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Catch22 A Study in PostWar Attitudes
Catch-22: A Study in Post-War Attitudes
by Chris Nicholson
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 1960’s. 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. Yossarian’s attempts to avoid flying are met with the Army’s 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 he’s 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 1950’s than to World War II.
Catch-22 is set in World War II; in many ways, it serves as an outlet for Heller’s 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 Heller’s 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 Heller’s 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 1950’s. 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
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