Fictional character biography
He has the surname Major, and at birth his father gave him the first and middle names Major and Major, informing the mother that he had named the boy 'Caleb' in accordance with her wishes. She only discovers Major Major's actual full name when his birth certificate is required for him to enter kindergarten, and the shock leads to her death. The novel explains that the name was a joke, and not a particularly funny one, on his father's part.
His father is mentioned briefly in the novel. A staunch Calvinist, he is one of the richest alfalfa farmers in his community. He receives a farm subsidy for every crop of alfalfa that he does not grow with his farmland and uses this money to buy more land to not grow alfalfa on. He believes that receiving money for not producing something is divinely ordained. Ironically, he preaches the proverb "You reap what you sow", and maintains that federal aid to anyone but farmers is "creeping socialism". "He would leap out of bed at the crack of noon each day, to ensure that the chores were not being done."
Inducted during World War II, Major Major is promoted from Private to Major while still in recruit training, without attending the Officers Training Corps or with any advance warning at all. This is caused by an IBM machine with a "sense of humor almost as keen as his father's". A recurring joke in the book is that he bears a striking resemblance to Henry Fonda, even to the point that some people think he is in fact the actor. In an interview, Heller stated that he would imagine Major Major to be played either "by Henry Fonda or by somebody who looks nothing like Henry Fonda."
During the novel, it is revealed that he can never be promoted nor demoted, because the army has only one Major Major Major Major and Ex-PFC Wintergreen will not allow this situation to change.
Major Major was also promoted to squadron commander after his predecessor, Major Duluth, was killed in action. It is this event that causes Major Major to become a recluse: he stops eating meals at the mess hall, he avoids all his duties by forging false names to correspondence requiring his signature, and he enters and exits his office through a window.
Upon discovering that forging false names (like Washington Irving and Irving Washington) to official correspondence would considerably decrease his workload, Major Major began to sign every document with those two names. This caused a duo of C.I.D. men (who were not working together, and were in fact trying to kill each other) to begin an investigation to learn the forger's identity. Because Yossarian once censored an enlisted man's letter under the name of the group chaplain, the CID men believed that the chaplain was intercepting Major Major's correspondence and forging signatures onto them. This investigation eventually leads to the chaplain's arrest and trial. However, Yossarian had also used the name Washington Irving to sign documents, probably giving the idea to Major Major.
Major Major and his father highlight the absurdity of bureaucracy. His character also stands in contrast to the other authority figures in the book who relish their power and use the bureaucratic system and the law of Catch-22 to maintain or try to increase their power over others. Major Major demonstrates how an indifferent bureaucratic system can award a position of authority to someone who, being unwilling or unable to handle the position, can only fulfill his responsibilities by hiding from them. Major Major doesn't want to be mistaken for Henry Fonda or to hold a position of authority; he only wants to live a "normal" life by mitigating the damage dealt by his ridiculous name, but bureaucracy forbids this of him. The situation is another Catch-22, as are the orders he gives regarding visiting officers: the men can only see him when he's not in.
Eventually Major Major disappears from the book, although it is uncertain if this is because he hides or if he was "disappeared" like Dunbar. He simply may have had no part whatsoever in events, due to his plan to completely avoid his duties.