Surviving the Irrational World: the "Fight or Flight" Instinct in Angela's Ashes and Catch-22
Both Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are novels set during the time of WWII. Both authors use satire to examine a world that has abandoned the rule of law and now faces life in what might be called "survival mode." Indeed, if one theme may be said to unite the two works it is the theme of "fight or flight" as a survival instinct. As Meridel Le Sueur states, "Survival is a form of resistance," and it is resistance to an encroaching environment of totalitarianism (in Catch-22) and the breakdown of social order (in Angela's Ashes) that propels the protagonists of each work to fend for themselves and secure their own survival. In other words, they "fight" and "flee" as they illustrate a principle of Thomas Carlyle: "Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities: it is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak."
The main characters of each novel, Frank in Angela's Ashes and Yossarian in Catch-22, suffer from both internal and external conflicts. This paper will show how the "fight or flight response" enables the heroes of both works to survive a world that has become anything but rational -- and how the will to survive is the most fundamental of all motivations.
As Michael Newell states, "One of the most basic and important natural instincts is the fight or flight response. It could propel an individual away from danger, but it could also give that individual the courage and added strength needed to take on adversaries."
Frank gives us an early account of this instinct, and the wonder he feels when he dwells upon it in Angela's Ashes: Frank McCourt who is the main character and author in this autobiography and personal memoir encounters the survival instinct on many occasions throughout the novel. Of Frank's childhood and survival, he states
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was of course a miserable childhood. The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. Worse than that is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. Nothing can compare with the Irish version; the poverty, the loquacious alcoholic father, the pious defeated mother, moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
In short, Frank's life is oppressed by outside forces -- and from within himself he finds the necessary survival instinct to both fight against these forces and to fly from them (when flight presents itself as the better option, of course). Similarly, in Catch-22, we find Yossarian being compelled to both "fight" and "flee" rather than resort to logic -- especially since the world he inhabits refuses to be logical about anything (illustrated through the principle of the novel, that everything contains a Catch-22 clause -- essentially a rule that allows those in control to manipulate and control however they see fit). Against this rule, Yossarian exercises his instinct to survive -- and demonstrates his desire to persevere against all forms of oppression.
Yossarian, like Frank, becomes cognizant of the way in which the world is set against him early in the novel: "They're trying to kill me,' Yossarian told him. 'No one is trying to kill you,' Clevinger said. 'Then why are they shooting at me?' Yossarian asked. 'They're shooting at everyone,' Clevinger said. 'They're trying to kill everyone, and what difference does it make?'"
Clevinger represents part of the illogical world who attempts to rationalize the situation by using illogical arguments. Yossarian assesses the situation objectively and yet, rather than be drawn into Clevinger's false logic, his "fight or flight" instinct takes over: throughout the novel, Yossarian can be found retreating into hospitals with various ailments, as though, ironically, Yossarian believes he is better off being seriously ill than flying missions in the war. As he acknowledges, "There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily."
Frank, on the other hand, finds illness all around. Prior to the war, Frank's family is trying to survive the Great Depression. To survive, Frank steals bananas from a local grocer and feeds his hungry twin brothers. Even later, when he is matured, he still retains the same "fight or flight" instinct: when he finds that he needs to escape and remove himself from Limerick, Ireland and head for America in order to have a better life, Frank demonstrates the "flight" aspect of the survival instinct. Sometimes to live, one must outrun the dangers that threaten to consume. Indeed, his departure from Ireland is represented as an instinctive economical decision: he is compelled by the notion that he will not survive financially (which would in turn impact him socially and physically) in Limerick.
Also unlike Yossarian, Frank fears illness. While illness for Yossarian is a far safer aspect (because it places him in a hospital) than fighting in the war, for Frank it is something that he must fight against, since he has seen it consume members of his own family. Frank fears illness by way of consumption and other comparable respiratory diseases afflicting the citizens of a cold and damp Limerick. He is stigmatized, ostracized by his neighbors, peers and even his kin, because of his father's alcoholism, abandonment, lack of provision for his family and his northern heritage. He has been forced to give up on his education to provide for the family unit and also has the doors "slammed in his face" when attempting to attend post secondary with the Christian Brothers. He has also stolen money from his deceased employer to acquire enough funds to leave Ireland. Frank recounts, "The master says it's good to die for Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland. And I wonder if there is anyone left in the world who would like to live. My brother is dead. My sister is dead. And I wonder if they died for Ireland or for faith. Dad says they were too young to die for anything. Mam says it was disease and starvation and Dad not having a job."
Frank, unable to place his reason or his faith in anything higher or noble, relies upon his "fight or flight" instinct to get him through life. Rather than live and die for Ireland or for God, Frank flees to America to secure for himself a better life.
Essentially, Frank embodies the paradox at the heart of the modern world: the desire to live -- but without a reason or anything to live for other than oneself. Frank's world is just as dominated by a Catch-22 as Yossarian's. He feels himself to be a victim and yearns to somehow control his own destiny. Rather than succumb to what appears to be a no-win situation, and finding no reason to transcend his environment, he both fights against his environment and when he feels he can no longer fight against it, he flees from it to America. What he thinks he has left behind him is Death -- the ashes referred to in the title of the narrative -- the slowly dying embers of a world ready to swallow him. In his mind, the end has justified the means: Frank and Yossarian together have stolen money, worked against the poor, and abandoned their military posts in order to preserve their own lives. Their naked instinct trumps any higher reason they might have held with which to face and confront Death.
According to Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" theory, humans act on a system of needs: "when one set of needs is satisfied, this kind of need ceases to be a motivator."
The most basic need in Maslow's theory is the physiological need -- that which sustains human life. If we apply this theory to both Frank and Yossarian, we see how each is trying to fill their most basic needs. They are, in other words, poster boys for Maslow's Hierarchy theory rather than poster boys for self-sacrifice or devotion to duty or something of the sort. Awash in fear, both characters resemble animals who rely on instincts, rather than men who act on virtue. But the world they inhabit is hardly a world of virtue -- and one senses that neither of these characters has learned to form virtuous habits. Thus, they rely on their survival instincts: "All you needed was fear and Yossarian had plenty of that. Even more than Dunbar who had resigned himself to the fact that he was going to die someday. Yossarian had not resigned himself to that and he bolted for his life on each mission, the instant his bombs were away, wildly hollering."