The Self-Contained Hell That Is War Laughing in the face of war and death, literally, is one of the things that make the novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller such an intriguing and original story. It was written in 1961, a time when, due to the fighting of the Second World War, all war novels were written with a dark and dreary tone, while still trying to continue the pre-conceived romantic notions about war. However, Joseph Heller strips away all of the romantic pretense, and pulling heavily on his own Air Force experience during WWII, presents war in its most raw, un-censored version.
It takes away thoughts of being the amazing hero, and winning medals, and replaces them with the screwed up, bureaucratic way that we fight wars. It shows the true paradoxes that arise, and shows the violence of war, in its most un-adulterated form. This book came right after WWII, a war that most American citizens saw as a just and needed war, and shocked all who read it with the truth about war. Then, as if to prove the literary genius of the author, the Vietnam War comes along. It then turns out that the novel Catch-22 was almost prophetic about the war.
Almost the entire novel is shown through the eyes of the main character, Captain John Yossarian. He is an Assyrian, who is completely paranoid and always trying to convince people that there are other people out there who are doing their best to make sure he doesn’t return from each mission he flies. He then decides to make it his personal mission to return alive from every flight. Throughout the entire story, the main theme or subject is the craziness of war, and how it is not romantic as it has been previously portrayed, but actually hellish and dangerous.
One of the most interesting parts about the novel is the way in which it is organized. The book has 42 chapters, each consisting of about 8 to 10 pages, and each telling a different story. While that alone, obviously, does not make the novel unique, the fact that the stories come in no particular order does. They do not appear to even be linked at times, yet in the end, through his masterful command of the English language, he manages to make all of the non-sense, and non-sequential stories come together to create one large picture.
Each of these short stories has either their own lesson, or in some cases, its own conflict, rising action, resolution, and falling action. But even with this, they all are nothing more than a small piece of the puzzle that is the novel Catch-22. The book’s structure almost resembles what could be called a shotgun effect. There are many different little stories, or pellets, that all help add up to the central story, or the main grouping. Some of the stories intersect, and many of them pull up on experiences that occurred in other chapters.
Other than paying attention to what past experiences are brought up and when, the novel still works hard to make sure that by the end of each chapter, even if the reader doesn’t understand it, the reader knows in which time period it happened, and where it fits in the timeline. The most common way that it accomplishes this is by bringing up the number of missions that they are now required to fly before they could be sent home. So even the fact that the 42 different stories occur in no particular order, and very often they don’t even seem to make sense at the time the reader first reads them.
It doesn’t make the novel confusing, because the ending ties them together so beautifully, and the reader can always figure out where they occur in the timeline. This entire structure makes the novel a very original read, and very greatly adds to the idea that war is not beauty and honor, but horrible violence and craziness. The next discussion point about how the writer conveys this idea about the craziness of war is his writing style. Throughout the book the author very carefully adjusts his sentence structure and diction to reflect the mood or character of the current section of the novel.
Throughout the more exciting parts of the novel the author changes to shorter, more exciting words and sentences. When the story was being told about someone of obvious intelligence, the words would get longer, more educated, and the same rings true for people who were obviously not as learned about the English language. The sentences would become short, using layman’s terms, and making it obvious that they were not formally educated. This ability of Joseph Heller to switch between sentence structure and diction shows his unbelievable command of the English language.
This fact is one of the things that make it possible for the reader of this book to be able to better understand what the author is trying to convey. It makes it easier to discern what mood any given section is written in, and actually adds a small amount of simplicity to a novel that is full of, and in the end, about complexity, and offers a nice contrast to the complex parts. The writer’s technique adds a lot to this novel. The first part is his choice for point of view for this novel. Most of the stories are written from the point of view of the main antagonist, Captain Yossarian.
This adds to the idea of the complexity and craziness of war, because almost the whole novel is written from the point of view of someone who is constantly described as crazy throughout the novel. Because of this the readers have to ask themselves how reliable the narration is. One of the techniques utilized very aptly by Joseph Heller is repetition. By continually repeating certain points throughout the entire novel, he makes sure that they stick in our head above other things. Arguably the largest use of this is the continual repetition to the death of a soldier named Snowden.
Throughout the entire novel we learn bits and pieces about his death, and its meaning for the squadron. Then in the final chapters we find out the entire story of the tragic death, and the ramifications it has on Yossarian and his attitudes toward war. The other technique that is utilized throughout the entire piece of work is black humor. Heller is constantly using humor in the book, but he doesn’t use it like most war books of the time to lighten the mood. Instead he uses it to portray his main theme throughout the novel, that war is not all heroism and medals; it is death, violence, and stupid bureaucrats.
In Catch-22, there are many different and varying themes. However there is one that stands out above all the rest, one that is at least hinted at in every short story in every chapter. This theme is that war is not the romantic images shown on the television and portrayed in other war books of the time. He wants it to be known that it is a horrible place, filled with death, destruction, violence, and superiors who make decisions to advance their career, treating their subordinates as property and tools to be used to further their own military careers. Throughout the entire book, this theme is emphasized in different ways.
One of the most recurring ways this theme is emphasized is how Milo Minderbinder is able to use the craziness of the war to create an entire business empire. And not only does he create the empire, but he continually builds himself a small fortune by buying and selling from all of his own companies, to all of his own companies. Throughout this entire storyline, he grows his empire, and amasses a fortune. Then when he starts reaching his limits by dealing with only the allies, he goes further out and deals with the Germans, who are the enemies of the United States in the war.
By dealing with both sides, and trading military secrets for money and other things he needs, he expands his empire even beyond what should be able to. Yet he explains everything he does by telling people that they have a share in his company, so anything that is good for the empire is good for everybody. That is the perfect example of how crazy and screwed up the war really is. Another way that this theme is set into this novel is how during the book, the Chaplain of the group begins to lose his faith in god. Obviously anything in the world that can make a devout man of God begin to question his own gods work is a horrible, hellish thing.
His disillusionment stems in part from Colonel Cathcart’s constant attempts to use the outward manifestations of religion to further his own ambition. When he sees someone who is trying to use religion as nothing more than a stepping tone to further his own ambitions, he can’t help but wonder what it is that he truly believes in. Another section of the novel that brings up religion is when Yossarian and Scheisskopf’s wife have a discussion over a thanksgiving dinner. They are both atheists, but the difference is their idea of what the god would be like if he did exist.
Scheisskopf’s wife hasn’t seen some of the horrible things that Yossarian has, so she believes in a just and honest god. While Yossarian believes that if a god did exist, then he would be a cold, cruel god who has a bad sense of humor. This goes to show how war affects people’s views of god, and brings out the idea of the craziness of war. In conclusion, the entire book, while being non-sequential and confusing throughout, still conveys its theme very well. This is mainly thanks to the author’s ability to bend the English language to his will, and the timing that it was released.
It came out at a time that all war novels were heroic and romantic, yet do to Heller’s own Air Force experience he knew the truth about war, and by writing about it, he brings it to the foreground. The entire novel centers around and contributes to the theme that true war is not how it has been portrayed in the media of the day. It is actually a self-contained hell that is perpetuated by crazy leaders, death, and violence. This makes this novel one that should be required reading for all peoples in the world, so that we can better understand the truth about war, and maybe, just maybe, we will have fewer wars.