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Catch-22 is a satirical, black humor World War II novel written in 1961 by American Joseph Heller, published by Simon & Schuster. This novel is considered to be one of the two most influential World War II novels, along with Slaughterhouse 5 written by Kurt Vonnegut. This novel is also considered to be one of the greatest pieces of American Literature, both because of its unique third person narrative and its cultural influence.
The novel takes place from 1942-1944 on the island of Pianosa west of Allied Italy. The story follows the life of Captain Bombardier John Yossarian and the rest of his fictional 256th flying division. The novel uses a unique third person omniscient narrator who follows multiple characters in parallel storylines, all revolving around the same major plot.
The term Catch-22 has become part of the lexicon of the English language and refers to an unsolvable problem, no win situation, or a paradox.
Joseph Heller, born May 1st, 1923, was the author of many satirical war time books, his most famous of which was Catch-22. Heller was born to impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants Isaac and Shirley Heller in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Isaac died during an operation when Joseph was just five years old. Heller continued to grow up in the mostly Jewish neighborhood of Coney Island and many literary critics have stated that his trademark black humor evolved as a result of his exposure to Jews in the post WWI era. After graduating the local high school, he worked at an insurance company before enlisting in the United States Army. He was subsequently sent to Corsica, where he flew over 60 missions as a wing bombardier. After finishing his service, he was awarded the Air Medal and the Presidential Unit Citation. He was then discharged and married Shirley Held in 1945. Heller attended college at Columbia University and then at Oxford University in Britain, on a Fulbright scholarship. He returned to the United States and worked as an English professor at Penn State University and as an advertising copywriter, before writing and publishing his first and most famous novel, Catch-22. After publishing this work, he worked as an author and taught part time at the City College of New York, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. Heller continued to write novels, autobiographies, and screenplays, as well as producing plays. He wrote a sequel to Catch-22 called Closing Time in 1994. At that time, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome, which renders the patient paralyzed. He eventually made a full recovery. Heller died in 1999, survived his daughter Erica and his son Ted.
This novel frequently jumps between the timeline in 1943 to long periods of flashback; therefore the plot summary will be divided into multiple sections. The first is the 1943 timeline in the beginning of the novel, where the characters are introduced. The novel begins on the island of Pianosa, where the reader is introduced to the main character John Yossarian, and his group of friends: the chaplain, Doc Daneeka, Orr, Clevinger, McWatt, Nately, Aarfy, Dobbs, Milo and Major Major Major Major. In addition to his friends, Yossarian’s enemies also make appearances, most notably Colonel Cathcart, General Dreedle, General Peckem, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, and Lieutenant Colonel Corn.
Through the first section, Yossarian laments that how his mandatory flight number continues to rise, all because his commanding officer Colonel Cathcart wishes to become a general and believes that if his squadron flies more flights the army will see his devotion and promote him. Yossarian tries his best to evade flight, first by staying in the hospital on the island even though he is not ill, and after this, by boycotting flights. Yossarian discovers that a man declared insane man does not need to complete his service and begs his friend Doc Daneeka to declare him insane. However, Doc Daneeka cannot do so due to the order “Catch-22”, which states that an insane man must ask a doctor to declare him insane, but by doing so proves himself sane and must fly more missions (even though the army’s definition of insane was flying life threating missions). At the same time, Yossarian maintains to his friends, particularly Clevinger, that everyone is trying to kill him. Clevinger attempts to tell Yossarian that the Germans in particular are not trying to kill him specifically, but rather they are trying to kill everyone. Yossarian does not listen and states that the army is trying to kill him by making him fly missions. This argument continues when Colonel Cathcart raises the minimum flights required to be pardoned. Yossarian speaks to ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen about the increased number of flights and he responds that Catch-22 forces Yossarian to fly them because Catch-22 states that all officers must listen to their commanding officers. After this encounter, Milo Minderbinder, the mess hall officer, sees a C.I.D. (Criminal Investigation Division) man in camp, and is fearful that he will be discovered selling food on the black market. He then goes to Yossarian and pitches the idea that they should create a syndicate so that the whole camp can benefit from Milo’s deals.
The book then proceeds to flashback to the great siege on Bologna, which took place roughly two years before the main timeline. The book introduces several new characters such as Major – DeCovelry, Kid Sampson, and Captain Black. Major- DeCoverly serves as a major who is feared by all, but often does random acts of kindness for his squadron like renting out apartments in Rome for the service men. Kid Sampson is a 16 year old who lied on his enlistment forms and Captain Black is the main competitor to Milo’s syndicate and antagonist towards Yossarian. Over the course of this siege Yossarian’s paranoia is explained as he often clashes with Clevenger and McWatt in fighting the Germans. During this time, the reader learns of the animosity between the chain of command (Cathcart and Peckem) and Yossarian. Yossarian is hated by the chain of command because they were forced to give him a medal when Yossarian doubled back on a mission to hit a target, inadvertently killing a fellow soldier. Eventually the siege of Bologna ends and the Americans bomb Bologna without any German anti-aircraft fire. Yossarian is troubled by this and becomes even more suspicious. Yossarian is then informed that he must bomb Bologna again as they missed a German weapons depots the first time. Yossarian, irked, flies in again. However, this time there was anti-aircraft fire and Snowden, a gunner in Yossarian’s plane, dies.
Following the siege of Bologna Yossarian travels to Rome with his cohort and meets a woman named Luciana with whom he falls in love and then loses contact with immediately. Yossarian regrets losing her and this adds to his idea that the world is his enemy. At the same time Nately falls in love with a whore. Yossarian travels between Rome and Pianosa frequently, while at the same time Colonel Cathcart continues to raise the number of missions and volunteers his troops for the most dangerous missions, all in the name of trying to get a promotion. Finally the squadron has enough and Dobbs puts an assassination plan in place. The only thing he needs is Yossarian’s go ahead, which Yossarian does not give. At the same time Milo’s syndicate has grown beyond the army to the point where he is now the mayor of Palermo, the assistant governor-general of Malta, the vice-shah of Oran, the caliph of Baghdad, the imam of Damascus, the sheik of Araby, and is worshipped as a god in parts of Africa. He claims to help everyone, yet Yossarian is disturbed to find that when he actually requires Milo’s assistance, he is not given it.
Yossarian angered by all of the bureaucracy around him and its ability to thwart his enjoyment and destroy his life. He reaches out to Dobbs so he can kill Colonel Cathcart. Dobbs cannot as he has finished his missions and is shipping out. People’s behavior on the base begins to deteriorate as McWatt accidentally kills Kid Sampson doing tricks with his airplane, and then flies into a mountain and dies. Cathcart continues to raise the missions required, and Yossarian get new roommates who destroy everything in his tent, including the belongings of Orr who was lost at sea several months before. After this, Yossarian and Nately go back to Rome, where Nately professes his love for the whore and she finally admits she loves him back, after months of nothing. Milo goes to Colonel Cathcart and demands that he fly more missions as people have finally realized that only he benefits from the syndicate. Cathcart refuses on the grounds that Milo is too important for the syndicate to be risked in battle. He raises the number of flights to 80 and Nately, who was about to ship home because he had finished 70 flights, was forced to fly more. Nately and 20 others were killed in one flight.
Yossarian flies back to Rome to tell Nately’s whore that he was killed. The whore responds by attempting to kill him. He goes all over Rome trying to escape her, and when he flies back to Pianosa, she follows him. He eventually traps her in a plane, flies her out to a distant country side, and drops her out of the plane with a parachute. Yossarian then refuses to fly anymore missions. His superiors are flummoxed and decide to give him noncombat missions so he can fulfill his flight requirement. However, Yossarian flies away to Rome in an attempt to escape. There, Yossarian travels the streets seeing atrocity after atrocity. He then sees some officers chasing away whores and making the woman who ran the brothel cry. He asks them how they had the authority to do it and they replied that Catch 22 allowed them too. He asked if he could see Catch 22 in writing, but they responded that Catch 22 allowed them to not show people Catch 22 in writing when using its power. Yossarian then realizes that Catch 22 does not exist; rather it is something which everyone thinks exists so it has limitless power. Yossarian returns to Pianosa, and gets a deal from his superiors that he can go home, provided he lies to the public and says that they are great people. Yossarian is about to take the deal, but changes his mind when he realizes that taking the deal would be hypocritical and the rest of squadron would still have to fly 80 missions. He is then met by Nately’s whore and is stabbed until he falls unconscious. In his unconscious state, he flashes back to Snowden’s death - how he died after his innards fell out because Dobbs lost control of the plane, which they were on because Cathcart ordered more missions, and that Snowden died in pain because Milo had replaced the morphine with aspirin in the name of the Syndicate. When Yossarian wakes up, he realizes that he was right, and that everyone has played a part in the living hell that is his life. While telling Major Danby that he could not take the deal, the chaplain jumps into the hospital tent and tells Yossarian that Orr survived and was in Sweden. Yossarian is elated and runs out of the tent, dead set on going to Sweden to escape the war. While leaving the tent, he finds Nately’s whore who attempts to stab him, Yossarian evades her and runs into the distance.
Catch 22 is primarily set on the isle of Pianosa, which is located off of the west coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. This is where Yossarian’s army base is located and where Yossarian’s character devolves from skeptical soldier, to paranoid run away. On the island Yossarian interacts with most of the army bureaucracy and encounters most of his antagonists. He has to deal with all of the Colonels and commanding officers, who intentionally or not, ruin his life. The rest of the novel takes place in the city of Rome. Yossarian travels to Rome when he gets break with the rest of his squadron and generally spends his time either getting drunk, attempting to get girls, or renting whores. Rome is where Yossarian’s paranoia widens to include suspicion of people outside of the United States Army. He sees horrendous things like rape, murder, and blackmail going on in the streets of Rome without anybody protesting them. After his many visits to Rome, Yossarian is forced to conclude that everyone in the world wants him dead, not only the Germans and the American soldiers.
There are several important themes and motifs which can be seen in Catch 22; most follow the development of Yossarian as a character throughout the novel.
Paranoia can be seen throughout the novel. Paranoia is seen in the devolvement of Yossarian. In the beginning of the novel Yossarian just thinks that the Americans and Germans are trying to kill him, but he can trust his friends and close acquaintances. As the novel progresses, Yossarian loses trust in almost everyone, as he watches his closest friends die or are lost at sea. People like Nately sell out to the system, abandoning Yossarian and leaving him all alone to fight against the institution. The paranoia strengthens as potential allies turn their backs on him when he tries to escape the army. Milo, who Yossarian had helped start a crime empire, leaves Yossarian after promising to help him because he decides that chasing money was more worthwhile than helping friends. Major Major decides not to help Yossarian leave the army for fear he will be “disappeared” if he helps Yossarian leave. Yossarian also observes how fickle and short his romantic relationships can be both on the base with the nurses and in Rome with the prostitutes. He observes that no matter how hard he tries he cannot keep a woman. He feels abandoned and used by the women, thinking they have ulterior motives, which they accomplish by being with him.
The Power of the institution
One of the major themes in Catch 22 is the power of the institution. From the beginning of the novel, Yossarian deals with the Army bureaucracy and is frustrated by the power it holds. Men must risk their lives flying more missions because a power hungry colonel wishes to be a general. Men cannot leave the army even if they are insane due to a bureaucratic rule which forces people to stay in the army until they fly their required missions, which is impossible to accomplish due to the ever-rising number of missions. Men must fly missions even though it is common knowledge that the Allies had essentially won the war. The upper bureaucracy of the division simply finds it amusing to send men into the line of fire. The chaplain is accused of a crime and is interrogated by the C.I.D. only to be revealed that there is no crime of which the C.I.D knows; they wish to find a crime by interrogating the chaplain. Clevinger is accused of crimes, and he is pronounced guilty even though he is innocent. He cannot argue his innocence because the corporal is too busy correcting Clevinger’s style of speech. Major Major (a major) only has people come to his office when he is not in the office. Corporal turned general Scheisskopf only cares about doing marches and parades and does not care how long or deadly the war is as long as he can orchestrate parades with the soldiers. The total power of the institution leaves all of the soldiers helpless and afraid, some driven to madness like Joe, some driven to extreme distrust and fear like Yossarian. Catch 22 highlights the fact that being the one with power and being the one who knows how to deal with power are almost never the same.
Madness of War
The theme of the madness of war is essentially the crux of the novel. Heller wrote this novel as a response to the Korean War, a conflict he felt the United States had entered for no reason. He painted the Second World War not as the classical “good vs. evil” conflict, but as a disturbed, horrendous, and cannibalistic affair. Heller conveys this by employing symbolism and by using his unique fractured timeline and narration. The fractured timeline and narration are meant to show that war is not as simple as shooting a gun. It is a dog eat dog world which can drive a person mad. The fractured timeline, with jumps and flashbacks, is meant to expose a reader to the mind of a soldier who has experienced unspeakable horrors. The world no longer follows a direct path; it is full of twists and splinters, and leads to dead ends. Yossarian’s narration shows how the horrors of war can destroy someone’s life. He describes in detail how everyone’s lives change due to the war. Yossarian describes how all the people who the public consider heroes, the generals, the corporals, the commanders, are in actuality villains. Yossarian breaks the stereotype of war by trying to convey that war is not good; it is not something to of which to be proud. The constant flashbacks to Snowden’s death show that no matter what, you cannot escape the terribleness of war. Yossarian describes his time in the army in short tangents which rarely connect to the previous story. Yossarian doesn’t explain the story chronologically but rather emotionally, as he describes the deaths of his friends, traumatic events based off of how he was affected, not how they relate to each other. He exposes the truth of war, that it is worse than hell. He tells how innocent people are shoved aside so that people can execute plans to make themselves seem more impressive. Heller wrote this novel to express to the public that soldiers are people too, and think in emotional ways which are not necessarily logical.
One of the most important motifs of the novel Catch 22 is the development of Catch 22 as an object. The first example of Catch 22 is when Doc Daneeka does not declare Yossarian insane. Catch 22 in that situation is a bureaucratic rule which states that one is insane if he continues to fly missions; however, if he asks to be declared insane he clearly is sane and must fly more missions. The next time Catch 22 appears in the novel is when Yossarian observes soldiers evicting and destroying houses, and Catch 22 in that situation granted the soldiers the ability to do whatever they wanted, without having to show anyone Catch 22 while it was being enforced. This establishes Catch 22 not as a bureaucratic law but as an object which allows for evil to be done without making the evil doers responsible for their actions. It traps people in paradoxes and allows the people who created the paradox to have a free reign. Other characters are also caught in Catch 22 situations, such as the Chaplain who is interrogated for a crime for which he has not been charged. Catch 22 is meant to highlight the backwards logic of war. It illustrates Heller’s hatred of the Korean War, as he believed it to be nothing but a paradox. Americans went to fight a war to protect evil people just so they could beat the people whom the Soviets were backing. The logic of the war was as unclear as Catch 22 in the eyes of Heller. One day the Korean War was vital to spreading democracy, the next day it was vital to American existence. It changed just like Catch 22 changed.
Response to Korean War
Catch 22, along with Slaughter House Five, are two of the more famous pieces of American Literature written in response to the Korean War. Although both take place in the Second World War, the descriptions of the war are like that of the Korean War.
Catch 22 was written to be incoherent and almost incomprehensible, to show readers how crazy war is, specifically the Korean War. Heller believed that the Korean War was a pointless way to lose lives as clearly nothing good would come out of the war. Heller in an interview openly stated that the idea of Catch 22 as an object came from the Korean War when he observed all the nonsensical things going on. He based the megalomaniacal generals and corporals on the heads of the military in Korea, as he believed that they were not trying to do anything but promote themselves in this war at the expense of innocent soldiers. Heller, who served in WWII, said the novel was not meant to comment on WWII but rather on Korea and later Vietnam.
Critical Response and Cultural Impact
Catch 22 was praised by most critics but panned by some as well. The New York Times described Catch 22 as "A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights". The Nation said that it was “the best novel to come out in years.” The New York Herald Tribune said that it was "A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book". Harper Lee, author of the acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird, stated that, “Catch-22 is the only war novel I've ever read that makes any sense."”. At the same time, a second New York Times review stated that Catch 22 was “an emotional hodgepodge”. Distinguished book critic, Dr. Eisik Fleischman Esq. stated that Catch 22 was an “emotional rollercoaster” and that Heller’s broad story with unique and sometimes confusing narration “keeps the reader on his toes.” He also addressed the complexity of the novel stating that it is “not for the simple minded, one must be sharp while reading. Otherwise the intricacies of the novel will be lost.” Overall he gave it a positive review of 4.7 stars out of a possible 5.2 stars.
Catch 22 has often been called the greatest piece of American Literature from the 20th century. Its cultural influence can be felt to this day with the term Catch 22 firmly implanted in our lexicon. Catch 22 is synonymous with a paradox. The book gave way to a new genre of anti-war literature and created a path for novels which employed similar narration styles like that of Catch 22 (ex. A Game of Thrones, the Book Thief).