Catch-22

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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 m...

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...r is the first to make his departure, flying into a cloud and never returning. The unreasonable logistics of his demise are certain to garner laughs. Likewise, Kid Sampson's gruesome death at the blades of a propeller-- followed by McWatt's suicide-- is sadistically funny. The absurdity of Dunbar being "disappeared" cloaks its awful truth. Even life and death can be at the whim of the army bureaucracy, as demonstrated by Mudd's "life", and Daneeka's "death". At the outset these deaths are indeed comically absurd, but the basic horror of it is enough to make one nauseous. Absurdity represents one of Heller's most skillful blends of comedy and tragedy in the entire novel.

Though seemingly irreconcilable genres, horror and tragedy are nimbly fused into a whole creation by Heller's unique style and structure. Heller creates situations where the audience laughs, and then must look back in horror at what they were laughing at. Through brilliant characterizations, superb irony, mind-boggling paradoxes, and ingenious absurdity, Heller manages interlay humor and terror, comedy and tragedy into a beautiful whole as Catch-22.

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