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It's been a while since I finished Catch-22. But when I first read it, I remember the opening jumping out at me:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

My first impression on this opening was that Heller was taking a rather progressive (for his time) stance about relationships in the military. However, after this declaration, this "love" is never touched upon again in the novel1.

What surprises me in this statement is Heller's choice of the word "love" which connotes a strong, impassioned emotion. Even granting the possibility that "love" could refer to a wide range of emotions, from the romantic to mere fondness, from what I can gather, even referring to Yossarian's relationship with the chaplain as "fondness" is stretching things.

So in what sense did Yossarian love the chaplain? I'm looking for either instances in the story which demonstrate this (and which I probably missed when I first read the book) or interviews/documents from Heller which would explain the interesting, if strange, choice of opening.


1 As it has been a while since I finished Catch-22, I am relying more on my notes from the time and cursory skim through the opening chapter.

6

I believe, based on the rest of the book, that Yossarian's love for the Chaplain is, most likely, romantic. Whether intentionally or not, Heller wrote Yossarian exhibiting attraction to men multiple times after the opening line. Many of the characters are described, from Yossarian's perspective, as attractive or handsome, including his tentmate Orr" "Orr was one of the homeliest freaks Yossarian had ever encountered, and one of the most attractive"

As for the Chaplain scene itself, it has quite a few interesting points:

‘You’re a chaplain,’ he exclaimed ecstatically. ‘I didn’t know you were a chaplain.’

‘Why, yes,’ the chaplain answered. ‘Didn’t you know I was a chaplain?’

‘Why, no. I didn’t know you were a chaplain.’ Yossarian stared at him with a big, fascinated grin. ‘I’ve never really seen a chaplain before.’ The chaplain flushed again and gazed down at his hands. He was a slight man of about thirty-two with tan hair and brown diffident eyes. His face was narrow and rather pale. An innocent nest of ancient pimple pricks lay in the basin of each cheek. Yossarian wanted to help him.

‘Can I do anything at all to help you?’ the chaplain asked.

'Help' seems to be occassionally used as an euphemism in the novel, used in reference to relations with female characters as well. It might be a bit flimsy, but worth noting regardless, especially with the rest of the exchange:

‘I’ll come to see you again, probably tomorrow.’

‘Please do that,’ Yossarian said.

‘I’ll come only if you want me to,’ the chaplain said, lowering his head shyly. ‘I’ve noticed that I make many of the men uncomfortable.’ Yossarian glowed with affection. ‘I want you to,’ he said. ‘You won’t make me uncomfortable.’

Additionally, the aftermath of the conversation:

‘A chaplain,’ Dunbar said when the chaplain had visited him and gone. ‘Did you see that? A chaplain.’ ‘Wasn’t he sweet?’ said Yossarian. ‘Maybe they should give him three votes.’

Yossarian's clear and enthusiastic interest, and the significance of Chaplain seeing him naked in a tree (a vision that is a very important aspect of his later character arc) are not even the only elements that bind the characters together, and I could write more if the need arises, but let me just say that I do believe that the Chaplain is, in fact, one of Yossarian's many love interests throughout the book, and far more significant to his arc than most of the female ones.

While the lack of explicit sexual acts might lead some to believe he lacks actual attraction to men, the text contradicts that, imo, and the interactions with the Chaplain and Orr are particularly telling.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site! Nice first answer, well supported with relevant quotes from the book. – Rand al'Thor Nov 11 '18 at 16:18
  • I just skimmed through my copy and your points here seem to add up. I just find it odd that this reading of Catch-22 is not often talked about, if at all; in fact I asked this question exactly because I couldn't find anything on the matter. Maybe I should go through the book again soon. Anyway, thanks for the answer, I'm accepting this one. :) – skytreader Nov 23 '18 at 23:41
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It may be that he didn't: that this is purely coincidental.

Heller had long nurtured an ambition to be a novelist and was working as an advertising copywriter when he began Catch-22. The inspiration came to him in a flash and was, pretty much, the exact sentence that he used to open the novel:

"It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, 'Someone' fell madly in love with him,"

Having imagined the sentence, Heller then sketched out the idea for the novel over the course of about 90 minutes, during which the 'Someone' became Yossarian.

So, the pat answer is that the opening inspired Heller to begin the novel, and so he stuck with it even though it's not mentioned again and doesn't entirely make sense in light of later character developments. It's also a great opening line in the sense that it immediately capture's the reader's attention.

However, that's also the less interesting answer. What can we infer about the characters from Yossarian's love of the Chaplain?

Most readers will equate "love" here with sexual love. However, as the opening of the novel unfolds it becomes clear that this is wrong. That "love" here denotes something which is more romantic than homosexual.

There's a lot we can read into this. First is the concept of "brothers in arms", the strong emotional attachments that men form with one another under the duress and terror of combat. Some soldiers look back on those bonds with fondness because nothing so intense exists in peacetime. By opening the novel with this sentiment, and then rapidly establishing a strong anti-war tone, Heller is suggesting that this recollection is fake or false. That conflict is so terrible as to invalidate the upsides that it creates.

Second, although not directly progressive in terms of LGBT rights, it also hints at the fluidity of human sexuality. Yossarian loves the chaplain, perhaps even feels physical desire for him, but never acts on that desire and never feels regret for not doing so. He is, as later becomes clear, heterosexual, but has no problem admitting that he feels a romantic attachment to another man.

This fluidity can be seen as an expansion of the novel's constant theme of absurdity and contradiction. In Catch-22, very little actually makes sense. Why should love and sexuality be any different? One could even imagine this is deliberate on Yossarian's part, a purposeful rejection of societal norms in line with the purposeful rejection of peace and logic entailed by war itself.

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