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The Themes In Catch 22 English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2180 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The novel Catch-22 was written by Joseph Heller (1923-1999), outstanding American satirical essayist, playwright and novelist, short after the end of the World War II and published in 1961. The novel received multiple-valued evaluation, as the American society was not ready to such disgusting and provocative truth as revealed in the book. Nevertheless, it was widely discussed and highly appreciated by many critics. At first it was recognized in Great Britain where it reached number one position of bestsellers very fast. In the USA it also received a new chance when anti-war sentiments were strengthening, not without the influence of the unjust war actions in Vietnam. Further, it was compared with other groundbreaking literary works of classic literature, which became important milestones in the history of the nation.

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The first chapter, suddenly born in the head of the writer in 1953, appeared in New World Writing in 1955 and was entitled Catch-18. The title was then changed not to confuse it with Mila 18 (1961) by Leon Uris. To incorporate symbolic meaning, the title Catch-11 was proposed, where double ones were to speak for bifurcation of characters involved in the novel; but it was rejected not to confuse with the movie Ocean’s Eleven (1960); the same happened with the title Catch-17 that reminded the name of the film Stalag 17 (1953) and finally the title Catch-22 was chosen, with ‘2’ duplicated to reflect the agonizing dualism of conscience in the circumstances laid at the heart of the story (Booth 2002).

As for the plot, this is a moving and sometimes outraging story of John Yossarian, the captain in Army Air Corps, squadron 256, who is obligated to fight against the Nazi and thus sacrifice his life on the altar of all-absorbing war. The scene is set on the island of Pionasa, to the west from Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. The core theme may be defined as demonstration of absurdity and inhumanity of war, which comes in terms of immense lies, cynicism, unbearable and inconceivable brutality, shameless manipulation of people who come to pieces, loose their human dignity because of endless fear and desperation. Insanity of war can be easily generalized by the idea of the author to the very madness of modern society on the whole. The war is shown as a special case of much more giant, global evil of political despotism.

It is obvious that the main theme splits into several particular themes, which can be both considered as a part of this global problem stated above and seen as completion of this core theme, which is thus included into broader historical, sociopolitical and cultural context. Almost all of them to certain extent are bounded to the witty title of the novel, and help to reveal the profusion of its meanings.

First of all, dehumanizing effects of bureaucratic reasoning and agency make up the leading theme in the novel. Soldiers are victims of the system that can be approached as a trap, or a catch, which has no way out. Their civil duty is to serve, and hence to kill for the sake of the welfare of the nation, of the state, which, on the one hand, means people of the country, but on the other hand, has nothing in common with them and in reality is just a horrible soulless machine, eating these people alive and giving them no chance to make their own, conscious choice: “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing,” an old Italian lady explains (Heller 407). Military rules have circular logic, which makes them self-contradictory. Rational mind doesn’t work; natural struggle for safety must be overcome in the face of “real and immediate” dangers. To be released from missions, one should tell he is insane. But as soon as he admits that, he is considered to be sane and thus should continue doing missions. In absurd way, the individual is marginalized and taught to practice ‘doublethink’ that consists in simultaneous accepting of mutually exclusive or contradictory ideas as correct. Vice is turned “into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice” (363). The servants are steadily cheated, and the number of missions to be demobilized is constantly growing; captain “is always approaching the magic number, but he never reaches it” (Burhans Jr. 239). Modern economic machine adds more unbearable tension to conventional sources of violence, pathology of group relations and madness of ambition.

This aspect leads us to another understanding of catch, the way it is stated by Heller himself, and accordingly, one more denunciative theme of the book. It turns out that “Catch-22” is nothing but an invented idea, an innuendo, misleading the unsuspecting citizens and soldiers; and being hollow inside it makes people hollow as well. “The title is a reference to a fictional bureaucratic stipulation which embodies multiple forms of illogical and immoral reasoning” (Shenker 15). Even this abstract thing gets the number, which symbolizes the dehumanizing effect of one-sided politics. The most frightening idea is that while this Catch-22 doesn’t exist, it is impossible to get rid of, to repeal or overthrown, to undone or denounce, “no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit a, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up” (Heller 409). All the ideals, all the postulates the nation is fed with by the state, are nothing but simulacra. These simulacra provide perfect legalistic justification of force and constraint. And while the entire view of the world is built on the basis of this unsteady lies, nothing is left for those who get to know in practice what the truth is like and what life is worth of.

Being guided by these fictitious ideals, the servants suffer from a great conflict between their duty and moral values. “The book turns on the axis of hope and decency versus despair and cynicism,” Robert M. Young claims (21). This is a theme of social dilemma, inevitably faced by those who find themselves in the circumstances of a trap, of duress. From this point, “Catch-22” is revealed as a moral prison, which is more than real and just as absurd as it looks like in the words of the protagonist. “Whenever you try to behave sensibly and look after yourself in a crazy world, there’s a catch, a catch which has entered the language as a result of Heller’s book”, Young admits (22). It is a dilemma of double bind, when people receive two conflicting messages, or even more that two, and each of them appears as a negation of the other one. As Young describes it, “there is no difference between nourishment and waste, introjection and projection; fair is foul and foul is fair” (22). One may choose to cooperate with others, and therefore ignore own interests, own views of morality and ethics, but be guided by the common interest of collective payoff. Or the person can sell them all out, live the way he or she chooses and reap individual benefits. “The way to succeed is to humiliate, dominate and put down others… Persecution is rampant, the more pointless the better, as are blackmail, intimidation, caprice and malice” (Young 23). This variant also means not to be responsible for others, and at the same time not suffering from vain affection to those whom you become close to and whom you cannot save no matter how hard you try. Yossarian suffered too much pain while his comrades were leaving forever. He tried to rescue Snowden, but it was not within his power. That’s why he is finally too tired of being a hero. He doesn’t want to take risks anymore, he doesn’t want to take any more missions, and when Major Major says, “But suppose everybody on our side felt that way,” Yossarian answers, “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?” (Heller 103). It turns out to be silly to resist, it is easier to follow the collective mind and drift, but that is unacceptable for Yossarian too.

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Hence, the next theme is apparent: a fight between good and evil, a search of what is right and what is wrong, and what the way out may be. Patriotism and honor turn out to be just beautiful words for throwing the dust in the eyes of the servants and to cover up petty schemes and insulting lies of bureaucrats. “There’s no patriotism, that’s what it is. And no matriotism, either,” Yossarian understands eventually (9). What is more, he doesn’t feel a need to hide his fear anymore. Courage is not a virtue anymore. He explains that he is afraid, and Major Major replies, “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all afraid,” but Yossarian wants to make it clear: “I’m not ashamed. I’m just afraid” (102). All his behavior is an internal protest against all the wilderness and silliness of things he has to do, to tolerate, to see and to bear in his memory till the very end. Important matters are trivialized, and trivial matters are exaggerated, but new “bonuses” are not compensating for working conscience. Christian virtues (embodied in the character of Major Major) are ostracized and dismissed as nonconformist. Meanwhile others (like Milo, the personification of faulty consciousness, its hypocrisy and masks with painted smiles) push ahead easily, over the heads of others, cheat, betray, steal morphine from the first-aid kid, do everything to rise in rank and to make money, Yossarian doesn’t want to play by the rules of opportunism. All points considered, it can be stated that there are just two ways out available: insanity and death, both passive and having nothing in common with trying to change something in the world around, as, by Heller, all such attempts are senseless and can hardly win the victory, as this is a kind of no-win situation, all the condemned are in a “lose-lose” situation and cannot get out of it. The only value is survival and “the only way to survive such an insane system is to be insane oneself,” Heller states and Robert M. Young provides an explanation: “What people do in these circumstances is to erect individual and institutional defences against the psychotic anxieties engendered by unconscious phantasies of the threat of annihilation. These defences are extreme, utterly selfish and survivalist” (24).

Finally, the theme of death can be fairly singled out as one more separate and rather extensive theme conveyed in the novel. First, Yossarian begins to fear everything and everyone because death can come from anywhere and from anyone. The whole world becomes his enemy: “The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live” (Heller 124). The most frightening thing was that he couldn’t fight with all of his enemies. Danger came from “Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo”, danger came from “Lieutenant Scheisskopf with his fanaticism for parades” and “bloated colonel with his big fat mustache and his fanaticism for retribution”, danger came from “Appleby, Havermeyer, Black and Korn”. And besides, there were “bartenders, bricklayers and bus conductors all over the world who wanted him dead, landlord and tenants, traitors and patriots, lynchers, leeches and lackeys, and they were all out to bump him off” (181). Even in peaceful woods he seas a threat, mushrooms recollect him of dismembered human bodies. His brother-officers were perishing day by day, “winding down to the tick tock of a clock”, and their deaths were senseless and absurd, shocking and demoralizing. So there is nothing strange that Yossarian was becoming paranoid and obsessed with death. In this way he decided to refuse any more missions and began to match backward “because he was continuously spinning around as he walked to make certain no one was sneaking up on him from behind” (392). And the doctor persuades him that death is inevitable and universal, that no one can escape it. “Of course you’re dying. We’re all dying. Where the devil else do you think you’re heading?” (182). Death was nothing for bureaucratic machine, “man was matter”, but it was all for Yossarian.

In this way, skillfully applying satire and black humor, iterations and paradoxes, absurd and irrational logic and reversed chronologic structure, Joseph Heller has created a dazzling out-of-time book about madness of the world we live in.


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