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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
One version of Catch-22 keeps Yossarian
flying combat mission after combat mission: Doc Daneeka cannot ground
him for insanity unless he asks, but if he asks to be grounded,
then he must be sane. In this sense, Catch-22 is
a piece of circular reasoning that keeps Yossarian trapped in a
paradox that determines whether he lives or dies, even though it
is made only of words. But Catch-22 has many other
permutations, most notably in the final, general principle stated
by the old Italian woman in the ruined brothel: “they have a right
to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” This description
of Catch-22 proves what Yossarian has known
all along: Catch-22 does not really exist.
It is just a name made up for an illogical argument that justifies
what is really going on. Behind Catch-22 stands
an unswerving principle: might makes right.
Catch-22 also manifests itself
even when it is not explicitly named. Both the doctor and the chaplain
have been caught up in their own versions of Catch-22,
since war drastically undermines the premises of their professions
and yet calls upon them to practice those professions in the name
of war. Even Heller’s style is in a way a Catch-22;
the dialogue leaps haphazardly from one comment to another, often
arriving at a point exactly opposite of that which the person speaking
is trying to express.
Colonel Cathcart wants to be promoted to general; to gain
promotion, he constantly raises the number of missions that the
men are required to fly before they can be discharged. The number
of missions increases as time goes on, providing us with one of
the few ways we have of keeping track of the chronology of Catch-22. The number
of missions is also the primary trap from which the men in the squadron
are unable to escape: each time Hungry Joe completes his missions
or Yossarian comes near completing them, the number is raised yet
again. The utter futility of trying to get out of the system the
honest way, by flying the required number of missions, is what prompts
Orr and Yossarian to seek alternative methods of escape.
First signed as a forgery by Yossarian in the hospital,
the name Washington Irving (or Irving Washington) is soon adopted
by Major Major, who signs the name because the paperwork with Irving’s
name on it never comes back to him. Washington Irving is a figment
of the imagination who is, in a sense, the perfect person to deal with
bureaucracy: because he does not exist, he is ideally suited to the
meaningless shuffle of paperwork.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Catch-22!