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In the midst of World War II, apprehensive soldier and antiheroic bombardier John Yossarian endures the perpetual torment of war with a tenacious desire to escape. Witnessing a number of horrendous events and ceaseless bureaucratic absurdity, Yossarian and his companions struggle against the surreal parameters that define life in constant battle, and attempt to understand the senseless paradoxes that often hinder their strongest desires. Throughout his novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller depicts Yossarian’s plight to free himself from the tenacious grip of his superiors, proving that in the illusory face of freedom, there is often no escape from the forces of oppression.
As a prominent theme in the novel, high-ranking officials often reference the mental state of their subordinates as means of provoking confusion and restraining their actions. During an early invocation of the novel’s name bearing term, catch-22 is utilized to explain the paradox in which Orr did not have to fly missions because “he was crazy”, yet if he chose not to fly missions he would be deemed “sane and had to” (Heller 46). This “slippery but elegant” logic demonstrates a way in which the military employs the mental state of its subordinates in order to make them perform various actions, causing them to become trapped into doing so by their own state of mind (Swift 2011). Later in the novel, Yossarian attempts to cite his insanity as means of leaving the war, to which Doc Daneeka replies, “‘who else will go [to be killed]?’” (Heller 305). Although the military had previously emphasized the idea that a poor mental state is grounds for leaving the war, Doc Daneeka highlights that this idea is not truly enforced, but rather stated as means to control the men and hide the fact that escape is impossible, regardless of one’s mental well-being. Moreover, Yossarian’s mental state is utilized in order to discredit his logical fear of being killed. When explaining that “strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up in the air to drop bombs on them”, Yossarian is deemed crazy by Clevinger (Heller 17). Despite the fact that both men are being subjected to the same dangerous conditions, Yossarian’s perspective is frowned upon as it encourages desire to escape the war and its potentially deadly implications. The military’s tendency to call upon the mental state of its subordinates places the men in a state of vulnerability, and leaves them receptive to control by others.
Additionally, in the novel, the catch-22 enigma reaches beyond the United States military and is utilized by other demographics across the planet, emphasizing that the theme of hidden oppression is not specific to the U.S., but rather spans the entire world. Upon pondering the reason for which Nately’s whore blamed Yossarian for Nately’s death, Yossarian comes to the paradoxical conclusion that “every victim was a culprit, [and] every culprit a victim” (Heller 405). This phrase, applying to the tragic nature of the world, emphasizes that both those helpless and culpable to the cycle of misfortune suffer from and it and contribute to it, leaving everyone, despite their supposed freedom, victim to an oppressive system. Likewise, catch-22 emerges as a prevalent concept in Italy when the term is spoken by Yossarian’s lover, Luciana. She attests that she “won’t marry [Yossarian] because [he’s] crazy, and… [he’s] crazy because [he] won’t marry [her]” (Heller 159). Although presented in terms of love rather than war, this catch-22 demonstrates the entrapment that the idea brings to people across the globe in its confining yet inarguable logic. Similarly, Yossarian’s fear of the enemy reiterates that catch-22 is a universal idea. The “ubiquitous, altogether scary ‘they’” from which Yossarian derives his fear emphasizes that the menacing forces he cowers from are not specific to the United States military or its enemies, but rather he fears the inability to escape the omnipresence of catch-22 and the entrapment that it brings (Pinsker 2000). Paradoxes such as the catch-22, being globally prevalent, exemplify the inescapability that occurs within seemingly just logic that exist on an international level.
Through his humorous tone, Heller emphasizes the ridiculousness of catch-22, showing that despite its absurdity, it is effectively keeping people from escaping its grasp without their full understanding. When the chaplain is accused of writing in “somebody else’s” handwriting rather than his own, a concept that is both impossible and comedic, he is charged as guilty on all counts (Heller 381). Although not exactly living up to the standard of a catch-22, this “argument of faulty logic” exemplifies the manner in which a laughable idea becomes means of control (Hidalgo Downing 2000). Likewise, Colonel Cathcart perpetually raises the required number of missions the men must complete before being relieved of duty because he desires to be mentioned in the “Saturday Evening Post” ( Heller 282). Cathcart’s reason for creating this catch-22, it qualifies as such because the men are shown an escape before it is proven faulty, is for frivolous and humorous reason, thus emphasizing that although the logic may be absurd, catch-22 effectively keeps its victims under its control. By incorporating a comedic element, Heller exemplifies the ludicrous nature of catch-22, and demonstrates how it is effective regardless.
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller redefines common perceptions of war. Through his usage of both humor and tragedy, he emphasizes the central idea that sanity is insanity, and instills within the reader the true nature of war, and the place of the perpetually competing ideas of freedom and oppression. Heller emphasizes that although eventual escape from a controlling force may seem apparent, it may simply be impenetrable and inescapable contradiction in disguise.
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