(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Yossarian, the protagonist, opens the novel in the hospital, where he is happily feigning illness in order to avoid combat. The outcome of the war is no longer in doubt, and his goal is survival. Indeed, the goal of the army itself seems to be anything but winning the war. The commanders who keep raising the number of missions the men must fly are concerned with their own careers; the bureaucrats who interrupt meals with loyalty oaths are pushing their own departments. Entrepreneurs such as Milo Minderbinder are only interested in making a profit. Heller’s army is a metaphor for the McCarthyism, big business, and big bureaucracy of the Eisenhower 1950’s: a total system with no way out.

The novel’s tricks with chronology give an impression of chaos, but it is carefully structured. Its hysterically humorous skits circle obsessively around the nightmare scene in which Yossarian tries to comfort the dying Snowden. Giving him first aid for a wound in his thigh (the entrepreneurial Milo has sold the morphine), Yossarian learns too late that, hidden inside the flak jacket, Snowden’s guts have been blown out.

Structure is also provided by the steady rise of exemplary figures such as Milo, who makes a tidy profit by renting planes to the Germans to bomb his own men, and the aptly named Scheisskopf, whose mindless devotion to parades leads him from lieutenant to general.

What hope does the novel hold out? At the end, Yossarian is...

(The entire section is 488 words.)