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Catch 22 Essay Outline

During the second half of World War II, a soldier named Yossarian is stationed with his Air Force squadron on the island of Pianosa, near the Italian coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Yossarian and his friends endure a nightmarish, absurd existence defined by bureaucracy and violence: they are inhuman resources in the eyes of their blindly ambitious superior officers. The squadron is thrown thoughtlessly into brutal combat situations and bombing runs in which it is more important for the squadron members to capture good aerial photographs of explosions than to destroy their targets. Their colonels continually raise the number of missions that they are required to fly before being sent home, so that no one is ever sent home. Still, no one but Yossarian seems to realize that there is a war going on; everyone thinks he is crazy when he insists that millions of people are trying to kill him.

Yossarian’s story forms the core of the novel, so most events are refracted through his point of view. Yossarian takes the whole war personally: unswayed by national ideals or abstract principles, Yossarian is furious that his life is in constant danger through no fault of his own. He has a strong desire to live and is determined to be immortal or die trying. As a result, he spends a great deal of his time in the hospital, faking various illnesses in order to avoid the war. As the novel progresses through its loosely connected series of recurring stories and anecdotes, Yossarian is continually troubled by his memory of Snowden, a soldier who died in his arms on a mission when Yossarian lost all desire to participate in the war. Yossarian is placed in ridiculous, absurd, desperate, and tragic circumstances—he sees friends die and disappear, his squadron get bombed by its own mess officer, and colonels and generals volunteer their men for the most perilous battle in order to enhance their own reputations.

Catch-22 is a law defined in various ways throughout the novel. First, Yossarian discovers that it is possible to be discharged from military service because of insanity. Always looking for a way out, Yossarian claims that he is insane, only to find out that by claiming that he is insane he has proved that he is obviously sane—since any sane person would claim that he or she is insane in order to avoid flying bombing missions. Elsewhere, Catch-22 is defined as a law that is illegal to read. Ironically, the place where it is written that it is illegal is in Catch-22 itself. It is yet again defined as the law that the enemy is allowed to do anything that one can’t keep him from doing. In short, then, Catch-22 is any paradoxical, circular reasoning that catches its victim in its illogic and serves those who have made the law. Catch-22 can be found in the novel not only where it is explicitly defined but also throughout the characters’ stories, which are full of catches and instances of circular reasoning that trap unwitting bystanders in their snares—for instance, the ability of the powerful officer Milo Minderbinder to make great sums of money by trading among the companies that he himself owns.

As Yossarian struggles to stay alive, a number of secondary stories unfold around him. His friend Nately falls in love with a whore from Rome and woos her constantly, despite her continued indifference and the fact that her kid sister constantly interferes with their romantic rendezvous. Finally, she falls in love with Nately, but he is killed on his very next mission. When Yossarian brings her the bad news, she blames him for Nately’s death and tries to stab him every time she sees him thereafter. Another subplot follows the rise of the black-market empire of Milo Minderbinder, the squadron’s mess hall officer. Milo runs a syndicate in which he borrows military planes and pilots to transport food between various points in Europe, making a massive profit from his sales. Although he claims that “everyone has a share” in the syndicate, this promise is later proven false. Milo’s enterprise flourishes nonetheless, and he is revered almost religiously by communities all over Europe.

The novel draws to a close as Yossarian, troubled by Nately’s death, refuses to fly any more missions. He wanders the streets of Rome, encountering every kind of human horror—rape, disease, murder. He is eventually arrested for being in Rome without a pass, and his superior officers, Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, offer him a choice. He can either face a court-martial or be released and sent home with an honorable discharge. There is only one condition: in order to be released, he must approve of Cathcart and Korn and state his support for their policy, which requires all the men in the squadron to fly eighty missions. Although he is tempted by the offer, Yossarian realizes that to comply would be to endanger the lives of other innocent men. He chooses another way out, deciding to desert the army and flee to neutral Sweden. In doing so, he turns his back on the dehumanizing machinery of the military, rejects the rule of Catch-22, and strives to gain control of his own life.

  • 1

    Discuss two examples of a "Catch-22" in the novel.

    Possible Answer:

    The most obvious example is the military code outlined in the novel. This code states that if a man expresses his desire not to go on more missions, he demonstrates his sanity by his fear of danger, and thus he is considered fit to fly. But the military cannot ground a soldier for mental health reasons if he does not ask to be grounded. Yossarian desperately wants to go home or at least stay out of harm's way, and he constantly struggles with this military code.

    When Yossarian is courting Luciana, he thinks he falls in love with her. He express his desire to marry her, but she replies that she will not marry him. He asks why not, and she replies that he is crazy. When he asks why she thinks he is crazy, she responds that he must be crazy if he wants to marry her. Just as he cannot avoid flying dangerous combat missions, he cannot convince Luciana to marry him.

  • 2

    Yossarian is sometimes described by critics as being an antihero. Does he have any heroic traits?

    Possible Answer:

    Yossarian demonstrates real empathy for others, most notably with his feelings about Snowden. He eventually develops a more callous exterior, but he cannot cope with the suffering of characters--like Snowden's death. Also, he consistently and fervently rebels against a situation he sees as unjust. Though he usually explains this rebellion in selfish terms, he is fighting a repressive and sadistic system that affects everyone in the military, which makes him a symbol or icon of rebellion for the rest of the men. He inspires them in an unusual way by his example.

  • 3

    Is Yossarian truly in love with Luciana? What does she represent to him?

    Possible Answer:

    After such a brief time with Luciana, Yossarian feels very strongly about her. He probably has not had time to properly "fall in love," but it is possible. What is more likely is that she represents to him an escape from the madness of the war. The moment that makes him most enamored of her is when she tells him that the scar she will not reveal is from an American bombing. She not only confirms the cruelty of war to him by being an innocent victim of it, but she also represents the possibility of healing from past hurts. Her willingness to spend time with him shows her willingness to forgive. Luciana gives Yossarian hope, and she is a haven for him.

  • 4

    Is Catch 22 a parody, or is it generally realistic?

    Possible Answer:

    The novel is ridiculous in many ways. The misunderstandings and difficulties of communication are exaggerated sometimes so that the dialogue can sound like an Abbott and Costello routine. The decision-making of the military is inane and whimsical, and everyone is comically self-absorbed and uninterested in the larger picture of war. Though the novel is a parody in so many ways, Heller blurs the line between what is farce and what is an accurate description of life during war, which is absurd and chaotic. Often, this is true of farce; parody is used to underline life's truths and realities.

  • 5

    Is the novel a comedy or a tragedy?

    Possible Answer:

    Similar to how Heller uses parody to highlight reality, he uses dark comedy to reveal the cruel truths of wartime behavior. The novel is a comedy, but it hints that the reality of war is a tragedy. One marker of a comedy is a happy ending, and in the end of this novel, Yossarian finally escapes. This is a victory at the end of his long troubles, even though it is quite small compared to the physical and psychological ravaging he has experienced from the war. This small sweet note at the close of the novel comes in the context of a larger tragedy.

  • 6

    World War II is generally portrayed as a just war fought for the right reasons by brave and reasonable men. The majority of Heller's characters, however, are portrayed as selfish, depraved lunatics. Does the novel condemn the nobility of the soldiers? Are the problems pointed out by Heller just the funny, petty complaints of officers, or are there deeper troubles here?

    Possible Answer:

    First of all, any war is very complicated, and any clear assertion of good or evil is probably an oversimplification. There certainly are aspects of nobility and bravery in this war. The overall context remains: these people are fighting with a purpose. Heller shows noble intentions in characters such as Clevinger, who argues that it is his and every soldier's duty to fight for his country in a time of need. Clevinger's voice, however, is seen as dangerous by his own superiors, and his is an uncomfortable presence among his peers. He eventually dies an unceremonious death, having achieved nothing more noble than most of the other men, and having failed to inspire anyone. Heller shows that even noble intentions cannot prevail in the atmosphere of confusion and callous misdirection. The beliefs and reasons for war can be noble and good for some, deranged and cruel for others. The actions of war are intrinsically ludicrous, so war should be reserved only for extreme circumstances when the alternatives are worse. Nobility, in the world of Catch-22, all too often seems futile.

  • 7

    Who is the villain in Catch-22?

    Possible Answer:

    There is a general absence of pure malice in the novel; all "evil" in the novel is a consequence of pride, misdirection, miscommunication, or even good intentions. The enemy is not really seen. Death usually occurs due to a mistake, or it is totally random. The men are needlessly sent on dangerous missions due to their superiors' pride and negligence. Bureaucracy's effect on society is another reason why it is difficult to identify one single character as the villain of the novel. In large groups such as corporations or government, bureaucracy thoroughly diffuses blame. Bureaucracy itself may be the villain of the novel, for it gives cover for the dark side of human nature and makes it difficult to hold an individual accountable for bad actions.

  • 8

    Why is the novel not written chronologically? What effect is this supposed to have on the reader?

    Possible Answer:

    The scattered assortment of vignettes underscores the confusion and nonsensical nature of the men's experiences during the war. Character arcs become truncated, even running backwards in some places. This parallels how the actual character development of the soldiers stationed on Pianosa is at times truncated (by events such as death) or backwards (like Hungry Joe, whose moods are the opposite of what his situation dictates). It also underscores how the situation as a whole is not progressing or evolving; it is a stagnant, complicated mess, all of a piece. Thus, the novel's structure evokes for the reader a similar feeling of confusion and fragmentation to reflect the experience of a military officer.

  • 9

    Are the characters in the novel moral, for the most part?

    Possible Answer:

    Since morality, from a social point of view, is a system that dictates one's actions in a society, one should distinguish military morals in wartime from those of civilians in peacetime. Common moral themes, such as refraining from killing, are disregarded during war. But conventional morality does not seem to apply much at all, or so most of the men seem to think. Some of them act violently, flippantly, angrily, misogynistically, or even cruelly. This is a response to their surroundings, but it is not necessary or right for them to act in these ways simply because they can get away with it. Such activity is often more a cry of frustration and non-comprehension than an affirmation of immorality. It is sad, then, to observe that human nature cannot easily stand the pressures of war and remain as moral as the same people tend to be in peacetime.

  • 10

    Why did Heller choose the Air Force as the branch of the military in which the men serve?

    Possible Answer:

    Pilots are miles away from the targets they bomb and the anti-aircraft guns that fire at them. Even when they encounter the enemy in hostile planes, they do not see faces or hear yells. For a pilot, the enemy is either miles away or is encased in a metal machine. The connection that most of the men feel to a mission or to the war is very remote compared with infantry. They do not feel a strong sense of purpose as easily, and they thus tend to feel aloof from the rallying cause that should unite them. Also, the juxtaposition of violence and the calm, almost civilized world inside a plane parallels the constant doubleness of the men's experiences in dealing with the oddities of their compatriots and of their superior officers.

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