Leading Themes in Catch 22 And Hamlet, Novels
Mortality, especially suicide, is a leading theme for both the novel Catch 22 and the play Hamlet, for both works of literature emphasize on the thoughts of the individual on self-inflicted death. Death is looked at from alternative points of view in both works, it is seen in positive manners, as an escape, as a helping hand in a cruel world, and this makes suicide a pivotal theme for both works although only one character per work actually goes through with it. In Catch-22, death is presented as both the most frightening enemy and the most charitable friend of the soldier. In Hamlet, death is presented as the mysterious alternative to life’s misery. In both works, suicide as a theme serves to show how humanity can be pushed to a certain point in which life itself seems like the worst option.
One of Catch 22’s most valuable messages is that which it states about the value of life during violent war. In the novel, symbolism is used to show that the life of the soldier is devalued and completely put to the side by the authorities in war. Men stop being men, and they become weapons, tools for winning battles and increasing the ranks of officials. When the lives of these men are regarded in such low standards, questions about the subject of suicide arise in their minds. Being alive, for these men, is suicide, they go off into war and know they are exposing themselves to thousands of deadly weapons, “They are inches away from death every time they go on a mission.” Chapter 4, pg. 48. Death is creeping up to these soldiers, and ironically, death seems to be the only way to escape death, it is a Catch-22. It is only explicitly stated in the book that a single character, McWatt, commits suicide, but suicide is in the mind of every soldier in Catch 22, they are all trying to cheat death every day of their lives, the only way to end this battle with death is to actually give in to it.
In Hamlet, death is a major theme since the beginning of the play. Hamlet’s (the main character’s) father has died, leaving him in severe distress. Hamlet begins to contemplate mortality, reaching the conclusion that death is something to be desired, for it is the only way one can escape the torture that is inherent to life. “To die, to sleep–No more–and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” says Hamlet in his famous soliloquy, showing how suicide was going through his mind, seeming to be the only way to fight against the cruelty in life. In the play Hamlet, only Ophelia, a secondary character, commits suicide, but the main character Hamlet, plays with the idea of it in his mind, making conclusions about how despite its obscurity, it seems to be the best option. For Hamlet, the only aspect contradicting self inflicted death is that such an action is prohibited by the church. Hamlet states that if it wasn’t for the fact that “that the Everlasting had fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” he wouldn’t have thought twice about committing suicide. In the play, death is the only promising future, the only saviour for the suffering human.
Many similarities can be found within the two texts in what was previously stated about the theme of suicide. Both works present death as the only alternative to the never-ending cycle of suffering in life. In both works, suicide is seen as more of a recurring idea than an actual action, since only one character per play actually commits suicide. Although the concept of Catch 22 wasn’t around at the time Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare, there is definitely a catch-22 concerning suicide within the play: Hamlet wants to escape suffering in life, but the only way to do this is to escape life itself. However, committing suicide leads to hell, for it is prohibited by God, so escaping suffering can only bring more suffering, and therefore there is a catch, there is no escape. The intertextuality between these two works provides an interesting viewpoint on death: that which is desirable and unreachable, even though it happens to everyone. But despite their similarities on the subject of suicide as a theme, Catch 22 and Hamlet have some differences in their expression of the subject. In Catch 22, death and suicide are expressed through symbols. The hospital is a symbol of a dignified death, soldiers become a symbol of inevitable homicide, Bologna becomes a symbol of a threat to life. In Hamlet, instead of death and suicide being expressed through symbols, they are expressed more crudely, directly. Hamlet talks about his father’s death and his own possible death as something real, without euphemisms or metaphors. Death in Hamlet is the most undeniable subject in the play.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller and Hamlet by William Shakespeare both show their main characters in infinitely distressing situations, making suicide a necessary subject of thought for them. Both works expose the subject of suicide and death as an escape from suffering, a form of redemption. Either by using symbolism or directly stating the importance of having the option of death, each work makes it clear that to die is the most desirable and undesirable, obtainable and unobtainable alternative to life.
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