Study Guide

Catch-22 Sex

By Joseph Heller

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Women killed Hungry Joe. His response to them as sexual beings was one of frenzied worship and idolatry. They were lovely, satisfying, maddening manifestations of the miraculous, instruments of pleasure too powerful to be measured, too keen to be endured, and too exquisite to be intended for employment by the base, unworthy man. He could interpret their naked presence in his hands only as a cosmic oversight destined to be rectified speedily, and he was driven always to make what carnal use of them he could in the fleeting moment or two he felt he had before Someone caught wise and whisked them away. He could never decide whether to furgle them or photograph them, for he had found it impossible to do both simultaneously. (6.8)

Hungry Joe has such lust for women that he captures their images forever in photographs. His desire to photograph them is as strong as his desire to take women sexually – he is caught between the two choices indecisively.

"All right, I'll dance with you," she said, before Yossarian could even speak, "But I won't let you sleep with me […]."

She seized Yossarian's hand and pulled him out on the dance floor. She was a worse dancer than even he was, but she threw herself about to the synthetic jitterbug music with more uninhibited pleasure than he had ever observed […]. (16.2-6)

Luciana fascinates Yossarian because of the contradiction between her words and actions. Luciana keeps repeating that she won't sleep with Yossarian, but her actions may indicate otherwise. Luciana is the very incarnation of impulse and desire.

[…] Yossarian hurried as fast as he could all the way back to the cabaret and the bleary-eyed bleached blonde in the open orange satin blouse. She seemed infatuated with Aarfy, but he prayed intensely for her luscious aunt as he ran, or for a luscious girl friend, sister, cousin or mother who was just as libidinous and depraved. She would have been perfect for Yossarian, a debauched, coarse, vulgar, amoral, appetizing slattern whom he had longed for and idolized for months. (16.28)

Despite all Yossarian's claims of falling in love, this quote might reveal that he is more lustful than loving. He sees women as dehumanized objects for sex. Here, he does not even care for the actual girl, but would be fine with her "friend, sister, cousin or mother." Yossarian also seems to have long-standing obsessions with girls; he has been longing for this girl "for months."

Yossarian was madly in love with all of them as he made his way back to the officers' apartment, in love with Luciana, with the prurient intoxicated girl in the unbuttoned satin blouse, and with the beautiful rich countess and her beautiful rich daughter-in-law, both of whom would never let him touch them or even flirt with them. (16.29)

Yossarian falls "in love" easily, though his emotions run more toward lust than love.

Yossarian was madly in love with […] the beautiful rich countess and her beautiful rich daughter-in-law, both of whom would never let him touch them or even flirt with them. They doted kittenishly on Nately and deferred passively to Aarfy, but they thought Yossarian was crazy and recoiled from him with distasteful contempt each time he made an indecent proposal or tried to fondle them when they passed on the stairs. They were both superb creatures with pulpy, bright, pointed tongues, and mouths like round warm plums, a little sweet and sticky, a little rotten. They had class; Yossarian was not sure what class was, but he knew that they had it and he did not, and that they knew it, too. He could picture, as he walked, the kind of underclothing they wore against their svelte feminine parts, filmy, smooth, clinging garments of deepest black or of opalescent pastel radiance with flowering lace borders fragrant with the tantalizing fumes of pampered flesh and scented bath salts rising in a germinating cloud from their blue-white breasts. (16.29)

Yossarian's desire for these two women is never fulfilled; they are more temptations and fantasies than real women. Also, the use of "class" here is ironic because Yossarian typically uses negative words in association with the women, like "rotten," "fumes," and "germinating."

[Yossarian:] "Aarfy, tell me something. Don't you ever screw any of them?"

Aarfy chuckled again with conceited amusement. "Oh, sure, I prod them. Don't you worry about me. But never any nice girls. I know what kind of girls to prod and what kind of girls not to prod, and I never prod any nice girls." (16.42-43)

Aarfy glories in his ability to attract women. Also the use of "nice girls" is paradoxical, because the woman that Yossarian described earlier was anything but. Aarfy is setting up false morals to justify his behavior.

The minute she was gone, Yossarian tore the slip of paper up and walked away in the other direction, feeling very much like a big shot because a beautiful young girl like Luciana had slept with him and did not ask for money. He was pretty pleased with himself until he looked up in the dining room of the Red Cross building and found himself eating breakfast with dozens and dozens of other servicemen in all kinds of fantastic uniforms, and then all at once he was surrounded by images of Luciana getting out of her clothes and into her clothes and caressing and haranguing him tempestuously in the pink rayon chemise she wore in bed with him and would not take off. Yossarian choked on his toast and eggs at the enormity of his error in tearing her 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. There were so many strident faceless people in uniform in the dining room with him. He felt an urgent desire to be alone with her again soon and sprang up impetuously from his table and went running outside and back down the street toward the apartment in search of the tiny bits of paper in the gutter, but they had all been flushed away by a street cleaner's hose. (16.113)

Yossarian wants to think he loves Luciana, but all his images of her are sexual in nature. He mistakes lust for love, but regardless, his reaction to tearing up her address is one of regret.

In the morning he ran looking for Luciana in all the French offices he could find, but nobody knew what he was talking about, and then he ran in terror, so jumpy, distraught and disorganized that he just had to keep running in terror somewhere, to the enlisted men's apartment for the squat maid in the lime-colored panties […]. The woman caught him by the wrists before he could fall as he came stumbling toward her in need and pulled him along down on top of her as she flopped over backward onto the bed and enveloped him hospitably in her flaccid and consoling embrace, her dust mop aloft in her hand like a banner as her broad, brutish, congenial face gazed up at him fondly with a smile of unperjured friendship. There was a sharp elastic snap as she rolled the lime-colored panties off beneath them both without disturbing him. (16.114)

Yossarian acts out his desire for Luciana and his regret at losing her by having intercourse with the maid. She accepts him not as a lover but as a friend, and willingly gives him sex as a form of comfort.

General Dreedle's nurse always followed General Dreedle everywhere he went, even into the briefing room just before the mission to Avignon, where she stood with her asinine smile at the side of the platform and bloomed like a fertile oasis at General Dreedle's shoulder in her pink-and-green uniform. Yossarian looked at her and fell in love, desperately. His spirits sank, leaving him empty inside and numb. He sat gazing in clammy want at her full red lips and dimpled cheeks as he listened to Major Danby describe in a monotonous, didactic male drone the heavy concentrations of flak awaiting them at Avignon, and he moaned in deep despair suddenly at the thought that he might never see again this lovely woman to whom he had never spoken a word and whom he now loved so pathetically. He throbbed and ached with sorrow, fear and desire as he stared at her; she was so beautiful. He worshipped the ground she stood on. He licked his parched, thirsting lips with a sticky tongue and moaned in misery again, loudly enough this time to attract the startled, searching glances of the men sitting around him…(21.73)

General Dreedle's nurse is described as exceedingly feminine in sharp contrast to Major Danby's male speech. Yossarian's reaction to seeing her is one of extreme lust and almost obsessive worship.

There was bare flesh lounging everywhere, most of it plump, and Hungry Joe began to die. He stood stock still in rigid, cataleptic astonishment while the girls ambled in and made themselves comfortable. Then he let out a piercing shriek suddenly and bolted toward the door in a headlong dash back toward the enlisted men's apartment for his camera, only to be halted in his tracks with another frantic shriek by the dreadful, freezing premonition that this whole lovely, lurid, rich, and colorful pagan paradise would be snatched away from him irredeemably if he were to let it out of his sight for even an instant. (23.12)

Here, the excess of sex drives men mad. The idea of a sexual paradise is so stunning for Hungry Joe that the thought of losing it becomes painful. It's all about temptation.

Nurse Duckett reveled in such attention […]. It gave her a peculiar feeling of warm and expectant well-being to know that so many naked boys and men were idling close by on the other side of the sand dunes. She had only to stretch her neck or rise on some pretext to see twenty or forty undressed males lounging or playing ball in the sunlight. Her own body was such a familiar and unremarkable thing to her that she was puzzled by the convulsive ecstasy men could take from it, by the intense and amusing need they had merely to touch it, to reach out urgently and press it, squeeze it, pinch it, rub it. She did not understand Yossarian's lust; but she was willing to take his word for it. (30.29)

Nurse Duckett loves receiving male attention. But she is immune to the power of her sexuality and takes it for granted because she has lived with her body all her life. It is not as remarkable to her as it is to the men, including Yossarian, who always want to touch and gain pleasure from it.

Nurse Duckett […] was calm in his silences. She knew she did not bore him […].

Yossarian was never lonely with Nurse Duckett, who really did know how to keep her mouth shut and was just capricious enough. (30.32-33)

Yossarian views women as seen-but-not-heard beings. He prefers an attractive woman who keeps quiet and lets him think his own thoughts in peace. Certainly, this could be read as sexism on Yossarian's part.

Nately exploded in frustration. "Now don't argue with me. I'm the man and you have to do whatever I say." (33.78)

Nately shows what love definitely is not by expecting his prostitute to obey him because of his gender.

All at once he realized – though the writhing turbulence beneath him had not diminished one whit – that she was no longer grappling with him, recognized with a quiver that she was not fighting him but heaving her pelvis up against him remorselessly in the primal, powerful rhapsodic instinctual rhythm of erotic ardor and abandonment. He gasped in delighted surprise. Her face – as beautiful as a blooming flower to him now – was distorted with a new kind of torture, the tissues serenely swollen, her half-closed eyes misty and unseeing with the stultifying languor of desire […].

He stroked her hair. She drove her mouth against his face with savage passion. He licked her neck. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged. He felt himself falling, falling ecstatically in love with her as she kissed him again and again with lips that were steaming and wet and soft and hard, mumbling deep sounds to him adoringly in an incoherent oblivion of rapture, one caressing hand on his back slipping deftly down inside his trouser belt while the other groped secretly and treacherously about on the floor for the bread knife and found it. He saved himself just in time. She still wanted to kill him! He was shocked and astounded by her depraved subterfuge as he tore the knife from her grasp and hurled it away. (38.17-19)

According to this passage, sex can be used as a deception, a decoy, during which Nately's prostitute can find the means to attack Yossarian.

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