Joseph Heller Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Catch-22 has been more popular with younger readers than older ones. What accounts for its appeal to youth?

Does Joseph Heller’s unrealistic approach to war in Catch-22 make war seem less or more horrific?

Catch-22 has been said to be less about war than about America’s conformist society. In what ways is this true?

Compare the treatment of death in Catch-22 to that in another Heller novel.

What is Something Happened saying about family life?

Compare the style and themes of Catch-22 to Closing Time. Is the sequel equal to its predecessor or inferior as a work of literature?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joseph Heller’s first published piece was a short story in Story Magazine (1945), and in the late 1940’s, he placed several other stories with Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly. Heller’s enthusiasm for the theater accounts for the topic of his master’s thesis at Columbia University, “The Pulitzer Prize Plays: 1917-1935,” and he wrote three plays that deal directly or indirectly with the material he used in Catch-22. We Bombed in New Haven, a two-act play, was first produced by the Yale School of Drama Repertory Theater in 1967. It later reached Broadway and was published in 1968. Catch-22: A Dramatization (1971) was first produced at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, Long Island, where Heller spent his summers. Clevinger’s Trial, a dramatization of chapter 8 of Catch-22, was produced in London in 1974. Only We Bombed in New Haven enjoyed a modicum of critical and commercial success. Heller also contributed to a number of motion-picture and television scripts, the best known of which is Sex and the Single Girl (1964), for which he received his only screen credit.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joseph Heller’s reputation rests largely on his first novel, Catch-22, the publication of which vaulted him into the front ranks of postwar American novelists. Critics hailed it as “the great representative document of our era” and “probably the finest novel published since World War II.” The expression “Catch-22” quickly entered the American lexicon. More than eight million copies of the novel have been printed, and it has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In 1970, Mike Nichols’s film adaptation of Heller’s tale sparked renewed interest in the novel itself and launched it onto the best-seller lists.

Catch-22 was one of the most widely read and discussed novels of the 1960’s and early 1970’s; its blend of humor and horror struck a responsive chord, particularly with the young, during the upheavals of the Vietnam era. The critic Josh Greenfield, writing in 1968, claimed that it had “all but become the chapbook of the sixties.” Within the context of Vietnam, the novel seemed to be less about World War II than about that Asian war over which Americans were so furiously divided. Catch-22, then, remains the classic fictional statement of the antiwar sentiments of its time.

Although some have compared Catch-22 to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), James Jones’s The Thin Red Line (1962), and other essentially naturalistic war tales written...

(The entire section is 434 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Aldridge, John W. The American Novel and the Way We Live Now. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Aldridge’s overview of American fiction after World War II gives Heller’s work high marks, praising his skeptical view of modern society and the imaginative qualities of his novels.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” New York: Chelsea House, 2001. A collection of critical assessments.

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Park Buker. Joseph Heller. Pittburgh: Oak Knoll Books, 2002. A bibliography of Heller’s works and criticism.

Craig, David M. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller’s Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. An examination of the ethical dimensions of Heller’s work, linking his distinctive stylistic features to his preoccupation with questions of death, meaning, and identity.

Dougherty, D. C. “Nemeses and McGuffins: Paranoia as Focal Metaphor in Stanley Elkin, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15, no. 2 (1995): 70-79. Reflects on the methods and motives of using paranoia as a governing metaphor in modern fiction.

Friedman, John, and Judith Ruderman. “Joseph Heller and the ‘Real’ King David.” Judaism 36, no. 3 (1987): 296-302....

(The entire section is 461 words.)