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Symbols and Motifs from Catch-22

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

This article goes through symbols and motifs in the novel. Motifs are devices and other elements that appear several times throughout a story to express a novel's ideas. Symbols are objects, people, or other images that stand for abstractions.

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    Symbols in Catch-22

    Colonel Cathcart's Tomatoes

    When the chaplain goes in to talk to the colonel about his concerns for Yossarian's well-being, he sees crates of tomatoes and admires them. They have come from Milo Minderbinder's syndicate, and the colonel offers one to the chaplain. However, later, when others see the chaplain carrying his gift, they accuse him of stealing the tomatoes.

    These tomatoes show the various convolutions that can take place throughout a bureaucratic system, and the way that innocent intentions can be taken and twisted without documentation or other support. The offer from the colonel, once forgotten, gives the chaplain no protection from the subsequent threats for "stealing."

    While the tomatoes may seem like a small matter, when you extend the idea to consider the bureaucratic "death" of Doc Daneeka, one sees how fragile a commodity "truth" can be.

    Milo Minderbinder's Chocolate-Covered Cotton

    Milo cornered the market on Egyptian cotton with his syndicate; however, he has now found himself with an inexhaustible supply of cotton that he cannot sell, so he starts to find other uses for it. While Yossarian is sitting naked in the tree at Snowden's funeral, Milo finds him and tries to get him to eat chocolate-covered cotton.

    There are several ways to interpret the significance of this symbol. Clearly, one way is mirrored by Milo's use of sweet potatoes to hide the taste of soap -- product safety and client satisfaction are much less important than the profit motive. Also, the idea that a syndicate benefits all of its members equally becomes a sham, as Milo is willing to try to get others to eat what he has found disgusting and inedible.

    The Soldier in White

    During several of Yossarian's stints in the hospital, we see this body without a name or face -- and interchangeable containers of fluid that are simply switched with one another when one has drained into the other. The soldier represents the anonymous fate of all that the military would send to war -- names are much less important than duties fulfilled, but every soldier is replaceable.

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    Motifs in Catch-22

    When in Rome...

    When the men go to Rome for their R&R visits, the lifestyle is one of complete debauchery. They always have an apartment with rooms for enlisted men and another for officers, each filled with Italian girls who are always ready to have sex with American soldiers. The only benefit to the girls appears to be a place to stay and food to eat. This constant state of sensual gratification keeps Hungry Joe in a constant state of emotional and physical frenzy. This shows the pent-up frustration and worry that the soldiers develop while in the field.

    Catch-22 Itself

    Catch-22 is the name for the trap of circular reasoning that keeps the bureaucracy perpetually in motion. As the old woman says in the destroyed apartment near the story's end, "They have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." Earlier forms of the argument include Doc Daneeka's inability to ground Yossarian for insanity, because Yossarian has to ask, and the act of asking proves his sanity.

    "Criteria" for Promotion

    Major Major Major Major, for example, receives his rank, in part, because of his unusual name. His promotion irritates Colonel Cathcart -- not because of any worry about a lack of qualifications, but because it fouls up the neatness of his organization chart. When the existing squadron commander is killed in action, though, the colonel's mind is eased. Lieutenant Scheisskopf also benefits from promotions granted for no apparent rational reason other than inconvenience. The idea at work here is that bureaucracy operates primarily for its own convenience.

Study Guides for Catch-22

Important quotations, plot summary, themes, symbols and motifs, and test prep questions involving Heller's classic novel.
  1. Catch-22: Summary & Plot
  2. Important Quotes from Catch-22
  3. Guide to the Major Themes in Catch-22
  4. Symbols and Motifs from Catch-22
  5. AP Test-Style Questions for Catch-22