In Catch-22 and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the tone realizes the nature of the systems being explored. One system is a vicious circle, the other a balanced cycle. This tone is accomplished through a combination of language, setting, plot, character, and theme. The tone is examined primarily by looking at the straightforward and detail-driven language versus the highly meandering and repetitive language; the mountain setting versus the camp; the differing but tightly-focused plots; the characters of Robert Jordan and Yossarian; and the themes of fear, love, and hope.
Tone in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Catch-22
In Catch-22 and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the tone realizes the nature of the systems being explored. One system is a vicious circle, the other a balanced cycle. This tone is accomplished through a combination of language, setting, plot, character, and theme.
Both stories use language in a precise manner to establish tone. In For Whom the Bell Tolls the language is detail-laden, very much stream-of-consciousness style, following Robert Jordan for the most part. Catch-22 also has many details but they tend to be used in a more ordinary story way, that is, only when necessary. The story follows Yossarian most of the time but also relates some chapters and scenes from other points of view. In Catch-22 the language is repetitive and circular, sometimes stating the obvious until it becomes the absurd. This adds to the claustrophobic tone, the trapped-ness of the circulatory language echoing the trapped-ness of everyone, mentally and physically, in the novel. Both books are relatively simple vocabulary-wise, though the sentence structures of each are unique and complex. In For Whom the Bell Tolls the sentences tend to be overlong, with very few commas or spaces for breath, leading to the dizzying sensation, when reading, of a thought that goes on without end; there are many extraneous details not needed for the plot which tires the mind but goes a long way toward scene-setting. The tone is rather subdued and natural; the drift of thoughts chronological and easy to follow. In Catch-22 the sentences are sharper and shorter, almost jaggedly so, and replicate normal speech but to an extreme, parodying as it were. The style is very disconnected. Both stories tend toward a philosophical tone, following the characters’ thoughts.
Catch-22 is a darker story, on the whole, than For Whom the Bell Tolls, but a key difference in tone is the use of humor. Catch-22 has humor built into the use of language, exaggeration and repetition as well as out-of-the-blue and oddly-worded things for actually easy to understand events, e.g. ‘the dead man in Yossarian’s tent’ is always referred to in this manner. It’s baffling and confusing at first, but in the end the truth—merely that the man’s things were still sitting there, is quite straightforward. Thoughts about liminal existence appear in the form of the dead man in Yossarian’s tent and later Dr. Daneeka, both dead-but-alive, as it were, and for the same reasons; the “official” word winning out over truth and common sense; helped along by people’s averseness to doing anything about it; the departure from that situation is shown in the new people in Yosarrian’s tent disposing of the dead man’s things, a fact which baffles and confuses Yossarian, who was himself so caught up in the catch-22 situation that the answer, obvious though it was, did not ever occur to him. For Whom the Bell Tolls, though a less dark story overall, does not use humor to any appreciable extent.
Both stories’ settings are focused mainly on one distinct and relatively isolated and small place, “islands” in a sense—Catch-22 takes place, literally, on an island, reinforcing the sense of claustrophobia, which in a bit of meta-irony is in real life actually the site of a prison; in For Whom the Bell Tolls the main setting of the cave in the mountains is no less an island, though a metaphorical one; the chief difference is in purpose: though no less a trap, it is also a refuge, a safe haven in a place where the outside world is more chaotic and unpredictable than the island. The imagery of islands is used not only on a setting but on a character level; “no man is an island” appears in the front quote of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and it encapsulates the theme of the story, that of connectedness to others. Robert Jordan has made himself believe he is an island, and that he is content to be alienated in that manner; he finds he is not. In Catch-22, Yossarian wants connection desperately, but is alienated again and again by the larger forces of bureaucracy and power and everyone else’s utter state of alienation; with everyone too afraid to reach out, they live in their own islands of isolation within the island: the most obvious example being the Major, who cuts himself off from interaction with others entirely, twisting the law of catch-22 to his advantage (in a way; but going along with the fact there is no way to really win in catch-22, he is still miserably lonely, and, most disturbingly of all, he eventually disappears altogether, no one knowing why or how or even when it happened).
Though both stories take place within the larger setting of a war, the specifics are very important to the tone: Catch-22 takes place in the camp; the people there are soldiers caught within the rules and regulations which actively works against meaningful and lasting connection. On the other hand, For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place outside the enclosures of man; the people are guerilla soldiers, who work together as more of a family or community, with relationships more central.
As part of the ongoing theme in Catch-22 of an eternal and useless battle and dissonance, a warring of two sides of something, this is echoed in the use of setting; the man-made encampments versus the wilderness; with the former always trying to impose order and the latter offering a kind of relief or respite, but also signifying hiding, for example the Chaplain and Captain Flume, each who resides in the wilderness in a way textually connected with hiding. In the same way, the natural setting in For Whom the Bell Tolls is also a place of protection, respite, and a way of hiding; that is what Pablo’s band has been doing all the way up until Robert Jordan came and what Pablo thinks they should continue to do, knowing that if they blow the bridge their refuge will be a refuge no longer. Furthermore, in Catch-22, the nature-as-protection does not always play merely a passive role; for example when the men were afraid to go on the mission to Bologna, knowing it would mean their deaths, nature itself aided them in this wish with the endless rain that started whenever they tried to fly.
An interesting note in tone as related to setting comes in For Whom the Bell Tolls when Andrés is sent to the camp with the message. The tone in that part of the novel, especially with the addition of the crazy André Marty, veers wildly from the tone of the rest of the novel and towards satire, more like the tone of Catch-22; this is inextricably linked to setting. It provides a bridge from one novel to the other: it is almost possible to believe they take place in the same universe, only in different places. Because of the fact that the tone of the For Whom the Bell Tolls suddenly changes with the setting, this gives credence to the fact that the setting of both novels is integral to their respective tones: if For Whom the Bell Tolls had taken place in the camp it would have had a very different tone, and if Catch-22 took place in the mountains it too would have a very different tone. It is, indeed, a great part the setting of For Whom the Bell Tolls that makes the tone so different from that of war novels: without the artificial bounds and constraints of actual soldiers the tone is more organic and relation-oriented.
The plots of both stories are in a way circular, but with crucial differences. The plot of Catch-22 is that of an endless loop; the story itself told in a circular manner that doubles back on itself in confusion, the format of the story mirroring the situation of those in it; whereas in For Whom the Bell Tolls the cycles present are natural and the problems lie around accepting such; and accepting life. Therefore the structure of the story also forms a circle of a different sort, with the ending of the story mirroring the beginning; the key difference is that in For Whom the Bell Tolls the presence of a cycle is a function of growth instead of stagnation.
In each story, the blowing up of a bridge is a key moment in both the plot and character arcs. Robert Jordan and Yossarian both have orders to blow up a bridge which, in the end, turn out to be meaningless; they both give up much to carry out those orders. Both lose a man in the attempt. In Catch-22, Yossarian blows the bridge, coming over the target twice in an act of great bravery to make sure the mission succeeds, and comes back to the camp and the realization that all that he gave for the cause of the bridge was meaningless to his superiors; they don’t like his actions and want only to deal with the PR. In a parody of all it should have stood for Yossarian suggests they give him a medal so they can deal with their problem, and they do so; his bravery and accomplishment don’t even matter. From that time on he gives up all store in causes. Robert Jordan carried out the bombing because he had to, but in the end, what he died for was the people he knew and cared about personally.
Characters, of course, are what drive plot more than anything else, and also heavily influence tone. The orientations and mindsets of the characters greatly impact the tone of the novel they exist within, and vice versa. The main characters of each story are Yossarian and Robert Jordan. Their characters, and arcs, differ: though they have some similarities. They are both philosophical to an extent. They both end up giving hope to others at the end of their story; Robert Jordan by sacrificing himself for others in a natural continuance of his character arc of actually letting other people matter to him emotionally; and Yossarian by getting away when he has, throughout the whole story, been caught within not just a place but a mindset, whose effects grow slowly worse as time goes on: so slowly there is no alarm; like the proverbial slow-boiling frog. His escape, and his insubordination, gives hope to others that escape is indeed possible, that catch-22 is not everything; this important moment for each of these characters comes with the letting go of the fear which has burdened them throughout the rest of the story.
In both stories, hope is the center point. Robert Jordan and Pilar give hope to Maria, Maria and Pilar give hope to him; hope of life and living in life instead of merely surviving, a reawakening; in Catch-22 Yossarian and the Chaplain get hope from Orr, and Yossarian (and perhaps the Chaplain—it’s impossible to know, since this takes place at the end of the story) gives hope to all the men left behind, that one can stand up to unjustness and not be defeated.
The Old Man (Catch-22) and Pilar (For Whom the Bell Tolls) sometimes serve similar functions story-wise; they are both older and wiser than the majority of the characters, and each give true advice. The difference is that the Old Man is cynical whereas Pilar is hopeful. Each predict the death of a character and warn them; Pilar in the very beginning of the book when she reads Robert Jordan’s palm (she never actually says he will die, but it’s implied), and the Old Man when he talks to Nately and tells him “they are going to kill you if you don’t watch out, and I can see now that you are not going to watch out”; ironically, in the end, Nately knows he might die but stays regardless, when he could have left, out of love; Robert Jordan knows going to blow the bridge that he will die but ends up surviving to his surprise, only to be wounded, and he lets the others get away while he protects them.
Michaela (Catch-22) and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls), also parallel one another in some ways; both were violated in the same manner, both stories symbolize loss of innocence, but the great difference is that Michaela dies while Maria goes on to live; in For Whom the Bell Tolls innocence has been lost but goodness remains, and life continues. This is how, while Michaela remains a symbol, whose character is hardly elaborated on in the story and whose death has most impact for the sheer arbitrary horror, Maria, though also a symbol, is growing as the story continues, she is known as a character and a person, and in that way, even though the symbol of innocence dies she can live on as a woman.
The themes of Catch-22 are friendship and obedience through fear, while the themes of For Whom the Bell Tolls are love and connection, and obedience through earned loyalty. The difference in themes shows clearly the difference in tone between the two works. Theme influences tone, because tone, being the feeling-image of the entire work, relies on all that is contained within it; as such you cannot have tone without substance, no matter how shallow; tone is the result of a combination of parts and cannot exist without those constituent parts.
So it is that both novels’ tone, through their constituent parts, are brought to the surface. Whether through language or character or plot, setting or theme, the tone rises consistently to make an overarching impression. In Catch-22, that impression is of a vicious circle; in For Whom the Bell Tolls, it is a surprisingly life-giving cycle.
By Sara Barkat, based solely on readings of the novels Catch-22 and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Photo by Joan Sorolla, via Flickr.