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George Meredith once reasoned, “The true test of comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.” The importance of encouraging thoughtful laughter in comedy lies in its ability to humorously provoke reflection of some greater idea or theme. In the dark comedy Catch-22, Joseph Heller provides witty writing and action alongside meaningful themes, a combination that sparks this kind of “thoughtful laughter”. In particular, the humorous confusion and frustration surrounding the assumed death of Doc Daneeka markedly lends itself to this concept. Although the ludicrousness of the humorous scene may appear trivial in regard to the development of the plot, Heller incites reflection on both the power of official documents and the dehumanization of soldiers by the inhumane officers.
Heller uses the scene as a means to reveal that during a time of war, statements that are written on a form hold a significantly greater importance over the actuality of the situation. In fact, the confusion surrounding the death of Doc Daneeka is derived from Sergeant Towser and the War Department’s unwillingness to accept reality over what is shown on the flight records. “With lips still quivering, Towser rose and trudged outside reluctantly to break the bad news to Gus and Wes, discreetly avoiding any conversation with Doc Daneeka himself as he moved by the flight surgeon’s slight sepulchral figure” (Heller 340). Towser acknowledges Daneeka’s existence, but he eludes taking action because Daneeka “gave every indication of proving a still thornier administrative problem for him” (340). In addition to Towser’s recorded excuse for disregarding Doc Daneeka, Mrs. Daneeka struggles with reports. An illegible letter from her husband gave the woman hope after receiving a War Department telegram that her husband had been killed in action. Eventually, though, she turns her “woeful shrieks of lamentation” (341) to delight over her newfound wealth from the numerous insurance benefits as she begins to accept the War Department’s continual denial. In a final and emotional letter from Doc Daneeka, he pleads for his wife to acknowledge his existence; however, this is immediately countered by Colonel Cathcart’s overly generic response:
“Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka:
Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action” (344).
This constant battle between the blemished and poignant letters that clearly come from an emotional Daneeka and the detached responses from the bureaucracy, while ridiculous in nature, serves to illuminate a major theme in the novel: the power that documentation has over humanity. On a broad scope of the novel, Catch-22 is simply documentation that may or may not even exist, but certainly dictates the activity of the soldiers. Because of this scene’s meaning within the text, the audience is able to elaborate on the humor by questioning or confirming the veracity of Heller’s claim about official documentation, thereby awakening thoughtful laughter.
This chapter also elicits thoughtful laughter as a result of Heller’s hyperbole of the dehumanization of the soldiers. Colonel Cathcart’s inhumane character is particularly targeted through his letter to Mrs. Daneeka. One would predict that the group commander of a man killed would write a more concerned letter rather than such a perfunctory and standard sentence. This letter is more significant in the fact that through it allows Heller to convey the impression that the officers treat the soldiers like a collective group of unknown entities. By doing so, Heller advances the message that the unit in power, such as the officers, treats its underlings with no compassion. This management even extends to the family of the soldiers, as Mrs. Daneeka equates her husband to the monetary benefits she receives from the government and insurance companies. Such inhumane treatment from a spouse of a supposedly killed man displays how all individuals outside the immediate concern with the soldiers have an automated response to the soldiers. Such an illogical notion encourages the reader to recognize such a flawed system, or even cogitate a new one.
Daneeka’s assumed death stretches much farther than an event sparked by misunderstanding. Heller depicts every element of the situation in order to convey a deeper meaning of the plot. Details about Towser’s conflicting feelings and actions, Mrs. Daneeka’s fading response, and the War Department and Cathcart’s inhumanity all play a part in Heller’s message about the insanity the soldiers faced. While on the surface the event comes across as a frustrating misperception, the thought behind the chapter extends into fundamental understandings of Heller’s message.
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