Sunday, June 25, 2006

Feminists on ‘Catch-22’, by Joseph Heller

When I was at university, I heard some feminist criticism of the novel ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller. There were two main criticisms.
(1) There aren’t enough women characters in the novel.
(2) The character called ‘Nately’s whore’ doesn’t have a name – she is merely seen as a chattel of Nately. This is demeaning and dehumanising to her, and by extension, shows the author’s contempt for all women.
I regard these criticisms as spurious and absurd. Let’s take each of them in turn.

The number of female characters
Consider the setting of the novel. It is a US Air Force base on a small island off the coast of Italy during World War 2. From here, the US Air Force flies bombing missions against targets in Italy and Germany. Catch-22 is a novel about the futility of war. Most of the characters in the book are male simply because of the setting. On a World War 2 operational air base, there simply weren’t that many women around, and there is no use in pretending otherwise.

We also have to bear in mind that the events in the novel are seen through the eyes of the main character, Yossarian, and the women we encounter are really just the women he encounters. As military aircrew on active duty in World War 2, he just doesn’t encounter that many. He lives in an almost exclusively male, military environment.

The female characters in the novel fall broadly into two groups: American military nurses and Italian prostitutes. Yossarian encounters some Air Force nurses on the base, especially when he spends time in the hospital with a feigned illness in an attempt to avoid flying bombing missions. We are introduced to a few of them by name, most notably Nurse Duckett. The only other significant group of women in the novel are Italian prostitutes that the American servicemen spend time with when they go on leave to Rome. Apart from these two groups, there simply aren’t any other women around.

What exactly is it that the feminist critics want? Should Heller have created a lesbian peace camp outside the gates of the air base, in the interests of political correctness? Should he have invented some high-ranking female military officers just to appease potential feminist critics in future decades? Had he done so I suspect that the feminist critics would simply have found something else to criticise. In a novel about combat in World War 2, I find the charge that there are ‘not enough female characters’ almost incomprehensible. We can ask, why was it only men who were forced to take part in combat? Once again, feminists make privilege sound like punishment.

Nately’s whore
Let us turn now to the second feminist charge, that ‘Nately’s whore’ does not have a name, and is therefore dehumanised. My response is basically to ask ‘Why pick on her?’ In order to understand the naming of Nately’s whore, we need to consider the wider issue of character naming in Catch-22 generally. Many of the characters in the novel do not have names: ‘The soldier in white’, ‘the Texan’, ‘the dead man in Yossarian’s tent’, ‘the tail gunner’, ‘the CID man’, to name just a few. The feminist critics do not seem to be concerned about whether or not these characters are dehumanised, or whether these naming practices dehumanise men as a group. Moreover, many of the characters who are named have names which are obviously absurd, such as ‘Major Major Major Major’. This could be said to be equally dehumanising.

Three characters are worthy of special mention: ‘ex-PFC Wintergreen’, ‘the tail gunner’ and ‘the dead man in Yossarian’s tent’. In the context of the military, each person has a rank which determines their role within the organisation. Ex-PFC Wintergreen doesn’t have a rank. He used to be a Private First Class, but at the moment he seems to have no military rank, even though he is serving in the military. This is absurd, and no doubt deliberately so.

The tail gunner bled to death in Yossarian’s arms in the back of the plane, with his intestines spilling out onto the floor from a massive abdominal wound. He doesn’t have a name, but for some reason the feminist critics don’t regard that as a problem.

The dead man in Yossarian’s tent doesn’t even exist at all. He was a new arrival at the base who, after his long journey, was assigned to rest in Yossarian’s tent until his paperwork could be processed and he could be assigned a billet of his own. He was killed in action before the paperwork could be done, and cannot now be reassigned. He only exists in an administrative black-hole. Yossarian has to share his tent with the dead man’s personal effects, which he cannot remove. The dead man in Yossarian’s tent does not have a name either, but at least Nately’s whore is still alive.

Catch-22 is a comic novel intended to illustrate the insanity of war. The naming (or non-naming) of characters is just one device among many that the author uses in order to create an atmosphere of tragic-comic absurdity. The message of the novel is that in war, everyone in dehumanised; in war, normal human values do not apply.

As I mentioned above, we have to bear in mind that the events in the novel are seen through the eyes of the character Yossarian. The naming and non-naming of characters is intended to convey Yossarian’s personal perspective on events. We can assume that Nately’s whore has a name, and that she knows what it is, and that Nately knows what it is too; the point is just that Yossarian doesn’t know. In fact, as far as naming practices are concerned, we all talk in this way all the time; we all refer to people using expressions like ‘my sister’s boyfriend’, or ‘Mary’s next door neighbour’s kid’. We do not worry that we are dehumanising them. Such language serves a perfectly legitimate social function. The characters in the novel which do have, for want of a better word, ‘normal’ names – like Appleby, Dunbar, Arfie and Nately – are Yossarian’s immediate crew members, those closest to him. The non-naming of a character like Nately’s whore tells us about Yossarian’s relationship with that character; it conveys only social distance, not misogyny.

I wonder if the feminist critics picked up on ‘Nately’s whore’ only because she is a prostitute; I wonder if they would have reacted in quite the same way if she had been ‘Nately’s lawyer’. It is not really naming practices that the feminist critics are objecting to at all; it is the concept of prostitution. They are offended by the fact that Heller does not explicitly condemn all prostitution as exploitative; that he does not toe the politically correct feminist line.

The feminist critics neglect to examine the relationship between Nately and Nately’s whore (and in fact an entire paper could be written on the subject). The whole point – the reason she is referred to as ‘Nately’s whore’, rather than just, for example, ‘the whore with the big breasts’, or ‘whore number 14’ - is that Nately was in love with her. Nately did not regard her as a prostitute for hire; he wanted to take her back to America after the war and marry her. Part of the tragedy of the novel is that these two people, who might otherwise fall in love, find themselves forced into this impossible situation by the circumstances of the war. Moreover, his love for her was not entirely reciprocated, which means that she had a great deal of power in the relationship. It is not unreasonable for us to think that Nately is being naïve in falling in love with a prostitute; we are told at one point that he gives all of his money to her during one visit to Rome. The power relations between these two characters are not as simple as some feminists would have us believe.

Indeed, the character known as Nately’s whore doesn’t really fit the feminist mould of one-dimensional sexually-compliant victim. In a scene referred to repeatedly throughout the novel, she assaults Arfie by hitting him repeatedly on the head with a stiletto heel. In fact this incident is one of the very few things that we know about her. The feminist critics make no mention of this, but no doubt they would say it was Arfie‘s fault for provoking her.

Everyone in the novel is dehumanised by the war. The men are forced by their communities into participating in mortal combat against their will, and many of them are brutally killed in the prime of their lives. The entire novel – even its title - is about their struggle against this impossible situation. The answer to my question ‘Why single out Nately’s whore for special attention?’ is an easy one to answer; she is singled out by the feminists just because she is a woman, and just because she is a prostitute.

Inherent, structural misogyny
Lastly, we need to examine the feminist claim that the non-naming of Nately’s whore by extension shows contempt for all women. Where is the evidence for this? It is simply a feminist dogma. Even within the context of Catch-22 it is far from clear. At one point Yossarian has a love affair with Nurse Duckett, but there is no evidence that he regards her with contempt, and even if there was, it is not clear that this would be related to the fact that he doesn’t know the name of Nately’s whore. Do the feminist critics want to claim that Joseph Heller was a misogynist, just on the grounds that he created a character called ‘Nately’s whore’? This would be an absurd claim.

Catch-22 is, without doubt, one of the greatest English-language novels of the Twentieth Century, and moreover, it is unremittingly humane. By offering these bizarre, ill-thought out and petty-minded criticisms, the feminist critics have shown that they have failed to appreciate why any humane, liberal individual should be delighted with Catch-22, failed to understand the humour, the tragedy or the irony, or appreciate the innovative use of language. Failed, in fact, to understand the novel at all.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article. I just wnated to point out that the tailgunner' who died in Yosarrian's arms did have a name. He was Snowden.
Thanks for defending one of the greatest novels from paranoid harpies.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Snowden was the tail gunner and the dead man in Yossarian's tent had a name also. His name was Mudd.

Additionally, Aarfy was not the one being hit in the head by Nately's Whore, Orr was.

In any case, you have some very valid points. I am somewhat of a feminist supporter myself and see your perspective quite clearly. Perhaps these feminists should be concerned about something more intrinsic, such as female genital mutilation?

Anonymous said...

I don't think most feminists have the problems you have stated. It is well understood that the lack of female characters is required by the setting.

I'm not sure of Nately's whore though. But there are descriptions of assault on women - Yossarian and Dunbar assault Nurse Duckett, Arfy rapes a servant etc. There's also an instance where a psychiatrist talks of raping a "bitch". Of all these, I find the treatment of Nurse Duckett most disturbing, who has a "relationship" with Yossarian after he assaulted her. These are genuinely misogynistic descriptions.

Anonymous said...

No, Snowden was not the Tail Gunner. The Tail Gunner kept fainting when seeing Yossarian treat Snowden. Apparently his name is Sammy Singer, not that i remember seeing his name mentioned in Catch 22 but in its sequel he is refered to as Sammy Singer.

knuckleneck1996 said...

is there anyway i can get the authors contact information so i can get his name to use this article in my works cited??

Anonymous said...

Well im a feminist myself and i have find the novel andro centric but not inherently misogynistic.we should remember that the immediate setting and the author's individual choice required a male dominated world just like the novels by hemingway and dramas by samuel beckett.but it is the author's individual choice to creat many or little or none female or male characters.there are many novels written by women and men too where who do not have important male characters or if important they are not enough penetrative.like jane eyre by charlotte bronte,color purple by alice walker,mol flanders by defoe,or ann veronika by wells and etc.but they are not misandryst at any rate.they are very important fictional works in our english language.having no male or female characters do not make a work misandryst or misogynistic at all.women do not need men much neither men need women.so their relation should be based on independent mutuality.whatever i think literature like any othe field is andro centric and male supremacist field and male writers are mainly concern about their world,ie war and all that stuff.the clear cut reason is they are more familiar with that world and it should preposterous to blame them for not writing about women's problem.why should they?and moreover the brutality shown in catch 22 which are directed towards women are critical in itself and i think heller used dark humour to satirizes male violence and rape.and natlie's whore is nameless because men like yossarian do not bother to think a prostitute a human being.i think it shows yossarian's dehumanisation rather than natlie's whores.all in all i would suggest the novel is not misogynistic but not even female friendly just like the works by beckett,hemingway and ts eliot whom i regard with extreme veneration despite of being a radical feminist.heller has just shown the incongruities of war and brutality of human beings and ultimately in a subtle roundabout way critical of patriarchal civilization that promote war.whatever i am not sure on that point.but it is my perception.but i enjoyed the novel a lot.

Heretic said...

@knuckleneck1996 Just go ahead and cite the article. You can use this blog and its address as the reference.

Anonymous said...

clearly yossarian is a sexist and views women as primarily a primitive tool for males sexual pleasure,as in the novel woman are mostly referred to in relation to sex in a demeaning manor. However,what of it? - the leader character is a reflection of the author?