Major Major has had, according to the narrator, “a difficult time from the start.” His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father named him Major Major Major. Major Major resembles Henry Fonda, a famous actor, and his father was a lazy farmer interested only in maximizing profit and minimizing work. Major Major has been a mediocrity all his life.
Major Major’s mediocrity is not presented as his own fault. Indeed, much of Major Major’s life has been determined by sheer luck, or fate. He did not ask for his name, or for his later promotion to Major, and he is powerless to stop the strange events that keep happening to him.
Major Major was an awkward child, disliked by other children and even by parents, who found he made them uncomfortable. Major Major majored in history in college, distinguishing himself in no way, then entered the Army, where he was promoted to Major through a glitch in a computer system. Once promoted, he remained a major, even though he had no military experience—no one saw fit to demote him. Major Major was thus a major even before he completed boot-camp with Lieutenant Scheisskopf, whom he outranked. When Major Duluth of the 27th Squadron was killed in action, Major Major was assigned by Cathcart to take his place, despite the fact that Major had only just arrived to Pianosa.
An illustration of the absurdity of the military bureaucracy. Heller theorizes, here and elsewhere, that bureaucracies are mostly concerned with perpetuating their own stability. Thus it is important for the military to keep individuals from “rocking to boat,” or upsetting matters. Major Major has been promoted because he sounds like a Major—this is enough o keep things running smoothly.
After his promotion, Major Major found no one would talk to him—he was at once everyone’s superior, in command, and inferior, as far as experience went. Major Major attempts to eat with his comrades, the other officers, but they shun him, since he is their superior; he begins eating at his own table.
A strange paradox of Major Major’s situation. He is an inexperienced soldier, meaning no one trusts his combat experience. And he has not earned his high rank, meaning no one listens to him. Yet Major Major seems like just an exaggerated version of the other officers, with the exception that they want to command and think themselves competent.
Major Major, after hearing of the soldier forging “Washington Irving” at the bottom of censored letters, begins doing the same, to alleviate his boredom in his new position. Major Major is confused by his interactions with Major _____ de Coverley, a strange officer, neither his superior or inferior, whose only skills are playing horseshoes and booking rooms for officers’ rest-leave in foreign cities.
Major de Coverley is a mystery man throughout the novel. But Heller appears to appreciate de Coverley’s desire to go his own way, and not to bow to other’s ideas, especially his superiors’ ideas. In this sense de Coverley is a foil for Yossarian, who tries, but often fails, to buck the military hierarchy.
It is revealed, through one of the documents on Major Major’s desk, that a young soldier, assigned to group for only two hours, was killed in a mission over Orvieto. This soldier, it turns out, is the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent—his things remain in the tent because he was never officially added to the group’s rolls before his death, thus he is not truly “dead” and his items cannot be removed.
The “dead man” persists because of an administrative Catch-22. Because he died before he even officially “joined” the group, he was never officially “alive” and fighting, therefore he cannot be officially “dead.” The army’s regulations stop it from seeing reality, and it doesn’t care. It cares more about its regulations than about reality.
Major Major realizes that the documents he has signed with the name “Washington Irving” do not return to him for further review. This makes less work for him, even though it means he has to lie to his superiors. A series of CID men, investigating Washington Irving, come to Major Major’s office, asking about the signatures. Major Major says he does not know anyone named Washington Irving or Irving Washington.
Major Major also participates in the ruse that Yossarian began in the hospital. It is interesting to note that Major Major is never implicated in this scandal, as the chaplain is, and is never brought in for questioning by the CID men. It seems Major Major’s mediocrity has his benefits—he is forgotten by nearly everyone.
It turns out that the CID men are also investigating each other, wondering if the other is in on the Washington Irving plot. Major Major, however, escapes their detection. The CID men believe Tappman, whose name was forged by Yossarian on one document, might be the true culprit.
Heller uses the CID men for humorous effect. It is funny that they devote their time and resources to investigating each other, which of course further represents the useless military bureaucracy, concerned only with petty rivalries among soldiers and not with fighting the enemy.
Major Major begins wearing a disguise—large glasses and a fake mustache—in order to avoid detection when he is signing fake names to documents. He also wears this disguise to play basketball with other officers, who nevertheless recognize him and, in a scrum, beat him to the ground.
Funnily enough, Major Major is only unnoticeable when he walks around on his own. His disguise actually makes him more recognizable, and therefore an object of the other soldiers’ scorn. And once he has disguised the “protection” given to him by his rank, the other soldiers don’t hesitate to let their hatred of him show. There is an implication here that the men would treat all of their superior officers in this way if they could.
Major Major returns to his office and cries at this mistreatment. He orders his assistant only to admit people to his office when he is not in; if he is in, no one may visit. Major Major tells Milo he wishes to take all meals in his trailer. When Flume attempts to tell Major Major about his fears regarding Chief White Halfoat, Major Major tells him he wants to slit Flume’s throat, and Flume, frightened, flees into the woods.
Major Major begins receding into the background, in the group and in the novel. Yossarian spends a good deal of the later part of the book attempting to find Major Major. And the chaplain ends up waiting a long time to speak with him, only to find out that it is impossible to do so, as explained below.
Yossarian manages one day to tackle Major Major while the major is briefly outside—otherwise no officers ever see him. Yossarian complains that the dead man’s items have not been removed from his tent.
The only way, in fact, to encounter Major Major outside is to lie in wait for him, as though he is an enemy to be trapped through ambush.
Yossarian also complains that Cathcart keeps raising the required number of bombing missions. Although Major Major seems to understand that Yossarian merely wants to avoid battle and protect himself, he repeats there’s nothing he can do to help Yossarian or thwart Cathcart’s orders.
Major Major is not heartless—he also believes that Cathcart’s continued raising of the missions is immoral—but he is not willing to stand up to the military hierarchy, even on behalf of a cause he believes in.