when he says like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere. One could take a hundred pages from the middle of Catch-22 and not even the author could be certain they were gone. As it happens, the author is rather certain that he would notice. Heller has said that Catch-22 is not to my mind a formless novel. If anything, it was constructed almost meticulously, and with a meticulous concern to give the appearance of a formless novel. Heller's remarks may seem defensive or at least exaggerated, but a close examination of Catch-22 confirms that the book is as meticulously structured as Heller claims. Indeed, the book's more puzzling features its bewildering chronology, its repetitiveness, its protagonist's belated change of heart all fit together to advance Heller's radical protest against the modern social order. What appears to be formless chaos is in fact a brilliant strategy to expose not only the worst excesses of the modern bureaucracy but also the complacent acceptance of this system on the part of everyone involved, including Heller's readers. The structural complexity of Catch-22 thus embodies Heller's meaning more thoroughly than even his admirers have been willing to suggest.
Reconsideration of the structure of Catch-22 might well begin with the most obvious example of Heller's formlessness: the utterly confusing chronology. Heller presents his story in such a way that at certain points it is literally impossible to determine the order of events. By the time Yossarian enters the hospital in chapter 1, all of the important missions have already been flown: Ferrara, Orvieto, Bologna, and Avignon. This means that Yossarian has already flown over the bridge at Ferrara twice; that Milo Minderbinder has already established M && M Enterprises; that Snowden has already died over Avignon and subsequently been buried; that Yossarian has already stood naked in formation to receive a medal for his heroism at Ferrara. As most of the crucial events have already occurred by the time the novel opens, Heller resorts to a series of flashbacks in order to introduce these materials. In itself this is not a difficult technique, but as practiced here it makes it very difficult to establish something so basic as the chronology of events. There are several reasons for this, each of which points to what is distinctive about the structure.
First, there is the peculiar nature of Heller's flashbacks. Indeed, to use the term flashback is a bit misleading, for the word usually implies an episode rendered dramatically and at some length. In Catch-22 there are a number of such episodes, but Heller presents much of the relevant material in oblique references, radically truncated scenes, and passing remarks in the dialogue. The death of Snowden is rendered in all of these ways, first as the subject of casual comments (where it is not even clear that Snowden has died), then as the occasion for brief, inconclusive scenes, finally as the novel's most powerfully dramatized episode (chapter 41). The early references are naturally confusing because they allude to a scene not yet fully rendered; such references hardly help establish the chronological relationships among the several episodes. Second, the sheer number of the flashbacks frustrates any effort to piece together the chronological puzzle. If the passing references are counted, there must be hundreds of flashbacks in Catch-22. The novel might well be described as a pastiche of such flashbacks, the number of which goes far to explain what Heller meant when he said that Catch-22 was meticulously constructed to give the appearance of a formless novel. Third, these flashbacks include few time references that place them within the novel as a whole. Heller never says that the mission to Avignon follows the Great Big Siege of Bologna, for example, but this must be the case because Yossarian rushes to Rome after the mission to Bologna and Snowden is in Rome at that time. Such clues are invariably obscure, however, perhaps sufficient for the inquiring scholar to use in his quest for Heller's chronology but unlikely to strike the common reader as very meaningful. (pp. 139-40)
By creating the curiously timeless world of Catch-22, where the temporal relationships are so difficult to grasp that almost all readers abandon the effort, Heller fashions a fictional world in which he can introduce a great many repetitions without undue awkwardness. Most narratives could absorb any one of Heller's repetitions; any of his recurring motifs would be easily defined, temporally speaking, against the central sequence of events. But surely the central plot line in most books would be destroyed if there were forty such motifs. According to many of Heller's critics, Catch-22 is such a book, marred, if not destroyed, by the sheer mass of its repetitions. Yet Heller makes way for his repetitions by destroying any sense of a traditional time sequence. In effect he creates a large canvas which is hospitable to repetitions no one will be tempted to place within such a conventional sequence.
This of course leads to the question of why Heller would want to structure his book around these repetitions. Here David Richter's analysis is invaluable. Like other critics, Richter notes that the tone darkens radically toward the end of Catch-22. Unlike his peers, however, Richter is able to explain the unusual method whereby this darkening is achieved: Instead of going from incident to new incident, with each successive event darker in tone than the last (the essential technique in, say, Mordecai Richler's Cocksure), incidents and situations are repeated, frequently with few factual changes, but with detail added to bring out the grotesque horror that underlies their absurd comedy. Catch-22 darkens as it goes along, but the later, darker episodes are the same as the earlier, lighter ones. Presumably Heller wants the repeated episodes and situations to be reevaluated; indeed, his repetitive technique virtually insists on this revaluation. A close look at several examples should suggest what Heller achieves by this technique.
One of Heller's most important repetitions involves the soldier in white. The soldier in white appears three times, in chapters 1, 17, and 34. While chapters 1 and 17 describe the same day that the soldier in white dies, the first rendering is far less disturbing. Here a brief account of the soldier in white's death is surrounded by a good deal of comic business, including Yossarian's infatuation with the chaplain, the Texan's political theories, and the fire in the kitchen the firemen abandon to return to the air field. Later, when the soldier in white dies again in chapter 17, the episode is not enclosed by these comic scenes and leads to a semi-serious discussion of why the men in the hospital have gone to war. Later still, when the soldier in white reappears in chapter 34, there are no comic touches whatsoever. Convinced that there's no one inside, Dunbar creates such a disturbance he is disappeared by the hospital authorities. Indeed, Dunbar will never be seen again.
The term repetition is used rather freely here. After all, the scene in chapter 34 is not literally the same as that of chapters 1 and 17. In part this is why Yossarian and Dunbar are so frightened: the soldier in white is supposed to be dead. Nonetheless, the three scenes seem to be one. Because place and circumstance are almost identical in all three scenes, chapter 34 appears to be a true repetition. In point of fact, many of Heller's repetitions are slightly different in nature. Sometimes the repetition is exact (the deaths of the soldier in white and Snowden). Sometimes the repeated scene involves a virtually identical situation but different characters (the interrogations of Clevinger and the chaplain, the deaths of Mudd and Kraft). Sometimes the repetition involves an identical situation represented quite differently at different times (Rome as seen early and late in the novel). Heller thus creates a sense of constant repetition without literally repeating himself at all points. The sense of repetition is overwhelming, however. To distinguish among the several forms of repetition is less important than one might think. In each case the darker implications of an episode are finally revealed as precisely what all too many people would like to ignore.
An especially good example is Heller's treatment of Clevinger, a minor character whom Yossarian finally numbers among his missing pals. By the end of the book Clevinger's disappearance in a cloud is taken quite seriously, but early references to it are such that most readers do not even realize that Clevinger is dead. The first such reference occurs when Heller describes the tents surrounding Yossarian's: On the other side of Havermeyer stood the tent McWatt no longer shared with Clevinger, who had still not returned when Yossarian came out of the hospital. A few pages later Yossarian asks Doc Daneeka then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger. Doc Daneeka replies, Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him. Both passages allude to the mission on which Clevinger disappeared, a mission not yet described in the book. Lacking the background to understand Heller's allusion, most readers will naturally fail to respond. Elsewhere Clevinger's death receives equally casual treatment. The single line devoted to it in chapter 9 is completely neutral in tone, and chapter 10 opens with one of Heller's many jokes: Clevinger was dead. That was the basic flaw in his philosophy. By this point many of the characters are dead. Yossarian will finally call the roll: Dunbar, Nately, Clevinger, Dobbs, Kid Sampson, McWatt, Hungry Joe. He will leave out Mudd, Kraft, Chief White Halfoat, and Snowden. These men are dying throughout the novel, but no one is encouraged to reflect upon the grim implications of this fact. Toward the end, when Yossarian finally grasps the true meaning of Clevinger's disappearance, the reader should realize that for most of the book he too has evaded what really happened to Clevinger. (pp. 141-43)
Perhaps the two most important repetitions in Catch-22 concern catch-22 itself and the death of Snowden. Like everything else in Heller's novel, catch-22 is variously defined. This ubiquitous regulation is introduced on the second page: Catch-22 required that each censored latter bear the censoring officer's name. This seems harmless enough; in fact, it seems more or less rational. Ensuing definitions have the same look of sweet reasonableness. Catch-22 specifies that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind; Catch-22 says that you've always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to; Catch-22 insists that Group approve the actions of its subordinates. But of course the rationality of these variants is pure bluff. Because concern for one's own safety in the face of real dangers is the process of a rational mind, Orr must continue to fly the missions forever (until he is killed). One must obey one's commanding officer, even if one's commanding officer is Lieutenant/Colonel/General Scheisskopf. Group must approve all actions, even though it is ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen who makes the crucial decisions. It is easy to see through these early definitions, but their implicit horror is not felt until Heller finally offers the old woman's unanswerable definition: Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing. It is this simple, and this terrible. Catch-22 means whatever they want it to mean. It has no real content Yossarian doubts that it even exists and is therefore open to any necessary revisions. There is only one catch, as Heller remarks, but this particular catch is more than sufficient.
These variations on the theme of Catch-22 illustrate inexact repetition, for each definition is occasioned by a different context. Heller's treatment of Snowden is closer to the technique of the soldier in white sequence. Snowden is introduced on the same comic note which sounds throughout the early chapters, as Yossarian cries out at an educational session, where are the Snowdens of yesteryear? Thereafter, as Richter remarks, the death of Snowden is repeatedly invoked with greater and greater portentousness, although the scene of his death is never rendered in sufficient detail to bring home its ultimate horror. The allusions to this scene become more and more explicit until Yossarian finally discovers the real meaning of Snowden's death. This meaning is captured in the late passage which reveals Snowden's secret:
Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.
The effect here is cumulative, for this passage climaxes Heller's many references to the event (Snowden truly dies throughout Catch-22, as Heller once said) and therefore seems to sum up what the whole novel is about.
Heller's repetitions are of a piece, despite their varying degrees of exactness. Each is structured as a kind of trap, for the reader is encouraged to laugh at characters and events which ultimately seem quite serious. This was precisely what Heller intended: I tried consciously for a comic effect juxtaposed with the catastrophic. I wanted people to laugh and then look back with horror at what they were laughing at. This statement suggests that the novel's repetitive structure is as calculated as the effect of chaotic formlessness; indeed, it suggests that the very meaning of the novel depends on this peculiar strategy which requires that the later episodes be the same as the earlier ones. The novel's meaning must be defined more precisely. First, however, there is the question of whether the many repetitions have been woven into a coherent narrative. (pp. 144-45)
It is true, of course, that the first 300 pages do seem to wander back and forth across the novel's action. The repetitions seem to occur randomly and in varying number; although Snowden's death recurs nine or ten times, many of the repetitions occur only once. Certainly there is no obvious pattern here. Nonetheless, Heller has rightly spoken of the novel's recurring and cyclical structure, a structure which involves blocks of narrative as well as individual sequences. Each of the soldier in white scenes marks the emergence of a new narrative movement or section. This is obviously the case in chapter 1 but much less clear with the later scenes. Chapters 17 and 34 are not abrupt, clear-cut transitions.... [The] book's darkest movement begins with the bombing of the undefended village in chapter 30, not the return of the soldier in white in chapter 34. Yet it remains an odd coincidence that the soldier in white scenes occur in chapters 1, 17, and 34. Such symmetry is not definitive, but it does point to the modulation of effect that occurs every 150 pages in the novel.
Heller has in fact divided Catch-22 into three parts. In the first third of the book (chapters 1-16), he manages to introduce most of the important episodes prior to Yossarian's final insurrection. Without exception these events are treated as comic or absurd; even Aarfy's complacence and Snowden's death (however briefly) are rendered as humorous. During the second section (chapters 17-33), signaled by the return of the soldier in white, the action of the novel hardly moves forward at all. Although time technically passes and Cathcart requires more missions, no major event occurs for almost 200 pages. Instead, Heller goes back over the same materials, repeating (more or less often) the major episodes. Richter and Burhans see no structural difference between this section and the first sixteen chapters because the early comic mood still prevails. As in the second soldier in white scene, however, this section modulates into a more serious tone. The senior officers are made to seem more brutal (especially in their treatment of the chaplain, whose plight is rendered much more realistically); Milo emerges as a still-comic but rather more troubling influence, as Heller provides richer accounts of Milo's dealings with Germany and other fertile markets; Nately's quarrel with the old man in Rome is a good deal more disturbing than its earlier counterpart, Clevinger's arguments with Yossarian; and the death of Snowden is described in greater and more vivid detail. These differences are relatively minor, but collectively they create the effect that Richter describes as a gradual darkening of tone.
The third and final section (chapters 34-42) takes its definitive tone from the reappearance of the soldier in white in chapter 34, though it may indeed begin with the bombing of the undefended village. As others have noticed, these final chapters differ in that time does seem to advance. Here there are almost no flashbacks and the crucial narrative events are new: Kid Sampson's grisly death, the interrogation of the chaplain, the disappearance of Orr, the search for Nately's whore's kid sister, Yossarian's insurrection. Often, however, the new events climax repetitions which have been built up throughout the book the interrogation of the chaplain, for example, or Aarfy's murder of the maid, or Milo's failure to help Yossarian. And the one flashback is of major importance, the final rendering of the death of Snowden. The new events, harder to brush aside as comical but deeply related to what has come before, trigger Yossarian's reconsideration of his experiences on Pianosa. The result is the novel's climactic event, Yossarian's desertion.
To speak of the novel's climactic event is again to assert that the meaning of Catch-22 emerges artfully out of what appears to be structural chaos. Heller's suppression of a normal fictional chronology paves the way for the numerous repetitions necessary to his unusual strategy. These repetitions take the form of individual sequences which invariably move from the comic to the terrible, from an amused acceptance of life's ironies to a belated recognition that most of these ironies are in fact human creations and utterly unacceptable. The acceptance and recognition referred to are of course the reader's, for Catch-22 is ultimately a rhetorical fiction in which Heller argues against the all too general acceptance of just such moral monstrosities as he depicts everywhere in his novel. The repetitions crucial to Heller's argument are organized into three narrative cycles to permit the book as a whole, not just the individual repetitions, to render events that first seem harmlessly comic, then cause for some concern, and finally the basis for a genuine moral protest.
Properly understood, the structure of Catch-22 points up the need for an effective moral response to the injustices of the modern social order. Yossarian's decision to desert is climactic because it represents such a response. His decision affirms that effective moral protest is possible, however hopeless such protest may seem and however painful the immediate consequences may be. Unfortunately, Yossarian's decision has often been misconstrued. Everyone sees that his desertion is the novel's climax, but the controversial nature of this act has obscured its structural connection with the repetitions preceding it. To reassess Yossarian's decision is to see how it brings Heller's fictional argument to the right conclusion.
Yossarian's desertion has been condemned or praised for the wrong reasons. It has been condemned as the irresponsible behavior of a hedonist, someone who believes that the only real horror is physical pain and ultimately death; it has been praised as the act of someone who understands that one's own substance is infinitely more precious than any cause. Both views suggest that Yossarian is consistently cynical concerning spiritual values or causes; whether he is a coward or the only sane man on Pianosa, he apparently acts at the end on the same perceptions he has insisted upon throughout the book. In fact, however, Yossarian changes toward the end of Catch-22. In the final fifty pages he moves away from some of the views he espoused earlier, including the view that one's own substance is infinitely more precious than any cause. Indeed, Yossarian deserts because he finally realizes there are greater horrors than physical pain and death.
The inadequacy of Yossarian's earlier point of view is implied by the two illusions he must finally discard. The first illusion is that he can afford to tolerate the evil done by such delightful characters as Milo. As Heller has said, Yossarian's tolerance for Milo reinforces the theme of insanity accepted without any eye-blinking; it suggests that Yossarian is like all too many of the other men in his basic indifference to what happens to others. James Mellard [see Further Reading list] argues that Yossarian rejects Milo as early as the scene in which he sits naked in the tree overlooking Snowden's funeral, but there is a major difference between questioning Milo, as Yossarian does there, and rejecting Milo, which Yossarian only comes to do in chapter 39. Quite simply, Yossarian does not act on what he knows about Milo until the end of the book, thus exposing his second, related illusion: that there is nothing he can do about the system and its representatives. Yossarian sometimes appears to protest the system's injustices, as when he stands naked to get his medal; but his protests are symbolic gestures and do not alter his basic acceptance of the system's constraints. Yossarian is simply wrong when he assumes that he can do nothing about the madness of his world. When he deserts, Yossarian finally does something that will affect the system: he ceases to serve it.
Many readers have questioned whether Yossarian's desertion is a responsible action, but there can be little doubt that Heller intended it as such. On one of his charts Heller wrote, In making the decision to dessirt [sic], Yossarian accepts the responsibility he now knows he has to the other men. As he says, he is not running away from his responsibilities, but to them. Heller also remarks that Nately's whore becomes a symbol of [Yossarian's] guilt and responsibility for never intervening in the injustices he knows exist everywhere, a point he repeats when he says, although [Yossarian] has done nothing to cause Nately's death, he's done nothing to prevent it. At the end Yossarian finally acts to help prevent the deaths of all the Natelys, for if he had accepted Cathcart's deal everyone else would have continued to fly more missions without protest. Yossarian's protest on behalf of others as well as himself lies behind Heller's descriptions of Catch-22 as a liberal book and an optimistic novel with a great deal of pessimism in it. At the time he wrote Catch-22 Heller believed that evil is very much a human creation, the product of human institutions which need to be recognized for what they are and changed. Thus his insistence that Yossarian becomes a viable model only when he has moved off dead center finally and begun to act for himself.
It should now be clear that Yossarian's ultimate values are not purely physical. Yossarian does pursue physical pleasures throughout the novel and never denies their importance, but his primary concern is not survival at any price. Indeed, Yossarian would simply have accepted Cathcart's deal if survival had been his first priority. After all, Cathcart offers him the opportunity to return to the United States and pose as a war hero, a live war hero. Instead, Yossarian opts for desertion, which endangers him but offers the other men the right kind of moral example. Yossarian is motivated not by a selfish instinct for survival but by his final understanding of Snowden's secret. One must say final because a first version of this secret is offered in an earlier rendering of Snowden's death: That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon they were out to get him.
Like everything depicted in the first 300 pages, this is a misleading half-truth that betrays Yossarian's early emphasis on survival per se. Much later, Snowden's secret is significantly redefined. Man is matter, and if he is dropped out a window he will fall, if he is set fire to he will burn, if he is buried he will rot. But man is evidently something more than matter, for Heller adds, the spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all. It is the spirit which counts, not matter. To capitulate to Cathcart would be to kill the spirit, to deny the distinction between man and other forms of garbage. Yossarian cannot do this even though it would insure the physical safety he has pursued so zealously, for he has finally learned the secret embedded in the entrails of all the Snowdens: men and women must protest against the forces that would render them garbage or they are indeed nothing more than droppable, burnable, buryable matter.
Yossarian's belated conversion is crucial because it is presented as exemplary. It climaxes an experience very like the reader's, as both come to feel something like shame for their indifference to the deaths of Clevinger, Snowden, and the others, and their amused tolerance for such figures as Aarfy, Milo, and the senior officers. Indeed, Yossarian acts on behalf of all those who first laughed at the novel's absurdities but who came to look back with horror at what they were laughing at. This confirms that the novel's repetitions are the key to its meaning. Heller once said that he meant to expose the contemporary regimented business society, and he does just that in his brilliant satiric caricatures of the senior officers, representative professional and business figures, and such remarkable examples of the capitalistic spirit as Milo and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. Yet Heller's portrait of this world did not require the elaborate system of repetitions that underlies the novel's complex structure. Heller added this feature because he wanted to make his crucial point about widespread complicity in the regimented business society. He wanted people to laugh and then look back with horror at what they were laughing at. They had to recoil from the same events they first laughed at because otherwise they might be tempted to trace the novel's darkening tone to changing circumstances within the fiction. Heller could not permit this, for it is essential to his argument that the world of Catch-22 has always been what it is only belatedly perceived to be. By rendering the same events in such radically different ways, Heller encourages people to see that their problems involve more than life's destructive circumstances. Even more crucial is their failure to recognize these circumstances for what they are and to act accordingly. This is why one of the funniest of all novels is finally not very funny at all, for Heller arrests his reader's laughter and exposes the complacent beliefs he has shared with Yossarian.
Indeed, the greatness of Catch-22 lies in Heller's ability to convert the tenets of a conventional liberalism into the informing ideas of a powerfully moving fable. Like such novelists as Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright, Heller dramatizes the crippling effects of modern society on the sensitive individual as in his portraits of Yossarian, Dunbar, the chaplain, Major Major, Clevinger, Nately, and Snowden. Yet he goes beyond his liberal predecessors to show that the enemy is not just the corporations and their authorities (in this case the military and its commanding officers). They are indeed amoral if not immoral; they are Korn, Black, Cathcart, Scheisskopf, Dreedle, Peckem, Aarfy, Wintergreen, and Milo. In a very real sense, however, M && M Enterprises is not the enemy, for someone like Milo only has the power he is allowed to have. As Pogo once remarked, memorably if ungrammatically, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Catch-22 is a masterful confirmation of Pogo's insight. (pp. 146-51)
(Source: Robert Merrill, The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22, in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 2, Autumn, 1986. )