Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217

Individual vs. Society
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 traces the efforts of Yossarian, an American bombardier in World War II to escape participation in a war that seems meaningless. Yossarian represents the individual against a huge, corrupt institution of any sort, whether it is the army or a large corporation. The bureaucracy and rules of such large institutions, Heller suggests, often exist for their own sake, not for a good reason. Milo Minderbinder's M & M enterprises represents the corrupt corporation. In the pursuit of profits and wealth, he will trade anything, even life rafts or morphine that is needed to save the lives of the pilots, with anyone, including the enemy. The obvious question is, if we can communicate enough with the enemy to make business deals, why can't we settle our differences instead of killing each other? Negotiating peace is not the concern of Milo or his customers, however. Thus, Heller suggests that some business people value money even more than human life. When Milo actually has the American pilots bomb their own base as part of a business deal with the Germans, it is perfectly logical and at the same time completely unethical. Yossarian, the sane individual, recognizes that this act is insane and evil.

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The other corrupt institution in Catch-22 is, of course, the military. Yossarian is the voice of reason. He is stunned by the priorities of the army, which at best are absurd and at worst evil, such as when the military police care about his going AWOL more than Captain Aardvaark's rape and murder of the Italian girl. Many of the orders issued by the men in power serve only to secure their own positions. Yossarian is constantly questioning the foolish arbitrary military rules and decisions and even sabotages his plane's communications systems in order to abort a mission that he feels is wrong. Individual men such as Yossarian are powerless to fight the army's corruption, which is why Yossarian decides he must leave rather than be a part of it.

Sanity and Insanity
The outrageous military regulation called Catch-22 captures Heller's attitude toward sanity and insanity. It is, he suggests, impossible to exist as a sane person in an insane environment. Heller portrays life for the men in the squadron as completely crazy. They are at the mercy of ambitious commanders who care more about their own careers than the men's lives. Their sanity is challenged by military rules that make no sense but which they must blindly obey. They see ethics thrown out the window, by Milo in pursuit of profit, for example, or by the old man in Rome, who lives only for pleasure. They are asked to endanger their lives, and begin to question why this is necessary, especially when they are asked to bomb an innocent village just to block a road.

The men deal with this insanity in different ways. Yossarian fakes illness to hide out in the hospital McWatt buzzes people with his plane. Most of the men visit the whorehouse and have meaningless sex-"banging" women, as Yossarian calls it—to distract themselves from their fears and their deep-rooted feeling that they are risking their lives for foolish reasons.

Only Orr seems to cope well, to stay sane amid the madness, and the reader later learns it is because he has been focused on a plan to escape, and has even been practicing that escape. When Yossarian realizes what Orr has been doing, he makes the choice to escape as well. Despite the tremendous odds against the success of Yossarian's plan, Heller suggests it is not a crazy but a sane response to an insane situation over which Yossarian has no control.

Heroes and Heroism
The protagonist of a novel is generally called the hero because he or she usually has heroic, admirable qualities. An antihero, however, is someone who does not have heroic qualities such as courage and selflessness, but is still admirable because he has qualities that may mean just as much to the reader. Yossarian is certainly not courageous: he will do anything to get out of combat, even fake illness. He's not selfless, in fact, he's obsessed with saving himself from danger. Note that Heller chose as his setting World War II, an unambiguously "good" war to most Americans. Yossarian is rebelling against fighting a just war against a very evil empire, Nazi Germany. In theory, the reader should not like or identify with such a protagonist.

However, the war that we see in the book is not the Allies versus the Axis powers but the individual against the bureaucracy. Again and again, the military and business bureaucracies steal the dignity and hope of the men in Yossarian's squadron. The reader can understand Yossarian's point of view and empathize with him because he can never reach the number of missions he must fly before he goes home; the number will constantly be bumped up—not because that is what is necessary to stop the enemy, but because more missions will help the individual ambitions of one man gunning for a promotion. The reader sees Yossarian helpless against an absurd militaristic bureaucracy, held hostage and even physically endangered by the mercenary, money-grubbing business dealings of M & M Enterprises. The reader comes to like and respect Yossarian for standing up to the absurdity, refusing the dishonesty of betraying his fellow men by taking Cathcart and Korn up on their offer (he'll be discharged if he lies and tells people he never refused to fly or challenged his superiors). Under the circumstances, Yossarian's character flaws are no match for his decency and honesty, traits which seem utterly absent in the military.

Absurdity
Language and Meaning

While the purpose of language is to communicate, Heller shows that corrupt people and institutions misuse language in order to confuse and manipulate others and avoid responsibility. The characters' bizarre and illogical uses of language help create an atmosphere of absurdity—a state in which unreal, irrational things happen every day. In the beginning of the book, readers may be confused by the seemingly illogical discussions of flies in Appleby's eyes or Orr's story of stuffing crab apples or horse chestnuts in his cheeks to make them rosy, but soon it's clear that the men's unorthodox use of language mirrors that of their commanding officers'. Colonel Cargill tries to instill pride in the men, saying, "You're American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement."

This self-evident statement has no real meaning. Captain Black says signing his loyalty oath is voluntary, but anyone who does not sign will be starved to death. And Major Major tells his assistant "I don't want anyone to come in to see me while I'm here." While the sentence is grammatical, it makes no sense. It is just a round-about way of saying he doesn't want to see anyone, ever, which of course is absurd. He has to talk to people to do his job. Circular logic and redefining words, Heller shows, allows people to avoid the reality of situations, or to twist reality to suit their purposes. No wonder that when asked if Appleby has flies in his eyes, Yossarian thinks this impossibility might be true because "it made as much sense as anything else."

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

In an interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review, Heller contends that "Catch-22 is concerned with physical survival against exterior forces or institutions that want to destroy life or moral self." Graphic reminders of man's mortality pervade the novel, as Heller traces the desperate attempts of his protagonist, bombardier John Yossarian, to escape death. Although not, according to Heller, a war novel, Catch-22 nevertheless reflects its author's experiences as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Force during the Second World War. In scenes reminiscent of Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," Heller hauntingly depicts B-25s dodging flak, the claustrophobic womb/tomb environment of the bombardier's compartment, and Yossarian's horrifying discovery that "[t]he spirit gone, man is garbage," as he watches his wounded gunner's entrails spill out on the floor.

The obscene loss of lives of promising young men that war greedily demands — whether it be World War II or, as Heller has suggested, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts — is one aspect of Catch-22. Yet Heller's treatment of man's vulnerability has more far-reaching applications, for many of the deaths in the novel are not directly war-related. For instance, Chief Halfoat dies of pneumonia; Hungry Joe's nightmare comes true as a cat suffocates him while he is sleeping; McWatt accidentally severs Kid Sampson's trunk with the propeller of his plane and then out of guilt commits suicide; Aarfy flings a servant girl out of a window to her death on the pavement below. Through these deaths, Heller creates a brutal world, symbolized by the omnipresent knife of Nately's whore, that threatens to destroy the individual at any moment.

One of the key threats to the individual in Catch-22 is the military bureaucracy. Heller presents a procession of insensitive officers who victimize their men for self-aggrandizement. Most noteworthy are Milo Minderbender, mess officer turned syndicate chief, who represents a capitalistic system gone awry when he arranges for German planes to bomb his own base in order to turn a profit, and the invidious Colonel Cathcart, who constantly raises the number of required combat missions and schemes to get his picture into The Saturday Evening Post. Power breeds corruption, Heller reveals, as he depicts the petty one-up-manship games between Generals Dreedle and Peckem, Lieutenant Scheisskopf's robotlike devotion to perfect parade formations, Captain Black's red tape-creating Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen's godlike manipulation of communications, and the relentless interrogations of two of the most innocent characters in the novel, Clevinger and Chaplain Tappman. Heller is clearly suspicious of systems, be they the military establishment, hospitals, psychiatry, farm support legislation, or corporate monopolies. And he is concerned with the illogical "logic" such systems spawn.

Influenced by the Theater of the Absurd and Existentialism, Heller depicts a topsy-turvy society in which sanity and insanity, order and chaos have become confused. Like Camus and Sartre, Heller believes absurdity prevails in the contemporary world. First of all, there are the absurd rules, such as the infamous Catch-22, which states that if a man is crazy, he must be grounded; however, if he asks to be grounded, he cannot be crazy since anyone who wants to avoid combat duty is not really crazy. Other examples include Colonel Korn's edict permitting only those people to ask questions who never do and Major Major's order that Sergeant Towser allow men in to see him only when he is out. Thus the novel abounds with paradoxes and inversions. Then, there are ridiculous situations, such as the army's denials of the death of Mudd, since he was killed before officially checking in with the squadron, while conversely declaring Doc Daneeka officially dead, although an alive Doc protests fervently. Finally, there are the morally ludicrous happenings, as when Aarfy commits murder, yet the police ignore the corpse and instead arrest Yossarian for going AWOL. In a world seemingly without rationality, justice, or humanity, the individual becomes alienated, frustrated, and desperate.

However, Catch-22 is not a novel without hope. In fact, its most significant theme is that despite living in an absurd universe, the individual can affirm honor, integrity, and compassion. Heller has observed that the morality of his supposedly radical novel is "rather orthodox — almost medieval." Pursuing that idea, Eric Solomon in a provocative essay entitled "From Christ in Flanders to Catch-22: An Approach to War Fiction" has suggested that Yossarian is a modern Everyman, "trapped in a mad world of the seven deadly sins: Gluttony (the lavish food and drink in the mess halls), Avarice (Milo), Lechery (a world of brothels), Sloth (Doc Daneeka), Pride (the generals and colonels), Envy (their competition), and Wrath (the war itself)." Tempted by the desire for self-preservation, Yossarian momentarily abandons his principles. However, in a typically existentialist response to a meaningless universe, Heller's hero finds salvation in seeking freedom and asserting responsibility.

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