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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 mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post. Entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder buys and sells, sometimes to the harm of “his side” as when he sells Germans information about a planned attack, but his intention is only to make a profit. Indeed, the system that oppresses Yossarian is so effective because it is a system, not dependent on individual whims. Individuals appear helpless even to affect a system grown perilously out of control.

Like real villains, real heroes are also lacking in the novel. Yossarian is hardly exemplary; the best that he can do is look out for himself. His escape at the end is exactly that. Powerless to confront the system that he despises, he runs away. No other character stands out as heroic. Religion, even to the chaplain, seems untenable or, worse, inconsequential. The “war effort” is a distant abstraction rather than an inspiration. Moral purpose seems to have disappeared along with consequential individuals. Yossarian’s escape at the end of the novel suggests a glimmer of hope, but, in the face of all that has come before, his success seems compromised at best. Yossarian’s “moral” decisions are often indistinguishable from desperate self-preservation in a dark and hostile universe.

What makes Catch-22 palatable, however, is the comedy that coexists with tragedy. Heller’s broad cast of characters gives him ample tools for satire. Often, the sources of humor are simultaneously tragic. For example, Heller uses Yossarian to satirize the pomp of the military when he shows up naked to receive a medal. Yossarian’s humorous act has a serious motive, however, since he stopped wearing clothes after bloodying them on a soldier whom he failed to revive. Far from minimizing the novel’s impact, the satirical and comedic moments punctuate Heller’s message.

Catch-22 is of interest to young adult readers for the same reason that it interests all other readers: It examines humanity with both gravity and whimsy. The novel is challenging, but not out of accordance with the rewards that it offers. Its unconventional plot may be read on a number of levels: under critical scrutiny, which reveals a careful strategy, or with faith in the eclectic, frenetic narrative, which overwhelms and convinces.

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Critical Context