TRACE THE PASSAGE OF YOSSARIAN FROM NON-HERO TO ANTIHERO Essay, Research Paper
The character of Yossarian has been described and interpreted in many different ways; some view him as an eternal innocent in the Huck Finn tradition of American protagonists, some a symbol of humanistic faith, others argue for Christian interpretations of his character, while others consider him as an antihero in an insane world. Certainly by the end of the novel, one is more likely to hold the latter judgement as being true than after the opening half of the book. Yossarian’s viewpoint and attitude changes during the book, and with it our opinion of him. There is an absence of ultimate meaning from the world of Catch 22, as Yossarian’s discussions in the hospital and in bed with Scheisskopf’s wife make clear, God is not in heaven, and even if he were he would only preside incompetently over a cruelly bungled universe, dominated by pointless death and arbitrary injustice. The institutions of Catch 22 have been created to preserve ideals and order, but end up serving the cosmic facts of death and injustice. So, how does our hero Yossarian face this fact? Is he merely a passive, rationalistic, hopelessly ineffectual victim-hero, dominated by situation rather than creating or acting to change it. Does he, like Camus’s Absurd Man, acknowledge the meaningless of the cosmos but assert his individual humanity by struggling in spite of it? Or does he dare to defy the Absurd by continuing to seek purpose in life? Yossarian is not primarily passive or rationalistic, and he is victimised only unwillingly and he can hardly be accused of the Camusian sin of searching for a meaning to life. He does, however, struggle against those forces that would extinguish his existence and conscious free will, without expecting anything but a temporary triumph, as demonstrated by Yossarian’s desperate but ultimately fruitless postponements of the Bologna mission. For him, life and free will is its own reward, and the struggle against the forces that would destroy it, be they natural or man-made, must continue. It is this struggle to preserve self in the face of the war and the morally insane bureaucracy conducting it, that drives Yossarian, and indeed Dunbar, to the brink of genuine insanity by the final section of the book. This insanity reaches it peak in chap ter 39- The Eternal City, when Rome becomes the world, and Yossarian an Everyman confronting the miseries and injustices the world offers up and wrestling with his own responsibility for them. There have been suggestions, even before Yossarian’s journey to the end of the night, that he has had some responsibility for the events thus far. When Milo says “it was all Yossarian’s fault,” he echoes a phrase used much earlier, at the start of chapter 26: “In a way it was all Yossarian’s fault, for if he had not moved the bomb line during the Big Siege of Bologna, Major____de Coverley might still be around to save him, and if he had not stocked the enlisted men’s apartment with girls who had no other place to live, Nately might never have fallen in love with his whore…”. In the context of the narration, ” it ” is not made specifically clear- that is, the “it” in “it was all Yossarian’s fault”. The “he” in the second half of the sentence looks as though it refers to Yossarian, though it must refer to Major____de Coverley. This sentence links, at least grammatically, Nately’s whore and Yossarian’s fault. Indeed some critics have blamed Yossarian directly or indirectly for a surprising number of the novel’s episodes and even deaths. It has been argued that he was responsible for Dobbs not murdering Cathcart, for Nately’s broken nose, for the CID investigations of Major Major and Chaplain Tappman that resulted from his playful censoring of letters, for the inception of Milo’s cartel, which begins with the dried fruit Yossarian is receiving for his non-existent liver condition, for the deaths of Kraft and his crew over Ferrara when Yossarian goes over the target a second time, for Daneeka’s presence on McWatt’s flight register and thus for the bureaucratic death of Daneeka, and more tenuously for many other such incidents. Colonel Cathcart certainly found Yossarian responsible for many of his “black eyes”. However, even when the chain of events doesn’t lead directly back to Yossarian, he is guilty of one common crime through most of the novel, the crime of complicity. Up to chapter 39, like all of his colleagues, Yossarian has let the likes of Cathcart, Korn, and Milo more or less have their way, offering little more than complaints and token resistance, followed by reluctant compliance. When the temptation for a genuine moral stance comes up, as during the briefing before the bombing of the Italian village, Yossarian, like Dunbar, is quickly silenced by Korn’s cynical appeal to survival anxieties: here as at so many other places, Yossarian adopts the Old Man’s ethic of survival, regardless of moral consequences, and at the best he and Dunbar assuage their concerns with subterfuge. Though he has already rebelled and further defied military protocol by heading on his quest through Rome without official permission, Yossarian’s night journey in “The Eternal City” marks his turning point as a moral man. He wanders the surreal streets of the ruined Eternal City, witnessing the eternal injustices of human life in a cosmos that doesn’t care. The scenes of pain, cruelty, and misery that parade “almost on cue” before Yossarian are described in page long paragraphs, a sequence of tableaux are recounted, many of them paired with characteristic d<\i>j<\`> vu: a poverty-stricken child and a poverty-stricken mother, a drunken soldier pressing himself upon a drunken woman, a man beating a dog and a man beating a boy, a soldier in convulsions and another with a bleeding, toothless mouth, and everywhere crass, insensitive policemen and other figures of authority ruling as “mobs with clubs”. Yossarian guiltily flees all these scenes of misery and injustice. Like the occasional groups of onlookers, he does not have sufficient moral courage to intervene. The Eternal City, with its sinister and violent authority figures, typifies in concentrated form the morally inverted world of Catch 22, in which every victim is a culprit by dint of not fighting back and thus implicitly accepting the authority imposed from above. The climax of this chapter comes when Yossarian reaches the officers’ apartment and discovers that Aarfy has raped the maid and pushed her out of the window to her death. Aarfy is another of those morally insane characters, like Milo and Cathcart, who cannot understand right and wrong in any traditional sense. Aarfy simply raped the maid because she had no significance to him as a human being and threw her out of the window for the same reason. This time Yossarian takes the stance of moral arbiter and manages to prick Aarfy’s conscience enough to make him uncomfortable. But when the MPs show up as if to justify Yossarian by arresting Aarfy, they instead arrest Yossarian for being AWOL. Not surprisingly, given our understanding of this world, an exercise of unjust force leading to murder is no crime; defying the paper regulations of the military bureaucracy is. Having survived his antiheroic quest through the underworld, Yossarian, like more traditional heroes, returns to society an outcast, ready to face his most severe moral trial. At the end of Yossarian’s journey from the Eternal City back to Pianosa, surrounded by an orderly mob of MPs with clubs, he receives a surprise: he is to be sent home. His revolt has apparently succeeded. There is of course, a catch. In order to return home to the States without penalty, Yossarian must become “one of the boys.” He must ally himself with Cathcart and Korn so that they do not look bad with higher-ups like Scheisskopf and Peckem, and so that the other men will go on flying missions without rebelling. In short, Yossarian will win his battle for survival only by compromising with those in power and thus giving up his moral principles. Since Cathcart and Korn have represented the main target of Yossarian’s outrage throughout the novel, and since Korn’s deal would require betraying his principles, his newly heightened moral consciousness, and the men who had supported his revolt, Yossarian balks at accepting it. But he finds a way through the same kind of self-justifying logic used by Cathcart and Milo at other points: “But what the hell!” Yossarian exclaimed. “If they don’t want to fly more missions, let them stand up and do something about it the way I did. Right?” “Of course,” said Colonel Korn. “There’s no reason I have to risk my life for them, is there?” “Of course not.” With this single lapse, Yossarian opts to join the morally insane system he has fought for so long. But his lapse does not last long, as immediately he leaves the room he is stabbed by Nately’s furious whore and when he awakes in hospital, he renounces the deal. The moral stance in this scene is wholly at odds with the pure survival ethic of the earlier Yossarian. He chooses to return to combat rather than betray the men by accepting Korn’s odious deal. This is certainly not the sort of ethic Nately’s Old Man implied when he told Nately to ask Yossarian and Dunbar for confirmation of his own cynical survivalism. The Old Man’s ethic would dictate that Yossarian accept the deal and save himself. But for this Yossarian, unlike the Old Man, there is now an ethical principle higher than that of mere survival at any cost. This change in Yossarian’s attitude is at odds with his antiheroic image; as an antihero, he should value human life more than honour, duty, and glory, the values we are told are heroic. It is perhaps more suitable to refer to Yossarian asan activist hero: defying the absurdity of the universe by seeking a self that refuses to participate in the schemes of a maddeningly reasonable world’s failures and successes. Yossarian’s choice, is therefore for choice itself: free will bound only by a respect for life- his own life and others’ lives- freedom from the inverted logic and inverted values of the life-destroying fiction defined by Catch 22. So, infact it is probably easier to trace Yossarian’s passage from antihero to a more conventional kind of hero. For most of the novel, Yossarian is aggressively and even belligerently antiheroic, and in his antiheroism a direct challenge to the values and ideals which the world claims to hold. It is certainly true to say that he values human life highly and one of the central themes of the novel is his struggle for continued survival, however towards the close, this antiheroic stance begins to crumble. When he is offered the chance of guaranteed survival by Korn, he eventually turns the offer down, confounding our perceptions of his attitude, on the distinctly heroic basis of the deal being immoral and disloyal to his fellow soldiers. The antiheroic, picaresque Yossarian, who for the most part of the novel has been whoring, lying, malingering, and dodging his official duties in the interest of self-preservation, is little related to the straightforwardly decent, bordering on conventionally heroic Yossarian of the last chapters, who sincerely and plaintively argues that he has done his patriotic part for the war effort, with almost none of the cynical snideness we have come to expect from him.