Analysis — Chapters 32–37

The first part of this section, with Yossarian’s young roommates and the story of Nately’s whore, returns to the high comedy of the earlier parts of the novel, but with the important difference that Yossarian is on the edge of a breakdown and seems to know it. Orr’s disappearance is a very hard blow, and Yossarian is now plagued by thoughts of death and dismemberment. The high comedy comes to an abrupt and unexpected halt with the eerie return of the soldier in white, which is followed immediately by Dunbar’s unexplained disappearance and the deaths of Chief White Halfoat, Nately, and Dobbs. The squadron is beginning to fall apart, and even the military bureaucracy is being turned on its thick head by the sudden ousting of General Dreedle in favor of General Peckem, who immediately learns that General Scheisskopf is now his superior officer. Furthermore, Scheisskopf’s intention for everyone under his command to march in parades is a ludicrous juxtaposition of irrelevant discipline-building exercises with the realities of war.

As Yossarian’s story moves toward its climax, the sense of unknown danger approaching from all sides intensifies markedly, from gunfire in the dark to the disappearance of Dunbar to the chaplain’s sudden, disconcerting interrogation for an unspecified crime. (This scene is reminiscent of the scene in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which the novel’s protagonist wakes one morning to find himself accused of a crime whose nature no one will describe to him.) The illogical nature of the chaplain’s interrogation makes it so terrifying. If he were accused of a specific crime, or if his interrogators were willing to listen to a word he said, the chaplain would have at least some power over his situation. As it is, all his attempts to clear his name are met with the same illogical arguments, and he can do absolutely nothing; he realizes that his captors could beat him to death if they wanted to and he couldn’t stop them. The chaplain’s plight is similar to that of all the men in the squadron: their lives are in the hands of others, and their logical desire to go free because they are innocent is meaningless in a world without logic.

Another highly restrictive force surrounding the squadron is the fact that no goal seems to be achievable. As soon as the men complete their missions, the required number is raised; as soon as Orr finishes building his stove, he is shot down and disappears; as soon as Nately’s whore falls in love with him, he is killed in combat. It seems almost miraculous that the men have it in them to try to accomplish anything, let alone the thankless task of bombing enemies they have never seen, when almost any action taken to alter the status quo has very negative consequences. However, Heller always stops just short of criticizing the war itself—it would be difficult to argue that fighting Hitler is wrong. Instead, he criticizes the way in which the war is carried out.

This section is also one of the only long sequences of chapters told in straight linear time—the same timeline, in fact, that leads right to the end of the novel. Heller uses this long chronological sequence to enhance the sense of momentum building toward a climax. The orderly progression of time corresponds to an increasing disorder in Yossarian’s world: the helplessness and lack of control that the men feel spirals to a fever pitch. As things fall apart all around Yossarian, the novel takes on the feel of a moving walkway, leading inexorably toward an unspecified, ominous ending.