Compare Yossarian and Doc Daneeka. What role do these friends play in Heller’s narrative? How does Heller use them to illuminate the novel’s major themes?
The soldier Yossarian encapsulates Heller’s notion that war is an absurd situation by showing how Yossarian openly does the exact opposite of his assigned job and escapes punishment for his entire term of service. Yossarian’s similarly lazy friend, Doc Daneeka, exemplifies this ridiculousness by abusing his patients with impunity. Like Yossarian and Daneeka, several of Heller’s minor characters turn responsibilities on their heads, flagrantly defying our expectations yet continuing to thrive or at least go unnoticed by their officers. Yossarian and Daneeka thus introduce one of Heller’s recurring themes: In the madness of war, one is not only entitled to violate every code of one’s profession, but also likely to be rewarded for such behavior.
With Yossarian, Heller shows an American soldier who actively hinders the cause he’s supposed to be promoting, and yet enjoys the full support of his comrades and leaders. As censor, Yossarian is supposed to preserve all letters that do not reveal compromising information about the war effort, yet in reality he obliterates those letters, removing all words but and and the. Yossarian is expected to make an effort to pass on his comrades’ sentiments to their loved ones, but he instead replaces their original, innocuous letters with florid clichés that he strings together for his own entertainment. As a bomber, Yossarian’s task is to cautiously and deliberately approach each of his targets, doing his best to ensure that he hits the right place, but he instead swerves as far away as possible to save his own life. At the end of the novel, we might predict a major penalty for Yossarian, but the military bureaucracy offers to discharge him honorably if he’ll do them a favor. Again and again, Yossarian goes unpunished for doing the opposite of the tasks required, and Heller suggests that applauding bad, harmful labor is part of the ludicrous nature of war.
Likewise, Heller’s characterization of Daneeka reinforces his notion that wartime bureaucracies often encourage the worst possible service from enlisted men. Instead of promoting good health among the troops, Daneeka reclines and watches as Gus and Wes administer unnecessary laxatives, randomly paint soldiers’ toenails, and deny help to men with serious fevers. Daneeka acknowledges that Orr is insane and thus unfit for service, yet he allows Orr to continue flying because he doesn’t want to disturb the bureaucratic waters. Most incredibly, Daneeka actively harms his patients by adding a mental burden to their physical complaints: When they come to see him, he refuses to listen to their problems and increases their stress by unloading his own worries on them at tedious length. Daneeka’s poor performance persists for hundreds of pages, unpunished, until an irrelevant technicality leads army officials to declare him “dead.” Like Yossarian, Heller’s portrait of Daneeka suggests that a man can fail to do everything we would expect from him, yet still flourish in the chaos of war.
Again and again, Heller’s minor characters drive home the ludicrous idea that poor and actively harmful service is worthy of praise, or at least benevolent disinterest, in the topsy-turvy world of Catch-22. A major evades all counseling duties, declaring that appointments with him can only be made while he is absent from the office, yet he is immune from demotion because he has the euphonious title “Major Major Major Major.” An officer who is supposed to promote morale among his troops crushes and depresses them by continually raising their number of required missions—even though he himself has only flown two missions—and no high-ranking bureaucrats seem to care about his blatant cruelty. A chaplain fails to give religious guidance because he ceases to believe in God (and no one even notices). An Allied fighter makes a profit from aiding the enemy, and his riches and public status only increase. Men repeatedly subvert moral and professional expectations, only to survive unscathed or even profit from their bad behavior.
By emphasizing the similarities between the shockingly ineffective work habits of Yossarian and Daneeka, Heller introduces the notion that negligent and willfully destructive service is often unnoticed, ignored, or even encouraged in wartime. The ineptitude of the men described in Catch-22 came as a shock to many American readers in the wake of World War II, when the nation was riding high on its victory and enjoying a widespread faith in the efficacy and good sense of military action. The sarcastic revelations of Catch-22 may have accounted for its tendency to polarize post-war readers, some of whom were unwilling to believe that such corruption occurred in the effort to defeat the Nazis. Heller turns a patriot’s understanding of war on its head, leaving vivid memories of lazy, dangerous behavior and its many pointless rewards.
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