, Research Paper
It is very difficult for any writer to successfully communicate the true nature of war in a work of literature. However, Slaughter House-5 by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller both are triumphant in their attempts to convey that singular experience. Both authors accomplish their undertaking in very analogous styles. Their works run along parallel lines and thus each is quite anti-war. From start to finish, irony is woven into each story, exemplifying the idiocy and folly of military institutions, a theme throughout the novels. Almost as prevalent is the subject of sex. Yossarian and Billy both are overly preoccupied with sex and women s bodies. No less important are the characters Hungry Joe and Edgar Derby, who transmit the authors knowledge of war s casualties that bear no battle wounds. The two authors use these motifs in similar ways to convey their anti-war message.
The picture of war that is painted by Vonnegut and Heller is highlighted by their utilization of irony. Their careful strokes of irony on the canvases of their novels help to prove one of their numerous shared themes. The institutions and organizations created by war are bizarre. Many comparisons can be made between M & M Enterprises of Catch-22 and the group of English men in the Nazi war camp from Slaughterhouse-five. Both protagonists have quite ironic experiences with the group that exists within their particular universe. In Yossarian s frantic attempt to help the dying Snowden he opens the first-aid kit and finds that The twelve syrettes of morphine had been stolen from their case and replaced by a cleanly lettered note that said: What s good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country. Milo Minderbinder. (Heller 446) The irony in this is blatantly obvious, Snowden is not benefiting from M & M s repossession of the morphine. In fact, he will suffer to a much greater degree because of it. Obviously, the M & M company is not meant to be modeled on any true wartime corporation, although its name is a clear pun on the candy company M&Ms . Perhaps, Heller intended M & M Enterprises to symbolize the ridiculous quality of wartime enterprises for profit. His statement is clear. Trying to make a profit in war can only result in pain and suffering such as Snowden s and is one of the most cold-blooded undertakings that is known.
Interestingly, although Billy Pilgrim s experience seems to be completely opposite to Snowden s, it is actually extraordinarily similar. He comes to prison camp where the Englishmen reside quite comfortably. A clerical error early in the war, when food was still getting through to prisoners, had caused the Red Cross to ship them five hundred parcels every month instead of fifty. (Vonnegut 94) Soon after Billy arrived he found himself staring at Cinderella s silver boots under a throne. And then he remembered that his shoes were ruined, that he needed boots. So Billy is able to get himself a pair of boots; a pair of silver boots from a production of Cinderella. While the Englishmen can afford to put on plays, Billy and his fellows are so terribly destitute that the props used in this production are better than what they themselves have. Unlike the Englishmen and Cinderella, they have neither proper boots nor a fairy godmother. Ironically, thanks to the mistakes of a military institution, these Englishmen are living like kings and are among the wealthiest people in Europe, in terms of food. (Vonnegut 94) Billy is able to gain from military mistakes just as Snowden was a victim of them. When compared, it is interesting to notice that the Englishmen profit greatly from a mistake of military bureaucracy and Snowden suffers greatly from a conscious decision that is good for the country. (Heller 446)
Sex. This motif is ever-present in each of the two books. The authors portray sex as the only relief from the violence and emotional impacts of war, other than escape itself. Billy Pilgrim s actions in the arena of his mental escape reinforce this theory. Billy brings the object of his sexual interest to his alternate world, the zoo on Tralfamadore (Vonnegut 132) soon after its creation within his mind. She is Montana Wildhack, a motion picture star (Vonnegut 132) of the adult variety. Tralfamadore represents Billy s ideal world and that one of his first addition to that world is a woman, a woman renowned for her adult film roles, communicates the author s message that sex is a paramount concern in every soldier s life. It is possible that Vonnegut s underlying message is that the lust that soldiers have is manifested by their observation and participation in the horrific acts of war, in which so many lives are lost and taken. To mollify themselves for this they subconsciously wish to create life and thus are preoccupied with sex. In support of this is Montana s big and rosy (Vonnegut 178) pregnancy, which is, since it takes place in Billy Pilgrim s mind, a decision by that same person.
Of course, Catch-22 follows this same theme, though more subtly. Heller gives a tremendous amount of proof of Yossarian s obsession with women and their bodies. From his start in the military, Yossarian was a sex-maniac. In cadet school he regularly slept with his commanding officer s wife. Heller seems to impart an underlying idea that soldiers subconsciously want to create life. He does this through Mrs. Scheisskopf, Yossarian s lover. Darling, we re going to have a baby again, she would say to Yossarian every month. (Heller 80) His implied opinion is identical to Vonnegut s. A soldier s desire is to reproduce and even before he has taken lives he wishes to pay in advance for the lives he know he may be responsible for. During the war, this craving did not waver. Yossarian met countless beautiful and luscious girls and believed he was madly in love with all of them. (Heller 166) Perhaps, his love is really his own misinterpreted desire to produce babies with them in order to in some way compensate for the lives he has taken. Each author explores this theme, and by reading between the lines their intentions become clear.
Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 share another theme. Each novel contains a character that dies shortly before the end of the war. Hungry Joe and Edgar Derby symbolize the gross unfairness of war. They survived through untold hardship and danger only to perish when the end of the war was on the horizon.
Hungry Joe, of Catch-22, is without a doubt the only man in Yossarian s squadron who sleeps better knowing he has a mission to fly the next day. His death, which comes in his sleep while having a dream (Heller 445) is also very ironic because despite surviving roughly 70 combat missions, 2 times what most pilots must fly, he dies quietly in his sleep. The irony of it makes his passing all the more distressing and poignant. Going deeper, it is possible that Hungry Joe was so adept at living with a mission hanging over his head that when that stress was removed he had forgotten how to live without that ever-present threat of death. Thus, the war destroyed him emotionally and mentally, like so many others. The counterpart to Hungry Joe in Slaughterhouse-Five is Edgar Derby. Derby s story is almost identical to Joe s. Like Joe, he followed the same path as the protagonist for most of the novel. He manages to live through the horrific ordeal of prison camp and other ghastly nightmares. But at the very end he was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot. (Vonnegut 214) His death, heavily resembling Hungry Joes, came only months before war ended and occurred neither near nor due to combat. This pointless death is disheartening and reminds the reader that there are no guarantees in war. In some respects, his death also reflects the absurdity of the rules of military institutions. He was executed for a mere technicality, something that had no connection to the war. They are both casualties of the environment of war.
To conclude, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut each explore the many terrible aspects of war. They radiate a strong anti-war message. The motifs they use are almost identical. Each reflects with irony on the madness of military institutions and the harm they cause. Both recognize the desire for sex in every soldier. They reminisce on the deaths caused by worthless military rules and the atmosphere that war is responsible for. Moreover, they concur that the most saddening deaths come at the tail end of the war. Their themes are very akin to each other and thus their message is united: War is a waste.