Study Guide

Catch-22 Isolation

By Joseph Heller

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They couldn't touch him [Yossarian] because he was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. He was Bill Shakespeare. He was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; he was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Sweeney in the nightingales among trees. (2.48)

Yossarian's identity begins to blend with those of popular literary figures. Thus begins the concept of Yossarian as the "everyman."

Actually, Major Major had been promoted by an I.B.M. machine with a sense of humor almost as keen as his father's. (9.18)

Major Major is so isolated, so cut off from human interaction, that a machine decides his fate.

It was a harsh and stunning realization that was forced upon him at so tender an age, the realization that he was not, as he had always been led to believe, Caleb Major, but instead was some total stranger named Major Major Major about whom he knew absolutely nothing and about whom nobody else had ever heard before. What playmates he had withdrew from him and never returned, disposed, as they were, to distrust all strangers, especially one who had already deceived them by pretending to be someone they had known for years. (9.13)

Name is inherently tied to identity. When Major Major learns his true, given name, he becomes a stranger to himself. Having identified himself as Caleb Major all his life, this new name is alien to him and essentially transforms him from a healthy, outgoing child to a fragile young boy continually shunned by his peers.

People who had hardly noticed his resemblance to Henry Fonda before now never ceased discussing it, and there were even those who hinted sinisterly that Major Major had been elevated to squadron commander because he resembled Henry Fonda. Captain Black, who had aspired to the position himself, maintained that Major Major really was Henry Fonda but too chickens*** to admit it. (9.36)

Ironically, Major Major's resemblance to actor Henry Fonda – which could have been a blessing in other circumstances – becomes a burden to him when people begin mixing his identity up with the actor's. After his promotion, his peers suggest his similarity to the actor caused his promotion. The kicker is that Major Major cannot help his resemblance to Henry Fonda.

Major Major grew despondent as he watched simple communications swell prodigiously into huge manuscripts. No matter how many times he signed on, it always came back for still another signature, and he began to despair of ever being free of any of them. One day – it was the day after the C.I.D. man's first visit – Major Major signed Washington Irving's name to one of the documents instead of his own, just to see how it would feel. He liked it. He liked it so much that for the rest of that afternoon he did the same with all the official documents […].

He had sinned, and it was good, for none of the documents to which he had signed Washington Irving's name ever came back! Here, at last, was progress, and Major Major threw himself into his new career with uninhibited gusto. Signing Washington Irving's name to official documents was not much of a career, perhaps, but it was less monotonous than signing "Major Major Major." (9.55-56)

By hanging his name to Washington Irving, Major Major assumes a new identity – on paper at least. His own life and identity have not brought him any luck, and he welcomes change. Unlike his own name, Washington Irving's brings progress (less paperwork) and a good deal more excitement to Major Major's life.

His paramount concern throughout the entire assault was to keep his dark glasses and false mustache in place so that he might continue pretending he was somebody else and be spared the dreaded necessity of having to confront them with his authority. (9.119)

Major Major's need for a false identity is so strong that he keeps on his affects while being attacked. He lacks the confidence needed to fight off these oppressors.

His name was Mudd […]. No one could recall who he was or what he had looked like, least of all Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, who remembered only that a new officer had shown up at the operations tent just in time to be killed and who colored uneasily every time the matter of the dead man in Yossarian's tent was mentioned. The only ones who might have seen Mudd, the men on the same plane, had all been blown to bits with him.

Yossarian, on the other hand, knew exactly who Mudd was. Mudd was the unknown soldier who had never had a chance, for that was the only thing anyone ever did know about all the unknown soldiers – they never had a chance. They had to be dead. (10.30-31)

This passage gets at the heart of identity as a combination of one's name, actions, and associates, all of which is hollow without a face. No one truly knows who the dead man was. Yossarian cares only for the man in retrospect.

Yossarian choked on his toast and eggs at the enormity of his error in tearing her [Luciana's] long, lithe, nude, young vibrant limbs into tiny pieces of paper so impudently and dumping her down so smugly into the gutter from the curb. He missed her terribly already. (16.113)

Yossarian associates Luciana's identity and person with the piece of paper. This reveals that he considers her as a material asset, a contact for sex, and not a real human being.

His [Yossarian's] system was sturdy enough to survive a case of someone else's malaria or influenza with scarcely any discomfort at all. He could come through other people's tonsillectomies without suffering any postoperative distress and even endure their hernias and hemorrhoids with only mild nausea and revulsion. (17.2)

Yossarian's ability to handle others' illnesses suggests an "everyman" identity. Yossarian represents the common man by sharing and surviving their diseases.

Yossarian winced and closed his eyes so that he would not have to look at his brother John. He began to feel sick.

"Now see how terrible he looks," the father observed.

"Giuseppe," the mother said.

"Ma, his name is Yossarian," the brother interrupted her impatiently. "Can't you remember?" (18.114-117)

In his charade as the dying Giuseppe saying goodbye to his family, Yossarian almost begins believe he is Giuseppe. He refers to John as "his brother" and even feels bad for causing him pain. On the other hand, the family believes he is their Giuseppe. The brother even claims to recognize Yossarian's name. The two identities seem to merge until they almost become indistinguishable.

The chaplain lived alone […]. Sounds of revelry traveled to him at night from the officers' club and kept him awake often as he turned and tossed on his cot in passive, half-voluntary exile. (20.26)

Colonel Korn isolates the chaplain from the enlisted men by forcing him to live alone on the outskirts of the camp. This alienates the poor, shy man from the officers who would do well to be influenced by his faith and virtue. But the chaplain is too timid to protest.

[Aarfy:] "We used to ostracize everyone, even each other." (23.9)

Ostracizing means excluding people. This causes isolation and alienation because those ostracized often feel left out and targets of discrimination.

With their heads down disconsolately, the chaplain, Major Major, and Major Danby moved toward their jeeps in an ostracized group, each holding himself friendlessly several feet away from the other two. (24.124)

Arguably, the three virtuous yet timid characters in the book are lonely men, each trapped in exile. The irony is that they are physically near one another in this scene. One can easily imagine them befriending each other to relieve their loneliness. But each is too timid to reach out to the others.

But the chaplain's impression of a prior meeting was of some occasion far more momentous and occult than that, of a significant encounter with Yossarian in some remote, submerged, and perhaps even entirely spiritual epoch in which he had made the identical, foredooming admission that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do to help him. (25.4)

The chaplain's identity starts to merge with that of Major Major's, who refuses to help Yossarian in avoiding his missions. In a strange sense, they seem almost to share a common memory.

No one […] seemed really to appreciate that he, Chaplain Albert Taylor Tappman, was not just a chaplain, but a human being, that he could have a charming, passionate, pretty wife whom he loved almost insanely and three small blue-eyed children with strange, forgotten faces who would grow up someday to regard him as a freak and who might never forgive him for all the social embarrassment his vocation would eventually cause them. Why couldn't anybody understand that he was not really a freak but a normal, lonely adult trying to lead a normal, lonely adult life? If they pricked him, didn't he bleed? And if he was tickled, didn't he laugh? It seemed never to have occurred to them that he, just as they, had eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses and affections, that he was wounded by the same kind of weapons they were, warmed and cooled by the same breezes and fed by the same kind of food […]. (25.11)

The chaplain feels alienated from his peers. They do not see him as a human being, but as someone with a specific role. They do not identify with him, and he therefore is ostracized.

"They're going to send me home!" Yossarian announced jubilantly as he hobbled back into the ward.

"Me too!" A. Fortiori rejoiced. "They just came to my ward and told me."

"What about me?" Dunbar demanded petulantly of the doctors.

"You?" they replied with asperity. "You're going with Yossarian. Right back into combat!" (27.157-160)

Dunbar and Yossarian are mistaken for A. Fortiori, who is being given leave to go home. With Dunbar, this is especially complicated because Fortiori is his alter ego. This mix-up of identities teases Yossarian and Dunbar with the goal they most desire to achieve – getting out of the danger and madness of war.

[…] Dunbar was lying in pajamas in the bed across the aisle maintaining that he was not Dunbar but a fortiori. (26.45)

Dunbar obviously thinks he's another person named A. Fortiori. In Latin, this phrase means "still stronger" or "for a stronger reason." It's ironic because Dunbar uses this alias as a better reason to see Yossarian, when he can't get in as himself.

He [Yossarian] drew solace and sedation from her nearness. He had a craving to touch her always, to remain always in physical communication. (30.28)

Physically touching someone is one way of coping with alienation and loneliness. Only through the human touch does Yossarian feel connected to his fellow man and valued.

[Sergeant Knight:] "Doc Daneeka's up there, too."

"I'm right here," contended Doc Daneeka, in a strange and troubled voice, darting an anxious look at Sergeant Knight. (30.38-39)

Sergeant Knight believes that Doc Daneeka is on board McWatt's plane when he is clearly not. It is implied that Yossarian is the secret cause of this because he puts Daneeka's name down on the flight log.

"Won't you fight for your country?" Colonel Korn demanded, emulating Colonel Cathcart's harsh, self-righteous tone. "Won't you give up your life for Colonel Cathcart and me?"

Yossarian tensed with alert astonishment when he heard Colonel Korn's concluding words. "What's that?" he exclaimed. "What have you and Colonel Cathcart got to do with my country? You're not one and the same."

"How can you separate us?" Colonel Korn inquired with ironical tranquility. (40.33-35)

One result of the bureaucracy in Catch-22 is the confusion of the officials with the nation itself. Their identities become merged in the public eye.

The fat, gruff colonel reminded Yossarian of the fat, gruff colonel who had interrogated the chaplain and found him guilty. (41.14)

Yossarian's identity is confused with that of the chaplain because he has memories that he could not have unless he was with the chaplain during the interrogation. He was not.

"Danby, must I really let them send me home?" Yossarian inquired of him seriously.

Major Danby shrugged. "It's a way to save yourself."

"It's a way to lose myself, Danby." (42.93-95)

Yossarian recognizes that accepting the corrupt deal and letting himself be sent back home is essentially a betrayal of his morals and a denial of his identity. Going home would mean letting Cathcart and Korn win, and losing himself in the process.

[Major Danby to Yossarian:] "And even if they don't find you, what kind of way is that to live? You'll always be alone. No one will ever be on your side, and you'll always live in danger of betrayal."

"I live that way now." (42.150-151)

Yossarian recognizes the fact that escape wouldn't be too bad an option; it won't change the way he's been living – that is, in metaphorical isolation from other men.

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