The classic anti-war, anti-establishment, anti- (insert current debatable issue/action here) novel, Catch-22, follows the life of Yossarian, the main character, and his fellow Army Air Corps officers, stationed on an imaginary island off the coast of Italy, through a period during World War II. The book is classified under the genre of tragicomedy, yet some people see it as one extreme or the other of tragedy versus comedy. Both tragedy and comedy are very prevalent throughout the book, however the comedic portion serves a different purpose than that of the tragedy. Although a very funny book, the purpose of the humor in Catch-22 is not so much to amuse as to point out (and skewer) the absurdities and contradictions of war (Regher). The humorous or comedic scenes and instances in the book enhance the tragedy of the whole story by bringing realizations to the reader as well as to the characters. Not only does the humor decrease as the book progresses but it does so in a way to make room for the somberness of the theme.
The amusing one-liners, quick-witted comebacks, and heated debates about absolutely nothing form the basis of the comedic element. Yossarian s unnecessary nudity, Major Major Major Major s limited availability, and the old man s odd amount of witty intelligence are prime examples of this. This element of comedy seems to stick out to some readers, causing them to feel the novel is strictly a comedy. This may be because either they are not scholarly enough to notice the serious element of the book, or because they simply choose not to notice. The movie is classified strictly as a comedy, why isn t the novel? some may ask. The reason is simple; comedy tends to sell, but Heller did not write the novel to sell for its comedy. Avery Pennarun
states, The book alternates between developing a theme and comedy, which makes it far more appealing to the average person (17 September 1999). Comedy in the book and comedy in the movie however, differ. The movie is primarily funny, with the plot being told, but not as well as in the book. In the book, the dramatic theme slowly evolves into something that the reader suddenly notices to be tragic. On the surface however, the theme does not at all seem tragic. Humor is used to permanently capture the reader s attention at the beginning so that he can be force-fed the theme later on (Pennarum). This evolution follows through the entire novel. Things become, almost unnoticeably, more and more grave. Robert Merril says Heller has in fact divided Catch-22 into three parts. The first sixteen chapters are full of comedy, humor and simple absurdities. Most all of the events taking place, such as the tragedy of the soldier in white, or the carefree promoting of officers, are presented lightheartedly. Even those events that are gruesome or depressing such as Snowden s death have a slight comic characteristic to them. As the book progresses however, the comedy and theme swap places, bringing the theme to the front while sending the comedy to a hiding place. The soldier in white for example, shows more horror of reality the second time it is shown than the first. The entire second portion of the novel takes on a more serious tone, but still keeps its comedic element prevalent as well. The most obvious contrast between the sections of the book comes between the first and third sections. Theme seems to have even more pervasiveness in the third portion than did the humor in the first. Yossarian s harsh reality is finally brought to terms. The death of Snowden is again remembered and repeated and still is more gruesome than the last. Even the soldier in white makes yet another appearance and still has more tragic characteristics to his plight. Yossarian realizes that most everyone he has come to know in the Air Corps has died (either literally or on paper), and that he soon would do the same unless he took charge of his situation. Yossarian s thoughts and actions, in a way, mirror the evolvement of the novel itself.
As things get worse for him [Yossarian], the jokes come less rapidly and eventually trickle to a halt. This plunge from exhilaratingly happy to depressingly serious is made all the more pronounced by Heller (Pennarum).
As stated, Yossarian enjoys his position less and less, possibly because as the novel progresses, Yossarian has fewer enjoyable people to interact with or relate to.
Constant contradictions to past sayings and actions, given by officers and innocent bystanders of the war are prevalent in Catch-22 as well. These contradictions are the basis of the title and add to the chaotic humor. Doc Daneeka was Yossarian’s friend and would do just about nothing in his power to help him (Heller 37). If that statement had read Yossarian s friend, but would do just about nothing it would be a perfectly normal statement. It is small oddities and peculiarities such as this that make this novel comedic yet tragic at the same time. The title alone even hints toward a funny bit here and there, as a catch-22 is a contradiction all in itself. A lose-lose situation is generally impossible to comprehend in conventional human thought. Most would think that in order for there to be a loser, there must be a winner. How is it then that both parties lose? That question poses an interesting conundrum to some, causing a slight chuckle because of its simplistic absurdness. What one usually does not realize is that there are in fact 3 parties. In this case, the 3rd party is the Army Air Corps (in the form of Cathcart), and that party is the winner that creates the losers. That 3rd party however, is not relevant or known in a normal conversation between people like Yossarian and Doc Daneeka, for example. Laughter is caused by incongruity, by a frustrating of our expectations of a certain result, and it is a failure to fulfill certain of the reader s expectations which is the link underlying the so-called absurd techniques of the novel (Kennard). The whole motif of contradictions to nearly anything and everything brings about a large amount of incongruity. This incongruity then, as Kennard states, brings about laughter.
What would they do to me, he asked in confidential tones, if I refused to fly them?
We’d probably shoot you, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen replied.
If you’re going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on? ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen retorted. (Heller 68)
With this statement, although possibly a bit ambiguous, Wintergreen is in fact making perfect sense. Yossarian however, is reading too much into what he is saying, thereby creating a useless questioning of authority, which, to the reader, is generally funny.
One of the other options for the reasoning behind comedy in this novel is that it simply is the truth. Some may feel that the war is actually funny, and things are actually occurring as they are written. John Muste argues that Heller drew from humorous war novels of the past, such as Mister Roberts (1946) or All the Ships at Sea (1950). Those books have a common character line up consisting of an overwhelmed, cruel, and nearly insane, senior officer; the na ve young man, either a hero or a fool for wanting to fight; the chaplain; and the good officer. The only real difference is that Heller s young man wants to get out of the fighting instead of into it. Muste continues that Heller has united a humorous war novel with a very serious theme. That theme is that war is incomp-rehensibly chaotic. This chaos again adds to the aforementioned lack of congruity, and then brings about that ever-striving laugh or chuckle. To go along with that, perhaps laughter is the only way to escape from the malignant world, a world similar to the nightlife of Rome (Brustein). Rome is generally considered to be a very romantic city, with love and happiness all around. The sudden influx of soldiers and money however, has turned it into a place of horrors, filled with mobs carrying clubs that are in control everywhere (Heller 425).
The use of humor in Catch-22 was not only to add comedic effect and to lighten the blow of the harsh reality of the story, but it was to enlighten the story as well. With every laugh, there is a shudder of realization (Muste). People, war, and death all have their own unique comedic traits if taken properly, yet they can all be heart-wrenching at the same time. This is why one of the funniest novels is not very funny at all. The closing is a quote from a critique written by Louis Hasely that perfectly states the true purpose of humor in Catch-22.
I never saw anything funny that wasn t terrible. If it causes pain, it s funny; if it doesn t it isn t. The humor in Catch-22, we are forced to conclude, is only secondary. Where Heller comes through in unalleviated horror is where the message lies. The book s humor does not alleviate the horror; it heightens it by contrast (197).
Hasley, Louis. Dramatic Tension in Catch-22, in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, January, 1974, pp. 190-197. EXPLORING Novels. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. December, 2000. .
Pennarun, Avery. Literary Humor: Ha versus Blah. , (17 September 1999).
Regehr, John. John s Book Pages (Catch-22).
, (2 February 2001).