Few would argue that Catch-22 realistically depicts World War II or the time since then, but few would disagree that Heller has illustratively captured an aspect of American society—in wartime or peacetime—that haunts and resonates within all people. By placing exaggerated characters in absurd situations, Heller creates an analogy, rather than a literal representation, of the world. In so doing, he reveals a society so inured with systems and bureaucracy that individuals seem irrelevant and morality nearly absent.
The novel’s title refers to a rule invoked whenever Yossarian has a chance to avoid flying. Hoping to be declared insane and sent home, Yossarian learns about the catch: To fly missions in the face of death is insane, to refuse to fly is sane, and sane people cannot be exempted from duty and so must continue to fly missions. Such perverse nonlogic is the essence of the so-called Catch-22, later reduced to “Catch-22 says they have a right to do whatever we can’t stop them from doing.” “They” is something much bigger than the U.S. military. At issue is the structure and use of power in society. The Catch-22 is a bureaucratic invention: absurd, illogical, but not benign, since it ends so often in death.
If the system against which Yossarian attempts to rebel were discreet, or even identifiable, he might have better luck. Colonel Cathcart raises the number of missions, but his motives are not openly sinister; his greatest aspiration is to be...
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