the novel, the idea of Catch-22 is explained in
a number of ways. What are some of them? Do any of them represent
the real Catch-22, or are they all simply examples
of a larger abstract idea? If Catch-22 is
an abstract concept, which explanation comes closest to it?
For most of the novel, Catch-22 defines
the maddening, paradoxical thought processes by which the military
runs its soldiers’ lives; any time Yossarian spies a potential way
out of the war, there is a catch, and it is always called Catch-22.
Doc Daneeka offers the first explanation: requests to go home are
only honored for the insane, but anyone who would ask to be taken
off combat duty must necessarily be sane. Another example is Captain
Black’s Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade: men are required to sign
loyalty oaths before they can eat, but they are not forced to sign
loyalty oaths because they are always free to not eat. The officials
reason that Major Major must be a communist because he has not signed
a loyalty oath, but he is not allowed to sign a loyalty oath because
Captain Black won’t let him.
This kind of thinking enables the war, and it permeates
the novel, even in settings outside the official grasp of Catch-22.
Luciana, for instance, will not marry Yossarian because he is crazy,
and she knows he is crazy because he wants to marry her. If he did
not want to marry her, he would not be crazy, and then she could
marry him. The most penetrating explanation of Catch-22 is
also the last that the novel offers—when the old woman outside the
whorehouse in Rome says that Catch-22 indicates
that “they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”
She says that Catch-22 is fundamentally inscrutable:
the law says that those in power do not have to show Catch-22 to
anyone, and the law that says so is Catch-22. This
statement confirms what Yossarian has always known: Catch-22 does
not really exist; it is merely a justification for the strong to use
against the weak. It is the abstract mechanism at the heart of Catch-22, the
mechanism by which the military can force human beings with
the desire to live into endlessly dehumanizing situations in which
they are likely to be killed. The unanswerable paradox of unearned
power means that those in power can do anything that the subjects
of that power cannot stop them from doing.
Does the fact that he seems to exist outside military authority
make him a positive figure or a negative one?
In one sense, Milo is a crusader against
the arbitrary regulations of the military bureaucracy. He ignores
the army’s regulations and borrows both planes and supplies in order
to increase his profits. Unlike many of the men, who feel powerless
in the face of the authorities, Milo exists completely outside the
bureaucracy and seems to get away with it.
But, while Milo certainly represents an individual’s triumph
in the face of a dehumanizing organization, he also lacks morals
and consideration for others. He is a perfect symbol of what is
wrong with free-market capitalism: it encourages men to profit from
the losses of others. A minor example of Milo’s selfishness is the
way he makes Yossarian and Orr sleep in the plane while he himself
sleeps in luxurious palaces; a major example is the way he claims
that “everyone has a share” in his syndicate, only to keep all the
profits for himself. By the end of the novel, Milo is selling chocolate-covered
cotton—a product more meaningless than anything the army’s bureaucracy
could dream up. In a sense, as he has gained power, Milo has become
like the authoritarian forces he defies, sacrificing real value
for personal gain.
What role do
women play in Catch-22?
Because all of the enlistees in Yossarian’s
squadron are male, women play only a minor role in the novel. They
act as barometers by which we can measure the qualities of the men
who interact with them. Yossarian, for example, falls passionately
in love with every woman he meets—a symptom of his desperate desire
to seize as much of life as possible before he dies. One example
of this desire occurs at the Avignon briefing, where Yossarian starts
an epidemic of moaning because he realizes that he will never get
the chance to sleep with General Dreedle’s beautiful assistant.
Women are also markers of the deep immorality and tragedy
of war. Luciana, very beautiful and earnest, is deeply ashamed of
a scar on her back that she got during an air raid. Nately’s whore
has been forced by the war to go into prostitution; she is utterly
indifferent to everything until she falls in love with Nately, and
he is killed almost immediately afterward. She then seeks revenge
on Yossarian, who brings her the bad news about Nately, and keeps
trying to stab him. She acts as proof that evil is not without consequence
and that the pain that war inflicts on the world will not simply