Study Guide

Catch-22 Fear

By Joseph Heller

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Aarfy was a dedicated fraternity man who loved cheerleading and class reunions and did not have brains enough to be afraid. Yossarian did have brains enough and was, and the only thing that stopped him from abandoning his post under fire and scurrying back through the crawlway like a yellow-bellied rat was his unwillingness to entrust the evasive action out of the target area to anybody else. There was nobody else in the world he would honor with so great a responsibility. There was nobody else he knew who was as big a coward […]. (5.91)

Yossarian points out that one must have a good deal of intelligence to fear for his life. According to Yossarian, fear breeds mistrust. This shows that Yossarian maintains a degree of rationality even in his frenzied fear.

There was no established procedure for evasive action. All you needed was fear, and Yossarian had plenty of that, more fear than Orr or Hungry Joe, more fear even than Dunbar, who had resigned himself submissively to the idea that he must die someday. Yossarian had not resigned himself to that idea, and he bolted for his life wildly on each mission the instant his bombs were away, hollering, "hard, hard, hard, hard, you bastard, hard!" at McWatt and hating McWatt viciously all the time as though McWatt were to blame for their being up there at all to be rubbed out by strangers […]. (5.92)

Interestingly, fear here is a statement of hope. Where Dunbar has given up all thoughts of living a long life, Yossarian has not. His fear and actions taken to stay alive show that he still has hope of surviving the war. But fear does distort his emotions; he begins hating McWatt irrationally.

"Help who? Help who?" called back Yossarian, once he had plugged his headset back into the intercom system, after it had been jerked out when Dobbs wrested the controls away from Huple and hurled them all down suddenly into the deafening, paralyzing, horrifying dive which had plastered Yossarian helplessly to the ceiling of the plane by the top of his head and from which Huple had rescued them just in time by seizing the controls back from Dobbs and leveling the ship out almost as suddenly right back in the middle of the buffeting layer of cacophonous flak from which they had escaped successfully only a moment before. Oh, God! Oh, God, oh, God, Yossarian had been pleading wordlessly as he dangled from the ceiling of the nose of the ship by the top of his head, unable to move. (5.94)

Yossarian's fear affects the way this passage is narrated. Instead of speaking in short succinct sentences, Yossarian lets his thoughts run in one long continuous sentence which he does not attempt to chop or analyze. He is concerned only with feeling and with surviving.

"There's nothing wrong with nightmares," Hungry Joe answered. "Everybody has nightmares."

Yossarian thought he had him. "Every night?" he asked.

"Why not every night?" Hungry Joe demanded.

And suddenly it all made sense. Why not every night, indeed? It made sense to cry out in pain every night. (6.20-23)

The men of the squadron live in such constant fear of losing their lives that it is understandable that they have nightmares every night. In fact, it makes so much sense to Yossarian that it becomes less and less probable that men would not have bad dreams every night.

Captain Flume spent as much of each evening as he could working in his darkroom and then lay down on his cot with his fingers crossed and a rabbit's foot around his neck and tried with all his might to stay awake. He lived in mortal fear of Chief White Halfoat. Captain Flume was obsessed with the idea that Chief White Halfoat would tiptoe up to his cot one night when he was sound asleep and slit his throat open for him from ear to ear. Captain Flume had obtained this idea from Chief White Halfoat himself, who did tiptoe up to his cot one night as he was dozing off, to hiss portentously that one night when he, Captain Flume, was sound asleep he, Chief White Halfoat, was going to slit his throat open for him from ear to ear. Captain Flume turned to ice, his eyes, flung open wide, staring directly up into Chief White Halfoat's, glinting drunkenly only inches away.

"Why?" Captain Flume managed to croak finally.

"Why not?" was Chief White Halfoat's answer. (6.31-33)

The men live under such constant fear that they have incorporated this emotion into their lives and have no qualms inflicting it on their fellow soldiers.

Hungry Joe's nightmares gave Chief White Halfoat the heebie-jeebies […]. (6.35)

This is one way of showing the contagious effect of fear. Hungry Joe's fears give him nightmares, which make him scream in the night. This gives Chief White Halfoat the heebie-jeebies, which makes him threaten to slit Captain Flume's throat.

Clevinger recoiled from their [the Action Board's] hatred as though from a blinding light. These three men who hated him spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he saw their loveless faces set immutably into cramped, mean lines of hostility and understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or planes or submarines, not in the bunkers behind the machine guns or mortars or behind the blowing flame throwers, not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Hermann Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more. (8.199)

This information is chilling to Clevinger because it means that his own countrymen, his fellow soldiers who are supposed to have his back, hate him more than anyone else in the world. The kicker is that he has done nothing to earn their hatred.

Major Major sat down, and Yossarian moved around in front of his desk and told him that he did not want to fly any more combat missions. What could he do? Major Major asked himself. All he could do was what he had been instructed to do by Colonel Korn and hope for the best.

"Why not?" he asked.

"I'm afraid."

"That's nothing to be ashamed of," Major Major counseled him kindly. "We're all afraid."

"I'm not ashamed," Yossarian said. "I'm just afraid." (9.186-190)

Fear is a healthy reaction in this case and Yossarian knows he need not be ashamed. Unlike many other life situations in which we are taught that fear is a cause for shame, war changes the rules and, to a certain degree, bravery becomes foolishness.

There was no escaping the mission to Bologna once Colonel Cathcart had volunteered his group for the ammunition dump there that the heavy bombers on the Italian mainland had been unable to destroy from their higher altitudes. Each day's delay deepened the awareness and deepened the gloom. The clinging, overpowering conviction of death spread steadily with the continuing rainfall, working mordantly into each man's ailing countenance like the corrosive blot of some crawling disease. (10.33)

The Bologna mission brings extreme fear to the men since the sick ward has been shut down to prevent men from defecting. Fear here is described as both depressing and inevitable.

Through endless blobs of ghostly black smoke he sped, the hanging smut wafting against the smooth Plexiglas nose of the ship like an evil, damp, sooty vapor against his cheeks. His heart was hammering again in aching terror as he hurtled upward and downward through the blind gangs of flak charging murderously into the sky at him, then sagging inertly. Sweat gushed from his neck in torrents and poured down over his chest and waist with the feeling of warm slime. He was vaguely aware for an instant that the planes in his formation were no longer there, and then he was aware of only himself. His throat hurt like a raw slash from the strangling intensity with which he shrieked each command to McWatt. The engines rose to a deafening, agonized, ululating bellow each time McWatt changed direction. And far out in front the bursts of flak were still swarming into the sky from new batteries of guns poking around for accurate altitude as they waited sadistically for him to fly into range. (15.15)

Fear causes Yossarian to see the flak as a living enemy, personified through adjectives like "murderous," "swarming," "sadistic," and "evil," nouns like "gangs," and verbs like "waited."

Aarfy was like an eerie ogre in a dream, incapable of being bruised or evaded, and Yossarian dreaded him for a complex of reasons he was too petrified to untangle. (15.39)

Yossarian fears Aarfy's lack of fear because it is unnatural. He compares Aarfy to a nightmare.

Yossarian […] continued searching intently, cold with a compassionate kind of fear now for the little bouncy and bizarre buck-toothed tentmate who had smashed Appleby's forehead open with a Ping-Pong racket and who was scaring the daylights out of Yossarian once again. (15.47)

This is one of the few times when Yossarian's fear is not for himself. It affirms that he does indeed have human feelings and affinities for his fellow men. His fear for Orr is "compassionate" and shows his kindheartedness.

There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There was Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, for example, and they were all out to kill him. There was Lieutenant Scheisskopf with his fanaticism for parades and there was the bloated colonel with his big fat mustache and his fanaticism for retribution, and they wanted to kill him, too. There was Appleby, Havermeyer, Black and Korn. There was Nurse Cramer and Nurse Duckett, who he was almost certain wanted him dead, and there was the Texan and the C.I.D. man, about whom he had no doubt. There were bartenders, bricklayers and bus conductors all over the world who wanted him dead, landlords and tenants, traitors and patriots, lynchers, leeches and lackeys, and they were all out to bump him off […].

There were lymph glands that might do him in. There were kidneys, nerve sheaths and corpuscles. There were tumors of the brain. There was Hodgkin's disease, leukemia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There were fertile red meadows of epithelial tissue to catch and coddle a cancer cell. There were diseases of the skin, diseases of the heart, blood and arteries. There were diseases of the head, diseases of the neck, diseases of the chest, diseases of the intestines, diseases of the crotch. There even were diseases of the feet. There were billions of conscientious body cells oxidating away day and night like dumb animals at their complicated job of keeping him alive and healthy, and every one was a potential traitor and foe. (17.61-62)

Yossarian shows that he is paranoid about being killed not only by people, but also by his own body, which he eyes warily as a "potential traitor." Yossarian sees death everywhere around him.

Everybody was persecuting him. Colonel Cathcart lived by his wits in an unstable, arithmetical world of black eyes and feathers in his cap, of overwhelming imaginary triumphs and catastrophic imaginary defeats. He oscillated hourly between anguish and exhilaration, multiplying fantastically the grandeur of his victories and exaggerating the seriousness of his defeats. (19.5)

Colonel Cathcart's paranoia of being judged incompetent is a reflection of his own profound inability to assess. But it is also somewhat in his mind, as "imaginary" shows up several times here. His decisions are not as momentous as he makes them out to be.

The chaplain loved his wife and children with such tameless intensity that he often wanted to sink to the ground helplessly and weep like a castaway cripple. He was tormented inexorably by morbid fantasies involving them, by dire, hideous omens of illness and accident. His meditations were polluted with threats of dread diseases like Ewing's tumor and leukemia; he saw his infant son die two or three times every week because he had never taught his wife how to stop arterial bleeding; watched, in tearful, paralyzed silence, his whole family electrocuted, one after the other, at a baseboard socket because he had never told her that a human body would conduct electricity; all exploded and set the two-story wooden house afire; in ghastly, heartless, revolting detail he saw his poor dear wife's trim and fragile body crushed to a viscous pulp against the brick wall of a market building by a half-witted drunken automobile driver and watched his hysterical five-year-old daughter being led away from the grisly scene by a kindly middle-aged gentleman with snow-white hair who raped and murdered her repeatedly as soon as he had driven her off to a deserted sandpit, while his two younger children starved to death slowly in the house after his wife's mother, who had been baby-sitting, dropped dead from a heart attack when news of his wife's accident was given to her over the telephone. (25.11)

The chaplain loves his family so much that he dreams of every way possible that they could be rendered vulnerable and die horrible deaths without him. He tortures himself because he believes he is not doing his duty as a husband and father.

[…] McWatt edged the belly of the lazing, slow-cruising plane just over the crest of mountains in the middle and then, instead of maintaining altitude, jolted both engines open all the way, lurched up on one side and, to Yossarian's astonishment, began following the falling land down as fast as the plane would go, wagging his wings gaily and skimming with a massive, grinding, hammering roar over each rocky rise and dip of the rolling terrain like a dizzy gull over wild brown waves. Yossarian was petrified […].

"Go up, go up, go up!" he shouted frantically at McWatt, hating him venomously, but McWatt was singing buoyantly over the intercom and probably couldn't hear. Yossarian, blazing with rage and almost sobbing for revenge, hurled himself down into the crawlway and fought his way through against the dragging weight of gravity and inertia until he arrived at the main section and pulled himself up to the flight deck, to stand trembling behind McWatt in the pilot's seat. He looked desperately about for a gun, a gray-black .45 automatic that he could cock and ram right up against the base of McWatt's skull. There was no gun. There was no hunting knife either, and no other weapon with which he could bludgeon or stab, and Yossarian grasped and jerked the collar of McWatt's coveralls in tightening fists and shouted to him to go up, go up, go up. The land was still swimming by underneath and flashing by overhead on both sides. McWatt looked back at Yossarian and laughed joyfully as though Yossarian were sharing his fun. Yossarian slid both hands around McWatt's bare throat and squeezed. McWatt turned stiff.

"Go up," Yossarian ordered unmistakably through his teeth in a low, menacing voice. "Or I'll kill you."

Rigid with caution, McWatt cut the motors back and climbed gradually. Yossarian's hands weakened on McWatt's neck and slid down off his shoulders to dangle inertly. He was not angry any more. He was ashamed. When McWatt turned, he was sorry the hands were his and wished there were someplace where he could bury them. (30.5-8)

Fear forces Yossarian to do things he would not otherwise do. He threatens one of his friends with death. When Yossarian's fear abates, however, he realizes his mistake and feels ashamed of it. The power of fear is to make one blind to one's mistakes.

On the beach, all hell broke loose. Nurse Cramer materialized out of thin air suddenly and was weeping hysterically against Yossarian's chest while Yossarian hugged her shoulders and soothed her. His other arm bolstered Nurse Duckett, who was trembling and sobbing against him, too, her long, angular face dead white. Everyone at the beach was screaming and running, and the men sounded like women. They scampered for their things in panic, stooping hurriedly and looking askance at each gentle, knee-high wave bubbling in as though some ugly, red, grisly organ like a liver or a lung might come washing right up against them. Those in the water were struggling to get out, forgetting in their haste to swim, wailing, walking, held back in their flight by the viscous, clinging sea as though by a biting wind. Kid Sampson had rained all over. Those who spied drops of him on their limbs or torsos drew back with terror and revulsion, as though trying to shrink away from their own odious skins. Everybody ran in a sluggish stampede, shooting tortured, horrified glances back, filling the deep, shadowy, rustling woods with their frail gasps and cries […].

Back at the squadron everyone already knew. Men in uniform were screaming and running there too, or standing motionless in one spot, rooted in awe, like Sergeant Knight and Doc Daneeka as they gravely craned their heads upward and watched the guilty, banking, forlorn airplane with McWatt circle and circle slowly and climb. (30.35-36)

Fear from Kid Sampson's death spreads quickly and turns into paranoia. Because of the unnatural nature of his death everyone wants to avoid the water, thinking that some particle of the murdered boy might touch them. This shows the natural human aversion to death.

But Yossarian understood suddenly why McWatt wouldn't jump, and went running uncontrollably down the whole length of the squadron after McWatt's plane, waving his arms and shouting up at him imploringly to come down, McWatt, come down; but no one seemed to hear, certainly not McWatt, and a great, choking moan tore from Yossarian's throat as McWatt turned again, dipped his wings once in salute, decided oh, well, what the hell, and flew into a mountain. (30.47)

Guilt over Kid Sampson's death drives McWatt to suicide. In a strange reversal of fate, Yossarian now begs McWatt to come down. He is no longer angry with McWatt for risking Yossarian's life, but deathly afraid for the man.

Yossarian went to bed early for safety and soon dreamed that he was fleeing almost headlong down an endless wooden staircase, making a loud, staccato clatter with his heels. Then he woke up a little and realized someone was shooting at him with a machine gun. A tortured, terrified sob rose in his throat. His first thought was that Milo was attacking the squadron again, and he rolled off his cot to the floor and lay underneath in a trembling, praying ball, his heart thumping like a drop forge, his body bathed in a cold sweat. (34.2)

Yossarian's first reaction to fear is to curl up into a ball and pray for help. He has been victimized for so long that he no longer has the willpower or bravery to respond constructively to such terror.

Yossarian blazed with hatred and wrath when he saw he was the victim of an irresponsible joke that had destroyed his sleep and reduced him to a whimpering hulk. He wanted to kill, he wanted to murder. He was angrier than he had ever been before, angrier even than when he had slid his hands around McWatt's neck to strangle him…Yossarian felt resentment boil like acid inside him; they were endangering his life, the bastards! (34.3)

Yossarian's initial reaction to fear turns into implacable anger when he realizes he's become the butt of a joke. Shame of his fear blazes through him and becomes anger, enough to force him to desire blood. In his rage, he even punches his friend Nately in the face.

"Please make yourself comfortable, Chaplain, invited the colonel cordially, switching on a blinding spotlight and shooting it squarely into the chaplain's face. He placed a set of brass knuckles and a box of wooden matches on the table. "We want you to relax."

The chaplain's eyes bugged out incredulously. His teeth chattered and his limbs felt utterly without strength. He was powerless. They might do whatever they wished to him, he realized; these brutal men might beat him to death right there in the basement, and no one would intervene to save him…(36.29-30)

The colonel's words are at odds with his actions. Though he tells the chaplain not to fear, he lays out instruments of torture that inspire fear in him.

Yossarian marched backward with his gun on his hip and refused to fly any more missions. He marched backward because he was continuously spinning around as he walked to make certain no one was sneaking up on him from behind. Every sound to his rear was a warning, every person he passed a potential assassin. (38.1)

Yossarian's paranoia that everyone is out to kill him is validated by Nately's prostitute, who disguises herself to get at him. This keeps Yossarian constantly on guard.

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