(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

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...

(The entire section is 833 words.)