Site hosted by Build your free website today!

A novel by Joseph Heller (1923 - 1999)

The following is an essay I wrote on Catch-22 for school. It starts out with biography of Heller and then goes on to describe and analyze the novel. This isn't as long as it looks, and you'll learn a lot about the novel just by reading this essay.

Critical Review on Catch-22

     Although Catch-22 will always be the novel that Joseph Heller is best known for, he has also written Something Happened, Good As Gold, God Knows, No Laughing Matter, Picture This, Closing Time, and the play We Bombed in New Haven. Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from high school in New York and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps, completed cadet training, and went to Corsica and to serve as a wing bombardier during World War Two. During his time in the war, Heller flew a total of sixty combat missions, although he said that "There were never any German fighter planes, and on half the missions, there was no anti-aircraft fire at all." (Ruas 146). After receiving his honorable discharge and several medals, Heller decided to go back to school; he enrolled at the University of Southern California and then transferred over to New York University, where he received his B.A. In this same year, he married Shirley Held and began to write short stories for various magazines, including Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. In 1949 Heller received his M.A. in English from Columbia University and taught composition for two years at Pennsylvania State University. In 1953, Heller began to write Catch-22, while working in the New York advertising business. The novel took him until 1961 to complete.

     After Catch-22, Heller wrote other plays and novels while continuing to teach fiction writing at City College in New York until 1975. In 1981, while writing God Knows, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a form of polyneuritis that affects the peripheral nervous system. After intensive care and many months of rehabilitation, he made a complete recovery. The book No Laughing Matter was written mainly about Heller's medical problems. In 1984, Heller separated from his wife and resumed teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1987, he got remarried to Valerie Humphries.

     Heller used his memories from World War II as a basis for the events in the novel Catch-22; some of the situations in the book are exactly how they happened in Heller's life. However, he often states that the novel relates more to the political situation of America during the postwar period, including the Cold War, the McCarthy period, Korea, and even Vietnam. In Catch-22, the character Captain John Yossarian (based on Heller himself) is a bombardier in a fictitious island off the coast of Italy. Yossarian is convinced that everyone is trying to kill him, and so he is continually doing all he can to save his own life. The other characters in the book each have a unique quality of insanity; one character turns into a recluse and gives orders to not let anyone come into his office to talk to him unless he is not there; this character is upset mainly because he was promoted to major by the fluke of an IBM machine and is not sure what he is even supposed to do as a major. Another character organizes a huge syndicate and, because everyone has a share in this company, he can steal from anyone and is immune to every rule and regulation; he also works for both the Germans and the Allies. Orr, a minor character, crashes his plane on every single mission, lands in the ocean, and has to be rescued. Another minor character, Chief White Halfoat, is convinced he will die of pneumonia; and his roommate, Captain Flume, is so afraid of Chief Halfoat that he moves to the woods and lives in the wilderness by himself. Even the names of the characters are absurd: there are names like Major Major Major Major and Major ––––– de Coverley. The book starts out very humorously, but gets more and more horrific as the novel progresses; eventually, Yossarian realizes that every one of his friends has died except one, who fled to Sweden, and so Yossarian decides to desert also.

     For every favorable review that came out about the book, there was at least one more unfavorable review. The qualities of Catch-22 that have been most criticized are the lack of continuity, the absurdity and black humor, and the way the book changes as it progresses -- the end of the book is oftentimes viewed as so dramatically different in style from the beginning that it is severely criticized. The lack of continuity is viewed by some as a complement to the absurd nature of the book; however, many people find it detracts from the novel. Either way, it adds a unique nature to Heller's work. The novel, especially in the first half of the book, skips around between different time periods and places. Although it seems like Catch-22 is very unorganized, there is actually a very structured style to Heller's writing. He has even drawn up a chronological timeline of Catch-22 to prove that the novel was written in a very orderly fashion. As the novel gets further and further along, the discontinuity slowly disappears. Near the end of the book, there are actually many events happening in chronological order.

     Absurdity is the main quality that is associated with Catch-22. Some of Heller's main influences were absurdists Franz Kafka, Nikolay Gogol, Nathanael West, Vladimir Nabokov, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Most of Heller's absurd writing comes not in the descriptive parts of the novel, but within the conversations that the characters have. In fact, Heller says that he does not have a good sense of observation, and finds it much easier to write dialogue than descriptive texts. Within the dialogue, one can find the qualities of black humor, repitition, and criticisms of modern society and bureaucracy. Yossarian quickly learns that most of his commanding officers do not care about his life and are willing to sacrifice him if it will make them look better. One colonel raises the amount of missions the men have to fly to nearly twice the amount other squadrons fly simply because it will make him seem like a better commander. Another colonel wants to send letters home to the families of deceased men only because he thinks it will get him featured in a magazine. Loyalty oaths also play an important part in Catch-22, mainly because they reflect a similar situation in America. In the novel, Captain Black's "Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade" overtakes the squadron, and patriotism becomes oppressive. They do not let Major Major sign a loyalty oath so that they can accuse him of being a Communist. Captain Black justifies it by saying that "National defense is everybody's job. And this whole program is voluntary, Milo--don't forget that. The men don't have to sign Piltchard and Wren's loyalty oath if they don't want to. But we need you to starve them to death if they don't" (Heller 124). The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade eventually comes to a close when Major ––––– de Coverley, the most respected man in the squadron, refuses to sign an oath before eating. From that moment on, the crusade is no more.

     However, most situations have humor enough in them so that the depressing side of the novel is hidden until the end. Some of this humor is the way the characters speak in circles; in one particularily famous scene (made into the play Clevinger's Trial), an officer named Clevinger is being tried for crimes that he did not commit. However, "Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so" (Heller 90). Another example of absurdity is in the passage which states that "As a member of the Action Board, Lieutenant Scheisskopf was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against Clevinger as presented by the prosecutor. Lieutenant Scheisskopf was also the prosecutor. Clevinger had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was Lieutenant Scheisskopf" (Heller 85). In this whole scene, the underlying purpose is to demonstrate the corruption that exists within all bureaucratic and political systems. Heller believed that sometimes the enemy in war was not the other country; it was your own political leaders and officers. The following dialogue sums up the scene, "Yossarian had done his best to warn him the night before. 'You haven't got a chance, kid,' he had told him glumly. 'They hate Jews.' 'But I'm not Jewish,' answered Clevinger. 'It will make no difference,' Yossarian promised, and Yossarian was right. 'They're after everybody'" (Heller 90).

     The novel gradually changes in style. The humor that existed in the first part of the book eventually gives way to horrific scenes of death and violence. Yossarian sees his friends dying as the colonels force them to fly more missions then ever before. Eventually Yossarian refuses to fly any more missions, and his commanders can do nothing about it, because anything they did to Yossarian would make them look bad. Yossarian also gains morality, which many critics agree is not consistant with the Yossarian from earlier in the book. Finally Yossarian deserts, disgusted with the army and hopeful that he will find freedom in Sweden. This action could be seen as a climax of Yossarian's years of resentment, disillusionment, and disgustment with the army, or it could be viewed as an action which conflicts with Yossarian's past characteristics. Most critics would disagree with this ending because Yossarian is also given the option to return home with an honorable discharge. He refuses the offer, though, because agreeing to it would be agreeing to work with the people he hates, and he would also be leaving all of his other fellow officers; he would be required to lie to them so that they would not refuse to fly in hopes of going home like Yossarian did. But, some say that if Heller had been consistant in the way he portrayed Yossarian, he would have had Yossarian take the deal and go home, saving his own life in the process.

     The style of Heller's writing also changes. Along with there being more horror and less humor near the end of the book, there is also more continuity and long passages of description, instead of the dialogue that characterized the beginning of the novel. Also, there is the recurrsion of past events. Many events are referred to many times throughout the novel, each time with more description and detail. By the end of the book, each situation that is referred to in earlier passages is now described thoroughly. Whereas these situations might have been humorously mentioned earlier in the novel, they are now seen in a completely startling and horrible light. The death of one character, Snowden, is mentioned several times throughout the book. In the end, long passages describe how Yossarian could not save Snowden, and the horror that he experienced as he watched Snowden slowly die on their plane. This situation is very similar to what happened to Heller in real life; the name of this mission in the novel was even the same as the name of the mission that Heller went on. Like Yossarian, he realized the true nature of war when one of his friends was injured; afterwards, Heller says that war was not much fun after that, and that all he wanted to do was go home. When asked, "Was that because, like Yossarian, you began to suspect you were being sent on missions only to make your superior officers look good?", Heller replies, "No, it was because I began to suspect I didn't want to die" (Golson 397). Another example of horror in the latter part of the novel is when a friend of Yossarian rapes a Roman servant girl and then throws her out a window, killing her. However, when the police arrive, they ignore the girl, and Yossarian's friend, and simply arrest Yossarian for being in Rome without a pass. Yossarian begins to understand that people have no morals and view the loss of one life trivial when so many other lives are being lost in the war.

     The title, Catch-22, also plays an important part in the novel. The clause Catch-22 states that "they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing" (Heller 417). Catch-22 does not exist, but even that cannot be proven: "'Didn't you even make them read it?' Yossarian demands. 'They don't have to show us Catch-22,' the old woman answered. 'The law says they don't have to.' 'What law says they don't have to?' 'Catch-22'" (Heller 418). Yossarian also states that "Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack..." (Heller 419). The other example in which Catch-22 is used is when Yossarian wants to go home on account of being crazy and not able to fly. However, according to Catch-22, "anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy. There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22" (Heller 55). Through Catch-22, Heller demonstrates the absolute insanity of bureaucracy in in wartime, and what Yossarian has to fight in his struggle to stay alive.

     Catch-22 is not just a book about war, it is about the political situation of America during the postwar period. A country filled with McCarthyism and loyalty oaths and "What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa" is reflected through the pages of Catch-22. The impact this novel had on society during the time of the Vietnam War was great enough to permanently change America's youth. The absurd, humorous, and yet sadly depressing and horrific nature of Catch-22 has left everyone questioning all aspects of society. In the words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and it is us."


Golson, G. Barry, ed. The Playboy Interview. New York: Playboy Press, 1981.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1955.

Merrill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Nagel, James. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984.

Potts, Stephen W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Ruas, Charles. Conversations with American Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1984.