Study Guide

Catch-22 Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Joseph Heller

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Milo Minderbinder as a symbol of capitalism and greed

Milo's enterprising skills and ability to speak persuasively allow him to make deals with almost anyone. He has a talent for keeping track of numerous orders and shipments in many different countries. His greed leads him to betray his own country, men, and duty to maximize profits. He has no qualms about attacking his own base with its airplanes or raising the price of mess hall food so that everyone must empty their wallets to eat. The fact that he has a position of rank in every country in which he trades might indicate that money is the only thing worshipped universally.

The soldier in white as a symbol of the inhumanity with which the bureaucracy treats its men

The soldier in white serves as a symbol of the inhumanity with which the bureaucracy treats its men. This soldier is nameless and faceless; the bureaucracy views its men, not as unique individuals, but as anonymous dispensable liabilities. Nobody knows whether or not the soldier in white is alive or dead. This might indicate that the bureaucracy doesn't care who lives or dies and throws around human lives. Dunbar even suggests that the bandages are just a cover-up and that there is nobody inside. Perhaps the bureaucracy has taken from the men their very humanity.

Major Major as a symbol of loneliness and alienation

Through no fault of his own, Major Major is constantly harassed and avoided for his strange name, virtue, and unnerving sincerity. Though he tries hard to fit in and make friends, Major Major is shunned by almost everyone. It gets so bad that Major Major comes to embrace his solitude rather than suffer the embarrassment of associating with the other men.

The hospital as a symbol of shelter and safety

Yossarian and the other men use the hospital as an excuse to avoid combat duty. Yossarian comments that the hospital has learned to tame death so that men can die with dignity. However, the hospital is not completely exempt from the madness that pervades the rest of the base or the battlefield. The soldier in white, the censored letters, and Yossarian's pretense of being someone else's dying son reveal the absurdity that still exists within the hospital walls.

Chocolate-covered cotton as a symbol of artifice and worthlessness

The fact that Milo covers his excess cotton with chocolate and tries to feed it to the men reveals his greed and need to get rid of financial liabilities. The chocolate here is utterly worthless, financially and nutritionally, and is masking something that is also utterly worthless. By extension, Milo and his capitalist greed become utterly worthless to the men.

Snowden's guts as a symbol of man's mortality

Yossarian refers to Snowden's guts as his "secret." They were hidden inside his flak suit, though pierced by flak, until Yossarian ripped open the suit and out they come. Yossarian "reads" Snowden's secret in his intestines. This alludes to an ancient Roman practice of reading prophecies in the intestines of sacrificed animals. If man has been dehumanized by the war, then Snowden is essentially made an animal in his death. Not to mention that he has been sacrificed for some supposed greater cause. As for prophecies, let's look at what Yossarian reads in his guts: man is mortal. Significantly, this event may spark much of Yossarian's paranoia about death – to start. Its retribution, however, (and this may be why the scene is at the end of the novel), could be that Yossarian uses it as a way to overcome his paranoia. By some sort of absurd logic, knowing that you have to die and will die might mean you can stop worrying about it.

The increasing number of missions as a symbol of injustice and absurdity

The best thing about the required missions is how it functions in the "time" of Catch-22. The number of required missions tells us where we are in time. We know if there are sixty required missions, this is later in time than if there are forty. The fact that we measure time by how worked-over the men are by their superiors says something about the tragic nature of this text, the hopelessness of Yossarian's plight, and the non-trustworthiness of the powers that be.

But that's not all. The shifting number of missions also reminds that time is not chronological is this novel. We see the missions rise from fifty to fifty-five. OK, that makes sense. But then we see them getting raised to forty. Which is a kick on the head that Catch-22 isn't chronological.

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