Yossarian - The Successful Raskolnikov
Catch-22 overflows with a multitude of literary allusions. Near the beginning of the novel, Heller directly compares Yossarian to Raskolnikov, the main character of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. As Yossarian's understanding of Catch-22 deepens throughout the convoluted plot, the apparent similarity of the two characters increases. Ultimately, Heller's novel portrays Yossarian as a successful version of Raskolnikov - each character attempting to fight his idea of injustice - however with Yossarian ultimately substantiating his philosophy, while Raskolnikov invalidated his.
"You're no better than Raskolnikov... who felt he could justify killing an old woman... with an ax!" (Heller 29) accuses Clevinger. Yossarian believes that "they couldn't touch him... because he had a sound mind in a pure body." This suggestively resembles the driving force in Raskolnikov's plan: "Let me but preserve my presence of mind...and when the moment for action comes I shall triumph over every obstacle" (Dos. 58). Raskolnikov believes that he obtains not only the right, but also the obligation to commit a crime because of his self-ascribed superiority over the average man. Each man must contend with a force that he considers evil. Raskolnikov finds himself in debt to a greedy pawnbroker, who has enough money for "a thousand good deeds ... to be carried out and upheld" (Dos. 52-53), but all of which she has bequeathed to a monastery. The random stranger in the tavern says that "Certainly she does not deserve to live" (Dos. 53). Committing the murder becomes the means toward Justice for Raskolnikov. Similarly, while Yossarian finds himself stuck on the winning side of a war, he has determined that the only purpose in his flying more missions is to advance the position of his squadron leaders. He correctly recognizes, "If I were to give up my life now, it wouldn't be for my country. It would be for Cathcart and Korn" (Heller 456). These two men are squandering the lives of many of the pilots for their own personal gain, a situation Yossarian finds unacceptable and attempts to escape. Thus, Yossarian and Raskolnikov each believe themselves obligated to resolve their respective situations as a matter of principle.
Catch-22 exhibits many scenes in which Yossarian's experiences parallel those of Raskolnikov. Both men often exhibit philanthropy, also explaining their apparent obligation to resolve their situations. For example, Yossarian attempts to save Nately's whore's kid sister from a life on the streets. He is worried about her for her own sake, not for his own personal gain. Milo (although he is of questionable morals himself) tells him, "You've got principles" (Heller 420). Similarly, Raskolnikov at one point attempts to fight off a man taking advantage of a young prostitute "of no more than sixteen, possibly only fifteen" (Dos. 38). Again, when Yossarian finds the old lady in Rome all alone after the M.P.s have driven the girls out, he throws money in her lap: "it was odd how many wrongs leaving money seemed to right" (Heller 419). This action seems suspiciously modeled after Raskolnikov's donation of "a handful of coppers" (Dos. 22) to Marmeladov's family.
In fact, much of the chapter titled "The Eternal City" echoes Raskolnikov's feelings and experiences after he has committed his murder. The general mood of the chapter is one of extreme dreariness, where a dull, muted environment has taken over all the senses: "A frigid, fine rain was falling... Yossarian was moved by such intense pity... that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face ... and knock him out of existence" (Heller 422). Correspondingly, Raskolnikov, while wandering through St. Petersburg, notes to a stranger, "I love [street-music], especially when they sing to the organ on a cold, dark, grey winter's evening, when all the passers-by seem to have pale, green, sickly-looking faces - when the snow is falling like sleet, straight down and with no wind, you know, and while the lamps shine on it all" (Dos. 115). When Yossarian finds himself abandoned by Milo at the police station, the police commissioner addresses him with, "What do you want here? Do you want me to arrest you?" (Heller 421), as if in direct reference to the games Raskolnikov played with the police: "What if I killed the old woman and Elizabeth?" "Can it be so?" (Dos. 121). When Yossarian discovers Aarfy's murder of Michaela, he says, "Aarfy, don't you understand? You can't take the life of another human being and get away with it" (Heller 429). This is the nagging doubt that Raskolnikov experiences, that he will fail in evading the police. When Yossarian "walked in nervous haste [through the street], wondering what there was in his appearance that caught everyone's attention" (Heller 407), he is experiencing the same paranoid tendencies of Raskolnikov, who feared constant capture until he finally confessed.
In both novels, the main characters arguably become "anti-heroes." Raskolnikov murders two women with an ax. "You are a gentleman... It was not a very gentlemanly act to kill with a hatchet" (Dos. 430), accuse Raskolnikov's fellow prisoners. His act causes two murders, a suicide, his arrest, and it negatively affects many others. Finally, Raskolnikov accepts the fact that his philosophy is flawed: if everyone followed it, the result would be anarchy. Yossarian does not murder anyone but instead deserts his army in the face of the enemy. "But Yossarian knew he was right, because... to the best of his knowledge he had never been wrong. Everywhere he looked was a nut, and it was all a sensible young gentleman like himself could do to maintain his perspective amid so much madness" (Heller 29). While his actions have the same logical drive as Raskolnikov's, he does not hurt any individual, and his plan is one which can be good for all others as well. Yossarian refuses to accept Cathcart's plan, where he would go home, far from death, in exchange for glorifying Cathcart. Once Yossarian realizes the implications of this plan, where "[the men] would be easy enough to control when [he's] gone" (Heller 437), that he is neglecting the well being of the other pilots, he decides to reject Cathcart's idea and escape to Sweden by desertion. Not only does he win his freedom by doing this, but he also maintains his pride and refuses to glorify Cathcart and Korn. When Major Danby accuses Yossarian of being escapist, Yossarian replies, "I'm not running away from my responsibilities. I'm running to them. There's nothing negative about running away to save my life" (Heller 461). Yossarian has realized that if everyone were to follow his philosophy, "Then [he'd] be a damned fool to feel any other way" (Heller 456). Yossarian's plan offers hope to the other men, whom he has now shown an alternative to "losing themselves" (457) by following Cathcart. He has achieved his personal goal, and improved the condition of those around him.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Geneva: Heron Books, 1967.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Adapted from an English assignment