Major Major Major Major
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Major Major Major Major (hereafter Maj. Major for short) is a fictional character in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, whose name and rank is the title of chapter 9. Philip D. Beidler opines that "one of the novel's great absurd jokes is that character's bewildering resemblance to Henry Fonda".
The other joke about the character is his name. The novel relates that Maj. Major was named "Major Major Major" by his father, as a joke. The addition of the rank of Major was the result of "an IBM machine with a sense of humor almost as keen as his father's".(Heller 1998, p. 347) Heller echoes the eponymous character in Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Miniver Cheevy" in his initial description of Maj. Major as "born too late and too mediocre".(Heller 1998, p. 345) The character is further described as having "three strikes against him from the beginning—his mother, his father, and Henry Fonda, to whom he bore a sickly resemblance almost from the moment of his birth. Long before he even suspected who Henry Fonda was, he found himself the subject of unflattering comparisons everywhere he went. Total strangers saw fit to deprecate him, with the result that he was stricken early with a guilty fear of people and an obsequious impulse to apologize to society for the fact that he was not Henry Fonda."(Heller 1998, p. 345) After his promotion to squadron commander by Colonel Cathcart, "[p]eople who had hardly noticed his resemblance to Henry Fonda before now never ceased discussing it, and there were even those who hinted sinisterly that Major Major had been elevated to squadron commander because he resembled Henry Fonda. Captain Black, who had aspired to the position himself, maintained that Major Major really was Henry Fonda but was too chickenshit to admit it."(Heller 1998, p. 349)
Maj. Major was portrayed by Bob Newhart in Mike Nichols' 1970 film adaptation of the novel. Beidler asks, rhetorically, what to make of this, given that Newhart's lack of any resemblance to Fonda eliminates the entire joke. He provides one answer, namely that the joke was simply discarded because Henry Fonda himself no longer physically resembled the Henry Fonda of the 1955 film Mister Roberts, let alone the World War Two Henry Fonda whose wartime career had in part resembled some aspects of the fictional Maj. Major. (Fonda, after transferring to service HQ in New York City, was abruptly promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade in a style similar to that of Maj. Major's promotion.) Working from the basis of a resemblance to Henry Fonda, and from the thesis that people in the novel were, contrary to Heller's claims, heavily inspired by people and events from his own wartime experiences, Daniel Setzer deduces that the real world inspiration for the character of Maj. Major was Randall C. Casada, who was Heller's squadron commander when he was stationed on Corsica.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor of Literature Alan Nadel observes that Maj. Major is "perhaps the exemplary null set in the novel". Everything about the character, he states, signifies nothing: The character's name is an empty repetition of "the name of authority". The character's promotion to squadron commander is meaningless. ("'You're the new squadron commander,' Colonel Cathcart had shouted rudely across the railroad ditch to him. 'But don't think it means anything, because it doesn't. All it means is that you're the new squadron commander.'"—Heller 1998, p. 349) Even the character's physical identity is not his own, but rather that of Henry Fonda. Beidler describes him as "the ultimate product of and operational cog in the Catch-22 machine" and "the definitive good Joe in a bad situation".
Relating Catch-22 characters to William J. Goode's sociological definition of ineptitude, Jerry M Lewis and Stanford W. Gregory describe Maj. Major as the "clearest portrayal of an inept rôle" in the novel. They give three reasons for this: Maj. Major "always followed the rules, yet no-one liked him or trusted him"; his swift promotion to the rank of Major where he then remains is "a clear foreshadowing of the Peter Principle"; and the anathema to Maj. Major of being identified with Fonda, a symbol of competence, causes Maj. Major to retreat from everyone around him, making efforts to hide and to become, in the novel's words, a recluse "[i]n the midst of a few foreign acres teeming with more than two hundred people" (Heller 1998, p. 388). Lewis and Gregory state that Catch-22 supports a thesis that goes beyond Goode's, namely that the inept can identify their own ineptitude, and become active participants in its own institutionalization; whereas Goode asserts that the inept only ever have a passive rôle and can do little but accept their lot in life.
Stephen W. Potts, a lecturer in literature, describes chapter 9 of the novel as making "broad use of the rhetorical motifs of contradiction, negation, and deflation", from the echolalia of the chapter title ("Major Major Major Major") onwards. Potts also discusses Maj. Major's father.
- Beidler, Philip D. (1996). "Mr. Roberts and American Remembering; or, Why Major Major Major Major Looks Like Henry Fonda". Journal of American Studies (Cambridge University Press) 30: 47–64. doi:10.1017/S0021875800024312.
- Beidler, Philip D. (1998). The Good War's greatest hits: World War II and American remembering. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 9780820320014.
- Heller, Joseph (1998). "Major Major Major Major (from Catch-22)". In Geyh, Paula. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 345–362.
- Setzer, Daniel (2008). Historical Sources for the Events in Joseph Heller's Novel, Catch-22 (PDF).
- Nadel, Alan (1995). "The Invasion of Postmodernism: The Catch-22 of the Bay of Pigs and Liberty Valance". Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age. Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822316992.
- Lewis, Jerry M.; Gregory, Stanford W. (1978). "Extensions to the sociology of the inept". Qualitative Sociology 1 (1): 58–78. doi:10.1007/BF02429887.
- Potts, Stephen W. (1995). "Catch-22: From here to absurdity". From here to absurdity: the moral battlefields of Joseph Heller. The Milford series: Popular writers of today 36 (2nd ed.). Wildside Press LLC. ISBN 9780893704186.
- Bloom, Harold (2007). Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Bloom's modern critical interpretations. Bloom's Literary Criticism. ISBN 9780791096178.—Maj. Major is discussed in numerous places throughout this book.