Chapter 20 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

Corporal Whitcomb

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The chaplain is discouraged as he leaves Colonel Cathcart’s office, ashamed that he had not been more forceful when discussing the new sixty-mission rule. This is always how he feels when he is confronted with stronger personalities. He already feels terrible, but he feels worse as he sees Colonel Korn walking toward him. The chaplain is even more frightened of Korn than he is of Cathcart, for Korn is disdainful and derisive and the man of God finds himself tongue-tied whenever they meet.

Korn is “an untidy disdainful man” in a rotund and rather repulsive body. The two men pass one another and Korn curtly addresses the Anabaptist chaplain as father, a discourtesy the chaplain believes is deliberate. Suddenly Korn turns back and asks what the chaplain was doing in Cathcart’s office. Before the chaplain can answer, Korn guesses that Cathcart wanted the chaplain to pray for the benefit of the press, which the chaplain admits is true. Before he continues on, Korn asks the chaplain (with a mysterious meaningfulness) if he ate in Korn’s mess hall a day or so ago. The chaplain says he did and Korn goes on his way. Korn developed the complicated mess hall rotation which the chaplain must follow.

The chaplain lives a bit apart from everyone in a clearing in the woods; his closest neighbor is his assistant, Colonel Whitcomb, a disgruntled atheist who is confident he could do a better job than the chaplain. Their tents are less than five feet apart, and Whitcomb is rude and antagonistic to the chaplain because he knows the chaplain will allow it. The chaplain lives separate from the others so the soldiers will not feel guilty every time they see him. The chaplain, a natural introvert, prefers this arrangement, but Whitcomb plans to change everything once he deposes the chaplain.

While the chaplain was away, Yossarian came to visit, but Whitcomb sent the “crackpot” away. Whitcomb is offended that his boss does not believe Yossarian is crazy and abruptly leaves. The chaplain always tries to be considerate to Whitcomb, but Whitcomb insists on being bitter. Whitcomb re-enters the tent and gloats that a C.I.D. man has been here and is going to punish the chaplain for signing Washington Irving’s name to letters, something the chaplain vehemently denies. Whitcomb tries to explain how he has been sparing the chaplain grief by signing Washington Irving’s name to letters on the chaplain’s behalf, but of course the chaplain considers this to be dishonest.

Whitcomb continues his feigned righteous indignation, saying he just did the chaplain the “biggest favor anybody ever did [him] in [his] whole life” but now wishes he had not; he follows this with other ridiculous claims and accusations. After Whitcomb finally leaves, the chaplain considers Cathcart’s likely disappointment in him. He mourns that “there is so much unhappiness in the world” and so little he can do about any of it, including his own woes. 

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Chapter 21 Summary