In Catch-22, Joseph Heller reveals the perversions of the human character and society. Using various themes and a unique style and structure, Heller satirizes war and its values as well as using the war setting to satirize society at large. By manipulating the classic war setting and language of the novel Heller is able to depict society as dark and twisted. Heller demonstrates his depiction of society through the institution of war (i.e. it’s effects and problems during and after war). Heller’s satire of war and his anti war themes evoke pleasure and disquietude to show the mess of war, the victimization of the conscripts, and the monstrous egotism of the top brass.
Catch-22 shows how the individual soldier loses his uniqueness not as much from the battlefield like other novels set during a war, but from the bureaucratic mentality. An example of this Lt. Scheisskopf’s obsession with parades that he sees the men more as puppets than as human beings. At one point in the novel, he even wants to wire them together so their movements will be perfectly precise–just as mindless puppets would be.
This theme also appears when Colonel Cathcart keeps increasing the number of missions his squadron must fly–not for military purposes, but to solely enhance his prestige. One other example of this theme is in the novel, when Yossarian is wounded. He is told to take better care of his leg because it is government property. Soldiers, therefore, are not even people, but simply property that can be listed on an inventory. In a bureaucracy, as Heller shows, individuality does not matter.
In form, Catch-22 is a social satire–it is a novel using absurd humor to discredit or ridicule aspects of our society. The target in Catch-22 is not just the self-serving attitudes of some military officers, but also the Air Force itself as a mad military bureaucracy. The humor in the novel along with descriptive styles such as:
Doc Daneeka, roosted dolorously like a shivering turkey buzzard; the mountains, blanketed in a mesmerizing quiet, Yossarian, wet with the feeling of warm slime, lavender gloom clouding the entrance of the operations tent.
These descriptive styles help depart from pure realism–they serve to transcend physical reality by making sensations metaphors for states of mind and by attributing unusual qualities to objects, making the reader take a second look at familiar objects and feelings.
These help to create new and altered perceptions of the world–common in satires as they try to solve the problem being satirized by having those satirized (the human character) realize its faults. One example of the absurd humor are the deaths of some of the men. The war kills men in both expected and unexpected ways–some die through anti-aircraft fire, while others did in odd ways; Clevinger’s plane disappeared in the clouds; Dunbar simply disappears from the hospital; and Sampson is killed by a propeller of one of the bombers.
This departure from pure realism (i.e. the exaggeration, the grotesque, the comic-like characters, the unusual deaths) is aimed to first make the reader laugh, then look back at horror at what amused them–and this is the technique Heller applies to satirize society.
Catch-22 is the principle that informs the military-economic machine, giving it power and making war possible in the first place. It is the law that says what it commands is right because it is commanded, and the illogical must be done because the command says it is logical. Catch-22 is the untouchable power that has usurped man’s control over his own life and handed it over to an institution that manufactures fatal and incredible death traps.
Heller gives us the feeling that this power could possibly be beyond even the institution that uses it. An abstraction can be evoked any time we find man subjugated to the absurd- it is reason, we would be told for his subjugation . . .