Analysis — Chapters 27–31

This section works through an increasingly macabre surrealism that climaxes with the manslaughter of Kid Sampson and suicide of McWatt. The strange psychological examinations and identity games in the hospital provide Heller with the opportunity to parody modern psychotherapy, which he does with scathing cleverness—Major Sanderson’s insistence on discussing his own late puberty is one of the funniest characterizations in the novel. It also lends some weight to the idea of insanity that circulates throughout the novel; the men are always accusing each other of being crazy, and Yossarian even finds insanity a desirable trait, because it will get him out of the war—or would, if not for Catch-22.

Although the novel does not seem to follow a chronological pattern—being composed primarily of episodes that are memories, flashbacks, or character descriptions and having very little grasp on what exactly the current moment is—the climax of these three chapters demonstrates that the novel as a whole still has a somewhat conventional narrative shape. That is, the memories and flashbacks that make up the first two-thirds of the novel lead up to the fatigue and frustration with war that form the background for the events in these chapters. The war transitions from a surreal series of events whose absurdity can be lightly parodied to a reality that is a serious and heavy weight on Yossarian and his squadron. Furthermore, the events in these chapters—particularly the two deaths—shift the narrative from the brilliant parody of the preceding sections into an extremely dark humor that borders on seriousness. The increasing strain the war is placing on Yossarian’s psyche is evident in the scene in which he contemplates murdering Orr and finds the idea a relaxing one; it is this thought alone that allows him to tolerate his roommate’s prattling.

Orr’s disappearance and presumed death come as something of a shock. In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of Catch-22 is the way that Heller manages to catch us off guard each time one of Yossarian’s friends dies. In part, this aspect is a virtue of the novel’s chronology—with so much jumping forward and backward in time, it becomes easy to think of the lives of the characters as existing in a sort of vacuum, without beginning or end. Of course, such is not the case, and the men’s deaths are sharp reminders that even in the novel time moves forward and people are fragile. Yossarian is not in need of such a reminder: he is haunted by the death of Snowden and reaches a moment of murderous rage toward McWatt shortly after flashing back to Snowden’s death. Yossarian’s fierce desire to live makes him seem heroic even in his moments of cowardice. As he strangles McWatt and yells at him to pull up, it seems only just for McWatt to obey.

The absurd chapter on the death of Doc Daneeka represents perhaps the most extreme moment of bureaucratic confusion in the entire novel. Paperwork has the power to make a living man officially dead, and the bureaucracy would rather lose the man than try to confront the forms. Painfully, Mrs. Daneeka becomes complicit in her husband’s red-tape murder when she decides to take the insurance payments as a higher authority than his own letter protesting that he is really alive. Doc Daneeka thus realizes that he is essentially dead and that death is a matter of paperwork rather than biology. The soldiers’ powerlessness over their own lives extends even to their own deaths, which can be forced upon them not only by the shooting of a gun but also by the fall of a stamp.