Ideas for Group Discussions

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Catch-22 has generated avid discussion among readers and critics since it was first published, for the novel was so experimental that it immediately raised debate about whether the designation of "novel" was appropriate, whether it had a form, whether the content was offensively vulgar, and whether Heller had significant problems with characterization. Evaluating the position of Catch-22 within literary tradition can lead to provocative discussion. Readers can compare the book to other treatments of war, such as Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) or Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), can relate Heller's focus on Yossarian's quest for freedom to existentialist works; or can consider similarities and differences between Heller's treatment of a fragmented chronology with that of such writers as Faulkner and Fitzgerald.

Since Heller was involved in writing both film and television scripts, readers might enjoy relating this novel to works in other media. For instance, they might compare some of Heller's slapstick scenes to Mel Brooks's movies or note connections between Catch-22 and McHale's Navy, the pilot of which Heller wrote.

Heller excels in making us wary of systems from military hierarchies to hospital administration to our much celebrated American capitalism. Assessing the fairness of his depictions of these systems should provoke stimulating discussion. As should examining Heller's treatment of language. Do we find Doublespeak prevails in American society? Are we entrapped by logical illogic? What Catch-22 regulations exist in our culture?

1. In its unsettling combining of realistic and surrealistic techniques, is Catch-22 a novel, or perhaps does it expand our definition of what a novel is?

2. Does it seem, as one critic contended, that the pages of Heller's manuscript got scrambled on the way to the printer, or do you find meaningful structural patterns?

3. Is Heller's use of a large cast of flat characters a strength or a weakness?

4. Are Heller's portrayals of female characters demeaning? Are the male characters sex-obsessed? If so, is there a significant reason why?

5. What are Heller's major criticisms of the military? Of the medical establishment? Of capitalism? Of the judicial system? Do these criticisms seem justified?

6. What does Heller's portrayal of Chaplain Tappman suggest about the author's attitudes towards religion?

7. Of what significance are some of the characters' names, such as Orr, Milo Minderbender, Major Major, and General Peckem?

8. How effective is Yossarian as a protagonist? Why does Heller emphasize that he is Assyrian? Of what significance is his nakedness?

9. What impact does Chapter Thirty-Nine "The Eternal City" make upon the reader?

10. How does Heller fixate upon mortality? Why is the Snowden incident repeated throughout the novel?

11. Is the ending of the novel pessimistic or affirmative or merely irritatingly inconclusive?

12. Heller has said of Catch-22, "The morality is rather orthodox — almost medieval." Do you agree with him?

Lynne P. Shackelford

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