Catch-22 Essay, Research Paper
The Function of Themes in Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller produced many works of literature throughout his lifetime; however, his most acclaimed novel, Catch-22, has become a cult class among readers throughout the world. Catch-22 is not a bland novel that invokes few emotions from its readers. It is a moving novel stacked full of many themes. These themes indubitably conjure up fear and mistrust of the system that seeks to destroy one’s own life.
Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father Isaac (Pinsker 228), a bakery truck driver, died when Heller was only four years of age (Kaupunginkirjasta online). During World War II, Heller served as a bombardier for the United States Air Force and flew sixty bombing missions while stationed in Italy. This gave him the background for Catch-22 (Classic online). Specifically, while on a combat mission, Heller witnessed one of his fellow airmen die of wounds; this ultimately led to Heller’s graphic portrayal of Snowden, a young airman in Catch-22, who dies a horrid death during a bombing run (Pinsker 383).
After being discharged from the Air Force, Heller enrolled in the University of Southern California and later transferred to New York University where he majored in English. Upon finishing his studies in New York, Heller attended Columbia University until 1949, when he received his Master of the Arts Degree in English (Pinsker 383). After receiving his degree, Heller went on to become a professor at Pennsylvania State University where he taught English for two years (Classic online). In 1961, after a series of jobs working for such magazines as Time and Look, Heller published Catch-22, which he had been working on since 1953(Classic online). After Catch-22 was published in 1961 (Kaupunginkirjasta online), Heller continued his writing career with Something Happened in 1974, Good as Gold in 1974, God Knows in 1984, Picture This in 1988, and Closing Time in 1994 (Pinsker 379). Although not as well received as Catch-22, Closing Time serves as a sequel to Catch-22 in which the heroes are described forty years after the original novel (Kaupunginkirjasta online). Sadly on December 3, 1999, Joseph Heller died of a heart attack at his home in Long Island, New York (Kaupunginkirjasta online). Heller’s career and personality was best described by Brustein when he said “He has Mailer’s combustible radicalism without his passion for violence and self-glorification; he has Bellow’s gusto with his compulsion to affirm the unaffirmable; and he has Salinger’s wit without his coquettish self-consciousness (Brustein 228).”
Catch-22 was Heller’s first real success as an author. It has been received with both excessively positive and odiously negative critiques and comments. In addition, some critics only provided statements that were commentary, rather than commendations or denunciations.
A few critics only supplied a general interpretation of Catch-22 that includes brief commentary about the work. One such comment was made by Raymond Olderman in which he says, “Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 deals with more that the lusty evils of battle, it is a book written for a decade of readers who have been warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex” (Olderman 229). Another comment was made by Robert Brustein, who said, “[Catch-22] speaks solidly to those who are disaffected, discontented, and disaffiliated, and yet those who want to react to life positively” (Burstein 135).
Those who support it have often said that Joseph Heller’s work of Catch-22 truly demonstrates his extraordinary talents (Brustein 228). Bryant went as far as to say, “Better than almost any other single war novel, Catch-22 illustrates the main issues of the ‘open decisions [decisions made by one's self],’ laying out clearly the factors which inhabit its highest good and suggesting ways in which those factors can be overcome” (Bryant 228). Bryant also went on to say that “Catch-22 is the great social tautology that imprisons every individual who takes it as a natural absolute and does not see that it is a kind of language-game (Bryant 229). Others such as Pinsker state that “Catch-22’s extraordinary achievement can be measured in terms of its radical departure from the convictions that had governed previous war novels” (Pinsker 381).
Most negative criticism of Catch-22 centers around Heller’s style in the novel. Specifically, they feel the novel lacks unity and coherence. Many critics go as far as to say “Catch-22 is not even a good novel by convential standards” (Prescott online). Burhans, for example, attributes this to ” the constant episodic zigzags which comprise Catch-22’s narrative surface” (230). Others credit their negative criticism to “Catch-22’s dizzying repetitions and seemingly disjointed narrative” (Pinsker 385). Similarly, Brustein says that Catch-22 contains “some of the most outrageous sequence since A Night at the Opera” (228).
The themes of Catch-22 depict the classic struggle between man’s desire to survive and the system’s desire to crush man for its own gain. The central theme of the novel expresses the preposterousness and the excesses of life during wartime, while it points out the madness of the bureaucratic systems (”Themes” online). This madness is best displayed in the phrase “catch-22 [a situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions],” coined by Heller (Pinsker 379). A “catch-22″ disables man’s control over his own life and guarantees that control to a system that seeks only to benefit itself without care toward what it costs (Olderman 229). Frederick R. Karl said, “Beneath the surface all avid readers are afraid that life – whatever it is – is dribbling away from them in ways they can never dam” (135). Karl’s analysis illustrates the theme of loss of control as well as its universal appeal.
Despite the existence of “catch-22″, Yossarian must endeavor, so far as in his power lies, to do whatever he can to maintain his very existence (Olderman 230). Although Heller claims that Catch-22 doesn’t try to undermine World War II (Bryant 228), it still struck a cord in the postwar generations of the 1950’s and 1960’s that found Catch-22 to be an anti-bureaucracy, anti-McCarthy, and anti-military novel (Themes online). Furthermore, Catch-22’s zaniness appeals to the student who, despite his egotistical exterior, is deeply confused and frightened (Karl 135). Catch-22’s satire-like style degrades traditional institutions such as society, business, psychiatry, medicine, law, and the military and portrays these as posing a threat to individualism (Bryant 228). The novel’s basic belief in individual preservation is accurately summarized by Karl: “Its [Catch-22's] surface extravagance masks a serious purpose: that in an impossible situation, one finally has to honor his own self; that in an absurd universe, the individual has the right to seek survival; that one’s own substance is infinitely more precious that any cause; however right, that one must be asked to give his own life unless everybody is willing to give his” (136).
In conclusion, Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 was one of many novels he produced throughout his writing career: however, it is arguably his best work. Although it has received mixed reviews from critics, it has drawn a following of devoted readers because of its moving themes of self-preservation. The readers of Catch-22 will indubitably feel fear and mistrust of a system that seeks to destroy one’s own life for the system’s gain and will find the phrase “catch-22″ engraved in his memory forever.
Brustein, Robert. “Catch-22.” Riley 228.
Bryant, Jerry H. “The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background.” Riley 228-229.
Burhans, Clinton S. “Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch-22.” Riley 230.
Calhoun High School English Department. Catch-22. Bellmore Merrick Central High School District. . 26 Oct. 2001.
“Classic Notes: Joseph Heller.” Classic Notes. 2001. Grade Saver. . 12 Oct. 2001.
Karl, Fredrick R. “Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: Only Fools Walk in Darkness.” Contemporary American Novelists. Ed. Harry T More. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964. 134-142.
Kaupunginkirjasta, Kuusankosken. “Joseph Heller (1923-199)”. Pegasos-Literature Related Sources. 2000. . 12 Oct. 2001.
Olderman, Raymond M. “The Grail Knight Departs.” Riley 229-230.
Pinsker, Sanford. “Joseph Heller.” American Writers. Ed. Litz, A Walton. Supplement 4, part 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996. 379-396.
Prescott, Orville. “Books of The Times.” The New York Times on the Web. 1998. . 14 Oct. 2001.
Riley, Carolyn. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research Co. 1973.
“Themes PinkMonkey.com-Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.” Pink Monkey.com. . 14 Oct. 01