War as Tragically Absurd: Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five

February 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

The concept of war is both gruesomely tragic, and deeply absurd. Through their respective texts, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, authors Joseph Heller and George Roy Hill capture the very essence of war, and it’s tragic absurdity, though employing a range of stylistic techniques intended to engage, humour and shock the audience. Within Catch-22, Heller explores not only the inevitable doom of soldiers within WWII, but the absurdity with which their lives came to an end, and to a greater extent conveys his concerns about the practice of warfare in contemporary society. Heller achieves this through employing a range of techniques, including irony and satire, characterization, motifs, symbolism and paradox. In contrast, whilst Hill’s film Slaughterhouse-Five also explores the horrors and pointlessness of WWII, it also introduces the concept of alien intervention and time travel, which gives the film an unsettling and absurd quality. Through the use of film techniques such as characterization, diegetic sound, camera angles, mise en scene and editing, Hill too expresses his concerns regarding war within today’s society, and highlights the pointlessness of hostile societal groups. Through the employment of stylistic features including irony, by Heller, and diegetic sound by Hill, both authors are able to convey the absolute absurdity of war.

Irony is certainly introduced by Heller when the possessions of a deceased, unnamed soldier are found in Yossarian’s room, and Maj. Major Major comes to the conclusion that the person who had the right to remove his belongings […] was Yossarian himself, and Yossarian, it seemed […], had no right. This use of irony not only highlights the senselessness of the militaristic bureaucracy, and the absurd nature of war, but also the tragedy of so many soldiers pointlessly killed, going unrecognized. Contrastingly, Hill employs diegetic sound to convey his idea of tragic absurdity within war, most prominently in a scene depicting a band of English soldiers singing Hail, Hail the yanks are here amid the setting of a German prisoner of war camp. The jovial nature of this music in the presence of such a grim and tragic situation emphasizes the absurdity of the concept of war, and elicits both humor and empathy for the soldiers in the camp. Indeed, through the utilization of irony and diegetic sound respectively, both Heller and Hill are able to express their concerns regarding the tragically absurd nature of war.

The use of characteristic by both Heller and Hill is also another feature utilized to convey the idea that war is tragically absurd. Heller’s satirical characterization of anti-heroic protagonist John Yossarian, who exhibits intense paranoia and obsession with his mortality, [deciding] to live forever or die in the attempt…, is largely reflective of the viewpoint of veterans post war. Through the voice of Yossarian, Heller conveys the tragic mindset of disillusioned soldiers who have returned home, and express his idea that the act of war is both pointlessness and absurd. Hill’s cowardly protagonist Billy Pilgrim, however, greatly contrasts Heller’s Yossarian, as rather than be determined to live, he is passive and accepts the inevitability of death. Hill’s depiction of the absurdity of war is particularly evident through the characterization of Billy in a flashback to his childhood, when he is told by his father that this is it Billy, you either sink or swim, to which Billy does not respond. Through Pilgrim’s characterization, the viewer is introduced to the concept of nihilism, or the belief that existence is meaningless, which highlights the tragic absurdity of the events Billy endures in the war. Clearly, through the employment of characterization, both Heller and Hill explore both the mercilessness and absurdity found within the midst of war.

Furthermore, Heller and Hill employ the stylistic techniques of motif and camera shots to express their ideas concerning war, and it’s tragic and absurd nature. The ever increasing number of missions required by soldiers in order retire is one such motif that explores the concept of absurdity within war. As Yossarian explains, Colonel Cathcart requires men to stay at the base until he doesn’t have enough men [for] crews, and then raises the number of missions and [puts them] on combat status, despite the fact that the Air Force only requires them to complete forty missions. The tragically ironic idea that if the men disobey Cathcart’s orders, they will be court martialed, but if they attempt them they face certain death, is essentially a catch- 22, and highlights not only the absurd nature of the act of war, but the senselessness of bureaucracy. In contrast, Hill employs camera shots and angles to explore the tragic absurdity of war which affects so many lives. During the scene in which Pilgrim is being prepped for surgery, a high angle shot of Pilgrim on his bed is utilised by Hill to convey the vulnerability that Billy has been made susceptible to following the horrors of war. The bizarre quality of the shot also encapsulates the absurdity of the Second World War, and the profoundly detrimental and tragic impact it had on both the soldiers and civilians who endured it.

Certainly, both Heller and Hill’s use of motif, and camera shots and angles respectively, allows each author to convey their concerns regarding the devastating and obscure impact of war.Heller and Hill also employ the techniques of symbolism and mise en scene to convey the idea that the absurd act of war only ends in tragedy. Heller introduces the presence of the soldier in white, a soldier covered completely in bandages, as a symbol for the anonymity of death within war, highlighted but the idea that all they they really saw of the soldier was a frayed black hole over the mouth. The concept that no one is aware of the identity of the soldier in white, and that later within the novel he is replaced by another soldier in white, is symbolic of the tragedy with which war not only dehumanizes victims, but allows human beings to become expendable in the name of a political agenda. In an alternate way, Hill employs the technique of mise en scene to convey his ideas surrounding the absurdity of war and life’s ultimate meaningless. In a long shot depicting Pilgrim captured following the Battle of the Bulge and transferred to a holding facility, dark, overcast lighting and smoke rising from distant fires is used to convey the absolute destruction of war. The dark, earthy greens and browns emphasize the hellish conditions of war, and the inclusion of harsh, metal vehicles and indistinguishable bodies of soldiers and civilians adds an element of dehumanization and the intended meaningless of their lives. This concept not only encompasses the tragedy of war, but highlights its absurd and meaningless nature.

Through the employment of symbolism and mise en scene within their respective texts, both Heller and Hill expertly convey their ideas regarding the harsh and tragic mercilessness of war, and the absurdity of such an act.The employment of stylistic features such as symbolism by Heller, and and camera angle and shots by Hill expertly conveys, within their respective texts, the tragic absurdity of war. Symbolism is employed by Heller to convey the inability for the military to recognize the corruption within itself, and the absurdity of this negligence. Chocolate covered cotton balls are a symbol that highlight the corruption that resides within the military, and its detrimental effect to soldiers, as although they hold no nutritional value, they are forced to be eaten by chef Milo Minderbinder in order to cut the budget. “They’ve got to swallow it,” Milo ordained with dictatorial grandeur highlights how the greed surrounding the act of war blinds those caught within it, and the tragically absurd mindset it corrupts them with. In contrast, Hill’s utilization of a close up low angle shot of Pilgrim splattered with another man’s blood during the harsh winter of Dresden in the Second World War expresses the cruel tragedy of war. The camera has been focused on the blood, slightly blurring Pilgrim’s face to symbolize the anonymity of soldiers in war, but also the pointlessness of killing strangers in a war setting, and risking one’s own life to do so.

Certainly, through stylistic techniques such as symbolism, and camera angles and shots, Heller and Hill in their respective texts, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, brilliantly convey their concerns regarding the act of war, and it’s tragic senselessness. Heller and Hill’s employment of both a wide range of paradoxes and mise en scene further conveys their idea that war is tragically absurd. Most prominently, the absurdity of war is emphasized through Heller’s employment of the paradoxical catch-22 that Dunbar loved skeet shooting because he hated every minute of it and time passed so slowly. This paradox conveys the tragedy of warfare through humor, as Dumbar wishes to prolong his life through boredom, but also highlights it’s illogicality, as the statement contradicts itself. Hill, in contrast, employs mise en scene in the setting on the planet of Tralfamadore, where Pilgrim resides at the end of his life, to directly juxtapose the image of war. The colorful lighting such as blues, pinks, yellows and whites in the sky suggests a place of comfort and refuge, introducing an almost nonsensical quality to the film given the previous scene’s harsh setting. The abstract architecture of the house, a dome constructed from steel and glass triangles, further emphasizes the absurd aspect of the film, as does the random arrangement of furniture within the house, highlighting the tragic effect war has had on Billy’s mind. Clearly, Heller’s use of paradox, as well as Hill’s use of mise en scene, skillfully encapsulates the concerns of the two authors regarding the tragic circumstance of war, and the absurdity surrounding it.

Furthermore, the employment of motif, by Heller, and narrative structure and editing, by Hill, convey the absolute devastation that war can cause. The motif of Catch-22, a paradoxical situation which is made inescapable by equally opposing conditions, is arguably the most effective technique employed by Heller to convey the absurd and tragically cruel nature of war, best exemplified in the statement that Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and when he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. This motif highlights the satirical anti-war message Heller intends to convey to his readers, the tragedy surrounding the character’s fate and the unquestionable absurdity of war. Contrastingly, Hill employs the stylistic feature narrative structure to convey his ideas surrounding the tragic absurdity of war. A main feature of the film is that Pilgrim has become ‘unstuck’ in time, and jumps between non-chronological and oddly parallel events in his life. One such example occurs in the scene where a German propaganda officer takes photos of him, with Hill employing the technique of cutting from this scene, to his wedding photo shoot, repetitively. These cuts are frequent and unexpected, emphasizing the overall absurd quality of the film, eliciting sympathy for Pilgrim’s tragic circumstance as he can never let go of the events of the war, something that all veterans must live with.

Through stylistic techniques such as motif in Catch-22, and editing and narrative structure in Slaughterhouse-Five, respective authors Heller and Hill certainly convey their message that war is undoubtedly tragic, and deeply absurd. Through their respective texts, Joseph Heller and George Roy Hill expertly project their concerns regarding the absolute absurdity of the act of war, and the tragic and absolute consequences it has on humanity, directly or indirectly. Through the use of conventional stylistic techniques such as irony and satire, characterization, motifs, symbolism and paradox within Heller’s Catch-22, and characterisation, diegetic sound, camera angles, mise en scene and editing employed by Hill in Slaughterhouse-Five, these authors explore the ways in which the act of war is both laughably pointless, causing nothing but absolute destruction in people’s lives, but also the tragedy surrounding the dehumanization of those involved, and the devastation it leaves in so many lives, even centuries later.

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