Study Guide

Catch-22 Mortality

By Joseph Heller

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Behind him, men were dying. Strung out for miles in a stricken, torturous, squirming line, the other flights of planes were making the same hazardous journey over the target, threading their swift way through the swollen masses of new and old bursts of flak like rats racing in a pack through their own droppings. One was on fire, and flapped lamely off by itself, billowing gigantically like a monstrous blood-red star. As Yossarian watched, the burning plane floated out on its side and began spiraling down slowly in wide, tremulous, narrowing circles, its huge flaming burden blazing orange and flaring up in back like a long, swirling cape of fire and smoke. There were parachutes, one, two, three…four, and then the plane gyrated into a spin and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fluttering insensibly inside its vivid pyre like a shred of colored tissue paper. One whole flight of planes from another squadron had been blasted apart. (13.42)

Death is characterized as a dehumanizing experience. Those who are dying are often denied human characteristics. The falling planes are described as "rats" or a "star" or "tissue paper." Also, the scale of death is frightening.

Along the ground suddenly […] he saw dozens of new mushrooms the rain had spawned poking their nodular fingers up through the clammy earth like lifeless stalks of flesh, sprouting in such necrotic profusion everywhere he looked that they seemed to be proliferating right before his eyes. There were thousands of them swarming as far into the underbrush as he could see, and they appeared to swell in size and multiply in number as he spied them. He hurried away from them with a shiver of eerie alarm and did not slacken his pace until the soil crumbled to dry sand beneath his feet and they had been left behind. He glanced back apprehensively, half expecting to find the limp white things crawling after him in sightless pursuit or snaking up through the treetops in a writhing and ungovernable mutative mass. (14.31)

Yossarian sees death everywhere, even in the peaceful woods. He sees mushrooms as dismembered fingers crawling towards him in masses like hands ready to drag him back to Bologna, the location of the mission he just deserted.

People knew a lot more about dying inside the hospital and made a much neater, more orderly job of it. They couldn't dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn't keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. (17.4)

The hospital keeps a much tamer version of Death within its walls – one that allows people to die with dignity – unlike the uglier version out on the battlefield. However, death is still as inevitable within the hospital as it is outside.

They [the dying] did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarian's tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane.


They didn't take it out on the lam weirdly inside a cloud the way Clevinger had done. They didn't explode into blood and clotted matter. They didn't drown or get struck by lightning, mangled by machinery or crushed in landslides. They didn't get shot to death in hold-ups, strangled to death in rapes, stabbed to death in saloons, bludgeoned to death with axes by parents or children, or die summarily by some other act of God. Nobody choked to death. People bled to death like gentlemen in an operating room or expired without comment in an oxygen tent. There was none of that tricky now-you-see-me-now-you-don't business so much in vogue outside the hospital, none of that now-I-am-and-now-I-ain't. There were no famines or floods. Children didn't suffocate in cradles or iceboxes or fall under trucks. No one was beaten to death. People didn't stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights out of hotel windows with a whoosh! accelerating at the rate of thirty-two feet per second to land with hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry. (17.4-7)

Death is revealed here as horrific, random, and cruel. Yossarian shows the malice of fate and one's fellow man here. This manifestation of Death differs sharply from the more merciful hospital incarnation.

Now that Yossarian looked back, it seemed Nurse Cramer, rather than the talkative Texan, had murdered the soldier in white; if she had not read the thermometer and reported what she had found, the soldier in white might still be lying there alive exactly as he had been lying there all along, encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze with both strange, rigid legs elevated from the hips and both strange arms strung up perpendicularly, all four bulky limbs in casts, all four strange, useless limbs hoisted up in the air by taut wire cables and fantastically long lead weights suspended darkly above him. Lying there that way might not have been much of a life, but it was all the life he had, and the decision to terminate it, Yossarian felt, should hardly have been Nurse Cramer's. (17.9)

Yossarian illustrates some of the most disturbing and unnatural aspects of death in this passage. The soldier in white is horrific because of his recognizably human yet simultaneously inhuman characteristics – his human form is belied by his facelessness, his immobility, and his silence. The most disturbing part of his existence is that readers never know whether or not he was alive when brought into the hospital.

Nurse Duckett and Nurse Cramer kept him (the soldier in white) spick-and-span. They brushed his bandages often with a whiskbroom and scrubbed the plaster casts on his arms, legs, shoulders, chest and pelvis with soapy water. Working with a round tin of metal polish, they waxed a dim gloss on the dull zinc pipe rising from the cement on his groin. With damp dish towels they wiped the dust several times a day from the slim black rubber tubes leading in and out of him to the two large stoppered jars, one of them, hanging on a post beside his bed, dripping fluid into his arm constantly through a slit in the bandages, while the other, almost out of sight on the floor, drained the fluid away through the zinc pipe rising from his groin. Both nurses polished the glass jars unceasingly. They were proud of their housework. (17.25)

The lifeless soldier in white is dehumanized by the nurses, who treat him like a piece of furniture. He is made an object, not a human life.

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 is paranoid that he may be killed not only by people, but by his own body, which he eyes warily as a "potential traitor."

[A doctor to Yossarian:] "Of course you're dying. We're all dying. Where the devil else do you think you're heading?" (18.79)

The doctor points out the inevitability of death to Yossarian. It is inescapable despite all of Yossarian's attempts to avoid it.

He was haunted and tormented by the vast, boundless ocean. He wondered mournfully […] about all the people who had died under water. There were surely more than a million already. Where were they? What insects had eaten their flesh? He imagined the awful impotence of breathing in helplessly quarts and quarts of water….He looked toward stony Elba, and his eyes automatically searched overhead for the fluffy, white, turnip-shaped cloud in which Clevinger had vanished. He peered at the vaporous Italian skyline and thought of Orr. Clevinger and Orr. Where had they gone? Yossarian had once stood on a jetty at dawn and watched a tufted round log that was drifting toward him on the tide turn unexpectedly into the bloated face of a drowned man; it was the first dead person he had ever seen. He thirsted for life […]. (30.33)

Yossarian is overcome by the thought of dying at sea. It is such a vast and unfathomable place that he cannot imagine where the bodies of the dead would go. The thought of undiscovered dead bodies unnerves him. The fact that this could be the fate of two of his friends – Clevinger and Orr – makes the fear particularly poignant.

There was the briefest, softest tsst! filtering audibly through the shattering overwhelming howl of the plane's engines, and then there were just Kid Sampson's two pale, skinny legs, still joined by strings somehow at the bloody truncated hips, sanding stock-still on the raft for what seemed a full minute or two before they toppled over backward into the water finally with a faint, echoing splash and turned completely upside down so that only the grotesque toes and the plaster-white soles of Kid Sampson's feet remained in view. (30.34)

In the moment of death, time seems to stop. Heller goes to great lengths to describe Kid Sampson's grisly appearance. This long stretch of text takes time for us to read, giving the impression of time standing still as Kid Sampson hangs dying in the air.

The gnarled and stunted tree trunks creaked and groaned and forced Yossarian's thoughts each morning […] back on Kid Sampson's skinny legs bloating and decaying, as systematically as a ticking clock, in the icy rain and wet sand all through the blind, cold, gusty October nights. After Kid Sampson's legs, he would think of pitiful, whimpering Snowden freezing to death in the rear section of the plane, holding his eternal immutable secret concealed inside his quilted, armor-plate flak suit until Yossarian had finished sterilizing and bandaging the wrong wound on his leg, and then spilling it out suddenly all over the floor. At night when he was trying to sleep, Yossarian would call the roll of all the men, women and children he had ever known who were now dead. He tried to remember all the soldiers, and he resurrected images of all the elderly people he had known when a child – all the aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents, his own and everyone else's, and all the pathetic, deluded shopkeepers who opened their small, dusty stores at dawn and worked in them foolishly until midnight. They were all dead, too. The number of dead people just seemed to increase. And the Germans were still fighting. Death was irreversible, he suspected, and he began to think he was going to lose. (32.2)

Yossarian's thoughts become obsessed with death. His sees everyone's lives winding down to the tick tock of a clock, marching towards death. He concentrates on the inevitability and universality of death; no one can escape it.

[…] his [the chaplain's] mouth gaped open slowly in unbearable horror as he noted Yossarian's vivid, beaten, grimy look of deep, drugged despair. He understood at once, recoiling in pain from the realization and shaking his head with a protesting and imploring grimace, that Nately was dead. The knowledge struck him with a numbing shock. A sob broke from him. The blood drained from his legs, and he thought he was going to drop. Nately was dead. (36.3)

The death of a friend moves the chaplain to tears. His grief is so strong that it manifests itself physically – numbing his senses and making him collapse.

It was easy to read the message in his [Snowden's] entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all. (41.130)

Yossarian concludes that death is inevitable and man is really just matter. He will die and rot away and leave nothing behind. The illusion of life is temporary.

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