Catch-22 (The Sixties in America)
Catch-22 is set on the imaginary island of Pianosa during World War II and focuses on Captain John Yossarian and his attempts to survive the fanatical lunacy of his bomber squadron’s commanders long enough to get home. As the death toll rises, the quota of bombing missions required for home leave is repeatedly increased. By pleading insanity, Yossarian hopes to find a way out. However, his doctor quotes the infamous Catch-22: To get out of flying missions, a bombardier must plead insanity, but wanting to get out of flying missions is proof of sanity, so the minute a bombardier says he does not want to fly, he must. Yossarian is slow to realize the full implications of his predicament, but when he does, he has the courage to take the only definitive action still open to him: He heads for neutral Sweden.
Orr, a combat pilot and Yossarian’s tent-mate and alter ego, also functions as the “alter hero” of the book. In Orr there is something of the real “prophet,” for it is he who prepares the way for Yossarian. From the beginning, he is Yossarian’s double, acting in many ways like the ego to Yossarian’s id. Orr reacts objectively and rationally to their common predicament, while Yossarian behaves subjectively, whining, protesting, and acting moody. Orr is resourceful and cunning, living among his enemies in the guise of a shallow-minded joker while plotting his revenge; Yossarian has trouble getting beyond...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Hospital. Military hospital in Pianosa in which the novel opens and to which it periodically returns; it is the refuge to which Army Air Force captain John Yossarian, the protagonist, escapes whenever the stress of dealing with the war and “catch-22” overcomes him. The hospital operates as a symbolic representation of a haven from the madness of the outside world that the war has created. It is immediately evident, however, that the hospital’s own activities are every bit as inane and insane as the world from which Yossarian is fleeing. Feigning an indefinable liver ailment, Yossarian utilizes the hospital for many of his shenanigans—such as censoring the correspondence of enlisted men erratically, impersonating other patients, and playing jokes on enlisted men.
The hospital serves as a microcosm of the larger world of war—replete with absurdity upon absurdity. The “craziness” of the hospital is exemplified in patients such as the “Soldier in White,” who has interchangeable intravenous tubes connected to his elbows and groin, and the “Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice.” These absurdities reflect the nonsense outside the hospital that terrifies Yossarian, who is convinced that people are trying to kill him.
*Pianosa (pee-ah-NOH-sah). Tiny island in Tuscan archipelago, off the west-central coast of Italy, near Elba and Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea, on which...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
In forty-two dizzying chapters, Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid flying any more bombing missions during World War II. His superior officer, Colonel Cathcart, progressively increases the number of required missions, starting at thirty-five and going up to eighty, when Yossarian finally takes an effective stand. During that time, readers are witness to an absurd series of mishaps developing from (or in spite of) an incompetent U.S. military, which is somehow winning the war against Germany.
The chronology of events signaled by the number of missions that Yossarian has flown at any particular point, is deliberately obscured. Among chapters, and even in individual chapters, scenes occur out of order. Colonel Cathcart raises the required missions to fifty near the beginning of the book, but later readers learn about earlier missions; a soldier’s death, recounted at the end of the book, in fact precedes most of the other action. Yet, the subversion of a standard chronological sequence does not necessarily make the novel less accessible. Taken in the light of the novel’s subject—the insanity of war—Joseph Heller’s decision to depart from a conventional plot structure seems perfectly natural. Indeed, the unconventional storyline captures something of the turmoil inherent in his protagonist, Yossarian.
A psychiatrist diagnoses Yossarian at one point with a “morbid aversion to...
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Italy in World War II
Catch-22 takes place on an American Army Air Force base on an island off the coast of Italy. Italy had been drawn into World War II by Benito Mussolini, a former Socialist who had come to power in 1925. His fascist government, marked by strict government control of labor and industry, ended civil unrest in the country but limited the rights of its citizens. Mussolini was constantly engaged in military campaigns, conquering Ethiopia in 1936, for example, and that same year he signed an agreement with Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler to cooperate on a mutually beneficial foreign policy when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Great Britain and France declared war, and Italy officially joined Germany in the alliance of Axis Powers in 1940.
Italy had neither the economic or strategic resources to succeed for long, and by mid-1943 the Allied Forces of the United States and Great Britain had begun occupying Italian territory. By this time, Mussolini was in political trouble, and he was exiled and eventually executed in 1945. A new government of Italian businessmen and workers signed an armistice with the Allies, and in October 1943 declared war on Germany. The Germans,...
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The novel's setting is the mythical island of Pianosa, modeled closely on Corsica and located off the coast of Rome, eight miles south of Elba. The year is 1944, and as World War II draws to a close, the Allies continue to conduct round-the-clock bombing missions to Europe from their Air Force base on the island. Nearby Rome serves as the playground for off-duty aviators. The site of social madness in the form of brothels, debauchery, and senseless pain and murder, the city is symbolically the Rome of ancient times, just before the fall of the Roman Empire.
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Catch-22 is set on an army air force base on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy in 1944, toward the end of World War II. The majority of the action takes place on the base itself, in the B-52 bomber planes as they go on raids, and in the local whorehouse, where the men relax; there are also flashbacks to training camps in America and some scenes in Italy. The island is real, but there was not a base on it in WWII. Note that the 256th is an army squadron of pilots; the army and navy both had air forces during the war but a separate U.S. Air Force was not created until 1947.
Point of View
The story is told in third person. Sometimes the narrative is omniscient ("all-knowing"), meaning that readers can see the large picture and everything that goes on. Sometimes, however, the narrator's vision is somewhat limited, we see things as if through a particular character's eyes. For example, the first several chapters are really from the point of view of Yossarian, but then in chapter nine we pull back and see the larger picture. This switching from limited to omniscient narration allows Heller to focus on the big picture or just one character.
Catch-22 is not a linear novel in which events follow each other chronologically. Instead, to underscore his points, Heller has the narrative jump around in time, using flashbacks and deja vu—a...
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The techniques of Catch-22 have generated much critical discussion and disagreement. One topic of debate has been the genre to which the work belongs. Given the fragmented chronology, episodic structure, and caricatured characterizations, some critics have objected to labeling Catch-22 as a novel. Instead they have observed that the book's mockery of political and social institutions and comic exaggeration are that of the satire, whereas Yossarian's series of misadventures echo the picaresque tradition. Furthermore, a number of commentators have noted affinities with the epic in the work's in medias res opening, the huge cast of characters, and the descent-into-the-under-world motif of "The Eternal City" chapter. Constance Denniston contends that the book is a "romance-parody," while John J. Murray calls it "a series of Overburyean character sketches." The most inclusive appellation is Jessie Ritter's "social surrealist novel," which Ritter defines as "a mixture of picaresque, romance-parody, and anatomy (or Menippean satire), containing elements of surrealism, black humor, the grotesque and tragic, the absurd, apocalyptic visions, and a semi-mythic antihero." As is typical of novels of the second half of the twentieth century,
Catch-22 both absorbs and parodies a variety of literary types and traditions. Not only has there been controversy about the book's genre, but also about its structure. Early reviewers criticized Catch-22 for its lack of...
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Catch-22 both absorbs and parodies a variety of literary genres. Given the book's fragmented chronology, episodic structure, and caricatured characterizations, some critics have objected to labeling it a novel. The book's mockery of political and social institutions and comic exaggeration are characteristic of the satire; Yossarian's series of misadventures echo the picaresque tradition; and the work's huge cast of characters and descent-into-the-underworld motif bring to mind the epic.
The structure of Catch-22 has also confounded traditional critics. Early reviewers criticized the book for its lack of organization. But Heller asserts that the surface disorder is intentional, mirroring the thematic thrust of Yossarian's quest—a rebellion against the repressive power of systems. Psychological rather than chronological time sets the framework for the novel; past and present intermingle through mental association. The narrative opens with Yossarian in the hospital and then shifts rapidly between scenes leading up to his hospitalization and those occurring after his release. Only when Yossarian decides to desert does Heller favor straightforward narration.
Heller relies heavily upon patterns of recurrence—whether of scene, image, or verbal exchange—so that the reader experiences a sense of deja vu. Most significant is Heller's incremental repetition of the Snowden episode; he presents fragments of the scene and builds to a...
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Heller's first novel was inspired by American political, military, and social events of the 1950s. In an interview with Ken Barnard, Heller asserted, "What Catch-22 is more about than World War II is the Korean War and the Cold War." The author's anxiety over the war in Korea and threats of war against China and Russia influenced the work, as did his disturbance over the Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the racial hatred that surfaced when Southern schools began to be integrated. The antagonism between groups that prevailed in the United States after the Second World War Heller translated into the enmity between the common soldiers and the officers of Catch-22.
Readers desensitized to the indifference and brutality of society as chronicled every evening on television may not find Catch-22 as horrifying as did readers in 1961. The novel's presentation of vulgar, inhumane events is always couched in absurdity. The humor lies in pokes at the "system"; the horror stems from the realization that the search for individualism may be futile.
If readers find Catch-22 offensive or disturbing, it is more likely a result of the book's irreverence than its violence. Heller does not regard patriotism, duty to God and country, or allegiance to noble principles as worthy goals. He concludes, existentially, that society provides a shallow and often evil structure for living. Heller...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Catch-22 has generated avid discussion among readers and critics since it was first published, for the novel was so experimental that it immediately raised debate about whether the designation of "novel" was appropriate, whether it had a form, whether the content was offensively vulgar, and whether Heller had significant problems with characterization. Evaluating the position of Catch-22 within literary tradition can lead to provocative discussion. Readers can compare the book to other treatments of war, such as Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) or Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), can relate Heller's focus on Yossarian's quest for freedom to existentialist works; or can consider similarities and differences between Heller's treatment of a fragmented chronology with that of such writers as Faulkner and Fitzgerald.
Since Heller was involved in writing both film and television scripts, readers might enjoy relating this novel to works in other media. For instance, they might compare some of Heller's slapstick scenes to Mel Brooks's movies or note connections between Catch-22 and McHale's Navy, the pilot of which Heller wrote.
Heller excels in making us wary of systems from military hierarchies to hospital administration to our much celebrated American capitalism. Assessing the fairness of his depictions of these systems should provoke stimulating discussion. As should examining Heller's treatment of language. Do we find...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: The U.S. invades Normandy France in June, 1944, while massively bombing Japan. Two atom bombs dropped on Japan in August will lead to Japan's surrender. The war ends in 1945.
1960s: In November 1961, President Kennedy begins increasing the number of American advisers in Vietnam, which will grow from 1,000 to 16,000 over the next two years. Two U.S. Army helicopter companies, the first direct American military support of South Vietnam, arrive in Saigon. In 1965, President Johnson will begin sending combat troops, without getting the approval of Congress.
Today: Recent police actions, such as Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the 1983 invasion of Grenada (an island in the Caribbean), have been publicly questioned by Americans even as these actions were taking place. Congress must now vote on such actions.
1940s: Jim Crow laws in the South are the most obvious evidence that blacks are expected to keep their distance from whites. Throughout the country, African Americans have fewer educational and economic opportunities.
1960s: The Civil Rights movement is in full swing, as African Americans forced the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1957. Movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., advocate peaceful...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Catch-22 is an allegory; that is, each character represents some human quality. List the major characters and their allegorical characteristics.
2. Yossarian's nickname is Yo-Yo. He marches backwards; he clings naked to a tree, only to be brought down by one of Milo's schemes. Examine how Heller uses details to build Yossarian into a symbol. What is Yossarian a symbol of?
3. The names of several other characters are also symbolic—names like Orr, Snowden, Scheisskopf, Mindbender. What is the effect of these names on the tone of the novel?
4. Is Yossarian crazy? Is he insane? Is there a difference?
5. What is "black humor"? How does it contribute to the themes of Catch-22?
6. Catch-22 was published in 1961, during the early days in the presidency of John Kennedy, a time when many Americans were very optimistic and idealistic. Why would a book as bleak as Catch-22 become so popular during such an era?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the philosophical terms "existentialism" and "nihilism" and show how they apply to the themes in Catch-22.
2. Read the novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, or Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and compare the use of black humor and absurdity in that book and Catch-22.
3. Compare Catch-22 to a traditional World War II novel.
4. Define the term "anti-hero" and explain why Yossarian fits the role.
5. Although the "loss of innocence" theme usually focuses on younger characters, such as Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield, it applies to the adult Yossarian in Catch-22. Discuss some of the episodes in which Yossarian loses his innocence.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the antiwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Compare the reasoning antiwar activists presented for their opposition to war with the ideas presented in Catch-22.
Discuss the themes of greed and corruption in the business world in Catch-22. Find a real-life case of a disaster caused by corporate greed and compare it to Milo Minderbinder's actions.
Research the military justice system. Investigate under what circumstances a soldier may be charged with disobeying orders or desertion and what the penalties are. Then analyze how Yossarian's actions in Catch-22 would have been charged and penalized.
Discuss how Heller uses language itself to show that war is absurd. Use examples from several characters and be sure to take quotes from the text to support your analysis.
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Catch-22 reveals the thorough acquaintance with modern literature of its author, a possessor of both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. The novel is modernist in its portrayal of an absurd universe, its black humor, its' fragmented time scheme, and its alienated protagonist. One writer who influenced Heller is James Joyce, whom Heller emulates in providing naturalistic details and in using the device of the epiphany, a scene depicting a character's moment of insight. Furthermore, Heller credits Joyce's characterization of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses (1914) with inspiring his own creation of Yossarian. Another modern writer who influenced Heller is Franz Kafka, with whom Heller shares an aversion to bureaucracies. The nightmarish trial scenes of Clevinger and the chaplain are particularly Kafkaesque. To William Faulkner, Heller attributes his structure, noting that he strove to present bits of information and then to connect them at the end of his book, much as Faulkner did in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and The Sound and the Fury (1929).
The immediate impetus for Catch-22 came from two authors Heller discovered in the same week: Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Vladimir Nabokov. Heller states, "What I got from Celine is the slangy use of prose and the continuity that is relaxed and vague rather than precise and motivated; from Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (1938), the flippant approach to situations which were filled with anguish and grief and tragedy." Heller's humor...
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In 1967 Heller wrote a two-act play entitled We Bombed in New Haven that shares the antiwar stance of Catch-22 and, like the novel, reflects the author's own military experiences. Surrealistic in technique with a sometimes heavy-handed use of burlesque elements, the play lacks a tight structure. It was first produced at Yale University and later ran for eighty-six performances on Broadway. That same year Heller published "Catch-22 Revisited," a nonfiction article tracing his return to Corsica, where he served during World War II. A 1969 short story entitled "Love, Dad" examines the childhood and family background of the character Nately. Five years later, in 1974, Heller fleshed out yet another character from Catch-22 in "Clevinger's Trial," a short dramatic piece. In 1971 he produced a pared down, three-act stage version of Catch-22. Directed by Larry Arrick and performed by the John Drew Repertory Company in East Hampton, New York, the play met with moderate success.
Heller received inquiries about movie rights soon after the novel's publication. Columbia Pictures, the studio that originally purchased the film rights, eventually dropped the project because of Pentagon concerns about antiwar films, the difficulties of translating a lengthy novel into a workable script, and the problem of finding a suitable director. Paramount surmounted these obstacles in 1970, producing a movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring...
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A film of Catch-22 was released in 1970 in the U.S., directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Buck Henry, starring Alan Arkin (as Yossarian), Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, and Art Garfunkel. Available on videotape from Paramount Pictures.
Catch-22: A Dramatization was a one-act play based on the novel, produced in East Hampton, New York, at the John Drew Theater, July 23, 1971 Script published by Samuel French, New York, 1971.
Catch-22, a sound recording on two cassettes (approx. 120 minutes); abridged by Sue Dawson from the novel by Joseph Heller read by Alan Arkin. Published by Listen for Pleasure, 1985.
Catch-22, an unsold pilot for a television comedy series, was created in 1973. Written by Hal Dresner, directed by Richard Quine. It starred Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian.
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What Do I Read Next?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey is another novel about a man caught in an insane institution, in this case literally. Randall Patrick McMurphy was sent to an in-sane asylum as part of a plea bargain arrangement, and must fight to retain his sanity and sense of himself when he is confronted with the brutal authoritarian figure of Big Nurse, who runs the ward.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is another semi-autobiographical, satirical novel that uses a nonlinear structure to make its points about the horror and absurdity of war. The main action is set during the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, in World War II and the main character, Billy Pilgrim, like Yossanan, is a bombardier.
Going after Cacciato (1979) is an antiwar novel by Tim O'Brien, set during the Vietnam War. In it, the main character, Cacciato, like Yossarian, tries to escape the war, in this case Vietnam, and arrive in a safe place, Paris. O'Brien, like Heller, uses black humor and surrealism to bring out his themes.
V. (1963) by Thomas Pynchon is a novel about a mysterious woman who shows up at key points in European history. Pynchon uses black humor to point out the flaws in...
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For Further Reference
Kiley, Frederick, and Walter McDonald, eds. A "Catch-22" Casebook. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. Contains critical commentary on the book and film, interviews with Heller, and a short story and travel essay by the novelist.
Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on "Catch-22." Encino, CA: Dickenson, 1974. A selection of reviews and critical articles on the novel's structure, theme, and form.
Plimpton, George. The Art of Fiction III: Joseph Heller." Parts Review 60 (1974): 126-147. An interview in which Heller discusses Catch-22 and Something Happened.
Sale, Richard B. "An Interview in New York with Joseph Heller." Studies in the Novel 4 (1972): 63-74. Covers Heller's aesthetic values, the literary influences upon his works, and his assessments of Catch-22 and Something Happened.
Walden, Daniel, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 28. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. Article on Heller provides biographical information and insightful analyses of his major works.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Nelson Algren, "The Catch," in Nation, Vol. 193, November 4, 1961, pp. 357-58.
Whitney Balliett, in a review of Catch-22, in The New Yorker, December 9, 1961, p. 247.
Marcus K Billson, "The Un-Minderbinding of Yossarian: Genesis Inverted in Catch-22," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 315-29.
Morris Dickstein, "Black Humor and History: The Early Sixties," in Partisan Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1976, pp. 185-211, reprinted in his Gates of Eden. American Culture in the Sixties, Penguin, 1977, 1989, pp. 91-127.
Mike Frank, "Eros and Thanatos in Catch-22," in Canadian Review of American Studies, Spring, 1976, pp 77-87.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Kvetch-22," in Village Voice, March 5, 1979, pp. 74-75.
Jean E Kennard, "Joseph Heller. At War with Absurdity," in Mosaic, Vol. IV, No. 3, Spring, 1971, pp. 75-87.
Richard Locke, "What I Like," in New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1997, pp. 3, 36-37.
Norman Mailer, "Some Children of the Goddess," in Esquire, July, 1963, reprinted in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 3-31.
Raymond M. Olderman, "The Grail Knight Departs," in Beyond the Waste Land. A Study of the American Novel in the...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Karl, Frederick R. American Fiction 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. The judgment of an outstanding critic and biographer on forty years of American novels. Judges Catch-22 as an outstanding product of its time.
Martine, James J. American Novelists. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Heller.
Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22.” Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (August, 1986): 139-152. Detailed discussion of the effect of the novel’s unusual structure on the message it conveys about society.
Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984
Potts, Stephen W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne, 1989. The first single volume devoted exclusively to Catch-22. Discusses most of the major aspects of the novel.
Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. Rev. ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995. For further commentary on the place of Catch-22 in the cultural climate of the 1960’s and its reflection of counterculture attitudes.
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