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Oliver Ullman

Traci Grimm
AP English Literature
Catch 22 Research Paper
Controlled Chaos in Joseph Hellers Catch-22

It took Joseph Heller five years to come up with the almost formless structure of his book
Catch-22. But ironically, this is one of the least insane things about the entire novel. The
structure of Catch-22 is at first glance superficial and unorganized, but after further analysis
creates an almost magically strong effect out of something so jumbled and delicate, almost like a
skyscraper made out of houses of cards. In fact, upon close examination virtually every piece of
cartoonish humor, sarcastic comment, or seemingly innocent prank points towards deep and
meaningful messages interwoven throughout the story. Heller himself even stated that he took
out jokes that were just as funny as those in the book, but did not add anything to his overall
themes. What were these carefully cultivated messages? Heller used Catch 22 to talk about the
lack of control and injustice in war, but primarily in the society he lived in (Reilly 511). He does
talk about the incompetency and selfishness of leaders in war, but more powerful are his
messages of blatant hypocrisy the cold war society displayed, and the common faults of man.
Body Text:
Catch 22 is a novel that quite literally laughs in the face of death. This is Hellers most
powerful form of communication in this damning condemnation of cold war America. What
makes this book shines is how this absurdity is used, not as a goal, but the means to
communicating Catch-22s messages. Throughout the book, this absurdity and symbolism are
used frequently and potently convey messages about this society and war itself.
One way that Heller uses absurdity, especially early on, is to satirize bureaucracy. Major
Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve
mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. These and other hilarious lines of
absurdity all point to deeper things, and in this case, incompetence. From the earliest points in
the book we see Major Majors lighthearted and ridiculous situation show us the incompetence
of this system. His mediocrity allows him to thrive as well as thoroughly incapacitate it, such as
when he figures out that signing a document with the name Washington Irving causes it to not
return for further review. Major continues to do this, and easily gets away with his incredibly illconceived ploy. This is a clear message from Heller about the incompetency and gullibility of
government. Perhaps one of the most extreme uses of absurdity to demonstrate this point is with

the unbelievable Colonel Cathcart. Cathcart is obsessed with getting his picture into the Saturday
Evening Post, so he instructs the chaplain to hold prayer sessions before every mission. He also
raises the minimum number of mission continuously so that it looks like his men are working
hard and that he is a successful general. Again, the comedy serves as a message: the Bureaucratic
system is incompetent. Cathcarts absurd demands for a photogenic prayer session with only
happy prayers and nothing that refers to religion at all cause him to eventually abandon the
idea completely. The continuously rising number of missions causes extremely low morale,
enthusiasm, and effectiveness. It eventually fully backfires with events of mutiny and
abandonment, like Orrs escape Yossarians final decision to not support him and others,
influenced mainly by his anger over this decision.
Heller also uses absurdity as a message about society. Throughout the book, the Italians
on the mainland and the low-level men stationed on the island of Pianosa are often victims of the
actions of others more influential and powerful than them, regardless of whether or not their
actions provoked them. The old Italian man and prostitute are killed by the orders of selfish
commanders, a maid is raped and killed by Aarfy, Milo bombs his own airbase on Pianosa; this
injustice is coming from a concentrated few. This is not an isolated message from Heller, in his
later novel Picture This, Hellers main message is people have always been bad throughout time,
usually because there are always a few bad people. Catch-22 uses the Chaplains ludicrous
realization to clearly deliver this message to the reader near the end of the book: The chaplain
had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization,
and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into
virtue and slanders into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into
philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism
into justice. Society is at the mercy of this powerful, or often just the malevolent few who care
more about their own interests than morality. Aarfy didnt care about the woman he had just
raped and killed, and neither did those in power, the policemen were sent not to right this
injustice, but to arrest Yossarian for intruding in Rome, something they saw as a threat to their
own power(Gross 99).
What is the result of incompetency, corruption, and no one to change it? Complete lack of
power in the case of the victim. Heller uses this most clearly through the contrast of Milo and
Snowden: one complete tyrant, the other complete victim (Young 6). At first, Milo seems like an
ambitious and aspiring regular-ish guy who just wants a syndicate. He gets along with everyone,
and at first his ideas and whats good for the syndicate is good for the country are simply silly,
light, and more nonsensical than sinister. Its funny to read about the absurd things he will do for
money, but as the reader finds out later on, this too serves a purpose as an important contrast to
the Comedie Noire (black humor) of Milos actions later on. His syndicate, through ambition and
amorality eventually becomes more powerful than most governments. By exploiting the demands
of the market in a situation that is strikingly similar to the capitalists in Oh, What a Lovely
War!, he becomes Vice-Shah of Oran, Assistant Governor General of Malta, Mayor of Palermo,

and the Sheikh of Araby. Though his ambition certainly played a strong part, its hard to imagine
him being able to stomach stealing parachutes from his comrades planes, morphine from the
first aid kits, or bombing his own men. If Milo is the hammer of Hellers literary toolbox, then
Snowden is the Hapless nail. Throughout the book Yossarian flashes back to Snowdens death,
nothing else is written about Snowden throughout the entire book. At the end, when the full
scene is finally told, all we remember is Snowden as someone who died, fighting only because
his number of missions was continuously raised. He dies painfully, since all the Morphine from
the plane has been stolen and replaced with a cleanly lettered note signed by Milo. Here, right
and wrong seems the most defined, and the most neglected.

The light absurdity of Catch-22 gradually turns dark as the story unfolds, sending a
message through contrast. This is especially evident in Hellers tone when writing about war. At
first, the men treat war with an undeserved lightness, and it seems that eventually if they are
injured or die, this underestimation will be the cause: Theyre trying to kill me, Yossarian told
him calmly. No ones trying to kill you, Clevinger cried. Then why are they shooting at me?
Yossarian asked. Theyre shooting at everyone, Clevinger answered. Theyre trying to kill
everyone. And what difference does that make (Heller 25). Here, Yossarian is the only one of
the two to take war seriously (Sniderman 256). Later on, the situation is quite different: Behind
him, men were dying. Strung out for miles in a stricken, torturous, squirming line, the other
flights of planes were making the same hazardous journey over the target, threading their swift
way through the swollen masses of new and old bursts of flak like rats racing in a pack through
their own droppings. One was on fire, and flapped lamely off by itself, billowing gigantically
like a monstrous blood-red star. As Yossarian watched, the burning plane floated out on its side
and began spiraling down slowly in wide, tremulous, narrowing circles, its huge flaming burden
blazing orange and flaring up in back like a long, swirling cape of fire and smoke. There were
parachutes, one, two, threefour, and then the plane gyrated into a spin and fell the rest of the
way to the ground, fluttering insensibly inside its vivid pyre like a shred of colored tissue paper.
One whole flight of planes from another squadron had been blasted apart (Heller 267). Here, the
men are certainly getting the treatment the light dialogue of the beginning seemed to foreshadow,
but not as any just or unjust result of this mistake. Instead, their suffering ended up being
completely control. This is a different kind of absurd, ironic black humor. We were led to believe
that if these men did suffer in war, it would be them not taking it seriously, but in the end the
order for an unnecessary and dangerous mission, which the men do not want to go on in the first
place, causes their suffering. This contrast, from expected punishment from absurdity of the
expected victim to unexpected and undeserved disaster due to the absurdity of the commanders
(who do not suffer) amplifies the irony and message: regardless of your actions, your fate is
decided by those the Milos and Cathcarts of the world. When this message is finally turned on its
head by Yossarian at the end, his victory seems all the more heroic.

All of Catch-22 up to the last part point has seemed formless. The results of three
mission: the mission to Avignon, the mission the Bologna, and the Mission to Ferrara, takes up
almost the entire book, and hundreds of pages in, were still unclear on where the present is.
Surprisingly, this is the result of careful planning(Nelson 173). As we read to move further into
the story, we are taken the opposite direction, and then suddenly thrust forward in an
uncontrolled pattern of flashbacks. Throughout all of this, the life of Yossarian is determined by
his commanders and the powerful Milo. He cannot go home because the number of missions
required keeps getting raised, he cannot leave or else be charged with desertion, and is bullied by
new younger tent mates that indirectly force him to move out. Then, in the last few chapters, the
chaotic narrative changes to a standard, straightforward one. It is not a coincidence that
Yossarian also gains control of his own life at this point. The plot is an allegory(Sorkin 140) for
what happens to us when we finally start to make our own decisions and determine our own lives
in a society Heller obviously believed was dominated by a few. Even Milo is not fully in control,
ironically, he is controlled by the demands of the market. Milo is brought to his knees because he
has cornered the Egyptian cotton market but cannot sell it. Eventually he has to resort to
desperate measures, bombing his own airfield in order to get the Germans to buy the cotton.

If the messages of Catch-22 all had to be condensed into one (absurdly!) efficient word, it
would be control. What happens to people without control? They are victims to the selfishness,
greed, and stupidity of others. If we look even deeper, we find that no one really has control.
Egyptian cotton shows Milo is ultimately a slave to the market, no matter how large his syndicate
gets. Even Colonel Cathcart cant get what he wants without the help of others, he fails to get a
promotion because he cant get his picture in the Saturday Evening Post, and he cant stop the
gradual loss of power over his men because Yossarian refuses his deal. The absurdity of Catch22, while sometimes hyperbolic, draws an accurate parallel between its fictional world and
Hellers post-McCarthy cold war society, where anyone could have their lives destroyed by
being accused of spying and mutually assured destruction meant that even the most powerful
and influential could be vaporized at any minute.
Works Cited:
Reilly, Charlie. "An Interview with Joseph Heller." Contemporary Literature 39.4 (1998): 50722. Print. Gross, Beverly. "Insanity Is Contagious: The Mad World of "Catch-22"" The
Centennial Review 26.1 (1982): 86-113. Print.
Green, Daniel. "A World Worth Laughing At: "Catch-22" and the Humor of Black HUmor."
Studies in the Novel 27.2 (1995): 185-96. Print.
Young, Robert. "Deadly Unconcious Logic in Joseph Heller's Catch- 22." Human Nature (2005).
Nelson, Thomas. "Theme and Structure in Catch-22." Essays on Values in Literature 23.4 (1971):
173-82. Print.

Sorkin, Adam. "An Interview in New York with Joseph Heller." Conversations With Joseph
Heller. 1997. 80. Print.
Blues, Thomas. "The Moral Structure of Catch-22." Studies in the Novel 3.1: 64-79. Print.

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