Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1989 (orig. published 1961). 524 pages. Tr. $21.30, ISBN: 978-1-45162-117-4
Plot: John Yossarian is a bomber pilot caught up in the complicated bureaucratic web of war. Nonlinear in its structure. Set on an island off the coast of Italy, he story follows Yossarian as he attempts to stay alive. His commander keeps upping the number of missions that the pilots need to complete, and, when Yossarian attempts to get discharged on grounds of insanity, he is told that he cannot be crazy if he wants to avoid being killed, which immediately excludes him from an insanity discharge. That is the Catch-22, a term invented by Heller to describe a double-bind situation.
Convinced that people are trying to kill him, Yossarian continues to plot to avoid combat by faking a liver illness and crafting other schemes. When he realizes that his bumbling tent-mate, who had been missing, has washed up in Sweden, he realizes that this is his ticket out of the war.
Critical Evaluation: A powerful critique that has become a classic. Heller pitches his character into a world of bureaucratic insanity in a way that resonates to anyone who has had to deal with the red tape of a large institution. Its plot isn’t linear but there is a structure, with frequent flashbacks tied to the present (1943). Yossarian is the “Everyman” of the story, a character who is easy to identify with and who is swept up in forces beyond his control. Other characters serve symbolic purposes – with Colonel Cathcart representing the true insanity of war.
The story’s flashbacks and sometimes confusing narrative also help to disorient the reader, putting him in Yossarian’s confused shoes. As funny as it is in the beginning, the end gets closer and closer to the terrifying darkness of war, and there are truly horrifying events that occur. Just because the characters are symbolic in nature doesn’t mean that what happens to them doesn’t hurt. The ending, though, presents the opportunity to escape the madness.
Because teenagers so often feel that they are caught in the web of school and family obligations, they identify easily with Yossarian and his absurd situation.
Reader’s Annotation: When John Yossarian gets sent to the Italian front during World War II, he is swept into an insane system that he is desperate to escape, which puts him in a series of ridiculous situations in a place in which everyone is, basically, out of their minds.
Author bio: The son of Russian immigrants, Joseph Heller was born in Coney Island, New York in 1923. Before he joined the U.S. Army, he had apprenticed to a blacksmith. When he was 19, he went into the military, going to the front and flying a multitude of routine and uneventful combat missions.
After he came back, he went to college, eventually getting his MA in English and dipping into academia, journalism and copywriting. Catch-22 was extremely late to the publisher (possibly five years). It was hardly a hit, but the paperback version did well with the newly disenfranchised Baby Boomers, who responded to its anti-war message. The book was turned into a film nine years later.
Genre: Historical novel, satire.
Curriculum Ties: California State Standards, English – Literary Response and Analysis 3.0:
3.8 Analyze the clarity and consistency of political assumptions in a selection of literary works or essays on a topic (e.g., suffrage, women’s role in organized labor). (Political approach)
Focus on the idea of an individual fighting against the machine.
2 Describe the set up of “Catch-22” and how the term stuck.
3 With someone else, act out a particularly crazy scene that captures the mad logic of the conversations.
Reading Level: 7th grade
Interest Age: 16+
Challenge Issues: Violence, sexual content.
Challenge Responses: A familiarity with the content of the book is a must.
This novel, now considered a classic, has been ranked on several lists as one of the best books in the English language. Keep classics lists in file.
Also, keep rave reviews on file, such as this one by the New York Times: http://www.powells.com/review/2001_05_31
Why Included: Considered one of the best books written in the past 100 years, it appeals to teenagers because of its message about individuality and conformity.