Author Background

Joseph Heller who was born in Brooklyn in 1923 worked as a bombardier in the Air Force during the WW II. Catch – 22 draws heavily on his experiences while he was part of the Air Force. The novel is a war story though it is very different from other anti-war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front. This novel is hilarious, cynical, grotesque and stirring. The vision of war that is presented is stripped of all glory showing the extent of bureaucratic corruption and bungling and the greed for money. To the Americans who considered the Second World a legal and just war, the novel was shocking. But it proved to be prophetic as Americans started viewing war the way Heller presented it after the unjustified Vietnam War.

Relevance of the Title

Catch – 22 is a logical deadlock from which there is no escape. In the book, there are laws that contradict each other, laws that should not be read by anyone but the reason why no one should read it lies buried in the law itself. Yossarian wishes to quit the Air Force on the basis of insanity; but the authorities rule that anyone who claims to be insane has to be sane to do so. All these are examples of Catch – 22 situations.

Main Themes

The Absolute Power of Bureaucracy

In an interview after the publishing of the novel, Heller stated that the main concern of the novel was not war but bureaucratic authority. Officers in charge play around with the lives of those whom they control with disastrous effect. Many of the rules that they frame cannot make any sense. One such example is the rule that Major Major frames: he will see people in his office only when he is not present there. When Yossarian pleads insanity as a reason to be grounded, it is rejected on the claim that anyone who applies to be grounded has to be sane to do so.

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Loss of Faith in God

Catch – 22 was written at a time when people in large numbers had begun questioning the existence of a God. The happenings in the world ran counter to the idea of a just God. Why would God create so many ways in which men could be unhappy and in pain? Why did he make the wicked powerful and the rest powerless? Yossarian believes that mankind must make their own morals instead of following those handed down by religions.

Death

Yossarian constantly thinks about death – the many ways in which people can die contrasted with the only way in which all of us are born. He knows that death is inevitable. His aim is to live as long as it is possible. He wants to postpone death or die in that attempt. For him, life is precious. He does not want to give up his life to someone’s bumbling rules.

Characters

Yossarian

Yossarian is a bombardier in his squadron but he feels no kinship with the rest of its members. This is partly because they consider him to be insane as his reactions were different from those of his. Yossarian is not a conventional hero fighting a war to save lives. He is interested in saving his life; he takes no unnecessary risks as he wishes to live as long as possible on earth. Yossarian is confounded by the illogical rules that the officers higher up issue from time to time. These rules if followed expose the individual to grave danger to life. So Yossarian tries to work around them. This self preservation does not mean that he is not care for his squadron. Each time one of them dies, he grieves for the loss of a life. But he is not going to put his life in danger as it is the only one he has.

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Milo Minderbinder

Milo Minderbinder is a good example of capital enterprise that goes out of control, making even completely unethical activities possible, to make money. What begins as a little harmless black marketing grows into a monster enterprise where Minderbinder makes a deal with Germans to bomb his own squadron. He bends rules to his benefit whenever possible, when it is not possible, he tries other deals. Milo is capable of making money off both friend and foe. He offers his friends money for getting bombed and they accept in spite of knowing that chances of being killed is high.

Summary

Yossarian and his mates are part of a squadron that runs a high number of bombing sorties as the blundering bureaucracy has no conception of what is right. The bombardiers are told that taking good pictures of the bombing is more important than annihilating the enemy. Many of the rules formulated run counter to logic. The bureaucracy continually raise the number of bombing runs the squadron has to fly before they are sent home; this way none of them ever get leave. There is no one to listen to their complaints. This is a novel that is full of black humor and cynicism so we are not to believe that these things actually happen in the forces. The extreme situations that are portrayed mock the glory that is attributed to war. Yossarian knows that in life, death is inevitable but he has no wish to die unnecessarily. When he complains that millions of people are conspiring to kill him, no one believes him. On the contrary, they think he is insane. As the squadron believes that he is insane, he uses that to request that he be grounded. But the officer in charge answers that the claim that one is insane is proof that he is sane as the truly insane never claim that they are insane.

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Yossarian finds that he is constantly placed in positions that bring danger to his life. He sees his friends and mates die unnecessarily as a result of crazy decisions taken by the higher ranking officers who are only seeking personal glory. All through the war, Minderbinder makes money conniving with the enemy. He wants the war to go on as it presents opportunities to make money. In the end, when faced with two poor options both of which will put his life in extreme danger, Yossarian decides to desert his squadron and flee to Sweden which was a neutral country.