The large cast of characters in Heller’s Catch-22 is what makes the novel so memorable. The experience of each character makes the “catch” more believable to the reader. Each character symbolizes a different attitude and reaction to the system in which he is trapped. Oftentimes, the characters are stereotypes rather than actual “individuals.” There is no obvious division in intelligence between the authority characters and those governed by the authority.
Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, and General Peckem are all excellent representatives of the military bureaucracy. Heller’s portrayal of these characters makes a solidified statement about the way the army works. These characters do not see the men under their command as human beings, but as tools to further their careers. Milo uses his manipulative powers to improve his “syndicate” and his personal wealth. Pearson notes,”…by the time his[Milo’s] activities have taken over Europe and North Africa in one vast syndicate and he has bombed his own men, he has become little more than a personification of greed”(277). Milo’s tactics are often outrageous, and they even endanger the physical and emotional well-being of his fellow soldiers. According to one critic, “For Milo, contract, and the entire economic structure and the ethical system that it embodies and represents, is more sacred than human life”(Frank 266).
Colonel Cathcart also uses his troops, but for different purposes. Cathcart’s scheme involves manipulating his soldiers so as to advance his own rank. Like Milo, Cathcart has no qualms about placing his men’s lives in danger. In fact, solely to impress his superiors, he purposely volunteers his men for the most dangerous missions. Constantly raising the number of required missions his men have to fly, he perpetuates the catch.
Another character more concerned with upholding the appearance of order than with actually doing his job is General Peckem. He entertains himself by placing other officers at odds with each other and is representative of the stupidity in the military hierarchy. The personification of Heller’s attitudes in his characters strengthens his dissent for the bureaucracy.
The characters governed by the military represent another of Heller’s perspectives on war. These characters are truly trapped in the system. Each character has a different mechanism for coping with the horror. Havermeyer takes out his aggression on helpless field mice at might. McWatt dangerously buzzes tents and actually tries to get himself shot down. Flume retreats to the woods to hide from dangers he cannot cope with. Hungry Joe’s fears are magnified in horrible recurring nightmares. For these characters, insanity is truly the only sane response to an insane situation.
Yossarian epitomizes the character who rebels against the system. Yossarian tries as hard as he can to control his own fate. His most important goal is to simply keep himself alive. He attempts to keep out of combat as much as possible, even refusing to go. He relates to and sympathizes with his fellow soldiers. Yossarian believes in the importance of the individual human life, “Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter is that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse…”(Heller 410).
He constantly tries to maintain his individuality in the face of an impersonal war machine. As rated by one critic, “Yossarian eventually ends up as a survivor with integrity by becoming an outsider and renouncing the values and potential rewards of the bureaucracy”(Mullican 199). His paranoia separates him from the rest of the world. It turns him into a loner who has to overcome the insanity or be engulfed by it.
Through characterization Heller generates a specific point. Each character serves to reiterate Heller’s feelings on war, capitalism, and the military itself. The attitudes that the characters personify make Catch-22 both poignant and memorable.