Catch-22

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The Work

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Catch-22 is set on the imaginary island of Pianosa during World War II and focuses on Captain John Yossarian and his attempts to survive the fanatical lunacy of his bomber squadron’s commanders long enough to get home. As the death toll rises, the quota of bombing missions required for home leave is repeatedly increased. By pleading insanity, Yossarian hopes to find a way out. However, his doctor quotes the infamous Catch-22: To get out of flying missions, a bombardier must plead insanity, but wanting to get out of flying missions is proof of sanity, so the minute a bombardier says he does not want to fly, he must. Yossarian is slow to realize the full implications of his predicament, but when he does, he has the courage to take the only definitive action still open to him: He heads for neutral Sweden.

Orr, a combat pilot and Yossarian’s tent-mate and alter ego, also functions as the “alter hero” of the book. In Orr there is something of the real “prophet,” for it is he who prepares the way for Yossarian. From the beginning, he is Yossarian’s double, acting in many ways like the ego to Yossarian’s id. Orr reacts objectively and rationally to their common predicament, while Yossarian behaves subjectively, whining, protesting, and acting moody. Orr is resourceful and cunning, living among his enemies in the guise of a shallow-minded joker while plotting his revenge; Yossarian has trouble getting beyond his own moods and emotions. The archvillain of the piece is Colonel Cathcart, model of robotlike conformity, always trying to adjust to the dictates of the bureaucracy and to avoid confrontations with officialdom. At the other extreme is the anonymous Soldier in White, the “arch-victim,” bandaged from head to foot and kept alive by an endless recycling of body fluids. What begins as a grim joke—fluids excreted at one end are injected at the other—becomes a grotesque symbol of the mechanical regulation of human life: facelessness, self-containment, and the withdrawal and isolation of the patient thoroughly dehumanized yet kept alive. In the case of the Soldier in White, it is unclear whether there actually is a man beneath the bandages. If there is, can that person hear what is going on around him? Or even worse, can he still think and feel? These are horrible questions that carry the madness of war beyond the battlefield.

Impact

As disenchantment with U.S. policy in Vietnam and government “oppression” at home mounted in the 1960’s, Catch-22 became the rationale for opposition, desertion, draft dodging, dropping out, or whatever it took to lodge a protest against what many considered an unjust war. Yossarian, like his 1960’s readers, finds it impossible to live within the establishment, even in order to reform it, because he feels its dehumanization is pandemic and irreversible. It is a system that tends to use war more to regulate its own people than to fight a national enemy. (The book contains almost nothing about an actual enemy.) The system also fosters power struggles that victimize the fighting man in wartime and the creative person in peacetime. On every level, the system needs scapegoats and always finds them. Corruption runs rampant in all professions and institutions because private greed is sanctified.

Yossarian’s principles reflect those of the counterculture. For example, Yossarian values individuality and freedom more than status or official recognition, and he thinks of money and machinery as means rather than ends. He is also more interested in humanity than in organizations, and when the organization turns against human values, Yossarian has the courage to remember that there is a higher law than the state.

Related Work

Closing Time, the sequel to Catch-22, published in 1994, never achieved the popularity of the original work.

Bibliography:

Karl, Frederick R. American Fiction 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. The judgment of an outstanding critic and biographer on forty years of American novels. Judges Catch-22 as an outstanding product of its time.

Martine, James J. American Novelists. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Heller.

Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22.” Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (August, 1986): 139-152. Detailed discussion of the effect of the novel’s unusual structure on the message it conveys about society.

Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984

Potts, Stephen W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne, 1989. The first single volume devoted exclusively to Catch-22. Discusses most of the major aspects of the novel.

Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. Rev. ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995. For further commentary on the place of Catch-22 in the cultural climate of the 1960’s and its reflection of counterculture attitudes.

Ruas, Charles. Conversations with American Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Contains a section on Heller in part 2 with a detailed interview on his life and intentions that focuses on Catch-22.

Places Discussed

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Hospital

Hospital. Military hospital in Pianosa in which the novel opens and to which it periodically returns; it is the refuge to which Army Air Force captain John Yossarian, the protagonist, escapes whenever the stress of dealing with the war and “catch-22” overcomes him. The hospital operates as a symbolic representation of a haven from the madness of the outside world that the war has created. It is immediately evident, however, that the hospital’s own activities are every bit as inane and insane as the world from which Yossarian is fleeing. Feigning an indefinable liver ailment, Yossarian utilizes the hospital for many of his shenanigans—such as censoring the correspondence of enlisted men erratically, impersonating other patients, and playing jokes on enlisted men.

The hospital serves as a microcosm of the larger world of war—replete with absurdity upon absurdity. The “craziness” of the hospital is exemplified in patients such as the “Soldier in White,” who has interchangeable intravenous tubes connected to his elbows and groin, and the “Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice.” These absurdities reflect the nonsense outside the hospital that terrifies Yossarian, who is convinced that people are trying to kill him.

*Pianosa

*Pianosa (pee-ah-NOH-sah). Tiny island in Tuscan archipelago, off the west-central coast of Italy, near Elba and Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea, on which Yossarian’s bomber squadron is stationed. The island is the central location for much of the action that occurs—in a nonsequential order—within the novel. The absence of an ordinary fixed chronology gives the novel’s settings a larger significance because they are the only features of the narrative that remain fixed.

During World War II, Joseph Heller himself was stationed on nearby Corsica, and may have chosen Pianosa for its obscurity, thereby undercutting and satirizing the self-aggrandizing officers who appear in the novel who direct the squadron’s bombing raids from the island. Pianosa also functions as a counterpoint to other locations because its beaches provide some rare moments of tranquility for Yossarian and his friends. Thematically, Pianosa is also the setting for the pivotal and gratuitous death of Kid Sampson and the culminating climax when Milo Minderbinder actually bombs his own men in a perverted twisting of capitalistic ideals into war rhetoric that at the same time parodies the Machiavellian concept of the end justifying the means.

Yossarian’s tent

Yossarian’s tent. Living quarters on Pianosa that Yossarian shares with fellow officer Orr. His tent is a site where bureaucratic absurdity invades his personal life, as during the episode when a dead body cannot be removed from his tent because it does not officially exist. Yossarian’s tentmate, Orr, baffles Yossarian throughout most of the novel with nonsensical circumlocutions and non sequiturs but finally becomes one of the few men actually to escape both the war and “catch-22.” Symbolically, Orr defines the concept that responding crazily to a crazy situation (such as a war) is a valid response while sanely planning one’s escape. Yossarian’s tent is thus the locus for one of the novel’s basic truths and a perception of how to respond to such a truth.

*Bologna

*Bologna (boh-LOH-nyah). Industrial town in north-central Italy, at the foot of the Apennines, that becomes the major target of squadron bombing raids. Whereas almost all chapters in the novel take their titles from characters, the fact that chapter 12 is titled “Bologna” has a special significance. With its long history, dating back to the Etruscans, and its noted Renaissance university, Bologna functions as a symbol for humanist civilization, providing a thematic contrast to the wanton destruction of the bombs, which are often erroneously and erratically dropped.

The concern Yossarian has about bombing Bologna becomes a focal point for the men, who are seen as both willing and unwilling pawns in an American assault on the city. The issue that war gives arbitrary power to some to send others to their death is echoed in the general agreement that it is Yossarian’s “job” to get himself killed over Bologna. Through trickery, Yossarian manages to postpone the raid the first time it is scheduled. The second time, he gets his plane to turn back, thereby avoiding the conflict. Ironically, the raid turns out to be a “milk run,” and Bologna afterward haunts him, because of his own sense of mortality and his inability to subscribe to a system that insists one be killed.

*Rome

*Rome. The capital of Italy is the subject of the novel’s thirty-ninth chapter, titled “The Eternal City,” in which Yossarian goes to Rome after it is liberated from Axis control. This is a defining chapter that culminates in Yossarian’s realization that all of society—not just the military—is permeated by the principle of “catch-22.” Besides depicting a nightmarish Rome fallen prey to all kinds of brutality and victimization of humanity that a state of war allows, the chapter portrays a city, long a place where the airmen came for rest and recreation (mostly with prostitutes), as a mental state for Yossarian where some sanity (love, pleasure, sensuality) could exist, but which is now in shambles. As Yossarian seeks the kid sister of Nately’s whore, hoping to save and protect her, Rome becomes a rich symbol for human suffering and for what the truly human must summon from within in order to survive. There, Yossarian finally realizes that the “catch” of the book’s title does not exist; however, that realization does not greatly matter because people believe that the catch exists. Rome, like Bologna, signifies human history and culture perverted and destroyed by war, yet it manifests how civilians, rather than military personnel, are so tortured by its costs.

Yossarian’s airplane

Yossarian’s airplane. Bomber in which Yossarian acts as bombardier during bombing raids. The plane is setting for much of the air action and is the place where Yossarian experiences horrendous fear and horror—such as the bombing raid over Ferrera in which Kraft is lost, or the recurring motif of Snowden and his grisly death. The plane functions as a telling emotional portrayal of the true reality of war and the singular, actual, human beings who engage in it.

Form and Content

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In forty-two dizzying chapters, Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid flying any more bombing missions during World War II. His superior officer, Colonel Cathcart, progressively increases the number of required missions, starting at thirty-five and going up to eighty, when Yossarian finally takes an effective stand. During that time, readers are witness to an absurd series of mishaps developing from (or in spite of) an incompetent U.S. military, which is somehow winning the war against Germany.

The chronology of events signaled by the number of missions that Yossarian has flown at any particular point, is deliberately obscured. Among chapters, and even in individual chapters, scenes occur out of order. Colonel Cathcart raises the required missions to fifty near the beginning of the book, but later readers learn about earlier missions; a soldier’s death, recounted at the end of the book, in fact precedes most of the other action. Yet, the subversion of a standard chronological sequence does not necessarily make the novel less accessible. Taken in the light of the novel’s subject—the insanity of war—Joseph Heller’s decision to depart from a conventional plot structure seems perfectly natural. Indeed, the unconventional storyline captures something of the turmoil inherent in his protagonist, Yossarian.

A psychiatrist diagnoses Yossarian at one point with a “morbid aversion to dying.” There is little doubt about Yossarian’s unwillingness to fight. He feigns sickness, shows up naked for inspection, fakes equipment failure, and puts soap in the squadron’s mashed potatoes—all attempts to avoid one mission or another. He also entreats Major Major (who earned his rank through a computer with a sense of humor), Milo Minderbinder, and the chaplain to speak to Colonel Cathcart about his cruel habit of increasing the required missions just when Yossarian is about to finish. Cathcart is unshakable, however, and Yossarian ends up flying nearly eighty missions. As a bombardier, he has numbed himself to the destruction that he causes, although he is acutely aware of the threat to his own life. “They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian complains early in the novel, unconsoled by the knowledge that the Germans are also trying to kill everyone else. Yet, something keeps Yossarian from simply leaving, or refusing to fly, until the end of the novel. It is true that he fears personal retribution, but he also acts with some unaccountable faith in others. He feels genuine compassion for dead and dying soldiers, expects (even in the end) that a murderer will be held accountable, and chooses to desert rather than to accept a deal that would allow Cathcart to continue exploiting the other men in the squadron. Yossarian retains a vestige of moral sense in a world that has shirked it.

Intertwined with Yossarian’s story are those of the people around him—generals concerned more with fighting one another than the Germans; a doctor who thinks that his own situation is incomparably worse than that of his patients; a hospitalized soldier who may or may not exist underneath a full-body cast; and Milo Minderbinder, who will sell military plans as readily as Egyptian cotton. These characters and their stories are not truly secondary, because they prove relevant to Yossarian. For example, the pilot Orr, whose habits of stuffing his cheeks with crab apples and crashing his plane appear absurd and random, is actually planning for his own escape, which in turn inspires Yossarian.

Historical Context

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Italy in World War II
Catch-22 takes place on an American Army Air Force base on an island off the coast of Italy. Italy had been drawn into World War II by Benito Mussolini, a former Socialist who had come to power in 1925. His fascist government, marked by strict government control of labor and industry, ended civil unrest in the country but limited the rights of its citizens. Mussolini was constantly engaged in military campaigns, conquering Ethiopia in 1936, for example, and that same year he signed an agreement with Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler to cooperate on a mutually beneficial foreign policy when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Great Britain and France declared war, and Italy officially joined Germany in the alliance of Axis Powers in 1940.

Italy had neither the economic or strategic resources to succeed for long, and by mid-1943 the Allied Forces of the United States and Great Britain had begun occupying Italian territory. By this time, Mussolini was in political trouble, and he was exiled and eventually executed in 1945. A new government of Italian businessmen and workers signed an armistice with the Allies, and in October 1943 declared war on Germany. The Germans, however, still controlled the northern part of the country and Italy now found itself divided. By the time that Yossarian and his combat crew entered the war, Italy had largely withdrawn from the war and Germany still occupied portions of the country. Although the war with Germany ended on May 7, 1945, the Allies would continue to occupy Italy until a peace treaty with the country was finally signed in 1947.

U.S. War Involvement
Italian territory occupied by Allied forces provided good locations for air force divisions, which U.S. troops from the 85th Division played a key strategic role during World War II. The United States Army Air Force employed two types of military bombers: the smaller fighter bombers, and the strategic bombers, which were large, long-range planes that could attack targets deep in enemy territory. They generally held between two and eight people. In the novel, Yossarian flies aboard a B-25, one model of this type of strategic bomber. The men on board these planes had distinct duties. Seated in the nose of the plane were the bombardier and the navigator. While the navigator directed the plane toward its destined target, the bombardier timed the release of the plane's bombs to most effectively destroy that target. These two men had to work closely with each other to facilitate the exchange of in-flight information. Above and behind the nose was the pilot's compartment. Here the pilot and copilot steered the plane toward its destination and through any enemy fire, or "flak." The body of the plane held the bomb bay and the radio compartment. Radio operators generally worked as communication men as well as gunners. Also on the planes were men who worked as aerial engineer gunners and armorer gunners, whose mechanical backgrounds would come into play when planes suffered damage. Altogether, though each of them held a different post and their ranks varied, the crew worked as a unit each time its members entered the sky.

Catch-22 is set at the end of World War II, the so-called "good war" because almost all Americans supported it. Any reluctance to join the Allies in their battle against Germany's Adolf Hitler and the Axis powers was erased in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Having already been through a world war, however, Americans realized that wars rarely settled political grievances; they were becoming more cynical about war in general. The Korean War (technically only a "police action" that lasted from 1950 to 1953) left Americans wary about the futility of entering "limited" wars in other countries. The Vietnam War which America began to enter in the late 1950s, was not yet unpopular in 1961, but Americans after the Korean War would soon embrace Heller's absurdist, antiwar message as strongly as they did his satire of Cold War America.

The Cold War
While Catch-22 takes place in 1944, in it Heller makes frequent allusions to events in America in the 1950s, even using anachronisms (things out of time) such as computers and helicopters so that people would think of the Korean War as well as WWII. Heller felt that the Cold War era, far from being an ideal, peaceful time, was filled with tension and paranoia. Allusions to the 1950s abound: the C.I D. (a representative of the CIA or FBI) accuses the Chaplain of hiding documents in a plum tomato stolen from Cathcart's office. Absurd though it sounds, Heller was drawing upon the story of real-life state department official Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a communist and of hiding documents in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Captain Black starts a loyalty oath "crusade," and Chief Halfoat makes references to being "red"— talking about communism, not skin color. When Milo claims "what's good for the syndicate is good for the country," he is echoing a member of President Eisenhower's cabinet, who said, "what's good for General Motors is good for the country." These are ideas that Americans would come to question in the 1960s.

The Zeitgeist of the 1960s
Readers of Catch-22 responded to the novel's celebration of the individual and its satire of institutions such as the government, the military, and business corporations. Yossarian stands up against absurd and corrupt authority, dismisses the shallow values of ambition and materialism, recognizes the hypocrisy of the army, and bravely makes up his own mind about how to respond to a demoralizing situation. He wrests control of it, and overcomes his powerlessness.

These themes would become a crucial part of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, in the 1960s. American youth were questioning the idea that American institutions and politicians were completely trustworthy and free from corruption. The communist witch-hunts of the 1950s led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, in which people were hounded and blacklisted from their professions because they were suspected communists, had made many Americans rethink their blind trust in politicians and the government.

This distrust would build to a peak in the early 1970s, when the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration eroded the public's faith in the presidency. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, the Vietnam War took increasingly more American lives and became even more violent and bloody. People started to question why politicians had led the country into it initially, and why they were still there, especially since there was no end in sight. Had the U.S. become involved for idealistic reasons, or because of business deals between the country and Vietnam? Why was there still fighting if there did not seem to be any progress? Could it be that politicians just didn't want to admit they had been wrong, and were letting young men die in Vietnam rather than being honest about the situation? As more Americans asked these difficult and important questions, they began to rethink other issues as well. They stopped taking for granted that the status quo (the way things are) was the best that it could be.

Racism and Sexism
Until the late 1950s and early 1960s, few white Americans gave any thought to the plight of black Americans. "Negroes" were, after all, a minority, and segregation kept them in different neighborhoods, different schools, and in the South, even in different restaurants, bus seats, and bathrooms. However, black Americans were beginning to take action against the treatment they received.

Their "separate but equal" schools were inferior to white students' schools. A 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. the Board of Education, forced school integration, and helped launch the Civil Rights movement. The movement, which would be led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to gather power, inspiring the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Civil Rights Commission and spelled out penalties for voting rights violations, and the Voter's Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed black Americans access to the voting booths. Other black leaders and organizations, from Malcolm X to the Black Panthers, demanded respect and power for their people. Heller alludes to the growing civil rights movement when he has Colonel Cathcart claim that he would never let his sister marry an enlisted man—in other words, an inferior. This summed up many white American's attitude towards blacks: they would claim to have many Negro friends, but in the end, they wouldn't want a relative to actually marry a black person.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, the feminist movement was just beginning. In 1963 journalist Betty Friedan published a best-selling book called The Feminine Mystique, which pointed out that housewives were on the whole an unhappy lot, unfulfilled because their lives were built around men's. The book launched an entire movement, as women began questioning what they needed and wanted for themselves as individuals outside of their relationships to others. In 1961, Heller's portrayal of military women, prostitutes, and nurses seemed funny, honest, and dead-on. It would be several years before most people would notice that the female characters in Catch-22 are mostly shallow, portrayed as sex-starved and preoccupied with men.

Setting

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The novel's setting is the mythical island of Pianosa, modeled closely on Corsica and located off the coast of Rome, eight miles south of Elba. The year is 1944, and as World War II draws to a close, the Allies continue to conduct round-the-clock bombing missions to Europe from their Air Force base on the island. Nearby Rome serves as the playground for off-duty aviators. The site of social madness in the form of brothels, debauchery, and senseless pain and murder, the city is symbolically the Rome of ancient times, just before the fall of the Roman Empire.

Literary Style

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Setting
Catch-22 is set on an army air force base on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy in 1944, toward the end of World War II. The majority of the action takes place on the base itself, in the B-52 bomber planes as they go on raids, and in the local whorehouse, where the men relax; there are also flashbacks to training camps in America and some scenes in Italy. The island is real, but there was not a base on it in WWII. Note that the 256th is an army squadron of pilots; the army and navy both had air forces during the war but a separate U.S. Air Force was not created until 1947.

Point of View
The story is told in third person. Sometimes the narrative is omniscient ("all-knowing"), meaning that readers can see the large picture and everything that goes on. Sometimes, however, the narrator's vision is somewhat limited, we see things as if through a particular character's eyes. For example, the first several chapters are really from the point of view of Yossarian, but then in chapter nine we pull back and see the larger picture. This switching from limited to omniscient narration allows Heller to focus on the big picture or just one character.

Structure
Catch-22 is not a linear novel in which events follow each other chronologically. Instead, to underscore his points, Heller has the narrative jump around in time, using flashbacks and deja vu—a French term for repetition meaning "already seen." This allows the author to juxtapose scenes that have a strong connection to each other thematically. The reader can follow the chronological chain of events by noting the references to Cathcart's continual raising of the number of missions the men must fly; the growth of M & M enterprises, which becomes increasingly powerful over time; and the revelations about the gruesome death of the young pilot named Snowden, a singular event that serves as an epiphany for Yossarian, that is, a moment that makes him "see the light." After he finally relives the event in full, he is determined to escape the insanity of war rather than try to find a way to cope with it.

The scrambling of scenes serves a second purpose as well: to reflect the state of mind of a combat pilot. Life in the military is in certain ways controlled and orderly, even dull, but it is intermingled with the sheer terror of death, which is completely unpredictable. Heller wants the reader to understand that time itself has a different meaning for someone in this situation, that what is important is not each day's separate events but the themes that are apparent in so many different situations at different times: the absurdity of bureaucracy, the callousness of ambitious men, the difference between reality and appearance.

Irony, Satire, and Black Humor
Writers often combine irony, satire, and black humor to express their themes and ideas, because the three techniques work together well. Heller uses all of these techniques liberally in Catch-22. One definition of irony is the use of words to express something other than their literal meaning—or even the opposite of their meaning. Thus, naming a pilot who is inexperienced at his craft "Kraft" is an ironic choice. Satire is the holding up of human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn through wit and sarcasm. Catch-22 is a social satire, ridiculing targets such as the military (an example would be Scheisskopf s absurd obsession with military parades) and big business (witness the success of Milo's M & M Enterprises: countries that are actually at war with each other hypocritically do business with each other as well). Satire usually involves extremes, and certainly much of the absurdity in Catch-22 is due to extreme examples of bureaucracy run amok, or capitalism at its most corrupt. The absurdity Heller creates is also funny, although not in a lighthearted way. Heller uses black humor, that is, humor with a dark tone to it, or an edge. Joking about death, for example, is a form of black humor. Thus, when Heller makes the army unable to recognize that Mudd is dead and Doc is alive (because they have more faith in the military's records than in the reality of one dead and one live body), it is black humor.

Allusion
Allusions are subtle references authors make to other books or events that are relevant to the point at hand, or to other events within the book itself. Throughout Catch-22 Joseph Heller makes references to literature, the Bible, and other writings and historical events. So, for example, when Yossarian censors letters in an absurdly nonsensical way, he signs off on them as "Washington Irving" or "Irving Washington." Washington Irving a nineteenth-century novelist and essayist, often used black humor, and created the famous character Rip Van Winkle, who was, like Yossarian, an antihero (a protagonist whose admirable qualities are not the usual ones). This allusion points out to the reader that Yossarian identifies with the antihero Van Winkle and with Irving's black humor.

Allusion can also achieve a comic effect. At one point, Heller turns around Shakespeare's classic proclamation that "some men are born to greatness" and "some men have greatness thrust upon them" by writing that Major Major Major was "born to mediocrity" and had "mediocrity thrust upon him." The reader, remembering the loftiness of the original quote and its source, is meant to see the humor in changing "greatness" to "mediocrity," as if mediocrity, like greatness, could be stunningly admirable and spoken of with the utmost respect.

Finally, allusions to events within the novel itself remind readers of thematic connections between the events. Heller makes many such allusions to drive home his themes.

Literary Techniques

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The techniques of Catch-22 have generated much critical discussion and disagreement. One topic of debate has been the genre to which the work belongs. Given the fragmented chronology, episodic structure, and caricatured characterizations, some critics have objected to labeling Catch-22 as a novel. Instead they have observed that the book's mockery of political and social institutions and comic exaggeration are that of the satire, whereas Yossarian's series of misadventures echo the picaresque tradition. Furthermore, a number of commentators have noted affinities with the epic in the work's in medias res opening, the huge cast of characters, and the descent-into-the-under-world motif of "The Eternal City" chapter. Constance Denniston contends that the book is a "romance-parody," while John J. Murray calls it "a series of Overburyean character sketches." The most inclusive appellation is Jessie Ritter's "social surrealist novel," which Ritter defines as "a mixture of picaresque, romance-parody, and anatomy (or Menippean satire), containing elements of surrealism, black humor, the grotesque and tragic, the absurd, apocalyptic visions, and a semi-mythic antihero." As is typical of novels of the second half of the twentieth century,

Catch-22 both absorbs and parodies a variety of literary types and traditions. Not only has there been controversy about the book's genre, but also about its structure. Early reviewers criticized Catch-22 for its lack of organization. However, Heller, who is thoroughly modernist in believing the contemporary world is best reflected by discontinuity and fragmentation, has asserted that the surface disorder is intentional, mirroring the thematic thrust of Yossarian's quest — a rebellion against inhibiting systems. He explains, "I tried to avoid, first of all, the conventional structure of the novel; I tried to give it a structure that would reflect and complement the content of the book, itself, and the content of the book really derives from our present atmosphere, which is one of chaos, or disorganization, of absurdity, of cruelty, of brutality, of insensitivity, but at the same time one in which people, even the worst people, I think are basically good, are motivated by humane impulses." Heller has constructed his novel according to psychological rather than chronological time so that past and present are intermingled through mental associations. The narrative begins with Yossarian's stay in the hospital in response to Cathcart's raising the required number of missions to forty-five and then with cinematographic rapidity shifts back and forth between scenes that led up to his hospitalization and those that occurred after his medical release. Only towards the end of the book when Yossarian decides to desert the army does Heller favor straightforward narration.

Despite the readers' sense of dislocation, a close study of the novel and of Heller's five-year composition process reveals that Catch-22 is elaborately organized. Indeed, as Heller has confessed, "It takes a lot of care; it takes a lot of planning to make things seem unplanned." The work is organized around three combat missions: to Avignon, to Bologna, and to Ferrara, with the first being the most significant. Heller relies heavily upon patterns of recurrence — whether of scene, image, or verbal exchange — so that his readers, like the chaplain, experience a sense of deja vu or like the soldier of Chapter Eighteen, see everything twice. Most notable is the incremental repetition of the Snowden episode. At various intervals in the novel, Heller presents fragments of the scene in which Snowden is wounded, building to a climax in the penultimate chapter in which Yossarian learns the extent of his gunner's injuries.

No less radical than the novel's structure is its style. Heller uses the technique of black humor, juxtaposing comic and tragic effects, mixing slapstick with the grotesque. This brand of humor is perhaps best exemplified in the scene in which Kid Sampson's legs stick up in the air and then slowly fall into the water after the propeller of McWatt's plane slices his body in half. "I wanted people to laugh and then look back with horror at what they were laughing at," explains Heller. Language in the novel functions in much the same way as does the structure: It reflects its author's distrust of systems. Thus Heller, through the use of oxymorons, paradox, non sequiturs, circular reasoning, and contradictions, emphasizes how authorities use language to confuse, trap, or manipulate others. Meaningful communication seems almost impossible; in fact, the truth occurs only rarely, expressed in short declarative sentences, such as Snowden's "I'm cold."

Literary Qualities

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Catch-22 both absorbs and parodies a variety of literary genres. Given the book's fragmented chronology, episodic structure, and caricatured characterizations, some critics have objected to labeling it a novel. The book's mockery of political and social institutions and comic exaggeration are characteristic of the satire; Yossarian's series of misadventures echo the picaresque tradition; and the work's huge cast of characters and descent-into-the-underworld motif bring to mind the epic.

The structure of Catch-22 has also confounded traditional critics. Early reviewers criticized the book for its lack of organization. But Heller asserts that the surface disorder is intentional, mirroring the thematic thrust of Yossarian's quest—a rebellion against the repressive power of systems. Psychological rather than chronological time sets the framework for the novel; past and present intermingle through mental association. The narrative opens with Yossarian in the hospital and then shifts rapidly between scenes leading up to his hospitalization and those occurring after his release. Only when Yossarian decides to desert does Heller favor straightforward narration.

Heller relies heavily upon patterns of recurrence—whether of scene, image, or verbal exchange—so that the reader experiences a sense of deja vu. Most significant is Heller's incremental repetition of the Snowden episode; he presents fragments of the scene and builds to a climax where Yossarian learns the extent of his gunner's injuries.

No less radical than the novel's structure is its treatment of language. Heller uses the technique of black humor, juxtaposing comic and tragic effects, mixing the slapstick with the grotesque. This brand of humor manifests itself when Kid Sampson's legs, severed from the rest of his body, stick up in the air and then slowly fall into the water. "I wanted people to laugh and then look back with horror at what they were laughing at," explains Heller. His use of language encourages readers to question authorial intent even as he would have them question, and challenge, oppressive systems. Through the use of paradoxes, circular reasoning, and contradictions, Heller emphasizes how authorities use language to confuse, trap, and manipulate. Meaningful communication seems almost impossible, and the truth occurs only rarely, expressed in such short declarative sentences as the dying Snowden's "I'm cold."

Although modernist in its portrayal of an absurd universe, its black humor, and its fragmented time scheme, Catch- 22 can trace its protagonist's heritage to nineteenth-century author Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the self-reliant hero. Yossarian belongs to that category of American heroes who come to realize that "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." As the novel unfolds, Yossarian witnesses countless examples of carnage, greed, and brutality, and must open his eyes to the frailty of both the human body and the human spirit. Heller alludes to Yossarian's role as the archetypal, or original, man as the bombardier, naked in a tree, watches Snowden's funeral and resists Milo's serpent-like offer to eat chocolatecovered cotton. Yossarian again faces and rejects Satanic tempters toward the novel's end, when Colonels Cathcart and Korn offer to send him home if he promises to carry only positive reports of them back to the States.

Heller emulates James Joyce in providing naturalistic details and in using the device of the epiphany, a scene depicting a character's moment of insight. Furthermore, Heller credits Joyce's characterization of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses with inspiring his own creation of Yossarian. Another modern writer who influenced Heller is Franz Kafka, with whom Heller shares an aversion to bureaucracies. The nightmarish trial scenes of Clevinger and the chaplain are particularly Kafkaesque. To William Faulkner, Heller attributes his structure, noting that he strove to present bits of information and connect them only at the end of his book, as Faulkner did in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. Heller modeled his prose style on the work of Louis- Ferdinand Celine and Vladimir Nabokov; in content, the author's most important predecessor is Jaroslav Hasek, who showed the absurdity of the military in The Good Soldier Schweik. Feodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Dante's Inferno provided inspiration for the surrealist chapter most critics consider Catch-22's finest, "The Eternal City."

Social Concerns

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Heller's first novel was inspired by American political, military, and social events of the 1950s. In an interview with Ken Barnard, Heller asserted, "What Catch-22 is more about than World War II is the Korean War and the Cold War." The author's anxiety over the war in Korea and threats of war against China and Russia influenced the work, as did his disturbance over the Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the racial hatred that surfaced when Southern schools began to be integrated. The antagonism between groups that prevailed in the United States after the Second World War Heller translated into the enmity between the common soldiers and the officers of Catch-22.

Additional Commentary

Readers desensitized to the indifference and brutality of society as chronicled every evening on television may not find Catch-22 as horrifying as did readers in 1961. The novel's presentation of vulgar, inhumane events is always couched in absurdity. The humor lies in pokes at the "system"; the horror stems from the realization that the search for individualism may be futile.

If readers find Catch-22 offensive or disturbing, it is more likely a result of the book's irreverence than its violence. Heller does not regard patriotism, duty to God and country, or allegiance to noble principles as worthy goals. He concludes, existentially, that society provides a shallow and often evil structure for living. Heller is not an anarchist, advocating the overthrow of society, but is a messenger of despair.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: The U.S. invades Normandy France in June, 1944, while massively bombing Japan. Two atom bombs dropped on Japan in August will lead to Japan's surrender. The war ends in 1945.

1960s: In November 1961, President Kennedy begins increasing the number of American advisers in Vietnam, which will grow from 1,000 to 16,000 over the next two years. Two U.S. Army helicopter companies, the first direct American military support of South Vietnam, arrive in Saigon. In 1965, President Johnson will begin sending combat troops, without getting the approval of Congress.

Today: Recent police actions, such as Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the 1983 invasion of Grenada (an island in the Caribbean), have been publicly questioned by Americans even as these actions were taking place. Congress must now vote on such actions.

1940s: Jim Crow laws in the South are the most obvious evidence that blacks are expected to keep their distance from whites. Throughout the country, African Americans have fewer educational and economic opportunities.

1960s: The Civil Rights movement is in full swing, as African Americans forced the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1957. Movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., advocate peaceful civil disobedience, but others, such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, suggest that armed resistance against white oppression should not be ruled out.

Today: Racism continues to afflict America, as the different responses between African Americans and whites to the O. J. Simpson trial pointed out African Americans still have higher rates of infant mortality, joblessness, and poverty than whites do.

1940s: While many men are off at war, women work as "Rosie the Riveters," taking jobs in the war industry. For many women, this is the first time they have entered the work force and earned their own money.

1960s: Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique in 1963, launching the modern-day feminist movement. The movement focuses on individual women at first, and only begins to be a major political force toward the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.

Today: The term "feminism" has become so loaded with contradictory meanings that many women who are technically feminists (anyone who believes in political, social, and economic equality of the sexes) avoid it. Women make up 46% of the work force but still only make 75 cents for every dollar men earn.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Nelson Algren, "The Catch," in Nation, Vol. 193, November 4, 1961, pp. 357-58.

Whitney Balliett, in a review of Catch-22, in The New Yorker, December 9, 1961, p. 247.

Marcus K Billson, "The Un-Minderbinding of Yossarian: Genesis Inverted in Catch-22," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 315-29.

Morris Dickstein, "Black Humor and History: The Early Sixties," in Partisan Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1976, pp. 185-211, reprinted in his Gates of Eden. American Culture in the Sixties, Penguin, 1977, 1989, pp. 91-127.

Mike Frank, "Eros and Thanatos in Catch-22," in Canadian Review of American Studies, Spring, 1976, pp 77-87.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Kvetch-22," in Village Voice, March 5, 1979, pp. 74-75.

Jean E Kennard, "Joseph Heller. At War with Absurdity," in Mosaic, Vol. IV, No. 3, Spring, 1971, pp. 75-87.

Richard Locke, "What I Like," in New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1997, pp. 3, 36-37.

Norman Mailer, "Some Children of the Goddess," in Esquire, July, 1963, reprinted in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 3-31.

Raymond M. Olderman, "The Grail Knight Departs," in Beyond the Waste Land. A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 94-116.

Carol Pearson, "Catch-22 and the Debasement of Language," in The CEA Critic, November, 1974, pp. 30-5.

Orville Prescott, review of Catch-22, in New York Times, October 23,1961, p. 27.

Richard G. Stern, "Bombers Away," New York Times Book Review, October 22,1961, p. 50.

For Further Study
Alex Cockbum, review in New Left Review, Vol. 18, January-February, 1963, pp. 87-92.
Cockburn praises Heller's humor but criticizes him for never moving beyond parody into satire.

Review in Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 92, No. 1, Winter, 1963, pp. 155-65.
A scathing review of the novel, focusing on its immoral underpinnings and Heller's faults as a writer.

Gary Lindberg, "Playing for Real," in The Confidence Man in American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 231-58.
Lindberg contrasts Yossarian and Milo as confidence men figures, and favorably compares Yossarian to Huckleberry Finn.

Robert Merrill, "The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 2, Autumn, 1986, pp. 139-52.
Merrill focuses on Heller's use of cyclical repetition of episodes that "move from the comic to the terrible" in the novel, causing the reader to reevaluate his own reactions to these episodes.

Robert Merrill, Joseph Heller, Twayne, 1987.
Merrill examines Heller's thematic and technical concerns in his work.

Victor J. Milne, "Heller's 'Bologniad': A Theological Perspective on Catch-22," in Critique: Studies in Modem Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1970, pp. 50-69.
This critical article examines Heller's use of the mock epic form, as well as Heller's asserting a humanistic Christian ethic over a destructive competitive ethic.

James Nagel, editor, Critical Essays on Joseph Heller, G. K. Hall, 1984.
A collection of critical essays on Heller's work.

George J. Searles, "Joseph Heller," in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 28: Twentieth Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, edited by Daniel Walden, Gale, 1984, pp. 101-107.
An overview of the author's works and career.

David Seed, The Fiction of Joseph Heller: Against the Grain, Macmillan, 1989.
A full-length study of Heller's body of work.

Leon F. Seltzer, "Milo's 'Culpable Innocence': Absurdity as Moral Insanity in Catch-22," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 290-310.
Seltzer provides an in-depth study of Milo, focusing on his extreme commitment to capitalistic ideals and the moral blindness that results from this commitment.

Jan Solomon, "The Structure of Joseph Heller's Catch-22," in Critique, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1967, pp. 46-57.
Solomon asserts that the differig time sequences of Yossarian's and Milo's stories reinforce the absurdity of the novel.

Jeffrey Walsh, "Towards Vietnam: Portraying Modern War," in American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam, Macrmllan, 1982, pp. 185-207.
Walsh contends that the novel's satire, themes, and form distinguish it from the traditional war novel.

Bibliography

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Karl, Frederick R. American Fiction 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. The judgment of an outstanding critic and biographer on forty years of American novels. Judges Catch-22 as an outstanding product of its time.

Martine, James J. American Novelists. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Heller.

Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22.” Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (August, 1986): 139-152. Detailed discussion of the effect of the novel’s unusual structure on the message it conveys about society.

Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984

Potts, Stephen W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne, 1989. The first single volume devoted exclusively to Catch-22. Discusses most of the major aspects of the novel.

Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. Rev. ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995. For further commentary on the place of Catch-22 in the cultural climate of the 1960’s and its reflection of counterculture attitudes.

Ruas, Charles. Conversations with American Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Contains a section on Heller in part 2 with a detailed interview on his life and intentions that focuses on Catch-22.

Literary Precedents

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Catch-22 reveals the thorough acquaintance with modern literature of its author, a possessor of both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. The novel is modernist in its portrayal of an absurd universe, its black humor, its' fragmented time scheme, and its alienated protagonist. One writer who influenced Heller is James Joyce, whom Heller emulates in providing naturalistic details and in using the device of the epiphany, a scene depicting a character's moment of insight. Furthermore, Heller credits Joyce's characterization of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses (1914) with inspiring his own creation of Yossarian. Another modern writer who influenced Heller is Franz Kafka, with whom Heller shares an aversion to bureaucracies. The nightmarish trial scenes of Clevinger and the chaplain are particularly Kafkaesque. To William Faulkner, Heller attributes his structure, noting that he strove to present bits of information and then to connect them at the end of his book, much as Faulkner did in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and The Sound and the Fury (1929).

The immediate impetus for Catch-22 came from two authors Heller discovered in the same week: Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Vladimir Nabokov. Heller states, "What I got from Celine is the slangy use of prose and the continuity that is relaxed and vague rather than precise and motivated; from Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (1938), the flippant approach to situations which were filled with anguish and grief and tragedy." Heller's humor seems also close to that of Nathanael West.

In content, Heller's most important predecessor for showing the absurdity of the military is The Good Soldier Schweik (1920) by Jaroslav Hasek. Catch-22 also alludes to and parodies other twentieth-century war novels, including Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951), and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948). Inspiration for the chapter most critics agree is the novel's finest, "The Eternal City," a surrealistic vision of inhumanity, came from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) and Dante's Inferno (1321).

Media Adaptations

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A film of Catch-22 was released in 1970 in the U.S., directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Buck Henry, starring Alan Arkin (as Yossarian), Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, and Art Garfunkel. Available on videotape from Paramount Pictures.

Catch-22: A Dramatization was a one-act play based on the novel, produced in East Hampton, New York, at the John Drew Theater, July 23, 1971 Script published by Samuel French, New York, 1971.

Catch-22, a sound recording on two cassettes (approx. 120 minutes); abridged by Sue Dawson from the novel by Joseph Heller read by Alan Arkin. Published by Listen for Pleasure, 1985.

Catch-22, an unsold pilot for a television comedy series, was created in 1973. Written by Hal Dresner, directed by Richard Quine. It starred Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 139

Kiley, Frederick, and Walter McDonald, eds. A "Catch-22" Casebook. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. Contains critical commentary on the book and film, interviews with Heller, and a short story and travel essay by the novelist.

Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on "Catch-22." Encino, CA: Dickenson, 1974. A selection of reviews and critical articles on the novel's structure, theme, and form.

Plimpton, George. The Art of Fiction III: Joseph Heller." Parts Review 60 (1974): 126-147. An interview in which Heller discusses Catch-22 and Something Happened.

Sale, Richard B. "An Interview in New York with Joseph Heller." Studies in the Novel 4 (1972): 63-74. Covers Heller's aesthetic values, the literary influences upon his works, and his assessments of Catch-22 and Something Happened.

Walden, Daniel, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 28. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. Article on Heller provides biographical information and insightful analyses of his major works.

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