The Impossible Choice

1. What is it?

The impossible choice is when a character is given a choice, usually of two options, in which the consequences of both are awful.

2. How is it made?

A character is put into a difficult situation that involves a choice between two options.The character considers the consequences of this choice and understands the negative effects both options present.
The character feels guilt about the consequences.The choice is made.
 The mental and social effects of the choice play out. These may be disastrous and involve guilt and denial in the chooser, and revenge or forgiveness in the affected.

3. Examples in literature

by Joseph Heller

Know Your Book

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller (1923-1999)
Published: 1961
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; novel; satire; absurdist comedy; war
Plot: Yossarian is a US pilot flying in Italy during WWII. He is scared of dying, but also finds the war ridiculous because people he has never met are dedicating their lives to killing him. Hoping to avoid death, Yossarian discovers his squadron is governed by a logic problem called ‘Catch-22’: only a crazy person would fly these dangerous missions, but crazy people are not allowed to fly. However, anyone claiming they are crazy is clearly not crazy and so must fly. There is no escape.
Setting: Italy; 1944
Characters: Yossarian; Col. Cathcart; Dr Daneeka; Orr; Milo

Excerpt from Chapter 5:

It was a horrible joke, but Doc Daneeka didn’t laugh until Yossarian came to him one mission later and pleaded again, without any real expectation of success, to be grounded. Doc Daneeka snickered once and was soon immersed in problems of his own, which included Chief White Halfoat, who had been challenging him all that morning to Indian wrestle, and Yossarian, who decided right then and there to go crazy.
‘You’re wasting your time,’ Doc Daneeka was forced to tell him.
‘Can’t you ground someone who’s crazy?’
‘Oh, sure. I have to. There’s a rule saying I have to ground anyone who’s crazy.’
‘Then why don’t you ground me? I’m crazy. Ask Clevinger.’
‘Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I’ll ask him.’
‘Then ask any of the others. They’ll tell you how crazy I am.’
‘They’re crazy.’
‘Then why don’t you ground them?’
‘Why don’t they ask me to ground them?’
‘Because they’re crazy, that’s why.’
‘Of course they’re crazy,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘I just told you they’re crazy, didn’t I? And you can’t let crazy people decide whether you’re crazy or not, can you?’
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. ‘Is Orr crazy?’
‘He sure is,’ Doc Daneeka said.
‘Can you ground him?’
‘I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.’
‘Then why doesn’t he ask you to?’
‘Because he’s crazy,’ Doc Daneeka said. ‘He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.’
‘That’s all he has to do to be grounded?’
‘That’s all. Let him ask me.’
‘And then you can ground him?’ Yossarian asked.
‘No. Then I can’t ground him.’
‘You mean there’s a catch?’
‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.
‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.

Skimming, Scanning and Basic Comprehension

1. What is Yossarian’s job?
2. What is Yossarian trying to achieve in this passage?
3. Why has Orr not been grounded, despite being crazy?
4. What is ‘Catch-22’? 
Identifying Techniques

5. Underline the rhetorical questions in the passage.
6. What type of persuasion method is Catch-22: ethos, logos, or pathos? 
Text Analysis

7. What are Yossarian’s feelings towards Catch-22?
8. Why is Doc Daneeka’s claim ‘that’s all’ not as simple as the phrase suggests? What gap exists between this statement and the action to which he is referring?
9. The author breaks the dialogue to write the paragraph beginning ‘There was only one catch…”. What purpose does this paragraph serve?
10. The author writes ”It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.’ What does this sentence suggest about Doc Daneeka’s attitude towards Catch-22? 
Theme Exploration

11. What is the ‘impossible choice’ being offered to Yossarian? How is it similar or different to the usual idea of an impossible choice? 
Provoking Opinion

12. If you were in Yossarian’s position, what would you do?
13. What is your impression of the people who invented the ‘Catch-22’ idea about which Yossarian is being told? Why did they create it?
14. The phrase ‘Catch-22’ has become a part of the English language. Do you know any other book titles that have become phrases in a language (English or otherwise)?

Sophie’s Choice 
by William Styron

Know Your Book

Title: Sophie’s Choice
Author: William Styron (1925-2006)
Published: 1979
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; novel; holocaust
Plot: Novelist Stingo recalls the summer of 1947, when he was living in New York with volatile couple Nathan and Sophie. Here, Sophie recounts her life in Poland as WWII breaks out, including her father forcing her to distribute leaflets about exterminating Jews and her husband being taken to a concentration camp. Sophie then describes how she was taken to Auschwitz, before the revelation that she once had two children, about whom the guards forced Sophie make a terrible choice.
Setting: New York; Auschwitz concentration camp; 1947; 1939-1943
Characters: Sophie; Stingo; Nathan; Eva Jan

Excerpt from Chapter 13:

The doctor was a little unsteady on his feet. He leaned over for a moment to an enlisted underling with a clipboard and murmured something, meanwhile absorbedly picking his nose. Eva, pressing heavily against Sophie’s legs, began to cry.
“So you believe in Christ the Redeemer?” the doctor said in a thick-tongued but oddly abstract voice, like that of a lecturer examining the delicately shaded facet of a proposition in logic. Then he said something which for an instant was totally mystifying: “Did He not say, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me’?” He turned back to her, moving with the twitchy methodicalness of a drunk.
Sophie, with an inanity poised on her tongue and choked with fear, was about to attempt a reply when the doctor said, “You may keep one of your children.”
“Bitte?” said Sophie.
“You may keep one of your children,” he repeated. “The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”
“You mean, I have to choose?”
“You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege—a choice.”
Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. “I can’t choose! I can’t choose!” She began to scream. Oh, how she recalled her own screams! Tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium. “Ich kann nicht wahlen!” she screamed.
The doctor was aware of unwanted attention. “Shut up!” he ordered. “Hurry now and choose. Choose, . . . or I’ll send them both over there. Quick!”
She could not believe any of this. She could not believe that she was now kneeling on the hurtful, abrading concrete, drawing her children toward her so smotheringly tight that she felt that their flesh might be engrafted to hers even through layers of clothes. Her disbelief was total, deranged. It was disbelief reflected in the eyes of the gaunt, waxy-skinned young Rottenfuhrer, the doctor’s aide, to whom she inexplicably found herself looking upward in supplication. He appeared stunned, and he returned her gaze with a wide-eyed baffled expression, as if to say: I can’t understand this either.
“Don’t make me choose,” she heard herself plead in a whisper, “I can’t choose.”
“Send them both over there, then,” the doctor said to the aide, “nach links.”
“Mama!” She heard Eva’s thin but soaring cry at the instant that she thrust the child away from her and rose from the concrete with a clumsy stumbling motion. “Take the baby!” she called out. “Take my little girl!”
At this point the aide—with a careful gentleness that Sophie would try without success to forget— tugged at Eva’s hand and led her away into the waiting legion of the damned. She would forever retain a dim impression that the child had continued to look back, beseeching. But because she was now almost completely blinded by salty, thick, copious tears she was spared whatever expression Eva wore, and she was always grateful for that. For in the bleakest honesty of her heart she knew that she would never have been able to tolerate it, driven nearly mad as she was by her last glimpse of that vanishing small form.

1. The scene occurs during

a) World War I
b) World War II
c) The French Revolution
d) The Opium Wars
e) The Battle of Troy

2. Sophie is allowed to choose because

a) the doctor has sympathy for her
b) it is her legally protected right
c) she is defined as Polish, not Jewish
d) she begs to a higher authority
e) the doctor has a limited quota he can take

3. Which description might be used to describe the doctor’s aide?

a) Unwilling accomplice
b) Sadistic torturer
c) Criminal mastermind
d) Ignorant moron
e) Undercover abettor

4. The aide ‘led her away into the waiting legion of the damned’. From this context, to what does ‘the legion of the damned’ refer?

a) The people responsible for the cruel situation
b) Those who deserve to be punished
c) Individuals who will be saved
d) A group destined for a tragic fate
e) Souls entering the afterlife

5. While the protagonist’s choice in Catch-22 is difficult as it could lead directly to his own death, the protagonist’s horror in Sophie’s Choice is based on  

a) guilt
b) fear
c) hope
d) expectation
e) rejection