Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in New York City, and grew up near the Coney Island amusement park. His parents, recent Russian immigrants, spoke little English, and his father died when Joseph was only five years old. After graduating from high school, Heller joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, and flew sixty bombing missions in a B-25 before being discharged in 1945. Heller entered college after the war, earning a bachelor’s degree from New York University followed by a master’s degree from Columbia University, and studied for a year at Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship. He returned from England in 1950 and taught English at Pennsylvania State University but left to work in magazine advertising because he felt uncomfortable in the academic world.
Catch-22 is a product of intense private and public concerns. Heller based the novel’s plot on his memories of World War II bombing missions; he derived its ironic tone and thematic substance from such sources as his father’s early death, the grotesque Coney Island neighborhood of his youth, the fast-paced, disjointed world of advertising, and his anxiety over the Korean War and Cold War tensions with China and Russia. Heller translated the intergroup antagonism that prevailed in the United States after the Second World War-the Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the racial hatred that surfaced when southern schools began to be integrated-into the conflict between the common soldiers and the officers of Catch-22.
The novel’s Setting is the mythical island of Pianosa, modeled closely on Corsica and located off the coast of Rome, eight miles south of Elba. The year is 1944, and as World War II draws to a close, the Allies continue to conduct round-the-clock bombing missions to Europe from their Air Force base on the island. Nearby Rome serves as the playground for off-duty aviators. The site of social madness in the form of brothels, debauchery, and senseless pain and murder, the city is symbolically the Rome of ancient times, just before the fall of the Roman Empire.
The protagonist of Catch-22, Captain John Yossarian, is motivated by two closely related impulses: to subvert the repressive military establishment and to survive. His desperate attempts to escape death and to preserve a meaningful code of morality reflect the ongoing human struggle against overwhelming and frequently life-threatening forces or institutions. Paranoid that an unidentified “they” are trying to kill him, Yossarian feigns insanity, seeks refuge in the hospital, poisons his squadron with soap powder, and moves a bomb line on a map. When he does fly combat missions, “Yo-Yo” traces irregular patterns in the sky, evading flak right and left. Although labeled crazy by many of the other Characters, Yossarian is sane in believing his life endangered-whether by officers such as Cathcart who care less about their men’s safety than about possible promotions, by Milo Minderbinder and his twisted entrepreneurial schemes, or by Nately’s knife-wielding prostitute.
Catch-22 both absorbs and parodies a variety of literary genres. Given the book’s fragmented chronology, episodic structure, and caricatured characterizations, some critics have objected to labeling it a novel. The book’s mockery of political and social institutions and comic exaggeration are characteristic of the satire; Yossarian’s series of misadventures echo the picaresque tradition, and the work’s huge cast of Characters and descent-into-the-underworld motif bring to mind the epic.
Readers desensitized to the indifference and brutality of society as chronicled every evening on television may not find Catch-22 as horrifying as did readers in 1961. The novel’s presentation of vulgar, inhumane events is always couched in absurdity. The humor lies in pokes at the “system”; the horror stems from the realization that the search for individualism may be futile.
1. Catch-22 is an allegory; that is, each character represents some human quality. List the major Characters and their allegorical characteristics.
1. Research the philosophical terms “existentialism” and “nihilism” and show how they apply to the Themes in Catch-22.
In 1967 Heller wrote a two-act play entitled We Bombed in New Haven that shares the antiwar stance of Catch-22 and, like the novel, reflects the author’s own military experiences. Surrealistic in technique with a sometimes heavy-handed use of burlesque elements, the play lacks a tight structure. It was first produced at Yale University and later ran for eighty-six performances on Broadway. That same year Heller published “Catch-22 Revisited,” a nonfiction article tracing his return to Corsica, where he served during World War II. A 1969 short story entitled “Love, Dad” examines the childhood and family background of the character Nately. Five years later, in 1974, Heller fleshed out yet another character from Catch-22 in “Clevinger’s Trial,” a short dramatic piece. In 1971 he produced a pared down, three-act stage version of Catch-22. Directed by Larry Arrick and performed by the John Drew Repertory Company in East Hampton, New York, the play met with moderate success.