"Catch 22 and the Hero’s Journey (or lack thereof)"
College Writing 2, Dr. Wallace Ross
Philip Roth, an American novelist, once complained, “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality [...]. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Unlike the gritty realism that war novels provided at the time, Catch-22 presented its ideas and motifs through satire. The novel follows the protagonist Yossarian, a bombardier who wants absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing war. He is panicked because he thinks millions of people are trying to kill him, although none of them know who he is. He’s constantly promised that he will be discharged for flying a certain number of missions, but the number keeps rising. And amid the chaos that ensues in the novel, the one thing Yossarian desires is to live forever, or at least to die trying. Yossarian’s character starkly contrasts what is usually seen in a traditional war novel; for the majority of the novel, Yossarian would never put his life before anyone else’s. When people think of the conventional hero story, they usually think about the “Hero’s Journey”, as described by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which sought to find a common thread behind various stories in mythology. Yossarian’s journey to escape his situation in Catch-22 does fall in line with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth; however, rather than simply follow the model, Joseph Heller not only satirizes the state of bureaucracy and war, but it also satirizes the Hero’s Journey itself.
In order to understand the ideas and concepts presented in Catch-22, it is important to first understand the historical context of the novel. The events in the novel are said to have taken place during World War II, but the actual influences from the novel go beyond the fascism and political climate associated with that time period. In an interview with William Bates of “The Daily Californian”, Joseph Heller explains that “the anti-war feeling of ‘Catch-22’” is not something Heller, a World War II veteran, “experienced”. In fact, many of the absurd characteristics seen in the novel draw from and relate “to the McCarthy period and the House Un-American Activities Committee”, as opposed to the war. Although much of its reputation is closely tied with the anti-war ethos of protesters during the Vietnam war, the book was completed and published in its entirety in 1961, prior to the height of the controversy associated with that war. The point in clarifying this information is not to immediately dive into some of the deeper meaning and concepts, but rather, to establish a baseline understanding of the context to put the events of the novel into perspective. McCarthyism was, according to Brittanica, “a series of investigations and hearings during the 1950s in an effort to expose supposed communist infiltration of various areas of the U.S. government” (Brittanica 1). Many of these investigations involved unsubstantiated claims, effectively being ‘witch hunts.’ While a full discussion of the history related to Catch-22 is outside the scope of the paper, having a basic understanding of the culture within the United States at the time is relevant.
Returning to the novel, Catch-22 tells its story and conveys its central ideas through the use of satire, mainly involving layers of hyperbole and paradox. These devices end up contributing to not only a twisted take on war and bureaucracy, but also play with the idea of the monomyth. Take, for example, the first stage in any journey model, the “call to adventure”. Traditionally, stories that follow the model that Joseph Campbell described involve some kind of figure or event to urge the protagonist to begin their quest. In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell originally pitches this stage as some moment where “the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood” (Campbell 46). This stage can also include a “refusal of the call”, where the protagonist is unwilling to partake in the journey and “converts the adventure into its negative” (Campbell 54). The clearest example of this can be found in J. R. R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where Bilbo, in response to Gandalf’s proposition, says, “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning!. But please come to tea—any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!” (Tolkien 7). After meeting the dwarves and hearing of their plan, his own deep desire to adventure motivates him to take up the quest.
However, unlike this example, Yossarian never truly accepts the quest. The book opens with Yossarian in the hospital, not because he is really injured, but because he is trying to evade his duty: “Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. [...] For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience” (Heller 1). The only reason he actually ends up leaving the hospital is because of the “Texan”, who is described to be “good-natured, generous, and likable” (9), but ultimately “drove everyone in the ward back to duty” (15) because of his optimistic attitude. What might seem like a tongue-in-cheek way to introduce the main story actually ends up being more than that. The reader starts the novel knowing that Yossarian has already refused the call, but rather than there be some change of heart, or moment of reflection, Yossarian is thrown headfirst back into the war, where he does not take it well. He tells his friend Clevinger that he is concerned that the enemy is “trying to kill me”, to which Clevinger responders, “They’re not trying to kill you” (16). Yossarian replies, “Then why are they shooting at me?”, to which Clevinger responds, “They’re shooting at everyone” (16). Yossarian’s distaste for the war only grows to be more apparent as the novel progresses, with increasingly absurd antics. The point of the matter is, however, that Yossarian never truly accepts the call to go fight in the war. His attitude to the war is best described by the following lines as Clevinger thinks about Yossarian: “To die or not to die, that is the question [...] That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance” (Heller 68). This parody, so to speak, of the famous soliloquy from Hamlet, succinctly depicts why Yossarian is an anti-hero: his sole purpose is to survive. One could argue that Yossarian’s “call to adventure” is not the call to war, but in fact, the call to try and escape the war. However, this does not necessarily hold up when considering the progression of the entire novel, because the only genuine attempt to escape is made at the end of the novel. All in all, Yossarian’s characterization from the beginning of the novel sets up for not only the satire of the war and bureaucracy, but also the Hero’s Journey.
While there is general consensus on the initial call and refusal of the adventure, along with the “crossing of the threshold”, the next stages (specifically the naming) tend to differ from scholar to scholar. In Joseph Campbell’s book, he refers to this arc as “Initiation”, featuring a “Road of Trials” where the hero “moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms” to complete a series of tasks, which also includes the hero’s encounters with characters beyond the so-called “threshold” (Campbell 89). This, along with the other stages in “Initiation”, typically make up the bulk of the myth/story. This statement could not be truer for Catch-22; a majority of the novel is out of order, chronologically speaking. As the focus shifts from character to character, the author has full control over when key information is revealed, and what information is withheld until later, to make for a more compelling story. On top of this, there are a number of characters that could be given thorough analyses to dive deeper into the satire. For the sake of brevity, not every character will be discussed to great length, but only the main ones that relate back to the topic of this paper.
One such character from the novel is Major Major Major. To quote Joseph Heller’s brief explanation of the name, “Major Major Major was given this name by his father as a practical joke” (Heller, 20:55-21:00). On top of this, due to a fault in an IBM computer (an anachronism, given the time period of World War II), he was promoted to be a major, further extending his name. In the chapter where his character is developed, the following description sticks out: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, [...]” (Heller 83). From this description alone, it may seem as though Heller is writing a character that is meant to go nowhere. While this is true, by virtue of his characterization, it goes beyond that. In the same chapter, later on, Major Major Major’s behaviors get discussed in context of the Ten Commandments. Major Major Major “was polite to his elders, who disliked him”, and did everything they told him to do. His elders told him that he “should not kill, and he did not kill”, until he enlisted in the army, and “he was told to kill” (Heller 85).
Although Major Major Major does not serve a great purpose in the story, his character almost serves to juxtapose the drive to survive that Yossarian possesses. The first major encounter between the two characters opens with Yossarian telling Major Major that he’s afraid. Major Major replies saying, “That’s nothing to be ashamed of [...] we’re all afraid”. Yossarian then clarifies that he’s “not ashamed”, he’s “just afraid” (Heller 102). After being described as the most basic person in the book, Major Major is also shown to be arguably the most sympathetic of the high-ranking officers. In the same passage where Yossarian admits that he is afraid but not scared, Major Major is trying to console him, which no character really ever does save for one section that will be discussed later. The significance here is that this kind of a character, in a different story, would serve to be like a companion to the protagonist, or someone who cheers the protagonist up and out of their slump. There is nothing remarkable about Major Major because he is defined to be the most normal person, and because of that, he gets cast to the side. He puts absolutely no impression on Yossarian, which is interesting. In a typical Hero’s Journey, the allies and enemies met tend to shape the character through the duration of the novel, but Major Major just does not.
But, one of the more important side characters in the novel is Milo Minderbinder, a mess hall officer. Throughout the story, rather than really help the war effort, he focuses on growing his capitalist syndicate. His character is introduced with a spin on T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland”: “April had been the best month of all for Milo. [...] Heartbeats quickened and old appetites were renewed. [...] April was spring, and in the spring Milo Minderbinder’s fancy had lightly turned to thoughts of tangerines” (Heller 251). For almost the entire time he is shown in the novel, he is focused on the next easiest way to make profits. In that same passage, he asks one of the generals to “give [him] one plane for each mess hall and a pilot who will do what he’s told. And a small down payment [...]” (Heller 253) so that Milo can bring back foreign food. At first, it appears that Milo is just like Yossarian, a soldier trying to find something else to do except for the war, and Milo is just able to turn a profit while he does it. He advertises “M & M ENTERPRISES, FINE FRUITS AND PRODUCE”, including the ‘&’ because it makes it seem as though his business is more than a one-man operation (Heller 253). However, things quickly become more sinister as “business boomed on every battlefront” (Heller 253). Milo’s syndicate would grow so large as to begin dealing with other countries. In turn, not only does he get “contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway”, but he gets contracted “with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge”, by attacking his own squadron (Heller 254). As Joseph Heller points out in his talk at UCLA, “sooner or later you can’t escape the realization, funny as it may seem and funny as it may be at times [...] at bottom it’s essentially tragic” (Heller 30:40-30:50). Milo’s character, pretty evidently, is supposed to depict an extreme version of capitalism. Capitalism inherently does not know political division or have a moral compass. While Milo’s character may seem malicious as a result of his ever-growing empire, his reasons for doing so are really no different than the absurd actions of the higher-ranking officers who send their men to die in combat. In fact, Milo is arguably more rational because he has some guaranteed gain from his actions as opposed to the officers, who do not even know if they will ever be promoted. When Yossarian tries to confront Milo about his actions and how a man died in their tent before he could “unpack his bags”, Milo simply responds, “But I didn’t kill him. I wasn’t even there I tell you” (Heller 255). When things “boom on the battlefront”, people get hurt, and this aforementioned double entendre sums up this situation nicely. Milo is never convicted for his actions because he pays all of the men in his squadron as reparation, and life goes on. Again, like Major Major, Milo has very little impact on Yossarian as compared to typical character relations in hero stories; all Milo really does is make Yossarian more frustrated with his circumstance.
As for the rest of the “road of trials”, most of the significance comes from the language that is used in the novel. The novel is about war, and, as a result, characters come and go fairly regularly. While many of the situations in the novel have very little impact on Yossarian’s character, they do have an impact on the reader’s understanding of the situation, primarily through the unclear language and syntax used throughout. Gary Davis explores this idea in his journal article, “‘Catch-22’ and the Language of Discontinuity”, stating that Heller “turns to language itself for a basic model of these disruptions” (Davis 68). For instance, much of the characterization in the novel, rather than be the result of heroic deeds, is somehow closely related to names. Davis notes that when Yossarian “usurps someone else’s hospital bed”, he becomes “Warrant Officer Homer Lumley, who felt like vomiting and was covered suddenly with clammy sweat” (Heller 300). When Major Major enters kindergarten, he learns that he was not “Caleb Major”, but instead “some total stranger named Major Major Major about whom he knew absolutely nothing” (Heller 87). Davis also notes that in the beginning of the novel, when Yossarian is bored in the hospital, he spends his time redacting arbitrary names from letters, which, as Davis notes, “crossing out a name may, in effect, ‘obliterate’, a place” (Davis 69).
Much of Davis’ analysis has to do with how the events in the novel end up shaping the realities of many of the characters, but also how the “peculiar logic” ends up exposing “the meaninglessness of our conventional understanding of discourse and its processes” (Davis 70). The most blatant example of this is the eponymous law, Catch-22. The law is constantly redefined in the novel so as to put Yossarian through more tribulations. However, the most iconic iteration of the law is how it is presented at the beginning of the novel:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and he could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to (Heller 46).
Clearly, the language of Catch-22 is intended to confuse and delude. If one was to fly more missions, they would be crazy. But, if one is cognizant of the fact that they are, in fact, insane, this is actually an indicator of sanity, and therefore, they should not be sent home. The law is later defined to be a law that is illegal to read (that they had to read to understand), and later, it is again, redefined to mean that the enemy is allowed to do anything that no one can prevent them from doing. At the end of the day, it is a symbol of any circular reasoning that catches the people governed by it off guard and has the sole purpose of supporting those in power. Simply put, it is a caricature of bureaucracy. The confusing wording of Catch-22 parallels that of current law, supporting those who made it, who are aware of the loophole, and forcing those governed by it into aimless situations.
Returning to the notion of a hero’s journey yet again, the concept of a “catch-22” is in direct conflict with the notion of a journey. The usual hero story has some sense of progression and moving forward. Even when the hero falls into their lowest point, the lessons learned from there serve to help them push onward. In the case of Catch-22, on the other hand, Yossarian and his comrades are thrown from one situation to the next. In another interview with Joseph Heller, this time conducted by Richard Sale, he notes that “Catch-22 is structureless” as the majority of the events in the novel are not in chronological order (Sale 65). On this comment, Heller elaborates on the structure of Catch-22: “If one wants to look deeper [...] he would see that nine-tenths of Catch-22 is organized around three combat missions [...] the three missions have occurred before the time of the opening chapter, and they keep recurring” (Sale 65). As stated earlier, Heller makes an active choice to reveal and withhold information as the novel goes on, so as to support this structure built upon a “pattern of recurrence” (Heller 65). The purpose, as Heller notes, is to be “chaotic and anarchistic”, and with the way events are revealed in the novel, “there is almost no forward action” until Yossarian’s final decision to desert (Sale 66). The reader learns of the stories of Hungry Joe, Kid Sampson, Appleby, and more only to find that they eventually die, and little to no progress is made in the novel. The conflicting language only adds to this, in stark contrast to a conventional monomyth, where one of the implicit, sometimes explicit, motifs is progress. When one plays with discontinuities, in both the dialogue and the chronology of the story, this sense of progress is lost. Even in the edge cases where the story is told out of order for some in-universe reason (e.g. amnesia, uncovering letters out of order), there tends to be some kind of explicit goal to be achieved. When reading Catch-22, the reader rarely feels a sense of direction as to how Yossarian will manage his situation. Funnily enough, the constant discontinuities not only serve to disrupt the flow of the novel, but they also make the truly genuine moments in the novel more significant.
With this in mind, few events manage to pierce through the near-constant barrage of dark humor and twisted situations. One of these events is Yossarian’s journey through Rome. At this point in the novel, Yossarian and his comrades have been through thick and thin. Yossarian has made multiple attempts to try and evade missions, only to be told that the number of missions has been raised. The colonels and generals are shown to care more about publicity and their own promotions over anything else, handing out medals to quiet down bad press, and constantly making efforts to get themselves recognized to those higher up. The “road of trials” has been disconnected, confusing, and only leaves Yossarian more frustrated than when we first see him. However, the story begins to wrap up its loose ends once Nately, one of Yossarian’s friends, dies in a mission. Yossarian is troubled by his death, and travels to Rome to deliver the news to Nately’s lover, who is not given a name or referred to as anything other than “Nately’s whore”. Upon receiving the news, she and her little sister are devastated, and follow Yossarian around for a short amount of time, trying to stab him with a potato peeler.
Once he escapes, he wanders the streets of Rome in what Minna Doskow refers to as “The Night Journey” (Doskow 1). Rome, at this point and time in the novel, represents a city of “universal destruction” (2), the streets filled with rubble, displaced people, and a sense of lawlessness. In Doskow’s analysis of this section, she draws parallels between Yossarian’s wandering and a “descent to the underworld” (2) that is normally attributed to older mythology. Yossarian passes by “yellow light bulbs” which “sizzled in the dampness like wet torches” (Heller 411), only to find more “strange, distorted surroundings” (Heller 412) enshrouded in a “ghostly blackness” (Heller 412). As Doskow notes, “the apparent sources of light cannot shatter the gloom” (Doskow 2). This distorted world, seemingly distinct from reality, also has its inhabitants. Yossarian first spots a “boy in a thin shirt and thin tattered trousers” who had a “sickly face” which was “pale and sad” (Heller 412). In response, Yossarian “was moved by such intense pity” that rather than try and interact with the boy, or make a small gesture of help, Yossarian, in an almost comical sense, “wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence”, as he was frustrated with the fact that this poverty could exist (Heller 412). Furthermore, Doskow points out the sounds that further contributes to the description of the space: “the sobs and screams of the victims of hell. The scream of the child being beaten, the sympathetic weeping of a woman in the crowd [...]” (8).
Although Heller, in his many interviews and lectures, never seems to acknowledge the parallel with the idea of “the underworld” from older mythologies, the way Rome is described quite accurately meets that description. In context of the Hero’s Journey, this is an interesting subject to consider. The “journey to the underworld” is usually motivated by a desire to find someone or find a way out, but Yossarian simply wanders. He observes human atrocities, one followed by another, and is appalled at the fact that no one is around to do something. Ironically, he is someone who is there and can do something. In Joseph Heller’s talk at UCLA, he describes this theme as the “Immorality of inaction in the presence of injustices that are being suffered by other people” (Heller, 42:30-43:00).
Although this paper has pointed out that many of the events in the novel are seemingly pointless as Yossarian seems to learn nothing and gain nothing from them, it is at this stage that Yossarian begins to feel a sense of guilt. He, at first, does not understand why Nately’s whore wants to kill him, but by experiencing the “underworld”, he realizes that although he did not do anything to cause the death of his friends, he also did not do anything to try and save them either. It is a moral dilemma that has been alluded to throughout the novel, especially after each mission Yossarian flies, but it is not formally addressed until this pivotal scene. He comes to accept the responsibility for inaction, which sets up for the ending of the novel. In the cycle of the Hero’s Journey, this could very easily be classified as the death/resurrection of Yossarian, with a little bit of nuance. In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell uses the example of the Buddhist belief to describe the state of “apotheosis”: “he shattered for himself the bounds of the last threshold (which moment opened to him the timelessness of the void beyond the frustrating mirage-enigmas of the named and bounded cosmos)” (Campbell 138). To be more specific, Campbell is referring to the “end goal”, so to speak, of Buddhism, that is, Enlightenment and Nirvana. Simply put, the Buddha was able to achieve full understanding of this world and the spiritual as a result of the ordeals he had faced and the work he had done, and was able to move beyond the “threshold”. Looking at Catch-22, Yossarian comes to terms with the fact that “he himself is doing nothing to intervene” (Heller 45:40-45:44), which will ultimately shape the outcome of the novel. However, he also begins to “hurry away in shame” (Heller 416), in such a way that he is running away from some punishment that he deserves (Heller 45:50-45:55).
While the general expectation for this stage of the monomyth is not necessarily that the hero transcends space and time, but that the hero has basically fully matured into a figure that can handle the “dragon”. But, in this case, it is not so clear whether or not Yossarian has reached that level of maturity. He is troubled by the state of society and how he has inadvertently contributed to it (a philosophical discussion for another paper), but there is no moment where it seems as though Yossarian is ready to lead some kind of protest or rebellion. He simply flees. To say that Yossarian is not being heroic, despite developing a self-awareness, seems overly critical, but to say that Yossarian is heroic, despite not taking much action after realizing his fault, seems too lenient. One could argue that Yossarian is an anti-hero, but his actions here are much more realistic, matching the behavior of the average person today. How many people would be a Marc Antony, calling out the traitorous activities of conspiring senators? How many people would throw the Ring into the fires of Mordor? Simply put, trying to be the ideal figure does not always happen in reality, and the choice to make Yossarian live with the guilt adds extra layers to the hero’s journey that were not there before.
To finish out the story, prior to further discussion of the monomyth, after Yossarian begins to make his way out of Rome, he is arrested for being in the city without a pass. After being flown back to the Pianosa (effectively the “magic carpet” in Campbell’s model), he is brought to the desk of Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart, with a proposal for Yossarian. Before leaving for Rome, Yossarian had made it clear that he was not going to fly any more missions, regardless of what “Catch-22” had to say. At the time, it was not made as big of a deal given the other events that were happening. To summarize the deal, the colonels offer Yossarian the ability to leave. But, as Colonel Korn points out, “We can’t simply send you home for refusing to fly more missions and keep the rest of the men here, can we? That would hardly be fair to them” (Heller 421). As a result, if Yossarian wants to leave, he has to publicly support the colonels and their new policy, which will increase the number of missions to eighty. Otherwise, Yossarian will face a court martial. Although Yossarian does not like the deal, his desire to stay alive pushes him into agreeing, but is not able to go through with it immediately because Nately’s whore stabs him, sending him to the hospital.
While this is a direct contradiction to what was discussed about Yossarian’s “apotheosis” in Rome, the story does not end there. Throughout the novel, a specific memory has been alluded to. There’s repeatedly mention of the death of a soldier named Snowden, who no one seems to know very much about, that seems to trouble Yossarian every time it comes to mind, but the event is never fully explained. While in the hospital, the full event is finally revealed in a flashback sequence. It begins as “Yossarian crawled into the rear section of the plane” after Dobbs tells him to “help the gunner”, the gunner being Snowden (Heller 436). Yossarian is taken aback by Snowden’s injuries, one “as large and deep as a football”, making it impossible to tell “where the shreds of his saturated coveralls ended and the ragged flash began” (436). As Yossarian gets to work trying to perform some basic first aid, Snowden begins to repeat the line that has shown up time and time again throughout the novel, “I’m cold, I’m cold” (437). Joseph Heller has said that this repetition comes from Act III of King Lear, specifically the scene where Lear, the madman, and the fool look for shelter, and the notion of “cold” is meant to symbolize and allude to death, as Lear asks, “Art cold?” (Heller, 32:00-32:49). The influence is clear in Heller’s work: as Yossarian continues to try and save Snowden, Snowden weakly says “I’m cold, I’m cold”, to which Yossarian responds “There, there” (Heller 437). This interaction repeats a fair number of times during this flashback, falling in line with Heller’s statement of a “pattern of recurrence”. Intermixed with these exchanges are rather grotesque descriptions of Snowden’s injuries worsening, but a key moment occurs just before the flashback ends. Yossarian has accepted the fact that Snowden will die, and unzips Snowden’s parachute to cover his body. Before placing the parachute over Snowden, however, Yossarian makes the following observation:
[Looking at] the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his 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 is gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all (Heller 440).
It is almost uncharacteristically introspective and existential for Yossarian to have this realization, but it is the other aforementioned moment that pierces the wall of dark humor and satire. Yossarian’s defining trait throughout the novel has been to stay alive, or to die trying, but this brief, but powerful, moment of existentialism reminds Yossarian why he should not accept the deal: “The spirit is gone, man is garbage” (440). This is arguably the only major moment in the novel without comic relief. There’s no punchline, no hyperbole, and no paradoxes. The sentiment expressed in this scene is the culmination of many tragic, albeit brief, moments throughout the novel, and it becomes clear that Yossarian and his friends are stuck in an ultimately tragic situation, much to the likeness of the ideologies of Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre.
The recollection of Snowden’s death eventually comes to an end, and Yossarian finds himself in the hospital once again, this time with a new resolve, and ready to confront the “Dragon”, so to speak. When Major Danby informs him that the deal is underway, Yossarian retorts, saying, “I’m not making any deals with Colonel Korn” (Heller 441). The two men go back and forth, debating Yossarian desire to turn down the offer, in what is probably the sanest conversation (by Catch-22’s standards) in the entire novel. Eventually, the chaplain bursts “into the room with the electrifying news about Orr” (Heller 448), saying that Orr deserted and went to Sweden. After more exchanges between the characters, Yossarian decides that it is best to flee to Sweden, telling the colonels that he’s “not running away from [his] responsibilities, [he’s] running to them” (Heller 451), and the novel ends with Yossarian running off into the distance toward a plane, followed by Nately’s whore still trying to stab him.
In the framework of the monomyth, this ending is quite the enigma. To refer back to The Hero With A Thousand Faces, the cycle typically involves some “ultimate boon” (Campbell 172) that is bestowed upon the people that the hero returns to, eventually creating a new status quo, with a sense of resolution. In the case of Catch-22, this does not really happen. The war continues, the other soldiers are not freed, and the desolate state of Rome is never fixed. The supposed “new status quo” is about the same as it was in the beginning, with the only caveat being that the protagonist has left. But, this section can also be considered from another perspective; Campbell, when discussing the “Return”, refers to the following three last stages: the “crossing of the return threshold” (Campbell 201), becoming the “Master of the Two Worlds” (Campbell 212), and gaining the “freedom to live” (Campbell 221). In the grand scope of events in the novel, very little changes by the end. However, from Yossarian’s viewpoint, he has been able to turn his back on the bureaucracy, reject Catch-22 and what it stands for, and is now capable of taking control of his life, which is what he has desired throughout the whole novel. Looking at the ending from two perspectives gives us vastly different understandings of the growth and progression of the novel and of Yossarian.
It is at this time that it is appropriate to reflect on the “archetypes” of heroes that Yossarian seems to fit. In Campbell’s original work, he does not necessarily discuss specific trends that heroes may follow, rather, he discusses the progression of the hero as its own cycle, navigating from childhood to departure. Carol Pearson, influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell, wrote Awakening the Heroes Within, a book that discusses these various archetypes and what characterizes each. While the book is partially intended to be a kind of self-help book, there are still valuable insights that it can provide.
Based on Pearson’s model, Yossarian seems to fit two archetypes: the orphan and the fool. In the aforementioned journal by Doskow, she describes Yossarian as “puer eternis” (Doskow 1), as he rejects the journey of learning through his dissent. The “Orphan” archetype, as Pearson describes it, as having the goal to “regain safety” (Pearson 120). While the “Innocent” might take the death/resurrection as a sign to try harder, the orphan “sees it as demonstrating the essential truth that we are all on our own” (Pearson 120). It is a character that responds to the “Dragon” with either “cynical compliance” or a “wish for rescue” (Pearson 120), something should be apparent in Yossarian by now. To add to this, Yossarian also fits the bill for “The Fool”, one that seeks “enjoyment, pleasure” and responds to their problem by “playing tricks on it" (Pearson 318). The reason for considering these archetypes is not to do some trivial exercise, but it helps one to understand Yossarian better.
From the opening chapter, Yossarian was not characterized to be someone to try and single-handedly stop the war and establish world peace. He spent his time trying to get out of the war, and amused himself by doing various menial tasks, such as redacting letters, signing off with the tag “Washington Irving”. Rather, the traits that Yossarian has provide a lens into understanding the struggle against bureaucracy. Heller has made it clear that this is not a novel against World War II, but against war itself. Although Heller is writing in 1961, many of the issues he addresses in the novel are still pertinent today. As of the writing of this paper, one of the many “hot button” issues in Congress is the argument to raise the debt ceiling. This argument, simply put, feels like another catch-22, raising the ceiling to make sure that the United States can pay off what it needs to, but in doing so, creates more debt and just reaches the ceiling again. The nuances of this issue are beyond the scope of the paper, but the message remains the same: modern-day bureaucratic procedure feels illogical. In the context of the novel, the soldiers are subject to the whims of the bureaucrats, who simply refuse to listen to sound logic. As a result, soldiers are sent to their deaths, with little to no regard for whether real progress is being made.
With this in mind, consider Yossarian’s decision at the end of the novel once more. Was Yossarian truly capable of changing the state of the war? Could Yossarian have been able to make the number of required missions return to 40, where it started? It is not very likely. Although Yossarian gains the understanding that he should be giving aid to those in need, the situation was simply too far gone. In a sense, Yossarian is an anti-hero, one who is lacking in heroic qualities. Yet, the reader feels the urge to cheer Yossarian on as he finally rejects Catch-22. This is not to say that being an anti-hero makes one an antagonist, but by the ending of the novel, the ability to say “no” to the colonels, majors, and generals feels very heroic, creating this multifaceted ending.
Returning to the notion of the monomyth once more, it becomes apparent that Catch-22 embraces, satirizes, and comments on the structure of the hero story. The approach, at first, was very comical. As Sanford Pinsker notes in his journal on the novel, “Heller [...] belongs to this great American tradition of dissent, even as he extends it by changing the essential arithmetic that once came with the war novel” (Pinsker 4). The importance of the “road of trials” and experiences beyond the threshold are effectively undermined by the lack of a contiguous flow of time, and the absurd but trivial occurrences through the novel. Although these deviations exist, effectively twisting the original structure of the cycle, the novel does manage to return to the structure as the final information about Snowden is revealed. Even then, the ending subverts the expectation as laid out by the structure of the hero’s journey.
Given the complexity of the novel, it is hard to give some definitive conclusion as to what Catch-22 is really trying to say about the Hero’s Journey. Based on what has been discussed thus far, it makes sense to interpret this as a not only a satirized (as a result of an anti-hero protagonist), but stripped-down version of the monomyth. The conventional hero story is typically inspiring, or tells a courageous tale, or is meant to amaze. Catch-22 does not necessarily do this. It tells the story of “one sane man in an insane world” (Pinsker 3). In doing so, it manages to encapsulate feeling of frustration with the current state of society, and what people might do to cope. Although it may seem like it at times, Yossarian rarely takes a passive role in the novel. He constantly takes on the role of the “fool”, “secretly moving bombing lines on a map; by going naked to a ceremony in which he is to receive a medal; by marching backward; and ultimately by refusing to fight” (Heller 4). The “hero” in the Hero’s Journey, in this case, is much more human than other conventionally “heroic” characters are. The bureaucracy is not reformed by the end of the novel, but Yossarian finds a way to lead his own life, beyond what they might order him to do. Could there have been an alternative where the main character instead leads some kind of a rebellion and ends the fighting? Sure. But that is not the story that Joseph Heller came to tell.
Thus, Yossarian’s journey in Catch-22 not only satirizes modern warfare and bureaucracy but makes comments on hero’s journey itself. The existentialist perspectives of the time greatly shape the novel to be what it is. The World Wars marked a shift in the attitude towards war in western society; the nationalist dogma of the time was greatly overshadowed by the immense loss of life as a result of the war. Catch-22 is a novel that is very concerned with that idea of death. For instance, the character of “the soldier in white”, who is a bedridden soldier who is fully covered in casts and bandages, is introduced at the beginning of the book, and does absolutely nothing but exist. It brings into question a man who has been so badly damaged that he might as well be dead. It is a rather morbid thing to consider, but when put in context of the rest of the story, it contributes to the idea that the hero’s journey does not always happen, and even if one can justify its existence, it is not necessarily glamorous. In a way, Yossarian represents the attitude that many people feel during times of struggle, namely, the focus on the need to survive and make it through. Sometimes, the problem is too far out of one’s control, and one person, or a small group of people, cannot fix a problem that is just too far gone.