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Symbolism in Catch-22 Research Papers

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Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a satirical novel that critiques unregulated capitalism and the power and control exercised by modern bureaucracies. The novel employs symbols to further these central themes. Common symbols woven throughout the novel are:

  • The cotton covered with chocolate
  • Soldier in white

The cotton covered with chocolate is a symbol for the useless items produced and marketed within the capitalist system. Milo purchased a large quantity of Egyptian cotton, believing that it would make him wealthy. However, a glut made it worthless. Milo covers his cotton with chocolate because he hopes that he can get the soldiers to eat it. Even Yossarian's declaration that the chocolate-covered cotton will make the soldiers sick doesn't really deter Milo because he is more concerned with his personal financial situation than in the health of his consumers. Milo ultimately represents those greedy businessmen that care more about their financial status than the well-being of their customers.

Symbolism in Catch-22

Another important symbol is the soldier in white. Early in the novel, he is described as "encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze". The main characters do not know the true identity of the soldier in white. When he dies and is replaced by another soldier dressed in white, the characters assume that it is the same person. The soldier in white represents the impersonal treatment of human beings by bureaucratic powers. Every person is replaceable, devoid of specialness, within the bureaucratic organization.

 The novel’s plot is in essence Yossarian’s struggle and attempt to stay alive in the horrible circumstances. The novel is a kind of recollection of the events surrounding Yossarian and his squadron. In the climax of the story, Yossarian is allowed to choose between his own discharge from military service in exchange for his support of military policies that would endanger the men in his squadron even more. Yossarian rejects both choices of this catch-22, instead deserting to Sweden.

The nature of war and the oppressive way in which bureaucracy controls these men is the central theme or idea of the story. The men of the squadron are controlled by the officer’s in the army, who represent a machine that dehumanizes the individual soldier by sending him on missions that disregard the value of the life of the individual. The officers, as representatives of this bureaucracy, uphold the absurdity of the war as a means to their own end.

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