Essay, Research Paper: Catch-22

World Literature

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In 1961, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, his first novel. Based on his own war
experiences, the novel wickedly satirized bureaucracy, patriotism, and all
manner of traditional American ideals. This was reflective of the increasing
disdain for traditional viewpoints that was growing in America at that time.
(Potts, p. 13) The book soon became championed as another voice in the antiwar
movement of the 1960’s. However, Heller himself claimed that his novel was
less about World War II, or war at all, than it was an allegory for the Cold War
and the materialistic “Establishment” attitudes of the Eisenhower era. (Kiley,
pp. 318-321) Thus, Catch-22 represents a rebellion against the standards of the
Eisenhower era. Catch-22 follows the experiences of Yossarian, a bombardier
stationed near Italy during World War II. Yossarian is clearly representative of
Heller; indeed, he could be considered an everyman. (Kiley, p. 336) Because of a
traumatic experience, which is revealed bit by bit throughout the novel,
Yossarian is terrified of flying. Yet Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number
of missions the men must fly. Yossarian’s attempts to avoid flying are met
with the Army’s Catch number 22, which is a sort of mythical stumbling block
to free will and reason. In the end, Yossarian defects and takes a stand against
his situation by running away from it. The moral of the story seems to be that
nothing is truly worth dying for, but there is plenty worth fighting for.
Yossarian is an antihero: the reader sympathizes with him despite, or perhaps
because of, his unsavory beliefs and actions. (Potts, p. 84) It is easy to
sympathize with him: he seems to be the only sane person in a crazy world, which
may be why everyone keeps telling him he’s crazy. Yossarian does battle with
bureaucratic authority as personified by Colonels Cathcart and Korn, General
Dreedle, and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. He goes up against ruthless capitalism in
the form of Milo Minderbinder. And he criticizes blind patriotism as seen in
Nately, Appleby, and Clevinger. It is important to note that these attitudes
applied far more readily to the 1950’s than to World War II. Catch-22 is set
in World War II; in many ways, it serves as an outlet for Heller’s own
experiences in the war. (Kiley, p.103) After the war, soldiers returned home to
a country that did not want to hear about their experiences. Most felt stifled
because they feared how others might react to the gruesomeness of the war.
(Adams, pp. 149-151) Indeed, the war was the most horrific event to date, and
few Americans wanted to dwell on it. So Heller’s novel seems inappropriate,
yet at the same time necessary: it made clear the fact that the war was not all
glory and honor, but was a bloody, gut-wrenching mess. (Potts, p.22) Indeed,
throughout the novel, men die in often gruesome ways, many times for little or
no reason at all. This was Heller’s condemnation of war: it is the ultimate
farce, the furthest of human endeavors from necessity. (Potts, p. 47) In short,
war is stupid. People die stupidly, from stupid causes, in stupid situations, by
stupid mistakes. It is almost laughable except that it is not at all funny. This
is what Heller gets across in some 400 pages of death, despair, and otherwise
pointless existence. (Kiley, pp. 208-214) Beyond its importance as a novel about
the war, Catch-22 also lambastes the blind conformity to social norms of the
1950’s. This unthinking loyalty to the “American way,” he suggests, puts
too much power in the hands of those cynical enough to exploit the
impressionability of the masses. (Kiley, pp. 242-263) Indeed, this seemed to be
the case during the Eisenhower years. Senator McCarthy’s Communist
witch-hunts, ruthless business practices at the expense of the public, and the
social pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” driving mass consumerism, all
illustrated this danger. (Christie, pp. 94-102) In Catch-22, ex-P.F.C.
Wintergreen represents the power of information. By intercepting and forging
responses to communiqués within the theater of operations, he effectively
controls all military operations in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Milo
Minderbinder represents unchecked greed and the dangers of the capitalist urge.
(Potts, pp. 73-75) He even paraphrases GM head Charles Wilson by saying,
“What’s good enough for M&M Enterprises is good for the country.” (Kiley,
p. 339) And most of the men are caricatures of mindless flexibility to the will
of their superiors. They are indifferent to the commands that come to them from
above, and blindly, they obey. (Kiley, p. 147) Only Yossarian and his friends
Dunbar and Orr have the wherewithal to see how they are being used for the
advancement of others; in escaping, Yossarian imparts this awareness to Major
Danby and the chaplain. (Potts, p. 84) So the novel could be seen as an appeal
for the American people to come to their senses and take back their lives from
the “fat cats” who had taken control of them. When it was published in 1961,
Catch-22 was met with surprisingly little controversy. Many critics gave it rave
reviews; in fact, its acceptance stunned Heller himself: I’m really delighted
because it seems to have offended nobody on the grounds of morality or ideology.
Those people it has offended, it has offended on the basis of literary value.
But I’m almost surprised to find that the acceptance of the book covers such a
broad…spectrum as well. (Kiley, p.273) Apparently, the world was ready for a
book that laughed at some things that were not terribly funny. Heller’s
message was clear: this is life; do with it what you can. It was a departure
from the old dogma of loyalty to a nation or a family or a leader; this was
loyalty to the self. No wonder, then, it had such broad appeal: everyone could
understand self-reliance. No matter what country or leader or god or family one
belongs to, everyone has a self to depend upon. Catch-22 takes place during a
war, but it is not a war novel. It is a novel about life, and that each must
pledge his life to himself. No one has the right to demand a person’s life
unless they will also lay down theirs. This was a slap in the face to the
traditional ideology that had reached its peak in the Eisenhower years: that in
the name of the country, any act was acceptable. Heller proposed that it was
truly insane to commit one’s life to anything as nebulous and indefinite as a
nation or ideal. The Cathcarts and the Korns of this world need not dominate
anyone. Indeed, the last line of the novel is a fitting summary of Yossarian’s,
and therefore, Heller’s, final solution: “The knife came down, missing him
by inches, and he took off.”
Bibliography
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961. Potts, Stephen
W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. Kiley,
Frederick T. A Catch-22 Casebook. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1973. Adams,
Michael C.C. The Best War Ever: America and WWII. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1994. Christie, Jean and Dinnerstien, Leonard, editors.
America Since WWII: Historical Interpretations. New York: Praeger, 1976.
O’Neill, William L. A Democracy at War. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
Patterson, James T. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996.

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