Unifying Elements and Structural Patterns in Joseph Heller´s Catch 22

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

15 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Themes in Catch
Individual vs. Society
People Changing
Military bureaucracy
Medical establishment

3. Structure in Catch
3.1. Déjà-vu Experience
3.2. Interplay between present and past

4. Conclusion .

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Joseph Heller´s Catch 22 has received much feedback since its publishment in 1961. Critics differ in their opions about Heller´s first novel. Reviews in Time, the London Observer, Newsweek or Saturday Review expressed the enthusiasm which the novel caused among its readers.[1] Robert Brustein called Catch 22 an “explosive, bitter, subversive, brilliant book”[2], The Times said: “Written with brilliance…echoes with mad laughter…magnificient.”[3] These are only two examples of many positive responses towards the book. But as usual there also have been various negative critics about Catch 22. Some reviewers found Heller´s book “unpatriotic, its sexual references offensive, its style repetitious, its structure incoherent, its characters unbelievable.”[4] Others even argued that the book is not a novel, that it doesn´t show any structural pattern or unifying elements.[5] This work is supposed to show that Catch 22 contains structural patterns as well as unifying elements, that Heller´s first novel rightly deserves the positive reviews on his book. It starts to discover some of the most central themes in the book and then deals with a few structural patterns of Catch 22.

2. Themes in Catch 22

There are many different themes in Catch 22. This paper only introduces the central themes which to me are “Individual vs. Society”, “Insanity”, “People changing”, “Military bureaucracy” and “Medical establishment”.

2.1. Individual vs. Society

One of the most central themes in Catch 22 is the fight between individual versus society. Even though the book is set against the background of World War II, it actually is not about that war. It is about a nation and a people[6], it is “a replica of life within any organization.”[7]

Yossarian, an American bombardier in World War II, represents the individual who has decided that his only mission each time he goes up is to come down alive. To himself he is valuable, his life is important. Yossarian decides that “the individual has the right to seek survival; that one´s own substance is infinitely more precious than any cause, however right; that one must not be asked to give his life unless everybody is willing to give his.”[8] The war gave Heller the community against which Yossarian can operate. The military represents the society in which Yossarian lives. Yossarian sees everything from the viewpoint of an individual whose only goal is to survive. Therefore he sees anyone who tries to kill him as his enemy.

“ “They´re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly. “No one´s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried. “Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked. “They´re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They´re trying to kill everyone.” “And what difference does this make?” ”[9]

Here Clevinger represents the defender of the ideas of social and political insitutions which Yossarian tries to fight. Clevinger argues that during war everyone is trying to kill everyone, so there is nothing really important or strange about trying to kill Yossarian.

He goes even further when he takes on the viewpoint that people give up their own survival when they become soldiers. (“Clevinger agreed with ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen that it was Yossarian´s job to get killed over Bologna […]”[10] ) Since Clevinger and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen represent the ideas of the military this attitude shows that the military does not see the men as individuals. Still, that does not stop Yossarian feeling valuable to himself and doing everything in his power to fight against flying more missions. While Yossarian stands for an independent thinking there are also characters who totally lack their individuality. Captain Piltchard and Wren, for instance, represent the ones who lost their sense of individuality and follow the institution´s order obediently. Unlike Yossarian they never question their orders or the sense of fighting. On the one hand it shows the power of the military. People do what they want them to do without asking why. On the other hand there is still Yossarian who will never give up his individuality. This proves that the institution does not have the total control about their men. Finally Yossarian is allowed to be send home by agreeing to a deal, but his argument that the continual increase of mission is unjust, will be defeated. The deal offers him to be send home under the condition that he likes Colonel Cathcart and Korn.[11] First, Yossarian agrees to the deal. Everything he ever wanted was to stop flying the missions. But then he does not want to agree to the deal any longer. Yossarian wants to be send home because he flew enough missions, and not because there is a deal with his supervisors. Major Danby tells him that he will be court-martialed, when he does not agree to the deal. This also shows the power of the insitution. Innocent men can be punished if that is necessary to keep the war going. Admitting that the men have to fly missions as long as the war is going on shows the carelessness from the military towards the soldiers. Yossarian decides to run away when he recognizes that there is no chance of running away from the deal. Finally the individual has triumphed against the insitution, because he is no longer afraid of punishments. By running away Yossarian shows that there are individuals who fight against an institution, who do not obey their rules in order to fight in a war, risking to lose their lives every time they go out there.

The military Yossarian fights against does not only stand for one insititution but even more for a huge, corrupt institution of any sort. Therefore the military serves only as an example for any large institution while Milo Minderbinder and his company M&M Enterprises represent the corrupt corporation. In the pursuit of profit and wealth he would do anything. He is even willing to bomb his own side to get rid of the unprofitable crop of Egyptian cotton. Furthermore Milo is doing business deals with countries from both sides in which he is contracted by both sides to fight the other. He is paid commissions by each side to maintain the operation.

“[…] one day Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge…and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge[…]”[12]

This behaviour shows that often money, not ideals, run the war. Whenever possible Milo tries to make profit no matter if his own people are hurt or killed.

2.2. Insanity

Insanity and madness are also central themes in the book. Throughout the book it is described variously. Heller shows the reader a world in which the nature of sanity has to be questioned.[13] The question is if in times of war one can even speak about sanity? Does not war already include the term insanity? What is sane about fighting and getting killed in war? A war that is not even run by ideals. What Heller does is “to show what insanity looks like, not to explain how it came about.”[14] That insanity rules the world of Catch 22 is primarily shown by the characters. “It seems obvious that an inordinate number of Joseph Heller´s characters are, by all conventional standards, mad.”[15] The place actually is filled of crazy people. Orr, Yossarian´s roommate, for instance, used to put crap apples in his cheeks because he wanted them to be big. Furthermore he explains Yossarian why he preferred crap apples rather than horse chestnuts.[16] In chapter 28 one might finally understand Orr´s strange habits. It seems that he wanted to be seen as mad. This actually gives him the chance to get out of this place. When Yossarian and Orr talk about Orr´s constant crashing, Orr ask him to join him some day. Yossarian does not want to, because his struggle to survive does not let him. It might be that Orr only crashed with his plane almost every single time because that gave him the possibility to escape. Since everybody thinks he is crazy, nobody would be surprised when he will disappear after such a crash. It seems that asking Yossarian to join him on his flights is the attempt of running away together. There is also another hint that Orr planned his final crash to escape war. One of his strange habits is to fix the faucet of a stove. Once Yossarian asks him why he is in such a hurry to get finished repairing the stove. Orr answers:


[1] James Nagel(ed.) : Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: 1984, 3.

[2] Nagel, 31.

[3] Joseph Heller: Catch 22. back page

[4] Nagel, 4.

[5] Clinton S. Burhans, Jr. Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch 22. In: James Nagel(ed.) Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: 1984, 40.

[6] Frederick Kiley.(ed.): A Catch-22 Casebook. New York: 1973, Preface v.

[7] Frederick R. Karl: Joseph Heller´s Catch-22: Only Fools Walk in Darkness. In: Frederick Kiley. A Catch-22 Casebook. New York: 1973, 160.

[8] Karl, 161.

[9] Heller, 17.

[10] Heller, 126.

[11] Heller, 436.

[12] Heller, 261.

[13] Jim Castelli: Catch-22 and the New Hero. In: Frederick Kiley. A Catch-22 Casebook. New York: 1973, 175.

[14] Norman Podhoretz : The Best Catch There Is. In: Frederick Kiley. A Catch-22 Casebook. New York: 1973, 237.

[15] Robert Brustein: The Logic of Survival in a Lunatic World. In: James Nagel(ed.) Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: 1984, 27.

[16] Heller, 24.

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Unifying Elements and Structural Patterns in Joseph Heller´s Catch 22
University of Potsdam
American Literature and War
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Unifying, Elements, Structural, Patterns, Joseph, Heller´s, Catch, American, Literature
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Franziska Massner (Author), 2005, Unifying Elements and Structural Patterns in Joseph Heller´s Catch 22, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/52807


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