An ‘Award-Winning’ Catch-22 Essay

It has nothing to do with Public Relations, social media, or any of the normal topics of my posts, but some things just need to be shared (and celebrated). Today I found out that an essay I wrote one 3rd prize in a contest. While the $50 prize is pretty great, I’m honestly most excited for the recognition.

Sometimes, as you write a paper, you just get this overwhelming feeling of confidence. This is how I felt with my paper Introducing John: Yossarian as an Everyman. The essay was on the novel Catch-22. While I had read the book long ago on my own (and not particularly liked it, actually), I decided last semester to take the one-credit class being offered on Joseph Heller’s literary classic. In the end, I’m glad I took the course. While Catch-22 will never be my favorite book, I understand its significance and importance in the literary sphere.

I’m proud of my paper and proud of my experiences in the class. Therefore, I’ve decided to post the paper. A bit of self-publication, if you will. So whether you read it, skim it, or ignore it all together– here is my “award-winning” essay!

Introducing John: Yossarian as an Everyman

By Tessa Rickart

In a 1962 interview, Joseph Heller described the protagonist of his novel Catch-22: “You know, he’s not a perfect hero. There are certain things he does of which I don’t approve…I certainly didn’t want him to become the ideal hero. He’s human…” Yossarian’s association with the common man may not be immediately apparent, partially due to his poignantly ethnic last name, by which he is almost exclusively referred to. However, he is an ‘everyman,’ and it is through his actions and decisions that the ability to relate is first possible. Despite being the obvious main character of Catch-22, Yossarian’s weak, and often questionably unethical behaviors make it difficult to designate him as the novel’s protagonist, a role that usually requires bravery and evokes admiration. But Yossarian’s choices and motivations are characteristic of neither a coward nor a hero. Similar to most human beings, he cannot be categorized into either of these narrow divisions. Yossarian is complex and thus relatable, a point that is conspicuously made when we finally learn his first name—John.

“ What the hell kind of name is Yossarian?” (78)
It may initially seem odd that a blatantly American novel such as Catch-22 stars a protagonist with such an ethnically charged surname by which he is primarily identified. Colonel Cathcart comments on the uncommon name: “There were so many esses in it. It just had to be subversive. It was like the word subversive itself. It was like seditious and insidious too, and like socialist, suspicious, fascist and Communist. It was an odious, alien, distasteful name…” (210). Heller expected readers to have a similar reaction to the obscurity of the name. It certainly is foreign, and in a novel centered on an American battalion in World War II, the unfamiliar name seems even more distant. The Colonel continues his criticism of Yossarian’s name and its un-American roots: “It was not at all like such clean, crisp, American names…” (210). Later on, Cathcart is present when Yossarian’s stereotypically American first name is finally revealed. The late inclusion of his first name, as well as his exotic surname, is by no means accidental. In sharp contrast to the last name Yossarian, is his first name—John. The popularity of this name is not lost on the reader. As one of the most common names in the United States, John represents our own ability to empathize with the bombardier, therefore making him an ‘everyman.’

“ ‘What bombs?’ answered Yossarian” (30)
Perhaps most questionable is Yossarian’s concern for his own safety, a priority that gradually becomes his chief concern: “Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them” (68). His commitment to self-preservation may seem selfish, yet it is undeniably rational. The moral ambiguity rises from his commitment as a solider to lay down his life for his country. Putting one’s self in a similar position, however, his yearning to stay alive is understandable, even if it might be considered cowardly. However, his extreme determination to live leads to some questionably unethical decisions when he jeopardizes military missions. Yossarian goes as far as sabotaging missions: “Something was terribly wrong if everything was all right and they had no excuse for turning back…Yossarian took hold of the colored wires leading into the jack box of the intercom system and tore them loose” (140). However, some of the missions themselves were unethical; one required the men to blow up a small village whose only crime was poor location. At this point, “Yossarian no longer gave a damn where his bombs fell…” (330).

“Someone had to do something sometime.” (405)
Eventually, Yossarian refuses to fly any more missions. The crew is faced with an ever-rising mission quota, and his protest is an attempt to “break the lousy chain of inherited habit that was imperiling them all” (406). This moral stance requires courage. Even Colonel Korn acknowledges this bravery when, addressing Yossarian he says, “You’re an intelligent person of great moral character who has taken a very courageous stand” (423). Of course, in Korn’s view this is a criticism. Yossarian’s valor does not escape the notice of his peers, who support and admire him, though only in secret. “During the day, they avoided him,” but at night “people kept popping up at him out of the darkness to ask him how he was doing, appealing to him for confidential information with grey, troubled faces on the basis of some morbid clandestine kinship he had not guessed existed” (402). Yossarian gives them “hope,” says Korn, admitting that whether his flying boycott is motivated by self-protection or morality, Yossarian is nonetheless benefiting the whole (421). In many ways, his refusal to fly is the bravest thing he does and deserves the title of heroic, albeit in an unconventional sense.

“There were no more beautiful days.” (345)
The motivations behind many of Yossarian’s supposedly weak actions (or inactions) often lay in the images of war that burden him. He is fragile; he is haunted; and he is broken. The honesty of his emotions makes them relatable; their depth makes them believable. Looking back on his past actions, Yossarian feels a responsibility for the deaths of his peers: “Yossarian killed Kraft and his crew by taking his flight of six plane in over the target a second time. Yossarian came in carefully on his second bomb run because he was brave then” (136). Yossarian comments as if he lost his courage, but he is tormented by his decisions and can’t bear to be the cause of more despair. All the deaths he has seen make a tremendous impact and plague him constantly: “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” (345). But of all the deaths and flashbacks, the most vivid are those of Snowden, “freezing to death in the rear section of the plane” as Yossarian “finished sterilizing and bandaging the wrong wound on his leg” (345). In many ways, Yossarian displays the typical symptoms of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. His frailty makes him more human.

“Your conscious will never let your rest.’
‘Yossarian laughed. ‘I wouldn’t want to live without strong misgivings.’” (452)
The ultimate argument of Yossarian’s cowardice lies in final decision to desert the army. However, the more closely the situation is examined, the more Yossarian is redeemed. Having originally accepted a deal from Korn and Cathcart, a decision he admits to making “in a moment of weakness,” Yossarian is left with few options (441). Taking the deal would be an act of selfishness and cowardice. When discussing his options, Danby notes Yossarian’s courage in comparison to what his own actions would be: “Of course I’d let them send me home! But I’m such a terrible coward I couldn’t really be in your place” (447). Yossarian refuses to sacrifice his morals for the easy way out, a decision that is not always easy to make. A reader can certainly understand the dilemma with which Yossarian is struggling; by staying but refusing to fly he is sure to be court-martialed and jailed. Orr’s escape gives Yossarian new hope, and he decides to desert. This is possibly the only route left without compromising his beliefs: “Desert. Take off. I can turn my back on the whole damned mess and start running” (444). The novel does make a point of the war being mostly over, lessening the ethical dilemma. As Yossarian states, if he stayed he wouldn’t be risking his life for his country, but for Cathcart and Korn (446). Yossarian’s fight for self-preservation appeals to readers’ emotions. His choices and morals are a reflection of what our own choices and morals might be in such a situation, or at least the ones we would hope ourselves capable of.

Whether Yossarian is a brave fool or a smart coward, readers are able to relate to the reality of his emotions, decisions, and values. Many of the stands he takes are incredibly courageous, qualifying him as hero, albeit an unconventional one. Some of his actions may seem unethical, but they are mostly justifiable and, more importantly, understandable. With his exotic surname, Yossarian may not initially seem like the type of character created to be identified with, but Heller knew readers would be able to connect nonetheless. When Heller finally reveals his protagonists first name—John—there is initial surprise at such a traditional moniker. However, as Heller went on to say in his interview, the decision to state Yossarian’s first name at nearly the end of the novel “just puts him right back where he belongs.” And John Yossarian belongs as a symbol of the everyday hero, and the everyday coward, with whom we can all relate and whose actions we all understand.

 

Work Cited

Heller, Joseph. The Realist Interview. Issue No. 39, Nov. 1962. Page 23. Print. 23 Nov 2010.

Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
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“Threads Snap”

“What of Art?” she asked.

 

“It is a malady.”

 

“Love?”

 

“And illusion.”

 

“Religion?”

 

“The fashionable substitute for Belief.”

 

“You are a sceptic.”

 

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of Faith.”

 

“What are you?”

 

“To define is to limit.”

 

“Give me a clue.”

 

Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labryinth.”

 

[The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. A wonderfully fascinating novella by a wonderfully fascinating man.]

Censoring Classics

With the recent controversy over the censorship of Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” I was reminded of an essay I wrote a couple years back. In it, I defended Twain’s use of otherwise derogatory terms for several reasons. Primarily, Twain justifiably uses these racial slurs to depict realism. The African Americans in the novel are also continuously portrayed in a rather positive light, especially in comparison to some of the more despicable Caucasian characters.

My essay is below. It’s a bit long (not too long, though). Feel free to read, ignore, skim, and/or comment. I’d love to hear what other people think about the recent censorship.

Racism in Realism:

Twain’s Justified Use of Dialect in Huckleberry Finn

Beginning with the very first page of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain lightheartedly advises the reader: “Persons attempting to find a moral in [the book] will be banished” (108).  Whether this warning was made in pure jest or with partial sincerity,
Twain’s novel has become one of the most controversial pieces of American Literature.  The majority of the debate stems from Twain’s portrayal of and reference to African Americans in the story.  Some contend that black Americans are depicted as foolish stereotypes.  The most prominent character to undergo critique is Jim, the runaway slave who soon becomes one of the novel’s principal characters.  Twain’s liberal use of the derogatory word “nigger” also conjures much condemnation.  In actuality, Twain justifiably uses seemingly belittling terms while never actually portraying or insisting that African Americans are quasi-human or any more subservient than the era had made them.
The importance of the book’s genuity is acknowledged by the author himself in the beginning of the novel when he addressed the “number of dialects” being used (108).  Without this particular jargon, Twain would lose his realistic portrayal of the world in accordance to the book’s setting and time period.  The novel is set some “forty to fifty years” before the 1880s; slavery in the southern American states was still notoriously thriving (108). The term “nigger” was much less taboo than it is today. Twain has given our culture some of its most beloved characters, particularly due to his ability to humanize each individual.  The way an individual speaks is certainly a defining quality, and so it is that without Huck and company’s reference to “niggers,” a certain characteristic realism would have been lost.
Other than his brilliant character creations, Twain is well known for his dry, usually dark, sense of humor.  While some argue Twain uses his wit to degrade African Americans in the novel, these readers have evidently missed the blatantly idiotic and sometimes horrifying Caucasian characters throughout the novel.  Even the most minor of characters cannot escape Twain’s hostility.  For example, the unnamed “new judge” in town becomes the foolish victim of Pap Finn’s deception.  Welcoming the man into his home, dressing him, and feeding him, the judge believes he has successfully rescued Pap from a life on the streets.  Shaking Pap’s hand, the judge exclaims, “It’s the hand of a man that’s started in on a new life, and ‘ll die before he goes back.  You mark them words—don’t forget I said them” (121).  Moments later, Pap Finn flees the judge’s house and reverts back to his drunken life.  The judge, a white man, has been portrayed as a naïve and easily conned fool.  Of course, this situation reveals an ever more negative portrayal of a white man, and that is Huck Finn’s own father.
Throughout the story, Pap fails to present any sympathetic or honorable qualities.  He is continuously threatening Huck and often carries out these violent acts.  After capturing his own son and holding him captive, the usually headstrong Huck says, “But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts” (122).  Pap Huck is an abusive father.  His self-absorbed behavior and addictive personality lead him toward alcoholism, homelessness, and hostility.  Certainly no more malevolent character can be found within the pages of Huck Finn, be it white or black.
From the start, Huck realizes that the so-called “Duke of Bridgewater” and “Dauphin…son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette” are nothing but “low-down humbugs and frauds” (192).  When they join Jim and Huck’s journey down-river, the true manner of their nature is revealed to be even worse than expected.  Along the way, the Duke and King manage to swindle money from evangelical worshippers as well as from an entire town of people that the Duke goes on to call “flatheads” (209).  But their worst offense by far is impersonating the long-expected uncles of three orphan girls. Their lack of humiliation, especially on the part of the Duke, further discredits their characters.  As Huck watches their shameful scam, he comments: “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race” (209).  These two despicable characters, the Duke and the King, are a disgrace to the whole human race. They are two loathsome white men whom Twain uses to poke fun at humanity in general.
Huck makes the acquaintance of many other shameful white characters throughout the progress of the story, but he also meets a number of African Americans as well.  All the black men and women he encounters are slaves, a realistic fact that should not be misconstrued as racist since the South during this time period was not the type of environment that the rare freed slave would occupy. While at the Grangerfords, Huck is assigned a “nigger,” named Jack, to wait on him. Jack’s minor role in the novel proves him to be nothing more than a friendly and kind-hearted African American.  It is thanks to Jack, whom Jim calls “a good nigger, en pooty smart” (185), that Jim and Huck are reunited once again.  Although all the slaves are seen as subordinates to their white counterparts, they are in no way portrayed negatively.  Again, their societal ranking is not a reflection of Twain’s racist beliefs, but simply an accurate, if unfortunate, portrayal of the 19th century South.
Huck’s father raises the subject of a “free nigger” during a state of drunken stupor. Speaking of this African American man, he says, “They said he could vote…Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is this country a-coming to? …I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?” (124).  The bigoted remarks Pap makes are highly offensive.  However, taking the whole scenario into perspective, these vulgar statements are being made by one of the novel’s most despicable characters.  Also, further examination of Pap’s story reveals that the “nigger” mentioned is in fact “a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages” (124).  In this instance, the white man is certainly the inferior of the two.
Of all the African Americans in the story, Jim is by far the most significant character.  As the book develops, so does Jim’s character; he proves himself to be much more than a shallow caricature, but an individual with a depth to him that goes beyond the color of his skin.  Admittedly, Jim is made to be somewhat of a fool when he is first introduced.  Tom Sawyer quickly makes the black man the butt of a joke, even though the incident leads to a further understanding of Jim and his vulnerability to superstition and omens.  Twain continues to present an understanding of Jim.  He is depicted as more than a slave, but also as a family man and a dreamer.  More importantly, Jim is a friend to Huck Finn.
Jim’s second appearance reveals that he has run away in an attempt to escape a “nigger trader” (134).  Jim and other slaves are portrayed as property, but Jim’s escape from this incarceration triggers his growth as an individual.  Also during this point the relationship between Huck and Jim first begins.  This association is a guiding source of Jim’s growth.  In the beginning, their living is symbiotic and nothing more than a causal partnership between two individuals with similar goals of freedom. Jim, while not quite equal to Huck in status, is still a human being with very real hopes and needs.  It soon becomes apparent that Huck feels only goodwill toward Jim, for instance when he warns the runaway of the men that are after him.  In turn, Jim has learned to trust Huck: “Jim never asked no questions; he never said a word” (146).
A major turn of events in the Huck-Jim relationship occurs after Huck pulls a third trick on the poor man.  When a veil of fog consumes the river, Jim and Huck are separated from each other for hours.  Jim shows considerable concern over losing Huck and is surprised to wake up to see the boy there once again: “Goodness gracious, is dat you, Huck? En you ain’ dead—you ain’ drowneded—you’s back agin? It’s too good for true, honey, it’s too good for true” (158). Huck takes advantage of Jim’s confusion and fools him into believing the fog was nothing more than a dream.  When the hoax is revealed, Jim is significantly hurt and says, “Dah trick, dat is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed” (160).  For the first time, Jim mentions the friendship that has formed between the two.  The hierarchy that was once in place has faded.  Huck finds himself thinking, “That was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back” (160).  The concept of a white man apologizing to an African American was unheard of at the time, and yet Huck is not so arrogant as to ignore a friendship of any kind.  He apologizes to Jim and “warn’t sorry for it afterwards” (160).
Up to the very last chapters of Huck Finn, Jim continues to uphold his reputable nature.
After being caught once again, Jim relies on Tom Sawyer and Huck to concoct a successful, albeit excessive, escape plan.  But when things go awry and Tom’s life is put on the line, Jim is willing to relinquish his newfound freedom for the boy: “I doan’ budge a step out’n dis place, ‘dout a doctor; not if its forty year!” (284).  He acknowledges the gamble he is taking, but is a loyal companion and refuses to turn his back on someone who once helped him.  This courageous act is taken a step further when Jim realizes he must reveal himself to the doctor to help save Tom’s life.  In the end, the doctor recaptures the escaped slave to bring him back to his holding, but not without a few words of praise: “Don’t be no rougher on him than you obleeged to, because he ain’t a bad nigger…I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars” (289).  Although putting a price on a human being is certainly barbaric, and a comment the doctor would never have bestowed upon a white man, the fact is that Jim has done an admirable deed in sacrificing his own freedom.  In the end of the novel, Twain gives Jim the freedom he deserved all along. Jim is an African American character whose great development and praiseworthy moral span the length of the novel.
Huckleberry Finn is a classic piece of American literature, perhaps partially due to the racial controversy with which it will always be associated.  However, further examination of Twain’s work reveals that Huck Finn is far from racist. In fact, the greatest of fools and most flawed of characters in the novel are white men.  Similarly, the dialects used in the novel are not meant to be racist, but instead serve the purpose of depicting a realistic picture of the 19th century Southern states.  The word “nigger” has become very taboo in our current culture, but at the time of this novel’s events, it was a commonly used term.  The truth is that, in Huck Finn, African Americans are no further victimized than that era had already made them to be.  In fact, Jim is a slave as well as sympathetic and admirable central character. Huckleberry Finn may not be the light-hearted kid’s book that was expected upon its initial publication, but it certainly is not racist either.  Huck Finn is a novel that teaches about friendship and acceptance while providing a humorous yet depressing representation of the human race in general.