War Satire as Tragedy: Redemptive Genres for Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five



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Athenian tragedy, despite the suffering it depicts, is theorized to offer emotional relief through its power to deliver a cathartic experience. The three plays forming Aeschylus's Oresteia show the majestic suffering of noble men and women but eventually offer redemption from the cycle of violence through advancement in civilization and jurisprudence. More than two millennia later, however, the monumental event known as World War II unleashed suffering on such a massive plane that the nobility and grandeur of tragedy, in the Athenian sense, fall short of depicting the scale of human suffering and allowing for the same catharsis found in Athenian tragedy. Later in the twentieth century, novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, who both fought in the war, found a new genre--satire with black humor--for expressing and coping with the traumatic war without unnecessarily ennobling it in the vein of Athenian tragedy. Their respective novels, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Catch-22 (1961), offer redemption for tragedy by approaching the serious subject of the unprecedented, globally destructive World War II in a counter-intuitive and even amusing way, thus reinforcing the horror of the war without cloaking it with the majesty associated with tragedy.