Catch-22: A Study in Post-War Attitudes
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 1960s. 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. Yossarians attempts to avoid flying are met with the Armys 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 hes 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 1950s than to World War II.
Catch-22 is set in World War II; in many ways, it serves as an outlet for Hellers 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 Hellers 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 Hellers 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 1950s. 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 McCarthys 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 communiqus 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, Whats 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:
Im 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 Im almost surprised to find that the acceptance of the book covers such a broadspectrum as well. (Kiley, p.273)
Apparently, the world was ready for a book that laughed at some things that were not terribly funny. Hellers 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 persons 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 ones 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 Yossarians, and therefore, Hellers, final solution: The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.
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.
ONeill, 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.