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Catch-22 | Study Guide

Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 | Chapter 36 : The Cellar | Summary



News of "Nately's death almost killed the chaplain." When he gets the call telling him that 12 men have been killed, the chaplain is plunged into despair. But Sergeant Whitcomb is thrilled: now he can send out 12 more form letters of condolence.

At the field the chaplain is awed by the silence of the men standing outside the briefing room. He sees from Yossarian's face that Nately is dead. He's starting to cry when two men grab him and rush him into a waiting car. They drive him to Group Headquarters and escort him into a dingy basement room for questioning.

There follows a grilling session that's infuriating, confusing, and terrifying in equal parts. Is the chaplain really Washington Irving? Did he steal a plum tomato from Colonel Cathcart? Why did he say that atheism isn't against the law? And why did he oppose Sergeant Whitcomb's plan to send form letters of condolence? At last the men declare him guilty and let him go to await sentencing.


The scene is like a parody of a spy movie but with the threat of real-world punishment. The chaplain has no idea what he's supposed to confess, and his questioners never stick to one topic long enough for him to figure out what they mean. All he knows is that they're determined to find him guilty.

On one level, the scene is comical. The chaplain's questioners are performing an over-the-top good-cop-bad-cop routine. But any impulse to laugh vanishes when we see how serious they are. Their obvious disdain and the intensity of their questions—helped along by classic instruments of torture—make it seem certain that the chaplain is in genuine danger.

The chaplain stands up to the session unexpectedly well. Instead of being afraid, he's filled with righteous rage. Even so, he's powerless to change anything. Colonel Korn tells him gleefully that the number of missions is going to be raised yet again. The limit has been raised to more than 70 missions.

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