Catch 22 Theme Essay Prompts

Essay/Term paper: Catch 22

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In Catch-22, Joseph Heller reveals the perversions of the human character and society. Using various themes and a unique style and structure, Heller satirizes war and its values as well as using the war setting to satirize society at large. By manipulating the "classic" war setting and language of the novel Heller is able to depict society as dark and twisted. Heller demonstrates his depiction of society through the institution of war (i.e. it's effects and problems during and after war). In the novel, the loss of individuality through the lives of the soldiers; the insanity of war and Heller's solution to insanity; and the idea of "there is always a catch" in life is shown to a dramatic extent. Heller's novel not only satirizes war, but all of society.

Catch-22 shows how the individual soldier loses his uniqueness not as much from the battlefield like other novels set during a war, but from the bureaucratic mentality. An example of this Lt. Scheisskopf's obsession with parades that he sees the men more as puppets than as human beings. At one point in the novel, he even wants to wire them together so their movements will be perfectly precise--just as mindless puppets would be. This theme also appears when Colonel Cathcart keeps increasing the number of missions his squadron must fly--not for military purposes, but to solely enhance his prestige. One other example of this theme is in the novel, when Yossarian is wounded. He is told to take better care of his leg because it is government property. Soldiers, therefore, are not even people, but simply property that can be listed on an inventory. In a bureaucracy, as Heller shows, individuality does not matter.

Most war novels show that such things as lying, killing, adultery, and stealing are permissible if the ultimate goal is just--Catch-22 demonstrates this idea. For example, the men pleasure themselves with prostitutes in an apartment provided by the army. Also, one of the men steals life-raft supplies to trade. Despite the suppression of these important values, those such as honor and patriotism are also suppressed in the novel. The men fight for "what they had been told" was their country, but it's really only to make their officers look good. The officers at one point tell Yossarian that they are his "country". Here again, Heller shows the failures of a bureaucracy--how no values remain.

Whenever the men think they have found a solution to a problem, a catch defeats them. The men are grounded if they are insane, but if they recognize the insanity of their missions, they are sane--and must fly more missions. These men are trapped in a crazy world--each searching for his own solution. Each of them has their own unique and bizarre personal insanity (e.g. The bombardier, Havermeyer, zeroes straight in on targets, no matter how much antiaircraft fire peppers his plane. Other members of the squadron seem even crazier. Chief White Halfoat keeps threatening to slit his roommate's throat. Hungry Joe keeps everyone awake with his screaming nightmares. Corporal Snark puts soap in the men's food. Yossarian starts signing "Washington Irving" to letters he censors, and he goes naked for a few days--even when he is being awarded a medal.)--and as Heller suggests, the only sane response to a crazy situation is insanity. When Yossarian and his friends begin asking clever questions to disrupt boring educational sessions, Colonel Korn decides that only those who never ask questions may ask questions. When they want to discuss a problem with Major Major, they are allowed into his office only when he is out. Even when Yossarian is offered an apparently harmless deal that would allow him to go home as a hero, there is a catch. He must betray his friends by praising the officers who caused many of them to die. And as Heller shows, life is reduced to one frustrating paradox after another.

In form, Catch-22 is a social satire--it's a novel using absurd humor to discredit or ridicule aspects of our society. The target in Catch-22 is not just the self-serving attitudes of some military officers, but also the Air Force itself as a mad military bureaucracy. The humor in the novel along with descriptive styles such as:

Doc Daneeka, "roosted dolorously like a shivering turkey buzzard"; the mountains, blanketed in a "mesmerizing quiet," Yossarian, wet "with the feeling of warm slime," "lavender gloom clouding the entrance of the operations tent"

These descriptive styles help depart from pure realism--they serve to transcend physical reality by making sensations metaphors for states of mind and by attributing unusual qualities to objects, making the reader take a second look at familiar objects and feelings. These help to create new and altered perceptions of the world--common in satires as they try to solve the problem being satirized by having those satirized (the human character) realize its faults. One example of the absurd humor that helps to abandon realism for the reader are the deaths of some of the men--the war kills men in both expected and unexpected ways--some die through anti-aircraft fire, while others did in odd ways such as Clevinger whose plane disappeared in the clouds; Dunbar who simply disappears from the hospital; and Sampson who is killed by a propeller of one of the bombers--

this departure from pure realism (i.e. the exaggeration, the grotesque, the comic-like characters, the unusual deaths) is aimed to first make the reader laugh, then look back at horror at what amused them--and this is the technique Heller applies to satirize society.

One other obvious structural style that adds to the satirical purpose of the novel how it is organized--the novel is not organized chronologically--time is disjointed. This disjoining of time is used for effects in the novel such as deja vu to show that time equals mortality and to give the mind set and psychological impact of the men to the reader; but it primarily serves to confuse the reader--to have the reader take a second look--just as the descriptive sensation metaphors purposes.

Through various themes and structural and descriptive styles, Heller's Catch-22 is not the typical war story, but a satire. Heller gives us a different perception of war and society--such as the pointlessness of war and how when it is looked at closely hurts both the enemy and the allies--and from a greater perspective, how we humans inflict catastrophe on ourselves. Catch-22 ultimately makes us stop and think about the faults and tendencies of the human character. 

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  • 1

    Discuss two examples of a "Catch-22" in the novel.

    Possible Answer:

    The most obvious example is the military code outlined in the novel. This code states that if a man expresses his desire not to go on more missions, he demonstrates his sanity by his fear of danger, and thus he is considered fit to fly. But the military cannot ground a soldier for mental health reasons if he does not ask to be grounded. Yossarian desperately wants to go home or at least stay out of harm's way, and he constantly struggles with this military code.

    When Yossarian is courting Luciana, he thinks he falls in love with her. He express his desire to marry her, but she replies that she will not marry him. He asks why not, and she replies that he is crazy. When he asks why she thinks he is crazy, she responds that he must be crazy if he wants to marry her. Just as he cannot avoid flying dangerous combat missions, he cannot convince Luciana to marry him.

  • 2

    Yossarian is sometimes described by critics as being an antihero. Does he have any heroic traits?

    Possible Answer:

    Yossarian demonstrates real empathy for others, most notably with his feelings about Snowden. He eventually develops a more callous exterior, but he cannot cope with the suffering of characters--like Snowden's death. Also, he consistently and fervently rebels against a situation he sees as unjust. Though he usually explains this rebellion in selfish terms, he is fighting a repressive and sadistic system that affects everyone in the military, which makes him a symbol or icon of rebellion for the rest of the men. He inspires them in an unusual way by his example.

  • 3

    Is Yossarian truly in love with Luciana? What does she represent to him?

    Possible Answer:

    After such a brief time with Luciana, Yossarian feels very strongly about her. He probably has not had time to properly "fall in love," but it is possible. What is more likely is that she represents to him an escape from the madness of the war. The moment that makes him most enamored of her is when she tells him that the scar she will not reveal is from an American bombing. She not only confirms the cruelty of war to him by being an innocent victim of it, but she also represents the possibility of healing from past hurts. Her willingness to spend time with him shows her willingness to forgive. Luciana gives Yossarian hope, and she is a haven for him.

  • 4

    Is Catch 22 a parody, or is it generally realistic?

    Possible Answer:

    The novel is ridiculous in many ways. The misunderstandings and difficulties of communication are exaggerated sometimes so that the dialogue can sound like an Abbott and Costello routine. The decision-making of the military is inane and whimsical, and everyone is comically self-absorbed and uninterested in the larger picture of war. Though the novel is a parody in so many ways, Heller blurs the line between what is farce and what is an accurate description of life during war, which is absurd and chaotic. Often, this is true of farce; parody is used to underline life's truths and realities.

  • 5

    Is the novel a comedy or a tragedy?

    Possible Answer:

    Similar to how Heller uses parody to highlight reality, he uses dark comedy to reveal the cruel truths of wartime behavior. The novel is a comedy, but it hints that the reality of war is a tragedy. One marker of a comedy is a happy ending, and in the end of this novel, Yossarian finally escapes. This is a victory at the end of his long troubles, even though it is quite small compared to the physical and psychological ravaging he has experienced from the war. This small sweet note at the close of the novel comes in the context of a larger tragedy.

  • 6

    World War II is generally portrayed as a just war fought for the right reasons by brave and reasonable men. The majority of Heller's characters, however, are portrayed as selfish, depraved lunatics. Does the novel condemn the nobility of the soldiers? Are the problems pointed out by Heller just the funny, petty complaints of officers, or are there deeper troubles here?

    Possible Answer:

    First of all, any war is very complicated, and any clear assertion of good or evil is probably an oversimplification. There certainly are aspects of nobility and bravery in this war. The overall context remains: these people are fighting with a purpose. Heller shows noble intentions in characters such as Clevinger, who argues that it is his and every soldier's duty to fight for his country in a time of need. Clevinger's voice, however, is seen as dangerous by his own superiors, and his is an uncomfortable presence among his peers. He eventually dies an unceremonious death, having achieved nothing more noble than most of the other men, and having failed to inspire anyone. Heller shows that even noble intentions cannot prevail in the atmosphere of confusion and callous misdirection. The beliefs and reasons for war can be noble and good for some, deranged and cruel for others. The actions of war are intrinsically ludicrous, so war should be reserved only for extreme circumstances when the alternatives are worse. Nobility, in the world of Catch-22, all too often seems futile.

  • 7

    Who is the villain in Catch-22?

    Possible Answer:

    There is a general absence of pure malice in the novel; all "evil" in the novel is a consequence of pride, misdirection, miscommunication, or even good intentions. The enemy is not really seen. Death usually occurs due to a mistake, or it is totally random. The men are needlessly sent on dangerous missions due to their superiors' pride and negligence. Bureaucracy's effect on society is another reason why it is difficult to identify one single character as the villain of the novel. In large groups such as corporations or government, bureaucracy thoroughly diffuses blame. Bureaucracy itself may be the villain of the novel, for it gives cover for the dark side of human nature and makes it difficult to hold an individual accountable for bad actions.

  • 8

    Why is the novel not written chronologically? What effect is this supposed to have on the reader?

    Possible Answer:

    The scattered assortment of vignettes underscores the confusion and nonsensical nature of the men's experiences during the war. Character arcs become truncated, even running backwards in some places. This parallels how the actual character development of the soldiers stationed on Pianosa is at times truncated (by events such as death) or backwards (like Hungry Joe, whose moods are the opposite of what his situation dictates). It also underscores how the situation as a whole is not progressing or evolving; it is a stagnant, complicated mess, all of a piece. Thus, the novel's structure evokes for the reader a similar feeling of confusion and fragmentation to reflect the experience of a military officer.

  • 9

    Are the characters in the novel moral, for the most part?

    Possible Answer:

    Since morality, from a social point of view, is a system that dictates one's actions in a society, one should distinguish military morals in wartime from those of civilians in peacetime. Common moral themes, such as refraining from killing, are disregarded during war. But conventional morality does not seem to apply much at all, or so most of the men seem to think. Some of them act violently, flippantly, angrily, misogynistically, or even cruelly. This is a response to their surroundings, but it is not necessary or right for them to act in these ways simply because they can get away with it. Such activity is often more a cry of frustration and non-comprehension than an affirmation of immorality. It is sad, then, to observe that human nature cannot easily stand the pressures of war and remain as moral as the same people tend to be in peacetime.

  • 10

    Why did Heller choose the Air Force as the branch of the military in which the men serve?

    Possible Answer:

    Pilots are miles away from the targets they bomb and the anti-aircraft guns that fire at them. Even when they encounter the enemy in hostile planes, they do not see faces or hear yells. For a pilot, the enemy is either miles away or is encased in a metal machine. The connection that most of the men feel to a mission or to the war is very remote compared with infantry. They do not feel a strong sense of purpose as easily, and they thus tend to feel aloof from the rallying cause that should unite them. Also, the juxtaposition of violence and the calm, almost civilized world inside a plane parallels the constant doubleness of the men's experiences in dealing with the oddities of their compatriots and of their superior officers.

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