Individual vs. Society
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 traces the efforts of Yossarian, an American bombardier in World War II to escape participation in a war that seems meaningless. Yossarian represents the individual against a huge, corrupt institution of any sort, whether it is the army or a large corporation. The bureaucracy and rules of such large institutions, Heller suggests, often exist for their own sake, not for a good reason. Milo Minderbinder's M & M enterprises represents the corrupt corporation. In the pursuit of profits and wealth, he will trade anything, even life rafts or morphine that is needed to save the lives of the pilots, with anyone, including the enemy. The obvious question is, if we can communicate enough with the enemy to make business deals, why can't we settle our differences instead of killing each other? Negotiating peace is not the concern of Milo or his customers, however. Thus, Heller suggests that some business people value money even more than human life. When Milo actually has the American pilots bomb their own base as part of a business deal with the Germans, it is perfectly logical and at the same time completely unethical. Yossarian, the sane individual, recognizes that this act is insane and evil.
The other corrupt institution in Catch-22 is, of course, the military. Yossarian is the voice of reason. He is stunned by the...
(The entire section is 1217 words.)
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In an interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review, Heller contends that "Catch-22 is concerned with physical survival against exterior forces or institutions that want to destroy life or moral self." Graphic reminders of man's mortality pervade the novel, as Heller traces the desperate attempts of his protagonist, bombardier John Yossarian, to escape death. Although not, according to Heller, a war novel, Catch-22 nevertheless reflects its author's experiences as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Force during the Second World War. In scenes reminiscent of Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," Heller hauntingly depicts B-25s dodging flak, the claustrophobic womb/tomb environment of the bombardier's compartment, and Yossarian's horrifying discovery that "[t]he spirit gone, man is garbage," as he watches his wounded gunner's entrails spill out on the floor.
The obscene loss of lives of promising young men that war greedily demands — whether it be World War II or, as Heller has suggested, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts — is one aspect of Catch-22. Yet Heller's treatment of man's vulnerability has more far-reaching applications, for many of the deaths in the novel are not directly war-related. For instance, Chief Halfoat dies of pneumonia; Hungry Joe's nightmare comes true as a cat suffocates him while he is sleeping; McWatt accidentally severs Kid Sampson's trunk with the propeller of his plane and then out of guilt...
(The entire section is 806 words.)