Study Guide

Catch-22

by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 Themes

Themes

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 priorities of the army, which at best are absurd and at worst evil, such as when the military police care about his going AWOL more than Captain Aardvaark's rape and murder of the Italian girl. Many of the orders issued by the men in power serve only to secure their own positions. Yossarian is constantly questioning the foolish arbitrary military rules and decisions and even sabotages his plane's communications systems in order to abort a mission that he feels is wrong. Individual men such as Yossarian are powerless to fight the army's corruption, which is why Yossarian decides he must leave rather than be a part of it.

Sanity and Insanity
The outrageous military regulation called Catch-22 captures Heller's attitude toward sanity and insanity. It is, he suggests, impossible to exist as a sane person in an insane environment. Heller portrays life for the men in the squadron as completely crazy. They are at the mercy of ambitious commanders who care more about their own careers than the men's lives. Their sanity is challenged by military rules that make no sense but which they must blindly obey. They see ethics thrown out the window, by Milo in pursuit of profit, for example, or by the old man in Rome, who lives only for pleasure. They are asked to endanger their lives, and begin to question why this is necessary, especially when they are asked to bomb an innocent village just to block a road.

The men deal with this insanity in different ways. Yossarian fakes illness to hide out in the hospital McWatt buzzes people with his plane....

(The entire section is 1217 words.)

Catch-22 Themes

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 commits suicide; Aarfy flings a servant girl out of a window to her death on the pavement below. Through these deaths, Heller creates a brutal world, symbolized by the omnipresent knife of Nately's whore, that threatens to destroy the individual at any moment.

One of the key threats to the individual in Catch-22 is the military bureaucracy. Heller presents a procession of insensitive officers who victimize their men for self-aggrandizement. Most noteworthy are Milo Minderbender, mess officer turned...

(The entire section is 806 words.)