Analysis — Chapters 17–21

In Catch-22, the hospital is certainly not a place where heroic doctors heal grateful patients, but Yossarian’s ridiculous experience in this chapter goes so far as to parody the idea of a hospital as a place where death can be confronted and properly mourned. For Yossarian, the hospital is nothing more than a refuge from the atrocities that occur outside its walls, and he is unable to understand why a family would want to arrive at a hospital to watch their son die. The hospital staff further parodies the hospital as a site of grief by requesting that Yossarian pretend to be a dying soldier for the sake of a family whose real son has already passed away. Adding somber draperies and stinking flowers to the room, the hospital is as unable as the rest of the bureaucracy to take death seriously, and the family members who do mourn their son’s or brother’s passing are comically portrayed as overly sentimental. While one might expect that a war would underline the fragility of life and make those involved appreciate ritual celebrations of life and mourning of death all the more, in Catch-22 the war numbs these characters to the effects of death, which has become a mundane, daily occurrence. As a result, the actions of those who still take death seriously are incomprehensible or meaningless to those involved in the war. Heller’s statement, however, is not that life is meaningless; it would be a mistake to assume that Yossarian’s attitude or the doctors’ attitudes toward death are Heller’s own. Rather, it seems that the novel’s purpose in displaying such an unconventional portrait of mourning is to show the absurd behavior that war forces humans to adopt—reaching a point where not even the loss of life is impressive.

In one of the novel’s manifold contradictions, two atheists, Yossarian and Mrs. Scheisskopf, argue over what kind of God they do not believe in and address the nature of God in a debate. The God in whom Mrs. Scheisskopf does not believe is good and all-knowing, whereas Yossarian’s deity is bumbling and confused. Yossarian’s argument is typical: that a truly compassionate God would not have allowed all the unpleasantness and pain in the world. But the details that Yossarian uses to argue his point are unusual: he asks why God would create phlegm, tooth decay, or incontinence. Yossarian is not just angry with the God that he does not believe in, but he also ridicules him. Mrs. Scheisskopf, on the other hand, prefers not to believe in a good and righteous God, arguing that if one is not going to believe in God, one might as well not believe in a good God. In this way, the idea of God can be useful, even if it is not accurate. The contrast between the chaplain and his assistant, the atheist Corporal Whitcomb, further develops this paradox. The chaplain, who does believe in God, has a very quiet, nonintrusive manner as he ministers to the men in the squadron, which does not turn many men toward religion. Corporal Whitcomb, on the other hand, wants to enter into a full-scale religious campaign, which would include revivals and form letters sent from the chaplain to the families of men killed in combat. Like Mrs. Scheisskopf, Whitcomb’s lack of belief in God allows him to see religion as a useful tool.

The ambitious, foolish, and compulsive Colonel Cathcart dominates the second half of this section, which focuses on the dehumanizing power of bureaucracy. Colonel Cathcart wants to be a general, for no reason other than that he is not a general now. His ludicrous tallying of black eyes and feathers in his cap would be amusing if it did not directly result in his unfailing willingness to risk his men’s lives. As it is, Colonel Cathcart is only sickeningly amusing. When Chapter 21 reveals that he does not have a chance of becoming a general, his arbitrary increase of the number of missions his men must fly seems even more meaningless. The poor, ineffectual chaplain wants very much to help Yossarian and his friends, but all his moral convictions are frail and flimsy before the unanswerable authority of men like Cathcart and Korn.

The chaplain’s sensation of déjà vu reminds us that in the disordered temporal structure of Heller’s story, some events do actually happen twice. But the chaplain defines his déjà vu not in terms of time but as “the subtle, recurring confusion between illusion and reality”—a confusion that becomes quite serious in these chapters. Yossarian, for example, constructs illusory sicknesses, but doctors are inexplicably unable or unwilling to tell the difference between real and artificial sickness. Frequently, these sicknesses take on the illusory nature of performances. In Chapter 18, Yossarian’s admiration for the performance of the man who sees everything twice leads him to imitate that performance. When the man dies in the night, however, Yossarian does not acknowledge the authenticity of the man’s sickness; instead, he decides that the man took his performance too far. In order to avoid encountering the ultimate realities of the war—death, pain, and fighting—the men create illusions that blur the lines between what is real and what is not.