Catch-22

by: Joseph Heller

Chapters 22–26

Summary Chapters 22–26

Analysis — Chapters 22–26

The bombing run during which Snowden dies has been alluded to for several chapters, but the details have never been fully explained. The beginning of Chapter 22 provides a few of those details and underlines the narrative importance of the event. The novel’s incessant references to the incident have two narrative purposes. First, they emphasize the narrative’s circular chronological organization. The event that has so traumatized Yossarian does not recede into the past as Yossarian moves through time; rather, he continually returns to it, unable to escape. Second, the constant references to Snowden’s death build up suspense, making the Avignon mission one of the novel’s climaxes. Even though this mission occurs chronologically before many other events in the novel, we have to wait until almost the end of the novel to find out exactly what happened on the mission. By telling his story out of chronological order, Heller can place whatever climactic events he wants at the end of the novel, since he is not bound by temporal restraints.

The bombing of Avignon is just one of the many ways in which this section continues to show Yossarian’s attempt to hold onto his life and his humanity in the face of the war. The chaplain struggles similarly in this section to remain sane despite his nightmarish life. The chaplain is treated as an outsider by everyone, doubts the moral standards that have governed his life, and endures horrible fantasies of his wife and children dying violent deaths. Just as the idea of the hospital as a place for respectfully coming to terms with death is undermined in the previous section, the idea of the chaplain as a source of spiritual stability and reason in the face of a disorienting and upsetting war is undermined in this section.

Milo Minderbinder is one of the most complex figures in the novel, and the syndicate that he heads is one of its most elusive symbols. On the one hand, the syndicate gives Heller an opportunity to parody the economic activity of large-market capitalism. The extraordinary rationalization by which Milo is able to buy eggs for seven cents apiece and sell them for five cents apiece while still turning a profit is one of the most tortuously sublime moments in the novel, even if it makes only shaky economic sense. Milo claims that at every stage he actually buys and sells the eggs to his own syndicate, thereby somehow retaining the money that he spends to buy the eggs. But, if he buys the eggs with the same resources that he bolsters by selling the eggs, all he is doing is moving money from one place to another. We can easily reduce the bizarre logic that governs Milo’s syndicate to nonsense, because we understand the impossibility of Milo’s money-making scheme. Yet, though it is completely illogical and unjustifiable, like many concepts in the novel, Milo’s syndicate does make money. Whether or not the logic makes sense is irrelevant; the end result defies those who try to explain the process.

The syndicate also represents an almost socialist collectivity—in this enterprise governed by amoral expediency, “everybody has a share.” In this light, the syndicate becomes almost a parody of communism as well as capitalism: it is nominally a collective governed by all but is actually run by a single despot. The economic rationalization of the syndicate resembles the moral rationalization of a dehumanized collective, which might agree that it is in everybody’s best interest for Milo to bomb his own squadron and kill, wound, and maim a number of his fellow soldiers.

Heller creates a tension between Yossarian’s feelings about Milo and our feelings about Milo. Yossarian is undeniably the moral compass of the novel, and he seems to like Milo, which suggests that we too should sympathize with him. But Milo is continually presented as a threatening figure. While Yossarian sits naked in the tree at Snowden’s funeral in a highly biblical scene, Milo almost seems like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, there to tempt the innocent with chocolate-covered cotton and the promise of a fast buck.

The absurd proportions of Milo’s empire clue us in to an aspect of Catch-22 that, until this section, has been rather subtle: the novel’s element of hyperbole. Despite their ridiculous names, all the men in Yossarian’s squadron might possibly have lived during WWII. Milo, however, is a completely impossible figure. All along, Heller has created minor absurdities, such as the way the soldier in white has the fluids from his groin directed right back into his IV drip. In this section, he creates a major absurdity in the vastness of Milo’s domain, which allows us to know with absolute certainty that Catch-22 is intended more as an allegory than as a realistic portrait of army life.