Absurdity in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Running to Responsibility: Absurdity in Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’

The topic of this research paper is the absurd in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In the course of this paper I will show that Catch-22 belongs to the Literature of the Absurd, that Heller writes in the tradition of the absurd and that he uses absurdist techniques to describe his novel’s absurd and disjointed world. Yet the novel’s absurd vision differs radically from other literature of the absurd because instead of accepting the universe as absurd, Heller protests against the absurdity he describes.

To support my thesis I will examine definitions and features of the Theatre of the Absurd and of the Literature of the Absurd and compare them to Catch-22. I will analyze the novel’s absurdist vision by looking at the absurdity of war, the absurdity of bureaucracy, absurdity of capitalism and at the famous catch-22. Further I will examine the failure of communication and the novel’s structure. To come to a valid conclusion I will then analyze the significance of absurdity in Catch-22.

The Literature of the Absurd has its roots in the Theatre of the Absurd and the absurdist movement that emerged after World War II as a rebellion against traditional values and literature. Before the war it was commonly thought that man was a fairly rational creature who lives in an at least partly intelligible universe. It was believed that man was able to show heroism and dignity even in defeat. After the war then there was the tendency to view man as isolated and the universe as possessing no inherent truth, value or meaning. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, for example viewed the

human being as an isolated existent who is cast into an alien universe, to conceive the

universe as possessing no inherent truth, value or meaning, and to represent human life – in its fruitless search for purpose and meaning, as it moves in the nothingness whence

it came toward the nothingness where it must end – as an existence which is both anguished and absurd.[1]

This worldview from Existentialism was taken on in the Theatre of the Absurd and then later in the Literature of the Absurd.

To the American post-World War II Absurdists, man is not able to meaningful direct

his own affairs. […] Morality is narrowly self-centered and man’s choices are selfish

and heavily rationalized. The Absurdists see man’s institutions as corrupt […] and find

man’s freedom very limited, his attempts at opposing a personal code to the absurdity

of existence doomed to failure, and personal heroism impossible except in acts of moral

refusal and in the fragile fantasies of the tortured mind.[2]

However, it was not enough for the absurdists to portray man as isolated, confronted with a universe that has lost all its meaning. Absurdist means and techniques were invented to present the author’s absurdist vision. It was thought that absurdist themes could only be represented in “works of literature that are themselves absurd”[3]. As Martin Esslin puts it:

The means by which the dramatists of the Absurd express their critique […] of our

disintegrating society are based on suddenly confronting their audiences with a

grotesquely heightened and distorted picture of a world that has gone mad.[4]

Having established some theoretical aspects of absurdist themes and techniques I will now compare the absurdist vision of Catch-22 to that of the Theatre and Literature of the Absurd and show how, and what, absurdist techniques Heller uses.

Heller’s novel takes place towards the end of the second World War. His protagonist, John Yossarian, is stationed as a bombardier on the small island of Pianosa. Yossarian has decided “to live forever or die in the attempt”[5] but this mission seems impossible to him, because “there were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There was Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, for example, and they were all out to kill him” (220). He is convinced that everybody is out to kill him. He finds war absurd because it makes strangers shoot at him. “Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.”(90). As he is told by an Army psychiatrist, he is

unable to adjust to the idea of war, […] you [Yossarian] have a morbid aversion to

dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown

off any second (384).

This is a distortion, of course, but it shows that war in itself is absurd. To arrange himself with war, Yossarian has to accept the fact that he could be killed any second, which is already absurd. Another aspect of war’s absurdity becomes evident when Yossarian’s friend Dunbar argues that war turns young soldiers into old men because they are inches away from death every time they fly a mission. Dr. Stubbs, an army doctor has resigned himself to frustration: “I used to get a big kick out of saving people’s lives. Now I wonder what’s the point, since they all have to die anyway” (142) and General Dreedle believes that

the young men who took orders from him should be willing to give up their lives for the

ideals, aspirations and idiosyncrasies of the old men he took orders from (276).

Heller portrays war as ultimately absurd. He does not provide political reasons or ideals for the war, what we learn about war instead is that it pays well, that it reduces life by constantly endangering it, that orders must be followed blindly and that the reasons behind these orders are aspirations, ideals and idiosyncrasies. Soldiers are not meant to fight, win and survive but they are expected to die, to willingly give up their lives without questioning war or its reasons. The fact that young men die for the old men in power, presented as it is in the novel, is not only illogical but also unnatural and absurd.

One of the first aspects of the novel’s absurdist vision to notice, apart from war, is bureaucracy. Throughout the novel, bureaucracy seems to be illogical, mad and absurd. That includes the military bureaucracy on the one hand and the government on the other. As Gross puts it “the war in Heller’s novel is a vehicle for bringing the essential bureaucratic systematization that rules so much of contemporary life to its highest pitch of lunacy”[6]. In other words, Heller uses his novel’s war-setting to portray a heightened and exaggerated picture of absurd and illogical bureaucracy.

One example is Major Major’s father, who earns his living by not growing alfalfa because

the government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more

alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spend every

penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce.

[…] Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money

and was therefore wise. (110)

The traditional concept of success as a reward for hard work is inverted here. By showing how Major Major’s father becomes a wealthy and respected man because of not doing something Heller portrays the ruling bureaucracy as illogical and absurd. Another example, this time of the military bureaucracy occurs when Yossarian’s group is volunteered to bomb Bologna, a very dangerous mission for the men. At night Yossarian moves the bomb line on the target map in the briefing room and as a result the whole military command of the Mediterranean is convinced that the city is captured and thus does not need to be bombed anymore. This is not only absurd but it also shows that bureaucracy triumphs over reality. Bureaucracy exercises a lot of its power through official documents and that power is absolute and arbitrary. When Yossarian is convinced that he cannot be court-martialed because of an official report that makes him a hero he has to learn that “they can produce as many official reports as they want and choose whichever ones they need on any given occasion” (557). That bureaucracy is not only powerful but also lethal becomes evident when Doc Daneeka has himself put on the flight record in order to get his flight pay without actually boarding the plane because he is terrified of flying. When the plane crashes and the crew is killed Daneeka is officially reported dead. This results in an official letter announcing his death to his wife and in his colleagues and friends ignoring him completely. He does not give up though and tries to convince his superiors that he is alive until Colonel Korn, one of bureaucracy’s most enthusiastic servants, threatens “that he would have Doc Daneeka cremated on the spot if he ever showed up at Group Headquarters” (435). Daneeka, although very much alive, has to accept his death and then we simply do not hear from him anymore because, “a bureaucratic death is as final and irrefutable as any other kind”[7].


[1] M. H. Abrahms. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th Edition, 1999. p. 1

[2] Robert A. Hipkiss. The American Absurd. Pynchon, Vonnegut and Barth. New York, London: 1984. p. 2

[3] Abrahms, 1999. p. 1

[4] Martin Esslin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Edinburgh, 1961. p. 199

[5] Joseph Heller. Catch-22. 1955. (London: Vintage Books, 1994). p. 42. All references are to this edition and will be cited hereafter in the text.

[6] Beverly Gross. “’Insanity is Contagious’: The Mad World of Catch-22”. The Centennial Review 26.1 (1982). p. 93

[7] Gross. 1982. p. 101

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Absurdity in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar "American War Novel"
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ISBN (eBook)
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I wrote this paper for a class on the "American War Novel". It traces and analyzs elements of the Absurd in Joseph Heller's Novel "Catch-22".
Absurdity, Joseph, Heller, Catch-22, Hauptseminar, American, Novel
Quote paper
M.A. Jan Riepe (Author), 2003, Absurdity in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/38367


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