Catch-22
Joseph Heller
Contributed by Sherie Debus

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Chapters 17-21
Summary

Summary Chapter 17: The Soldier in White

Yossarian has gone back to the hospital. While there, he finds life (as well as death to be more tolerable than the recurring memories he experiences of a bomb run during which Snowden was dying in the back of the plane, quietly saying, “I’m cold.” Death has a polite and orderly feeling at the hospital. There isn’t any unjustifiable violence there. Dunbar is in the hospital at the same time. They are both confused by the man entirely covered with plaster bandages, referred to as the soldier in white. The men in the hospital talk about how unjust death can be: why are some men killed while others are not? Why do some men become ill while others do not? There seems to be no logic or pattern to any of this. Before this, Clevinger had tried to provide some sort of explanation as to why there could be a certain amount of justice in some illogical deaths. However, Yossarian was preoccupied with staying aware of all the forces that were trying to cause his demise to listen. A bit later, Yossarian and Hungry Joe bring together lists of fatal diseases that they can say they have. However, Doc Daneeka often refuses go ground them even when they say that they have these diseases. The doctor claims that once Yossarian has flown his fifty-five missions, he will consider helping him.

Summary Chapter 18: The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice

Yossarian is still a private the first time he ever goes to the hospital. He pretends he has an abdominal pain. However, when the doctors declare that he has been cured, he feigns having the same mysterious illness as another soldier in the ward who claims he “sees everything twice.” He remains in the hospital over Thanksgiving. He promises himself that he will spend all Thanksgivings in the future there. Yet he fails to keep this promise when his next Thanksgiving is spent with Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife, in bed, in an argument about God. Once Yossarian says that he has been cured of the ailment that makes him see everything twice, he is asked to pretend that is a dying soldier whose father, mother, and brother have come to see him. The family, which has arrived to see their family member, is unaware that he had passed away that morning. Yossarian pretends that he is the dying soldier, and the doctors bandage him. Yossarian is asked by the soldier’s father to tell God that it is wrong for men to die so young.

Summary Chapter 19: Colonel Cathcart

Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from . . . God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.

Colonel Cathcart, always ambitious, bullies the chaplain. He demands that there be a prayer prior to each bombing run. This is an idea that he finds in the Saturday Evening Post. He subsequently abandons this idea once the chaplain indicates that God might punish them for failing to include the enlisted men. The chaplain tentatively mentions that some of the men have made complaints about Colonel Cathcart’s practice of increasing the required number of missions every few weeks. Colonel Cathcart ignores this.

Summary Chapter 20: Corporal Whitcomb

While making his way home, the chaplain comes across Colonel Korn. Colonel Korn, Colonel Cathcart’s sidekick, is cynical and artful in character. Colonel Korn mocks Colonel Cathcart. He views a plum tomato that Colonel Cathcart offers to the chaplain with a suspicious eye. When the chaplain reaches his tent in the woods, he sees Corporal Whitcomb, who has a hostile attitude. Corporal Whitcomb is his atheistic assistant. He resents the chaplain for thwarting his advancement in his career. Corporal Whitcomb informs the chaplain that a C.I.D. man suspects that the chaplain has signed the name of Washington Irving to official papers, as well as stealing plum tomatoes. The chaplain is extremely unhappy. He feels unable to improve other people’s lives.

Summary Chapter 21: General Dreedle

Colonel Cathcart is now preoccupied by how Yossarian is acting, specifically the way he complains about how many missions are required and the fact that he showed up naked at his medal ceremony soon after Snowden’s death. Snowden, who had been dying in the back of the plane, bled all over Yossarian. This is reason why he took off his clothes. Yossarian felt he would never again want to put on a uniform. Yossarian also bears responsibility for an epidemic of moaning at the briefing that occurred prior to the Avignon mission (the one in which Snowden was killed). This was because he moaned at the idea that the dangers of the mission could mean that he might never again sleep with beautiful women.

Colonel Cathcart wishes he could find a way to solve the problem that Yossarian’s mischief causes. It would certainly impress his commanding officer, General Dreedle. However, General Dreedle is entirely careless of anything his men do, as long as they stay alive in high enough quantities for military purposes. He brings an attractive nurse with him everywhere he travels and is primarily concerned about his son-in-law, Colonel Moodus. He hates him and sometimes asks Chief Whtie Halfoat to punch him in the nose. The narrator tells us that Colonel Korn once attempted to undermine Colonel Cathcart by giving an overblown briefing in order to impress General Dreedle. It doesn’t work, as General Dreedle does not find the brief impressive. General Dreedle While talking to Colonel Cathcart, General Dreedle said that Colonel Corn made him sick.

Analysis

Undoubtedly, the hospital in this novel is not depicted as a place where devoted doctors heal patients grateful for the chance to live. Yet Yossarian’s absurd experience in this chapter extends to parody of the idea of a hospital as the place where death can be dealt with and mourning, if necessary, can take place. Yossarian sees the hospital as nothing more significant than an escape from the terrible things that happen outside of its boundaries. He fails to comprehend why family members would want to go to a hospital to see their son pass away. The fact that the hospital staff ask Yossarian to feign being a dying soldier to deceive the family of a man who has already died even more intensely parodies the idea of the hospital. We see the hospital staff hanging solemn draperies and putting malodorous flowers in the room, providing additional proof that they are incapable as the remainder of the bureaucracy of seeing death in a serious way. At the same time, family members who we see mourning the death of a loved one are portrayed as excessively sentimental, through a comical lens. In Catch-22, we see a reputation of our general idea that experiencing a war and seeing death first-hand would encourage the people involved to better appreciate human rituals for celebrating life and death. Instead, we see the war making the novel’s characters numb to seeing death and its effects. For them, it has become a daily, even mundane occurrence. Resultingly, it is seen as strange and incomprehensible when people clearly take death seriously. However, Heller doesn’t say that life is devoid of meaning. It would be mistaken to assume that the attitudes towards death held by Yossarian or the doctors belong to Heller. Instead, it appears that the book’s purpose in portraying mourning in such an unconventional way is to expose the absurd ways of acting that war compels humans to adopt. This can extend so far that death itself no longer seems particularly significant.  

As we’ve seen, this novel has many contradictions. In one of them, we see an argument between atheists Yossarian and Mrs. Scheisskopf about what type of God they do not believe exists. The God whom Mrs. Scheisskopf does not think exists is all-knowing and benevolent. The God in which Yossarian doesn’t believe is confused and incompetent.  We see Yossarian propounding a typical argument: that a God who was truly loving and good would never have permitted all of the world’s pain and distress to exist. He uses strange details to support his argument, though: he asks why a compassionate God would ever invent problems such as incontinence and tooth decay. Yossarian is angry at the deity he does not believe exists. He also ridicules God. By contrast, Mrs. Scheisskopf feels most comfortable not believing in a God who is compassionate and good. She indicates that if someone is not going to believe that God exists, there’s no reason not to not believe in a good God. It is in this manner that the idea of God can have its use even if it is inaccurate. This paradox continues to develop with the difference we see between the chaplain and Corporal Whitcomb, his atheist assistant. The chaplain is a believer in God. He has a mild manner as he ministers to the squadron’s men. This fails to propel many of them towards religion. By contrast, Corporal Whitcomb wishes to start an enormous religious campaign. This would include sending out form letters to the bereaved families and revival meetings. Whitcomb is similar to Mrs. Scheisskopf in that his lack of belief in a divine entity lets him see religion as a tool ready to be used.

The focus of this part of the book is bureaucracy and the power it has to dehumanize people. The second part of this section is dominated by Colonel Cathcart. He is emulous, compulsive, and foolish. Colonel Cathcart’s ambition to be a general has no other reason than the fact that he currently doesn’t have that position. The reader might be amused by the feathers in his cap and his ridiculous counting of black eyes if it they did not directly cause his constant willingness to put men’s lives at risk. This is why he can only be seen as amusing in a loathsome way. In Chapter 21, we learn that he has no chance at all of becoming a general. This makes the arbitrary way he increased the number of required missions seem even more egregiously meaningless. While the chaplain intensely desires to help Yossarian and the other men, it turns out that his moral beliefs are weak and ineffectual when faced with the absolute authority of people like Korn and Cathcart.

The chaplain’s feeling of déjà vu makes us recall that some vents do really happen twice in the strange temporal structure of this novel. Yet the chaplain explains his déjà vu as “the subtle, recurring confusion between illusion and reality” rather than in terms of time. The confusion between confusion and reality develops in a worrying way in these chapters. For instance, we see Yossarian make up illusory illnesses and doctors oddly unwilling or unable to discern the difference between the real and artificial. Often, these illnesses have an illusory nature similar to that of performances. Yossarian’s admiration in Chapter 18 for the performance of a man who sees everything twice propels him to try to imitate that performance. However, when the man passes away in the night, Yossarian fails to acknowledge that the man’s sickness was authentic. Rather, he thinks that the man went too far with his performance. In an attempt to avoid having to encounter war’s realities, such as fighting, pain, and death, the men create illusions that confuse the lines between the real and the unreal.

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