A. P. Literature and Composition 29 November 2012

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Steven Prascius

Mr. Oravec

A.P. Literature and Composition

29 November 2012

What’s the Catch?

“There was only one catch…and that was catch-22” (Heller 5).

Mentioned near the beginning of the novel Catch-22, this statement refers to the self-contradictory military law that determined if a pilot was in condition to fly. The law, “Catch-22,” states if a pilot attempts to claim insanity to avoid flying a combat mission, they are showing a natural need to protect themselves and are therefore sane and are required to fly, while those who fly are deemed insane for ignoring their well-being and are not required to fly. The contradictory and illogical nature of this law exposes one of the major themes of the novel, the paradoxical and sometimes humorous human reasoning where everything has a catch to benefit those who make the laws. Joseph Heller, the author of catch-22, uses his own military experience while implementing themes of satire and irony to attack the highly esteemed human logic. Although Heller mainly uses satire and irony, he also develops the literary elements of setting , structure, character, style, and imagery.

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923 in Brooklyn, New York where he was raised by his parents in the area of Brooklyn commonly known as Coney Island. At the age of five, Heller’s father died after a failed surgical operation. His father’s death is said to be one of the factors that contribute to his dark sense of humor that can be found all throughout Catch-22. Due to its carnival-like atmosphere, Heller’s home is credited with being a major source of his dry sense of humor and irony prevalent is his works. At a young age, Heller displayed his affinity for reading and writing, even sending his work to the New York Daily News, where it was rejected. Although his initial attempt at publishing his work failed, it did not dampen his love for writing. Heller continued writing and published many novels including Catch-22, his most well-received work by critics.

At the age of 19, Heller enlisted in the United States Air Force. During his time in the air force, he flew 60 combat missions over Italy, no doubt influencing his novel Catch-22 which focuses on the struggles of a young bombardier, Yossarian. Once Heller finished his military service, he returned home and attended the University of California and Oxford University soon after to further his career as a writer. Once Heller graduated, he began teaching at Pennsylvania State University while continuing writing his own work. After Heller finished teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, he began working as an advertising copywriter for magazines such as Time. Working for these magazine companies, Heller was able to gain additional experience for his writing and was able to publish his own short stories and articles. Soon after, Heller was able to release his most known work Catch-22.

One of the most prominent literary elements that Heller uses in Catch-22 is setting. Catch-22 is set during the early 1940’s during World War II, with the narrative shifting between the fictional island of Pianosa and Rome. Heller uses the historically accurate time period to not only create a narrative based in reality, but also to provide a source of conflict in which the narrative centers around. This conflict is the war and its effect on men like Yossarian who fight in it. By using the time period of World War II, Heller is able to provide a major source of the narrative for Catch-22 that grows to define the characters involved. While the historically accurate time period of the work provides a conflict for the narrative, the locations allow the traits of the characters to be revealed. As the narrative unfolds on the island of Pianosa, the central source of the battles in which the characters fight, the almost overwhelming feeling of dread for another mission causes Yossarian and others to display their fears and anxieties as they frantically try to delay the next inevitable mission. In addition, when the narrative takes the men to Rome, the location where the men are sent for rest and relaxation, the care-free atmosphere allows more of the character’s personalities to be revealed as they tour the city without the looming danger the war normally presents to them. By using the literary element of setting, Heller creates a conflict in the novel in which all characters revolve and a source for the characterization of Yossarian and the other characters.

Relating to the shifting setting of Catch-22, Heller uses a unique take on structure. Catch-22 is told from a third-person omniscient point-of-view, with the thoughts and feelings of all the characters being revealed to the reader. The focus of the narrative shifts from character to character while still centering on Yossarian, thus providing insight on the thoughts of all those involved in the war. By revealing the story in this way, Heller is able to display the unique personalities and traits of the characters through their own thoughts and actions, as well as provide different perspectives on the central conflict of the piece, which is the war. Along with the shifting character perspectives, Heller utilizes flashbacks to reveal the backstory of the characters and to describe how they arrived at their current positions in the narrative. The use of flashbacks also implements some elements of foreshadowing where each flashback is “of increasing detail and ominousness” (Milne 2). This allows details from each flashback to gradually come together to foreshadow what comes next in the narrative. Through Heller revealing the novel in this episodic way, where the narrative does not proceed chronologically, he is able to provide a “disjointed, almost schizophrenic structure that reasserts the absurd logic depicted in Catch-22.”(Simon 2). Heller’s use of flashbacks, as well as the shifting perspective of the narrative, fits this novel well and provides more details on each individual character while adding to the illogical nature of the novel.

Intertwined with his unique structure is Heller’s use of the literary element of character. Found all throughout the novel, characters play a significant role in forwarding the narrative, while providing an outlet for many other elements such as irony, satire, and symbolism through their thoughts and actions. Heller’s main uses of character, though, is through creating a variety of round and flat character to forward the narrative, while using characterization and verisimilitude to display each character’s traits and make them believable.

As seen in the shifting perspective of the characters, another important literary element Heller uses in Catch-22 is that of character. As the narrative progresses, Heller utilizes both flat and round characters to add detail and depth to the piece, as well as further the narrative. One such character that is an ideal round character is Yossarian, the main character of the piece. As more is revealed about Yossarian, it becomes evident that he is a complex, round character filled with his own thoughts and feelings toward the war. After Yossarian is introduced, it becomes clear that surviving the war has become his primary concern, motivating his actions to do just that, no matter the cost to the war effort. This developed attitude toward survival allows Yossarian to display his complicated personality filled with thoughts of pessimism, love, cowardice, and humor which all come together to make him the unique and interesting character that he is. These traits, along with his need for survival, categorize Yossarian as not only a round character, but also a vital part of the story. Although Heller uses round characters such as Yossarian as the base of Catch-22, he includes many more flat characters that play a more minor but still important role. One such example is Orr, Yossarian’s roommate. Throughout Orr’s development in the story, he remains the same light-hearted individual who is happy with his position in life, providing a refreshing take on the pessimistic view that many characters, including Yossarian, have toward their position in the war. Orr’s joyful demeanor also provides a clear contrast with Yossarian’s bitterness toward his position in life, creating conflict between the overly content Orr and the miserable Yossarian. By Orr simply remaining consistently happy and optimistic throughout the piece while adding to the narrative, he can be classified as a flat character. Heller’s use of round and flat characters not only provides additional details to the narrative, but also provides a source of variety that makes the novel more enjoyable.

Following Heller’s use of round and flat characters is the implementation of characterization. Heller utilizes both direct characterization, where he states the traits of a character directly, and indirect characterization, allowing actions and thoughts to define a character. The main way Heller introduces and displays the characters’ traits, however, is through indirect characterization. Many times throughout the novel, Heller takes the time to detail a character’s past, as well as their thoughts about their current position in life to allow the reader to make inferences about the personalities of the characters. In these sections, the focus of the novel is solely on that character in order to display their way of thinking and their traits in order to bring a new character into the narrative. Although there are many examples of this, one main example is the indirect characterization of the chaplain.

“People with load voices frightened him. Brave, aggressive men of action like Colonel Cathcart left him feeling helpless and alone. Wherever he went in the Army, he was a stranger. Enlisted men and officers did not conduct themselves with him as they conducted themselves with other enlisted men and officers, and even other chaplains were not as friendly toward him as they were toward each other. In a world in which success was the only virtue, he had resigned himself for failure. He was painfully aware that he lacked the colleagues in other faiths and sects to get ahead. He was just not equipped to excel. He thought of himself as ugly and wanted daily to be home with his wife” (Heller 267).

As seen in this passage, Heller does not directly state the chaplain’s traits, but allows the reader to infer from the chaplain’s thoughts and feelings that he is a timid man lacking a respectable self-image of himself. This type of characterization holds true as the major source of characterization found in Catch-22, and effectively reveals the traits of the characters without Heller having to state them directly. Although Heller mainly uses indirect characterization in his novel, he also implements direct characterization. This can be seen when Heller is referring to Clevinger saying “He was a very serious, very earnest and very conscientious dope”(Heller 69). Through Heller directly stating Clevinger traits of being serious and earnest, he uses direct characterization. Heller’s approach of characterizing character’s through their thoughts and actions as well as through his own words allows each character’s traits to be fully revealed, making each character more interesting and believable.

In addition to his use of characterization, Heller also implements verisimilitude. Heller’s use of verisimilitude, or having the appearance of being real, is mainly found in the characters, in turn making them more realistic. Although all characters in Catch-22 display a level verisimilitude, some such as Yossarian and Colonel Cathcart are the most real to life. In the case of Yossarain, he displays verisimilitude through his constant attempts to survive, seeming to “be motivated merely by self-preservation” (Milne 2). By showing a natural need to preserve his life, Yossarian demonstrates verisimilitude. Colonel Cathcart, however, displays verisimilitude through his attempts to gain promotions to eventually become the group general. Cathcart’s goal of becoming more successful and powerful in his life resembles the struggles of many people attempting to also become more successful in their lives, therefore showing verisimilitude. Due to Heller’s use of verisimilitude in characters, he makes every character more believable, in turn making their struggles in life more appealing to the reader.

Relating to his use of character is Heller’s style. Style deals with the placement of words and the manipulation of language. In Catch-22, Heller uses middle diction in the character’s conversations and thoughts in order to show the level of language the characters use, which is grammatically correct but not to the point of being formal. An example of this can be found as Korn questions Cathcart about public opinion of him, with Korn saying “I know that. I know that. But what’d he say about me? What’d he say?”(Heller 88). As seen in this conversation, the level of diction being grammatically correct without being considered sophisticated classifies it as middle diction. Heller’s use of middle diction allows the reader to easily follow the characters conversations while showing how the characters actually think and talk.

Another literary element prevalent in Catch-22 is irony. Irony is when one thing opposes something previously stated. Throughout the novel, Heller mainly uses irony in the form of contradictions to display one of the major themes of the novel, the illogical nature of human thinking, while providing the overall pessimistic novel with a needed sense of humor. Examples of irony can be found all throughout the novel, ranging from contradictory statements made by characters to highly regarded laws that everyone must abide by. One main example is found in Major Major’s office hour requirements. Due to Major Major’s general dislike of the men in his squadron, he said “From now on I don’t want anyone to come in to see me while I’m here.” (Heller 98), setting a rule that only allows men to visit him in his office when he is out. By Major Major only allowing men to talk with him in his office while he is out, he utilizes a contradictory loop that allows him to never have to speak with the men in his squadron. This contradictory rule set by Major Major highlights Heller’s use of irony through contradictions. Another less humorous example is the highly regarded military law “Catch-22”. This law not only applies to the pilots flying in the war, but to the government’s authority as a whole. Near the end of the novel, Yossarian finds a woman who was unlawfully forced out of her house by military police that used “catch-22” as the authority to remove her. When questioned by Yossarian under what charges she was removed for, the woman said “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”(Heller 407). Furthermore, when Yossarian asked if she made them read the law to prove if it was legitimate, the woman told him “They don’t have to show us Catch-22, the law says they don’t have to.”(Heller 407). By the government utilizing laws that contradict one another in order to have unlimited power, they too demonstrate Heller’s use of irony. Through his use of irony, Heller is able to reveal one of the major themes of the novel, which is the illogical nature of human laws and reasoning

In addition to the irony prevalent in Catch-22 is Heller’s use of satire. Heller uses satire, or something opposed to human reasoning or moral values, to attack the thought to be “intelligent” human reasoning. Satire can be found many times throughout the entirety of the novel, with Doc Daneka’s death and the dead man in Yossarian’s tent being the main examples of it. Early on in the novel, Doc Daneka is introduced as the squadron flight medic who, ironically, is afraid of flying and therefore has his flight team sign off on the attendance record allowing him to escape flight duty. As the novel progresses, Doc Daneka’s team is shot down, with all crew parachuting out to safety except Doc Daneka, who is presumed to be on the flight due to the attendance record. When this information reaches the group headquarters, Doc Daneka is listed as killed in action because of him not parachuting to safety with his crew, while in reality he is safely in his tent. Once hearing of this, Daneka attempts to convince people that he is actually alive, even talking to headquarters. Despite this, Headquarters declares him dead and personally tells Daneka that he will no longer receive food or pay because of his death. By headquarters telling Daneka that he is dead while he is standing clearly alive in front of them, they are displaying a lack of any rational thought that a human being should have. This lack of any sort of intelligence on the part of headquarters demonstrates Heller’s use of satire to attack human reasoning, and can be seen as Heller displaying “an indictment of military incompetence” (Dole 1).

Additionally, the figurative dead man in Yossarian’s tent also shows Heller’s use of satire. In the beginning of the novel when Yossarian enters his tent, he finds the bags of a man, whose identity is a mystery, that was killed in a mission within the first two hours of his arrival. Despite Yossarain’s complaints of the bags to headquarters, they are not removed due to the fact that the man had no time to sign in to base before flying his mission where he was killed. Due to the man not signing in, he is said to have not been there at all and therefore his bags cannot be removed because they were never there in the first place. By headquarters arguing that the bags are not there despite physical evidence that they are clearly in the tent shows a definite lack of intelligence. This thinking based off of regulations and signatures over actual physical evidence shows Heller’s use of satire to again attack the “deliberately frustrating internal illogic” (Solomita 4) that many humans use to get what they desire. Through his use of satire, Heller is able to humorously attack the way in which many people reason without using logic.

Furthermore, Heller also makes use of the literary element of imagery. Heller’s use of imagery, or detailed and vivid language, allows the reader to be able to fully picture the scene in which the narrative takes place. This detailed language can be found all throughout Catch-22, ranging from the description of the surroundings to that of heated air battles. Heller’s use of imagery can be best scene through his description of one the missions Yossarian flies, saying:

“He was cowed by the empty silence on the intercom and almost too horrified to move as he crouched like a trapped mouse on his hands and knees and waited without daring to breath until he finally spied the gleaming cylindrical jack plug of his headset swinging back and forth in front of his eyes and jammed it back into its receptacle with his fingers that rattled. Oh God! He kept shrieking with no abatement of terror as the flak thumped and mushroomed all about him. Oh God!”(Heller 225).

As seen in Heller’s description of the air battle, he uses phrases like “crouched like trapped mouse” and “He kept shrieking with no abatement of terror as the flak thumped and mushroomed all about him” to allow the reader to be able to mentally see and hear the action as it takes place in the plane. This use of imagery keeps the attention of the reader while adding vital details to show the frantic nature of some of the action in Catch-22.

Joseph Heller utilizes a variety of literary elements to create his masterpiece Catch-22. The 1940’s setting Heller uses creates a conflict in which the characters revolve, while keeping the novel in a historically accurate time period. Heller’s structure and third person point of view display the thoughts and actions of all the character’s involved in the war as it shifts perspective from one person to another, while implanting flashbacks to detail the backgrounds of the characters. The middle diction Heller uses shows how the characters actually think and speak, without them using sophisticated language or incorrect grammar. In addition, Heller’s use of irony and satire highlight the main theme of Catch-22, which is the illogical nature of human reasoning. Through incorporating these literary elements, Heller creates an intriguing and well-written piece of literature that shows the absurdity of human reasoning.

Works Cited

"Another mission flown; Author of Catch-22, Joseph Heller." Times [London, England] 19 Oct.

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"Catch-22." Times Educational Supplement 29 Aug. 2003: 25. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Nov.


Dole, Pat. "Heller, Joseph. Catch-22." Kliatt Mar. 2008: 48. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Nov.


Doloff, Steven J. "Heller's Catch-22." The Explicator 65.3 (2007): 180+. Academic OneFile.

Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Heller's Catch-22." Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-

Norteamericanos 23.2 (2000): 107+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Hidalgo Downing, Laura. "How to do things with contradiction: exploring humour in Joseph

Hoberman, J. "Only one catch." Artforum International 33.2 (1994): 9+. Academic OneFile.

Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Maslin, Janet. "The Catching Of Two Joseph Hellers." New York Times 28 July 2011:

C1(L). Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Milne, Victor J. "Joseph Heller." Joseph Heller (1970): 1-4. Print.

Simon, and Schuster. "CATCH-22." CATCH-22 (1944): 1-4. Print.

Solomita, Alec. "Yossarian section." New Criterion 26.7 (2008): 62+. Academic OneFile. Web.

28 Nov. 2012

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