Catch-22: More Than Just A Title

Harper Lee refers to Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22 as "The only war novel [that] makes any sense."  At a glance, Catch-22 is the exact opposite of sense.  The looping dialogue, while intended for comedy, can easily confuse readers as to which character is currently speaking and what they are speaking about.  There are so many characters that it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of who’s who.  Outlandish events occur out of nowhere, and sometimes an entire chapter builds up to an anticipated outcome only for the last sentence to throw in a resolution completely out of left-field.  While most of these elements are, again, played for comedy, the average reader can easily be confused.  Joseph Heller is known for his literary style of making readers laugh while keeping a dark undertone behind his humor.  While Catch-22 is littered with many confusing elements, the comedy behind it provides the reader with "healthy confusion"; readers may be completely oblivious to what is going on, but they at least gain a laugh from the dialogue or hilarious events. However, another way this confusion could be interpreted isn’t as much to the style of Heller, but the concept of Catch-22 itself. 

Catch-22 is a term used for a situation which is impossible for an individual to escape from because of contradictory rules.  In the novel, Catch-22 is Heller’s made-up military law which is paradoxically designed to keep U.S. soldiers from returning home from Axis-occupied Italy.  Characters attempt to explain Catch-22 throughout the novel, but the concept becomes only more and more difficult for readers to grasp.  The most clear explanation is during a conversation between the main character, Yossarian, and Doc Daneeka.  Yossarian pleads to Daneeka to ground him from bombing missions, but Daneeka continually refuses his request because of Catch-22.  Catch-22 basically states that a soldier can only be grounded from missions if he is considered insane.  Soldiers that continually fly more missions are considered insane because they express no reluctance to peril.  Soldiers who do try to avoid missions are sane.  The "catch" of Catch-22 is that soldiers are only grounded if they specifically ask to be, but if they do so then they are trying to avoid missions so they are considered sane.  Such a confusing ordinance calls for an equally confusing book.  The paradoxical frame of the law is most obviously reflected in the dialogue of the characters.  Characters often discuss the reasoning behind their actions, but their dialogue constantly loops so the conversations never reach a resolution.  For instance, early in the novel, Yossarian’s friend, Dunbar, attempts to explain to him why he puts crab apples in his cheeks.  When Yossarian asks why Dunbar puts crab apples in his cheeks, Dunbar responds, "Because they’re better than horse chestnuts [in my cheeks]".  Yossarian asks why Dunbar doesn’t like horse chestnuts in his cheeks, and Dunbar’s response is that he can just use crab apples.  The conversation loops like this on end with only slight variations, such as when Dunbar says he’d substitute horse chestnuts for crab apples if the latter aren’t available.  The book is littered with conversations like these, and they all harken back to the very subject of the title.  As Yossarian puts it, "That’s some catch, that Catch-22". 

Another aspect reflective of Catch-22 is the very names of the characters themselves.  For a novel which often discusses red-blooded Americanism, the character’s names are very un-American.  Names like Yossarian, Dunbar, Daneeka, Milo, Cathcart, Korn, Clevinger, and Nately, don’t sound like names you’d expect to hear out of wartime 1940’s America.  The names mentioned only scratch the surface; there are dozens upon dozens more outrageous and difficult to pronounce names throughout the novel.  There is not a single conventional name mentioned, and it can be difficult for readers to keep track of who’s who because of so many names being thrown around.  To make matters worse, some characters only appear briefly for a scene early in the novel, only to have a more significant role later on.  Readers can easily forget who the character was and suddenly have to remember who they were all over again.  At a glance, these names may appear to be played for comedy; with such a comedic book, funny names seem appropriate.  However, this proves not to be the case rather quickly.  With so many long, unconventional names being repeated throughout the dialogue, simply reading the text becomes sluggish.  Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, discusses how shorter names in literature make for more practical reading, and can even shorten the length of a novel.  Heller throws this entire concept out the window.  He even goes to the extent of mocking his own confusing names in an entire chapter developing the character Major Major.  Major Major’s full name is Major Major Major, and the novel comedically explains how he gets his name. However, to the reader, Major Major’s backstory can be both funny and cumbersome.  Anyone who glances at the pages of this chapter immediately notice how many times the word 'Major' appears, and having to keep track of the number of 'Major'’s in a row is confusing. To make matters worse, Major Major is promoted to the rank of Major by the end of the chapter, making his full name Major Major Major Major.  Other scenarios use this same device of using multiple confusing names to explain a series of events which only adds to the confusion of what the characters are discussing.  After a period of time, readers become less concerned with putting a face to every name and instead focus on the events happening at present. With all the fluff Heller adds to the text, this approach is more beneficial in order for the reader to understand the story by the ending. 

On the one hand, Joseph Heller is just a funny, crazed writer.  In another view, he ingeniously plants readers into the boots of his main character, Yossarian.  Yossarian appears extremely crazy in the novel, which only makes readers question why he is never grounded.  By the end of the story, it’s determined that Yossarian isn’t technically "crazy", per-say;  he’s just plagued by a crazy world filled with crazy people where crazy things happen.  Yossarian’s ultimate struggle is going to bat with Catch-22, the one thing keeping him from his goal.  Heller highlights Yossarian’s pain by making his readers literally feel it.  The uncanny events, paradoxical dialogue, and confusing character names immerse the reader in a literal Catch-22 where there is virtually no escape from conflict, the conflict being confusion.  In a sense, Yossarian is just as confused as we are. So instead of readers delving into a story about Catch-22, Hellers let’s them experience Catch-22 for themselves. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; November 2016