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 novel.
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.