Published less than 20 years after World War II, Catch-22, set in WWII, satirizes the war and its bureaucracy, even treating both as jokes.
Throughout the centuries, dark humor always meets controversy. Of course, nobody wants a loved one’s death or a deadly influenza to be mocked, but every once in a while, there always comes a bold and dashing man willing to satirize a serious topic despite all the imminent death threats. In this case, the man is Joseph Heller.
Filled with both funny and serious moments, Catch-22 presents an insane society governed by an all powerful bureaucracy. Throughout his novel, his heavy criticism of the bureaucracy serves as a major driving force. Initially not popular with the post-war audience, baby boomers who identified with its criticism of war and government later resurrected the novel.
Catch-22 follows Yossarian, a WWII pilot, and his adventures in an insane world governed by insane people with insane ideas. Throughout the entire story, Yossarian is bent on survival by escaping aerial missions, though he’s constantly unsuccessful. Sick and frightened by war, Yossarian irrationally believes that the entire world wants to kill him. He wants to leave the war, but before he can do so, he has to complete a set number of missions. However, this is impossible because the number of completed missions required to leave constantly increases.
The entire novel is filled with irrationality, from a black-market trader who buys eggs for seven cents and sells them for five cents (and still makes a profit) to a man who bores himself out to increase his life span. Even the book itself is structured illogically: the chronology is disorganized, with numerous flashbacks and randomly events presented.
Amongst all the irrationality comes the most irrational aspect of the entire novel: Catch-22. The government officials create the law Catch-22 to justify all their actions. When Yossarian first encounters it, it is initially a law that prevented pilots from ever being grounded for insanity. To be grounded for insanity, a pilot must ask for it and admit his insanity. However, if he asks for it, he must be sane.
As the novel progresses, Catch-22 becomes more and more extensive, with its further clauses being as irrational and paradoxical as the one above. An Italian woman in the book best summarizes the law: “They [bureaucrats] have the right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing” and Catch-22 enforces this right.
Catch-22 eventually comes as a harsh criticism of bureaucracy. It reminds us of the bureaucracy’s powers, how our lives are under its control and how it can enforce anything it wants. The bureaucrats’ power is further shown when they act illogically and refuse to listen to any reasoning. Heller portrays them as selfish pigs bent on achieving their personal interests, particularly Colonel Cathcart, who constantly increases the number of missions to gain promotion.
It becomes eventually clear that Heller has achieved what he set out to achieve: To elicit negative response towards the bureaucracy. From Catch-22 to the constant addition of missions to the government administrators’ irrational behavior, the readers learn to sympathize with Yossarian and the victims of bureaucracy. Even though his primary enemies are the Germans, Yossarian seems to fear his military superiors more than the Germans.
The concept of Catch-22 has become so powerful that it has taken on a life of its own. Nowadays, the term Catch-22 is synonymous with a situation where one is victim regardless of the choice one makes, popularized in modern culture with the phrase, “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.”
Yossarian’s friends in the novel are shown as victims of bureaucracy, garnering even more negativity towards the military bureaucrats. At the novel’s end, most of Yossarian’s friends are either physically dead or mentally dead, mostly tied in one way or another with bureaucracy. Even Yossarian eventually remarks how almost all his friends are gone.
The characters add to the novel’s humor, as one can’t help but laugh at all their craziness. Their actions, spontaneous and bizarre, comprise the bulk of the humor. One notable example of a ridiculous character is Orr, who stuffs crabapples in his cheeks without ever mentioning a reason. Whenever he is asked about it, he never gives a straightforward answer.
One very confusing aspect of Catch-22 is the organization of the events. The events presented in the novel do not follow one another chronologically and at certain times, the narrator will assume the reader knows certain information when in reality, he doesn’t. Although this adds to the theme of insanity and irrationality, the prose amounts to a confusingly told story that may vex some readers.
However, the confusing narration does not stop Catch-22 from being one of modern literature’s finest books. Funny, interesting, and insightful, Catch-22 is a perfect book for anyone who’s willing to laugh at war. It provides a dark commentary on the forces that govern us and Heller presents it masterfully.