Catch 22, by Joseph Heller, is a critique of the society that we live in. Whoever is proud of what we have advanced to, and is unwilling to look at it in a negative light, would find this book very subversive. It threatens and criticizes the way of living of most who pride themselves in living a modern life. Heller shows through the ridiculousness of war how misguided much of modern society has become, in spite of all our so called civilized advancement. Some will find this interesting, thought provoking and enjoy this book. Others will take it as a direct threat and insult to all the work they have done. From the very beginning, Heller shows some of the most popular ideas and values of the day in a negative, questioning light. In particular, he shows the negative consequences of conformity and highlights individuality as a way to survive.  He wants us to recognize how one is controlled and stifled by society.

The leading character in this novel, addressing what has gone wrong with society, is Yossarian. He is the only one who recognizes the full craziness of what everyone is living for: wealth, false happiness, society’s approval, etc. He is one of the few who tries to fight the power and elitism that have become so sought after in America. Throughout the novel, he tries to find a way to live a fuller life as a real human individual. He looks to many of the other characters in the book for help but only finds unsatisfactory answers. Each of the characters in Yossarian’s life at the base shows the reader one more example of how bad society has become. Clavinger tries to live life by reasoning. He looks for a reason in everything. In constantly looking for a reason why, he never enjoys life to it fullest. As further proof that this life leads nowhere, he is shot down and killed, certainly not an event with a rational explanation. Major Major is the person who obeys everyone, always trying to be perfect. He does everything that anyone asks of him, but takes it to an extreme. By being so naively obedient, instead of being helped by his comrades, he is shunned. This callousness from all humans soon leads him to be scared of any human contact. Aarfy seems to live happily, but only by giving up his integrity. He is totally unremorseful almost to the point of being inhuman. One witnesses the result of this unhealthy way of living when he murders a prostitute by throwing her out the window. He shows no emotion about this and barely realizes the gravity of what he has done. At the time, only Yossarian is arrested for a minor matter, as he did not sell out to the system. Though Aarfy never dies, Heller, in showing what kind of a monster he becomes, is directly attacking a the large part of society whose members sell their integrity for what they hope is success. In Milo, Heller attacks the capitalist business practice of making money at any cost.

When we first come across Milo, he is shown to have high moral standards. His lust for profit, however, soon overcomes these earlier leanings. At one point, he bombs his own friends and fellow army men for profit. By the end of the book, Milo has become such a robot, succumbed to greed and profit, that, because Milo has just found out a new way to make money, he walks out on Yossarian at a time when Yossarian desperately needs his help. For Heller, Milo is a symbol of the corporate greed that has taken over America. Heller is attacking all the people who only care about money and don’t care about others. He brings to light the egocentric tendency of Americans. In the chaplain, Heller portrays someone who is genuinely selfless and concerned about others. His heart is always wishing others well. However, he, as many others like him, is never heard or listened to and eventually turns to devious methods to be noticed. The chaplain represents the minority that is deserving of attention, but never listened to until it is too late. He gets so lonely and frustrated that even he starts to sin. Heller most actively challenges the pureness and rightness of the bureaucratic institutions that control and limit the human spirit . The upper echelons of the army are a mockery of the mess that government has become. Colonel Cathcart stands for the average politician, whose only goal to rise in power. Colonel Corn, one of Cathcart’s cronies, in describing his desire for power, states, “Why not… What else have we got to do?”. All Colonial Cathcart cares about is a “feather in his cap” or a “black eye”.

He does not care how the men feel. He raises the number of missions to impossible highs only for his personal gain. This is perhaps a parallel to Washington D. C., where politicians often have become so caught up in bureaucracies that they forget about their constituents. General Scheisskoph achieves such a high rank only because he conforms. His only passion in life is marching – the ultimate conformity. He works at stifling the men’s spirits so that they all obey. He stops thinking of them as people, just stupid machines. He never tries to stick out, as Yossarian does, and therefore has a successful career. This too mocks the tendency in modern society to conform and continually go with the flow, even if it is totally wrong, just to be similar and possibly successful. Heller, through satire, also brings to light some of the other institutions in America and the modern world that have gotten out of control and gone too far. The prime example of this is the medical profession. When Yossarian goes to the hospital, everyone has a different idea of what he has. Doctors say he has this or that just because they like saying he has this or that, even though they have little idea of his real condition. Though this area is exaggerated in the book, it still makes us look again at the medical professionals that we trust our lives in. He also makes out psychiatry to be absolutely foolish.  Yossarian only has to make up a dream, before the psychiatrist is in deep discussions about what the dream means in his life. This rings very true when one thinks of real life psychiatrists always trying to make significant issues out of what may actually be trivial matters. In Catch 22 , Heller exaggerates everything to an extreme, but it is only to get our attention. By seeing the extreme, we realize how close our society is to that point. Heller implies that everyone is to blame for where our society is at.

Yossarian says while walking through the eternal city, “What a lousy earth!…When you added them (all the bad people) all up and subtracted you might only be left with the children…and an old violinist or sculptor…” (p.414). By saying this, Heller blames every one for how are world is except for the children who know no better. To the many Americans who have been brought up on red, white, and blue and Fourth of July celebrations this could be an insult. They might feel this book is subversive to the American dream that people like Yossarian have fought wars for. They are scared to face the truth and prefer to believe in the institutions that have been in place for hundreds of years without a second thought. To except that something is wrong in our culture would rock their souls too much.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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