As the novel opens, its protagonist, Captain John Yossarian, is in the squadron hospital, on the island of Pianosa, during the latter stages of World War II. Yossarian has a temperature of 101 degrees and complains of liver pains. The doctors suspect that he suffers from jaundice, but because they can't establish that, they treat Yossarian for constipation. If they are able, hospitalized officers are required to devote a certain amount of time to censoring enlisted men's letters home, a boring task that Yossarian makes more interesting in inventive ways. The author uses these first chapters to introduce some of the characters, most notably Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman, the "soldier in white," the Texan, Dunbar, Clevinger, and Appleby.
The setting of the novel is of special significance. In reality, Pianosa is a tiny island in the Mediterranean, a few miles south of Elba, between mainland Italy and Corsica. In the novel, it is fictionally enlarged to include the location of Yossarian's 256th Squadron of the Army Air Forces in World War II. Setting the tone early, Heller has Yossarian refer to the squadron as the "two to the fighting eighth power." The squadron's assignment is to bomb enemy positions in Italy and eastern France. Yossarian is a bombardier in the squadron. He occasionally seeks escape from the madness and mortality of war by having himself admitted to the hospital, which, imperfect though it is, becomes a symbol of refuge. Although the hospital is a haven, it is reflective of the military with its emphasis on institutional routine and sometimes absurd formality.
Heller's use of time is also important and can be confusing. Most of the novel takes place in 1944, but flashbacks to 1942 and 1943 occur without warning. Briefly, Yossarian was in basic training at Lowery Field in Colorado in 1942. There, he first discovered the haven of an Army hospital. In 1943, Yossarian went through cadet training in Santa Ana, California. He arrives at Pianosa early in 1944. The novel ends in December of 1944. The French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894–1961), especially through his novel Journey to the End of Night, greatly influenced Heller's approach to structure and time. After reading Céline, the author of Catch-22 chose to compose in a different realm of reality in which truth is more important than fact and essence more important than literal sequence. For the confused reader, a helpful guide to time in Catch-22 is the number of missions assigned by Colonel Cathcart or completed by Yossarian. The novel opens in the middle of the story (scholars use the Latin term in medias res, "in the midst of things"). It is August 1944, and Yossarian has completed forty-four missions. It is also at this time that he first meets the chaplain, which helps us date the scene. (Stephen W. Potts provides a thorough and well-documented chronology to the events of the novel in Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel.) Time is purposely out of joint in the book, and that is crucial because Heller's method of telling the story is episodic and relies heavily on his depiction of character.
The central character, Yossarian, is often called an "antihero" because his values appear to contrast with those of the standard heroic figure. But within the context of the novel, he is courageous and inventive, as Heller demonstrates from the beginning. Yossarian has the courage to confront the madness of war and to struggle against the confines of institutional order. At the hospital, he fights boredom by censoring the enlisted men's letters in creative ways. One day, he blocks out all adverbs and adjectives. Another, he takes out every mention of the articles a, an, and the. Another time, he blackens the entire message except for the salutation, "Dear Mary," and closes the letter, as if it is from the group's chaplain: "I yearn for you tragically. A. T. Tappman, Chaplain, U. S. Army." On some letters, he signs Washington Irving's name as censor or, when that wears thin, Irving Washington. Yossarian is contrary to the point of paradox. When Appleby is introduced as a "fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life," a fellow whom everyone likes, Yossarian's response is, "I hate that son of a bitch."
One of the aspects of Heller's style is a disjointed logic familiar to viewers of comic routines popular during World War II, such as the Marx Brothers' dialogues or Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" An early example is the exchange between Yossarian and Clevinger in Chapter 2. Yossarian complains, "They're trying to kill me." "Who's they?" asks Clevinger. "Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?" Yossarian answers, "Every one of them." The dialogue continues:
"Every one of whom?"
"Every one of whom do you think?"
"I haven't any idea."
"Then how do you know they aren't?"
Part of Yossarian's problem is that he quite justifiably, quite sanely thinks that the enemy gunners shooting at his plane are trying to kill him! He takes it personally. Clevinger, who is very bright but a conformist, accepts the madness of war as reasonable.
Other characters introduced in these chapters are of varying importance. The Texan is a very pleasant, very ignorant bigot who maintains that "people of means — decent folk — should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists, and indecent folk." Yossarian can't stand him. After ten days, the Texan's disgusting charm has cleared the ward, sending Yossarian back to his tent in the squadron. Chaplain Tappman is briefly introduced as one of Yossarian's favorites; we'll hear much more from him as the novel develops. Dunbar is one of Yossarian's best friends. Dunbar has a theory that he can extend his life by exposing himself to as much boredom as possible, thus making time seem to pass more slowly.
Perhaps representing the anonymity of the individual in the institutional military, the "soldier in white" is especially important to the grave tone in the background of the opening chapters. The enigmatic soldier in white was smuggled into the ward in the middle of the night and is "encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze." The soldier's four limbs are pinioned in air by lead weights. No one knows for sure if the soldier is black or white, male or female, or even if there is a body inside the casing. The closest anyone ever comes to seeing the actual soldier is a frayed black hole over its mouth. The soldier in white is fed intravenously from a jar hanging above its casing; the soldier's urine drips through a tube into another jar, on the floor. When the feeding jar is empty, it is simply switched with the collecting jar so that the soldier apparently is "fed" its own urine. After Nurse Cramer's thermometer registers no temperature from the soldier in white, she declares the soldier dead. Yossarian and Dunbar accuse the bigoted Texan of murdering the soldier because the soldier is black; the Texan denies it, pointing out a historical fact: the Army was still segregated in 1944, and black soldiers would be in a different ward. Within the convoluted logic of the novel, in which cause and effect get confused, it is actually Nurse Cramer who has "murdered" the soldier; if she had not taken its temperature, the soldier would not have been declared dead.
ethereal of or like the ether or upper regions of space; light; airy; unearthly.
echelon a subdivision of a military force according to rank, position or function.
C.I.D. The initials stand for Central Intelligence Division. The irony is that the C.I.D. representatives in the novel are far from intelligent, suggesting the oxymoron (a combination of contradictory terms) "military intelligence."
tepid barely or moderately warm; lukewarm.
Washington Irving American author (1783–1859), best known for short stories such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle."
diffident lacking self-confidence; timid; shy.
Raskolnikov Clevinger compares Yossarian to the central character in Fyodor Dostoyevski's novel Crime and Punishment (1866), who maintains, at least for a time, that the end justifies the means.