The Deft Touch of Catch 22:
Heller's Harmonious Unison of Comedy and Tragedy
Since the dawn of literature and drama, comedy and tragedy have always been partitioned into separate genres. Certainly most tragedies had comedic moments, and even the zaniest comedies were at times serious. However, even the development of said tragicomedies left the division more or less intact. Integrating a total comedy and a total tragedy into a holistic union that not only preserved both features, but also blended them into a new and harmonious entity remained elusive. That is, until Catch-22. Using his unique style and structure, Joseph Heller masterfully manages to interlay humor and terror, comedy and tragedy, and reveals in the process the perversions of the human character and of society gone mad.
The first stroke of Heller's deft touch is his presentation of outrageous characters, acting outrageously. From the first chapter, we are presented with a slew of unbelievable characters whose actions and ideologies are uproariously funny, and horrifically disturbing. In fact, the manner in which the reader recognizes the character's dual nature will serve as the first example of Heller's amalgamation of comedy and tragedy. Dunbar's theory of life is first received with a burst of laughter from the audience. Life is short, and Dunbar wishes to extend it as much as possible. If time flies when one is having fun, then conversely, time must slow when one is bored. Dunbar endeavors to make his life as boring as possible, thus increasing the length of its passing. Indeed, it is understandable why such an attitude should elicit a laugh, but the further implications are horrific. Society's emphasis on life over meaning comes as a shocking revelation to the audience. Heller further reinforces that idea with characters such as Doc Daneeka, who values self-preservation and money over responsibility and friendship, and Milo who values self-improvement and fortune over the lives of thousands of others. The motif that follows gives us characters that are, above all else, more interested in self (Cathcart, Mrs. Daneeka, Duckett, the Old Man, Peckem, etc.). Though they are initially humorous, their nature is ultimately revealed to be false and horrific, arousing disgust and pity, a brilliant combination of comedy and tragedy.
The perversion of society is revealed further in a second major type of character, the deluded. Though most serve largely as foils to Yossarian and his philosophy, much can still be made of their condition. Clevinger is perhaps the best example of a deluded character. His debate with Yossarian serves as an insightful evaluation of their psyche. He argues that, although everyone is trying to kill him, everyone is not trying to kill him. The humor of the debate cannot be denied, but horror and tragedy are equally present. The debate leaves the audience struggling to decide who is crazy. Clevinger falls into an obvious contradiction, but his argument still strikes as common sense. In face of Yossarian's triumphant "What difference does that make?" the audience is left not only with the realization of its speciousness, but of the realization that they believed it. The terror evoked by the deluded lies mainly in that the audience is equally deluded. Perhaps Clevinger, Appleby, and Havermeyer are fighting for "what they have been told" was their country-- and perhaps so has the audience. The genius of Heller's characterization is further enhanced as the audience sees itself in the hollow rationale of the deluded, and is aghast with horror, even in face of such humor. With this revelation, Heller compels the audience to follow the rebellious path of Yossarian, or fall victim to the indoctrination of society, and meet the same fate as the deluded.
As the audience is bombarded with insanely comedic ironies of Catch-22, they are further aware of its horror. A primary example of irony is found in...
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