Catch-22 | Study Guide

Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 | Chapter 20 : Corporal Whitcomb | Summary



The chaplain leaves Cathcart's office dejectedly, disappointed in himself for not having been more forceful about the 60 missions. His misery increases after a run-in with Colonel Korn, who hints that the chaplain isn't welcome in the officers' dining hall.

The chaplain becomes unhappier still after an encounter with his assistant, an atheist named Corporal Whitcomb. Whitcomb blames the chaplain for his lack of initiative, especially in refusing to allow the corporal to send form letters to the families of men who have died or been wounded.

Whitman informs the chaplain that he's just talked to a C.I.D. man. "They're going to crack down on you for signing Washington Irving's name to all those letters." Whitcomb adds that the C.I.D. man will probably report the chaplain for stealing a tomato from Colonel Cathcart. The chaplain is overwhelmed at all the unhappiness in the world.


Catch-22 can seem so loopy and freewheeling that it is easy to lose track of how carefully it's plotted. When he'd finished writing the first chapter of Catch-22, Heller spent a solid year mapping out the book. Readers can see that the work paid off whenever the subplot involving the C.I.D. men is reintroduced. Every so often, Heller tweaks a plot thread, and the men come into view again.

It's painful to watch the C.I.D. men closing in on the chaplain. Not only is he innocent, but he also has no self-protective skills. Nor does he have the courage of his convictions. He's starting to wonder if maybe he did forge some names on those letters and documents.

The chaplain is so excessively humble—so spineless, really—that these scenes can be hard to process. Reading them as metaphor for the McCarthy era makes it easier. The chaplain represents the little guy who doesn't know his rights and is powerless in the face of intractable authority. The C.I.D. men have already made up their minds that he's guilty. After all, if he were innocent, they wouldn't have had to track him down.

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