The Book Meme: Day 29

Day 29 - Saddest character death OR best/most satisfying character death (or both!)

I don't know that it's exactly the saddest character death, but it is the one I can never forget: the death of Snowden in Joseph Heller's Catch-22
Despite the fact that Catch-22 is high on my list of favorite books, it hasn't gotten much mention in this series of posts so far. That may speak to its highly unusual nature. It's a narrative that effectively has no timeline, an ensemble book filled with characters who are vivid and memorable but often implausible, and a war story that indicts everyone in authority on either side.

It's also one of the funniest books I know, even as its comedy comes with a staggering body count. By the end of the book, nearly every character you or Yossarian cares about is dead, along with a number of the ones you or Yossarian cares about very little. But Snowden's death is unique. He is an unknown, both to Yossarian and the reader, until he is discovered lying in the belly of the bomber, wounded. He has not been in the squadron or in the book long enough for any sympathies to develop. The only reason you or Yossarian might have for caring about Snowden is humanitarian: he's a human being in pain.

Yossarian dutifully tends to him, treating his superficial leg wound and talking to him from time to time, but all Snowden ever says is, "I'm cold." Again, he's not saying or doing anything to connect with Yossarian or us--we learn nothing about his life up till now, nothing about his hopes for the future; we don't even get a physical description of him. He is as abstract and universal a character as he can be: a name, a pronoun, and a uniform.

That's the genius of Heller at work. He recognizes that this death will be meaningful only if it belongs to more than one individual character, so he renders Snowden as iconically as possible, rather than limiting what he means through specifics. All Snowden can say is, "I'm cold," and all Yossarian can comfort him with is "There, there." They are reduced to repetition of the most generic statements in this moment, this fundamentally human moment. As Jim Crace said of Joseph and Celice in Being Dead, Snowden does not have the power not to die, and Yossarian is confronted with that fact even as we are; not a one of us has that power, nor do we have, ultimately, the power to make each other not die. Even the parachute Yossarian opens to spread over Snowden is revealed as useless.

As he comes up against these facts, there amid the gore and the futile folds of silk, Yossarian is changed, and honestly, so are we. We are not given any information we did not already possess, but we are forced to acknowledge what we know, to give up denial or obliviousness, in the face of Snowden's secret: 

It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.

And that's what makes Snowden's death so sad, and so important. He's not the only one dying. Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, as he addressed young Margaret, crying about the fallen yellow leaves in autumn, "It is Margaret you mourn for.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 4, 2018 1:23 PM.

The Book Meme: Day 28 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Book Meme: Day 30 is the next entry in this blog.

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