Escaping the Nightmare: “Catch-22” vs “The Man Who Was Thursday”

An ordinary man discovers a terrible secret: he is living in a nightmare.

Yossarian, the war pilot protagonist from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, finds himself in this predicament when he wanders through Rome late one night. From petty thefts to brutal violence, he witnesses a procession of crimes and suffering. The sight of people’s unabated misery plunges him into gloom. “What a lousy earth! [Yossarian] wondered how many people were destitute…how many children were bullied, abused, or abandoned.”

These tragic scenes become nightmarish when Yossarian passes a desperate man shouting, “Police! Help! Police!” as the policemen themselves force him into an ambulance. A strange thought strikes Yossarian. Perhaps the cry was not “intended as a call for police but as a heroic warning…“Help! Police!” the man had cried, and he could have been shouting of danger.” Yossarian’s insight upends the typical assumption of appealing to policemen for protection. Rather people must warn each other to be weary of them.

The peculiar logic of this scene parallels another novel about a solitary figure struggling against a hostile and increasingly nonsensical world: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. As he chases his arch nemesis through the streets of London, the detective Gabriel Syme “was suddenly possessed with the idea that the blind, blank back of his head really was his face—an awful, eyeless face staring at me! And I fancied that the figure running in front of me was really a figure running backwards, and dancing as he ran.” As with Yossarian and the arrest, Syme’s initial understanding undergoes a sudden, unpleasant reversal. The shock upsets his grasp on reality, leaving him with a nightmarish sensation.

At the climax of their horror, both Syme and Yossarian require an explanation from God. Syme challenges the deity-like figure named Sunday face to face:

He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile. “Have you,” [Syme] cried in a dreadful voice, “have you ever suffered?”

He demands to know whether God has endured the same trials that human beings undergo.

Meanwhile Yossarian finds his revelation in the grisly death of a fellow airman:

He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails.

This scene alludes to the practice of divining God’s will in the patterns of animal intestines. Yossarian interprets the results as a dismal materialism: “Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret…The spirit gone, man is garbage.”

Syme, in contrast, receives an assurance in Biblical language. In reply to his challenge, he hears “a distant voice saying…’Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?'” These are Christ’s words to his disciples when he warns them of his impending crucifixion. Christ’s suffering represents hope and comfort to believers, because he accepted this punishment on their behalf being “pierced for our transgressions; [and] crushed for our iniquities…and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Christ not only shared in human suffering, but he promises to end suffering.

Yossarian lacks that assurance. The only religious man in his unit, the chaplain, stakes his wavering faith on a supernatural vision of a naked man in a tree. This image also recalls Christ’s crucifixion, but it is a false hope. Unbeknownst to the chaplain, the man was actually Yossarian, who reacted to Snowden’s death by refusing to wear his uniform. In the world of Catch-22, God is absent, leaving man to grapple with pain and death alone. This conclusion propels Yossarian on a desperate quest to extend his life as long as possible. If nothingness awaits humans on the other side of death, he reasons that the only sane choice is to cling to existence. Even if life is horrible, he prefers it to oblivion.

Syme’s faith leads him to a happier conclusion. Briefly overwhelmed by Sunday’s presence, he regains consciousness when “gradually and naturally he knew that he was and had been walking along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion.” He is revived both physically and mentally because “he was in possession of some impossible good news.” In the wake of his epiphany, Syme finds the world a welcoming and cheerful place.

His nightmare is over.

Author: Kittie Helmick

Kittie Helmick studied Comparative Literature and Critical Translation at the University of Oxford, after serving with the Peace Corps in South Africa. Her desire to speak truth in grace led her to found Salt and Iron: Seasoned Writing and its predecessor GoodTrueBeautiful. She has also published critiques of pop culture on The Critic, The Federalist, and Patheos.

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