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Joseph Heller

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


John Yossarian, the protagonist of Catch-22, is both a member of the squadron’s community and alienated by it. Although he flies and lives with the men, he is marked as an outsider by the fact that many of the men think he is insane. Even his Assyrian name is unusual; no one has ever heard it before. His difference from the rest of the men leads us to expect something exceptional from Yossarian.

But Yossarian’s characteristics are not those of a typical hero. He does not risk his life to save others; in fact, his primary goal throughout the novel is to avoid risking his life whenever possible. But the system of values around Yossarian is so skewed that this approach seems to be the only truly moral stance he can take, if only because it is so logical. What we come to hate about military bureaucracy as we read Catch-22 is its lack of logic; men are asked to risk their lives again and again for reasons that are utterly illogical and unimportant. In this illogical world, Yossarian seizes hold of one true, logical idea—that he should try to preserve life. Unlike a conventional hero, however, Yossarian does not generalize this idea to mean that he should risk his own life in attempts to save everybody else’s. In a world where life itself is so undervalued and so casually lost, it is possible to redefine heroism as simple self-preservation.

This insistence on self-preservation creates a conflict for Yossarian. Even though he is determined to save his own life at all costs, he nonetheless cares deeply for the other members of his squadron and is traumatized by their deaths. His ongoing horror at Snowden’s death stems both from his pity for Snowden and from his horrified realization that his own body is just as destructible as Snowden’s. In the end, when offered a choice between his own safety and the safety of the entire squadron, Yossarian is unable to choose himself over others. This concern for others complicates the simple logic of self-preservation, and creates its own Catch-22: life is not worth living without a moral concern for the well-being of others, but a moral concern for the well-being of others endangers one’s life. Yossarian ultimately escapes this conundrum by literally walking away from the war—an action that refuses both the possibility of becoming an officer who avoids danger at the expense of his troops and that of remaining a soldier who risks his life for meaningless reasons.

Milo Minderbinder

Representing an extreme version of capitalist free enterprise that has spiraled out of control, Milo seems simultaneously brilliant and insane. What starts out as a business in black-market eggs turns into a worldwide enterprise in which, he claims, “everyone has a share.” At first, Milo’s syndicate seems like a bit of harmless profiteering; we cheer for Milo because he is at least making money at the expense of the ridiculous bureaucracy that perpetuates the war. Like Yossarian, he bends the rules toward his own benefit; his quest for profit seems logical compared to the way Colonel Cathcart sends his men to their deaths just so he can get a promotion. All the men seem to like Milo, and they are perfectly willing to fly him to places like Malta and Egypt so that he can buy and sell his goods.

Milo’s racket takes on a sinister air, however, when he bombs his own squadron as part of a deal he has made with the Germans. Many men are wounded or killed in this incident, and Milo’s syndicate suddenly seems like an evil force that has expanded beyond anyone’s ability to control it. But Milo’s reasons for bombing the squadron are no more arbitrary than Colonel Cathcart’s ambitiously volunteering to send his men to dangerous Bologna. In fact, one could argue that Milo’s actions are more rational than Cathcart’s, since Milo is guaranteed a profit, whereas Cathcart does not really have a chance of becoming a general.

In many ways, Milo’s character shows how capitalism transcends political ideology. We are never given any idea of what the war is being fought over, and the men have no sense of defending the ideals of their home country. Milo’s ability to make money off of both friend and enemy, and his willingness to support whichever is more profitable, take advantage of the complete lack of ideology in Catch-22. Furthermore, his willingness to allow his own camp to be bombed shows his complete disregard for the sides drawn by the war, and the men’s acceptance of payment for being bombed shows that Milo is not alone in placing a high value on making money.

The Chaplain

The horrors of war cause the chaplain to have his doubts about God, and he struggles to maintain his faith amid the senseless violence around him. One of the hardest things for the chaplain to deal with is the way that religion is constantly being co-opted for reasons having nothing to do with God or even with the comfort of the men. For example, the chaplain’s atheistic assistant, Corporal Whitcomb, wants to send form letters home to the families of men killed and wounded in combat. The chaplain objects because the letters are insincere, but Colonel Cathcart insists on the form letters because he believes that they will bring him recognition. Such events force the chaplain to realize that religion is not valued on its own terms, but only as a tool that the officers can use to further their own causes.

When three men drag the chaplain into an isolated cellar and accuse him of unspecified crimes, he realizes that, because they have the power to beat him to death, his innocence has become irrelevant. Shortly afterward, the chaplain fakes an ailment and checks into the hospital. He has realized that trying to exist within the rules is impossible; having justified sin to himself, he feels much better.

The chaplain’s character reminds us of one more way in which war upsets moral and ethical codes. Just as Doc Daneeka is confused about the role of a doctor in a world where man’s primary goal is to cause injury and death, the chaplain is disoriented by a world where killing has become a virtue.

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