Set toward the end of World War II in 1944, on an island off the coast of Italy, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a satirical antiwar novel. It features black humor, an unusual narrative structure, surrealism (a genre which features strange imagery and events), and a not-so-heroic protagonist who struggles to deal with the insanity of war and concludes that the only sane response to it is not to participate in it. Heller began writing Catch-22 in 1953, and a chapter from the still-in-progress novel was published in an anthology in 1955. The completed novel was published in 1961.
American army pilot John Yossarian is an antihero, that is, a protagonist lacking some traditionally heroic qualities. He is obsessed with being rotated out of active flight duty. His commander, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of missions the men in the squadron must fly before they can be rotated out. Consequently, Yossarian is desperate to find another way out of his dilemma. He asks the squadron's doctor, Doc Daneeka, to declare him unfit for duty by reason of insanity. Doc refuses, citing the mysterious Catch-22: if Yossarian asks to be let out of his duties, he must be sane. Only a crazy man would want to continue to fly missions, but the only way Daneeka can ground him, according to Catch-22, is if he asks to be grounded—which would indicate his sanity. The circular reasoning of this "catch" is the central metaphor for the absurdity of war and the military bureaucracy.
Yossarian's questions and responses to his situation show that he is indeed a sane man in an insane situation. Heller uses black humor, absurd and even surreal events, and a nonlinear narrative structure in which events are arranged by theme rather than by chronology, to drive home his point that institutions such as the military, big business, government, and religion are corrupt and individuals must find their own responses to this corruption. Heller's questioning of these respected institutions, and of war in general, foreshadowed the social protests and antiwar movements of the late 1960s, and made it one of the most popular and enduring novels of its time.
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