Catch-22 - essay

Controversy is seldom enjoyable. When people question the orderly paradigm of society and challenge certain ideas or beliefs, conflict emerges. Such disputes often occur during times of war. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is a satirical war novel that captures the insanity of war by using black humor and a protagonist that concludes the only sane response to war is to not participate in it (Telgen).  However, because of its stirring representation of war, mocking comedy of violence, and paradoxical madness, Catch-22 generated controversy upon its publication in 1961 as it vastly differed from other war novels of that era and was even banned in Strongsville, Ohio in 1972. However, despite the controversy, Heller's central message about rebellion, coupled with its realistic depiction of war, give it invaluable literary merit, making its continued use in schools appropriate.Controversy is seldom enjoyable. When people question the orderly paradigm of society and challenge certain ideas or beliefs, conflict emerges. Such disputes often occur during times of war.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is a satirical war novel that captures the insanity of war by using black humor and a protagonist that concludes the only sane response to war is to not participate in it (Telgen).  However, because of its stirring representation of war, mocking comedy of violence, and paradoxical madness, Catch-22 generated controversy upon its publication in 1961 as it vastly differed from other war novels of that era and was even banned in Strongsville, Ohio in 1972. However, despite the controversy, Heller's central message about rebellion, coupled with its realistic depiction of war, give it invaluable literary merit, making its continued use in schools appropriate. The zeitgeist of the 1960’s, the decade Catch-22 was published, was full of uncertainty and distrust towards the government, especially following the witch hunts of the 1950’s. This, coupled with the Vietnam War, brought about many anti-war and anti-authoritarian supporters (Telgen). Upon its publication, readers either loved it or hated it, sparking controversy. Unlike other war novels of that time, which portrayed war as heroic and full of vivid scenes, Catch-22 displayed the cruel reality of war, cutting it to its core (Parker-Anderson). Due to both this and “indecent language”, the book was even banned for a few years at schools in Strongsville, Ohio (Parker-Anderson). However, as time went on, the novel became more welcomed, especially with the coming of the Vietnam War and more people in support of an anti-authoritarian and anti-war attitude, despite it being significantly different from similar works of that time. The main factor that separates Catch-22 from other novels may not necessarily be its controversy, but rather its uniqueness.

Heller decides to put WWII into a more realistic perspective, and the insanity behind it. Language plays a huge role in the meaning behind the book, as well as separating it from other books of that era. It is an “examination of the destructive power of language” and puts on display the result of language being used for “manipulation rather than communication” (Pearson). The novel targets the power that language has and the consequences of abusing it, as it was in Catch-22, which resulted in zombie-like soldiers who simply follow orders without regard to themselves. This adds to the novels literary merit as it provides a deeper meaning instead of it being just a story. In addition, the peculiar prose and writing strategy also play a role in expanding the novel’s significance. One central feature of Catch-22 is its continuous repetition of different ideas or subjects. At first these seem to serve no specific purpose, but by diving deeper one can uncover how it was constructed “meticulously, and with a meticulous concern to give the appearance of a formless novel” (Merril). One prominent example of repetition is with the soldier in white, who appears three times, in chapters 1, 17, and 34.  In chapter 1, the scene is portrayed jokingly: “ ‘Murderer’. The texan looked up at him with an uncertain grin” (Heller 10). In chapter 17 it is more severe: “all four strange, useless limbs hoisted up… The soldier in white was like an unrolled bandage with a hole in it” (Heller 167). Finally in chapter 17, the scene is horrific: “He’s back! He’s back!”, referring to the “morbid sight of the soldier in white” and that he’s “the same one” (Heller 364).

Heller’s particular strategy at play here is making people laugh and then look back at the horror they were laughing at. This just further elaborates on our own society and how often we succumb to social order without realizing its potential gravity. These elements give Catch-22 literary merit as they present ideas that are relevant to society and the tendencies of humanity. In totality the combination of the different literary aspects of Catch-22 add to its merit as they allow the novel to be more than just fiction. In addition to the literary elements implemented to add significance to Catch-22, the term catch-22 itself became extremely popular and is now officially coined as a set of rules which operate to make it impossible to find a reasonable escape from them (Kennard). Furthermore, while WWI inspired a patriotic fervor in Americans, they became more cynical towards war with WWII, not to mention the US was just emerging from the Great Depression. With his rhetoric, Heller utilizes Catch-22 to convey “the image of a convoluted, bureaucratic system of waste” (Moss and Wilson). Taking ideas from his own experiences of WWII, Heller uses his novel to display a more realistic description of war. These components both exhibit the novel’s value as they display the social impact is has had. Despite evidence that corroborates the novel’s worth, Catch-22 was under heavy criticism for many years after its publication, and though it has since abated, some criticism still exists. Many critics argue that even the structure of the novel is too confusing, and that its repetitiveness serves no real value (Merril). Other critics complain that the ending is “impossible and irrational” (Pearson). It has also been mentioned that the negative impact the novel has had because of its pessimistic portrayal of the military and the novel’s unpatriotism (Moss and Wilson). However, much of this criticism is shallow, and through deeper research and analysis one can see the true meaning and importance of this novel. Repetitiveness plays a crucial role in shaping the novel to represent Heller’s radical protest against social order (Merril). And while the ending of the novel may have been sentimentally handled, upon further insight one can see that it teaches that the individual must rebel in an irrational world, but that his rebellion “must be a free act” and in the name of a value which can be applied “to all men and does not limit their freedom” (Kennard). Finally, the novel serves an important artifact that goes back to the 1960’s, especially with the rising of the Vietnam war, and one can clearly see the impact that it had on those sick of war and a secretive government.

There are many aspects of Catch 22 that should allow it to be taught in classrooms everywhere. From its strange prose and structure, teachers and students alike can delve into this new format and uncover its deeper meaning behind its confusing surface. While some controversy may occur, it is also healthy to have discussion within the classroom in regards to them, and to learn how these controversies have shaped history through the novel and what Heller’s intentions were in writing the book. Heller wrote Catch 22 not only as a satirical novel in regards to war, but also to paint a picture and forward a warning of the power and consequences of abuse of social order and language. Though the novel may seem to be a failure of language, with its confusing structure, Heller “causes us to reexamine the language of literature as a means of discovery and communication” and suggests that we rather “ look to the artist than the politician to teach us about ourselves and our reality” (Pearson). This is an important ideology that should be taught in classrooms to encourage students to think for themselves and be independent. After all, there does not seem to be anything controversial enough to deem the book ban-worthy, so its continued use in schools should be allowed as it can only lead to more insight and knowledge. Heller uses Catch-22 to paint a satirical yet realistic depiction of the true reality of war. Through it, he is telling of his protest against the debasement of language and how its abuse leads to corruption. Through the insanity of the soldiers and the confusing narrative structure, Heller’s message about caution of authority should be discussed within classrooms. These aspects all give the novel valuable literary merit. In addition, the novel also has significant historical significance, being one of the most prominent books of the 1960’s. As the pioneer of war novels of this style, Catch-22 also served as a cornerstone for many anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War. While controversy still exists, the impact of this novel cannot be denied, and thus its continued use in schools should be allowed.