Themes in Catch-22
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller explores the value of life and morality and the absurdity of war through his contrasting characterizations of Milo Minderbinder and Yossarian, the military base setting, and the conflict between Yossarian and Colonel Cathcart. Catch-22 is a satire on the bureaucratic nature of the military during World War II. Throughout Catch-22, Heller explores different character’s reactions to the insane and arbitrary nature of the military bureaucracy.
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The protagonist, Yossarian, desires above all to preserve his life.
However, his life is continually threatened by the increasing number of missions Colonel Cathcart, the principle antagonist of Catch-22, requires him to fly. Heller characterizes Milo Minderbinder through the physiognomy of his last name. Minderbinder combines two of Milo’s characteristics – “mind” and “bind”. Milo has the lowly job of mess hall officer when he arrives on the military base in Pianosa. Milo explains to Yossarian that his goal is “give the men in this squadron the best meals in the whole world” (64).
Milo creates an international syndicate that makes money by trading between the companies it owns. Even Yossarian frequently fails to understand how such a system is possible. Milo explains the system behind the syndicate: “I make a profit of three quarter cents apiece when I sell [the eggs] to me and a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when I buy them back from me. That’s a total profit of six cents an egg” (230). However, what starts as a brilliant scheme to make money by buying food becomes sidelined when Milo begins selling information to both the Americans and the Germans.
Heller explains Milo’s ability to manipulate both sides: “His planes were able to steal over in a sneak attack without alerting the German antiaircraft gunners; and since Milo knew about the attack, he was able to alert the German anti-aircraft gunners in sufficient time for them to begin firing accurately the moment the planes came into range” (255). Milo convinces the Germans to pay him for every American plane they shoot down, and convinces the Americans to pay him for every target they destroy. Because both sides of the war pay him for their efforts, Milo symbolizes the absurdity and arbitrary nature of the war.
While Milo uses the war to make profit, Yossarian does his best to escape the absurdity of the war. Heller characterizes Yossarian through a flashback scene. During the Siege of Avignon, Yossarian’s friend Snowden dies in Yossarian’s arms. While in the hospital, Yossarian reflects on the lesson that incident taught him: “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” (440).
The lesson Yossarian learns about the value of life from his friend dying in his arms characterizes Yossarian and presents the central meaning of Catch-22. Earlier, while introducing Havermeyer, the lead bombardier of Yossarian’s squadron, Heller explains, “Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive” (29).
Yossarian’s desire to live epitomizes Heller’s central theme that life is valuable. The bureaucratic culture of the military base in Catch-22 represents blatant disregard of life, and by contrast, the value of life and morality. In the military base, men can be court-marshaled simply because they are disliked by one of their superior officers. Clevinger, one of Yossarian’s friends, who Heller describes as being “one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains” (68), is court-marshaled, and, as Heller states, “the only thing missing was something to charge him with” (71).
Clevinger’s trial is ridiculous; Lieutenant Scheisskopf spends so much time correcting the way Clevinger speaks that Clevinger cannot say a word in his defense. Heller goes as far as to say, “Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so” (81). In such an environment, where men are convicted of crimes simply for the revenge or amusement of their superiors, life becomes absurd.
Through contrast with such an environment, Heller presents the actions of characters who try to separate themselves from the meaningless bureaucracy of the military base and live on the basis that life and morality have meaning. The central conflict of Catch-22 is the conflict between the opposing moralities represented by Colonel Cathcart and Yossarian. Colonel Cathcart’s greatest desire is to become a military general. Cathcart pursues promotion in an altogether unscrupulous manner. Heller explains that “forcing his men to fly more missions than everyone else was the most tangible achievement he had going for him” (214).
Cathcart sets his goals ahead of morality. He is willing to force hundreds of soldiers to risk their lives for his promotion. Heller appears to have little respect for Cathcart, “Colonel Cathcart did not have a chance in hell of becoming a general” (215). Yossarian, on the other hand, is unwilling to make a decision that would benefit him at the expense of the lives of other soldiers. In response to Yossarian’s unwillingness to participate in the war, Colonel Korn offers him the choice to be sent home with an honorable discharge or be court-marshaled.
During the process of presenting the plan to Yossarian, Korn establishes the basis of Yossarian’s later refusal of the plan: “You’d have to be a fool to throw it all away just for a moral principle” (428). Yossarian initially accepts the deal, in what he later describes as a “moment of weakness” (441). Later, however, Yossarian realizes that the deal is “best for Cathcart, Korn and me, not for everyone” (442). On moral grounds, Yossarian refuses a contract that presented him with an opportunity to obtain safety and honor.
By contrasting Cathcart’s unscrupulous pursuit of promotion with Yossarian’s willingness to jeopardize his life for the sake of morality, Heller demonstrates the importance of life and morality. Catch-22 is an undeniable classic for Heller’s presentation of a man who finds meaning and morality within a setting that promotes absurdity. Heller contrasts the characterization of Milo Minderbinder with Yossarian, sets Catch-22 in a military base, and establishes a conflict of ideals between Colonel Cathcart and Yossarian in order to highlight the meaningful nature of life and morality.