Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927
Catch-22 was the first of the post-World War II novels to convey the sense of war as so insane and so negligent of humane values that it can be treated only through exaggerated ridicule. One means whereby Joseph Heller suggests the ways in which war violates humanity is by violating the conventions of realistic fiction. The individual chapters are, for example, named after the different characters, although the character for whom a chapter is named may or may not be important in that chapter or anywhere else in the book. The chapters follow no evident plan; time in the novel is confused because there is no narrative line. Such structure as exists is based on recurrent references to specific situations. Only toward the end is there a progression in time from one chapter to the next.
The salient element that distinguishes Catch-22 from more conventional war novels is its outrageous humor, much of it black and having to do with death and injury. In the late twentieth century, the term “metafiction” began to be applied to this kind of novel, suggesting a kind of fiction that does not pretend to portray reality and continually calls attention to its fictive nature. The cruel joke that gives the novel its title typifies its humor and the situation of the aviators. Each man is required to fly a certain number of missions against the Germans before he can be rotated home. Each time, however, a significant number of men approach that number, Colonel Cathcart, the commanding officer, raises the required number. Those in command are uniformly corrupt and have the power to force their subordinates to do whatever they wish; they plan dangerous missions, choose the most beautiful nurses, and make monetary profits from the war. The subordinate officers, led by Yossarian, have no choice but to act subversively to try to survive.
Many of the episodes of the novel reflect outrageous humor. There are many instances of wordplay, puns, and jokes the characters tell and play on one another, yet underlying the humor are always constant reminders of death and the grisly business of war. One of the threads that holds the novel together is found in the frequent references to a character named Snowden. His death is alluded to very early in the novel, and in the description of his funeral and burial midway through the book there is a description of an unnamed character who sits naked in a tree while the ceremony is performed. Later in the novel, it becomes clear that the naked man is Yossarian, who returned in shock from a mission, covered with Snowden’s blood and flesh. He is so horrified by Snowden’s death that he cannot bear to wear anything, but he feels compelled to attend the funeral. Only very late in the novel is Snowden’s death described in grisly detail, but with the same tone of outrageous humor. Snowden’s death carries the novel’s most overt message: “Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. . . . The spirit gone, man is garbage.” The novel’s satiric targets include not only the mechanized destruction of modern war but also many aspects of civilian society in the postwar world that are linked, with satiric intent, with the war itself. Heller mocks the business ethic and the economic arrangements of American society in the sections dealing with the machinations of Milo Minderbinder; he savagely parodies the good-guy image of the typical American boy in the casual cruelty of Aarfy; he ridicules the scant attention paid to religion through his use of a chaplain, a good-hearted innocent whose ministrations have no effect on the problems of the men in the squadron; and he sees modern medicine only as it is used to patch up wounded men so as to return them to battle. Above all, Heller mocks the sheeplike way in which ordinary humans follow orders even when they know those orders will lead to their destruction and that those who give them are idiotic or stupid.
In the world Heller describes, values are of little account. Love is reduced to lustful sexual encounters in which women are barely human. The only absolutes in this world are human mortality and the corruption of the world, as depicted in the chapter “Eternal City,” where the “holy” city of Rome is depicted in nightmarish terms as a kind of hell on earth. The choices in this world are few. The men may be killed at any time. They can take life as they find it, as most people do. They can try to fight against the forces that control them, knowing that their efforts are doomed. They can, if they are desperate enough, try to find a way out. Improbably, at the end of the novel, Yossarian chooses the last in imitation of his friend Orr. After accidentally killing his friend Kid Sampson, Orr manages to row from Italy through the Mediterranean Sea around the west coast of Europe and through the North Sea to a safe haven in neutral Sweden. This unbelievable journey is perhaps the novel’s most bitter joke.
Catch-22 was a pioneering work of metafiction. Of Heller’s later novels, only God Knows (1984) takes similar liberties with fact, and none of his subsequent works measures up to the high standard set by Catch-22. Most critics considered the book’s sequel, Closing Time (1994), to be a distinct disappointment. Catch-22 nevertheless deserves its continuing reputation as one of the four or five most memorable novels to come out of World War II.