Catch-22 was the first of the post-World War II novels to convey the sense of war as so insane and so negligent of humane values that it can be treated only through exaggerated ridicule. One means whereby Joseph Heller suggests the ways in which war violates humanity is by violating the conventions of realistic fiction. The individual chapters are, for example, named after the different characters, although the character for whom a chapter is named may or may not be important in that chapter or anywhere else in the book. The chapters follow no evident plan; time in the novel is confused because there is no narrative line. Such structure as exists is based on recurrent references to specific situations. Only toward the end is there a progression in time from one chapter to the next.
The salient element that distinguishes Catch-22 from more conventional war novels is its outrageous humor, much of it black and having to do with death and injury. In the late twentieth century, the term “metafiction” began to be applied to this kind of novel, suggesting a kind of fiction that does not pretend to portray reality and continually calls attention to its fictive nature. The cruel joke that gives the novel its title typifies its humor and the situation of the aviators. Each man is required to fly a certain number of missions against the Germans before he can be rotated home. Each time, however, a significant number of men approach that number, Colonel Cathcart, the commanding officer, raises the required number. Those in command are uniformly corrupt and have the power to force their subordinates to do whatever they wish; they plan dangerous missions, choose the most beautiful nurses, and make monetary profits from the war. The subordinate officers, led by Yossarian, have no choice but to act subversively to try to survive.
Many of the episodes of the novel reflect outrageous humor. There are many instances of wordplay, puns, and jokes the characters tell and play on one another, yet underlying the humor are always constant reminders of death and the grisly business of war. One of the threads that holds the novel together is found in the frequent references to a character named Snowden. His death is alluded to very early in the novel,...
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