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Life is filled with situations that are very difficult to find an escape. Even once in a while, life presents a situation that is beyond difficult, and completely impossible to escape from. These situations were expanded upon and brought to obvious light in Joseph Heller s novel, Catch-22. This novel was such a masterful work that the phrase, catch-22 came to be synonymous with the situations that Heller portrays in his novel. Set in the final months of World War II, Catch-22 tells the story of a bomber squadron on the mythical island of Pinosa, just off of Italy. The story is told through the eyes of Captain John Yossarian, one of the few sane men in the novel, who sees all of the impossible situations his squadron is placed in. “For Catch-22 is the unwritten loophole in every written law which empowers the authorities to revoke your rights whenever it suits their cruel whims; it is, in short, the principle of absolute evil in a malevolent, mechanical, and incompetent world. Because of Catch-22, justice is mocked, the innocent are victimized, and Yossarian’s squadron is forced to fly more than double the number of missions prescribed by Air Force code” (Skreiner 1). The mops vivid examples of the paradoxes created by catch-22 come from the specific characters; Hungry Joe, Doc Daneeka, Orr, Milo Minderbinder, and Yossarian.
Probably the most peculiar paradox presented in Catch-22 is formed around a pilot named Hungry Joe. Following a common, logical train of thought, Hungry Joe wishes to finish his time in the war and return home, where his safety is guaranteed, and he is in no danger of being killed. The catch originates from a common junction of many of the catches characters face, Colonel Cathcart, the wing commander. Colonel Cathcart s goal is to be mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post, and to do that, he continues to raise the required missions to fly for his wing. Holding characters in the war, and not allowing them to return home. Hungry Joe always completes his required missions, packs his bags, and waits for the orders transferring him home, hoping they arrive before Colonel Cathcart raises the missions again. The waiting builds up such huge pressure for Hungry Joe that he drives himself mad, screaming all night long in nightmares. The catch is simple, Hungry Joe wants to go home so much that he can t stand to wait for the orders sending him home to the US. The waiting and wanting is so strong that he stays on fight duty all the time to avoid the pain of it. Hungry Joe flies because he wants to go home, and is completely trapped in his catch-22, until he is killed during the missions that were both his torture and his comfort (Heller 60).
Other characters are forced into their catches by personal quirks, or fears. Doc Daneeka is a flight surgeon who hates to fly so much that he will not enter a plane, and instead bribes a pilot, McWatt, into entering his name on the flight register once a month so that he may collect flight pay. The catch arises when McWatt accidentally kills a pilot on the ground when he flies too low over the beach. McWatt crashes his plane, killing himself. The catch is that Doc Daneeka was entered on the flight register, therefore officially dead. The gears of the system begin to churn, and Daneeka stops receiving pay, food, and has his wife notified of his death. Even a personal letter to his wife does not convince her of his true state, and she moves away, leaving no forwarding address. The doctor s destiny is not revealed in the novel, but his catch leaves no way out, the army will not even fly him home, he is dead, and no body was ever recovered (Heller 349).
While the previous two characters were trapped in their catches, a few do find a way to beat the system and escape the catch-22 they are placed in. Orr is a small pilot who is afflicted the same as Hungry Joe, he wants out, but can never go home because Colonel Cathcart continues to raise the number of missions. Orr in a brilliant plan, acts like a simpleton for the entire novel. Everyone overlooks him as a little buffoon who is shot down on every mission he flies. The brilliance is that Orr was never shot down. Every time he flew, he purposely crashed his plane to train himself to escape. Only Yossarian understands the depth of Orr s planning, and only at the very end of the novel. The message comes that Orr is not dead as presumed, but has washed ashore in Sweden, after being shot down in the ocean. “Washed ashore, hell!” Yossarian cries “He rowed…he planned it that way! He went to Sweden deliberately”(Heller 458). Orr presents an interesting solution to his catch, appear to accept it, and when the chance occurs, run away.
Joseph Heller makes a point in his novel that the people trapped in a catch-22 are placed there by some outside force, the wing commander, the military system in general. These all are “arms” of the insane world that Heller portrays. One character, Milo Minderbinder, is caught for a separate reason. Milo is the personification of greed, and pushes himself into his catch because of this overwhelming trait. Milo founds and run M & M Enterprises, a syndicate consisting only of himself. Milo expands his syndicate to provide anything for anyone. He runs planes for the Germans, Americans, Europeans, and British. He moves trees, food, steel, and weapons. Milo is shown as a man who can sell anything, and will, for a profit. His downfall springs from a stock market ticker Milo discovers in a restaurant in Cairo. Having never seen a ticker before, he is fascinated, and reads the first tape printed, Egyptian Cotton. Instantly Milo purchases the entire crop, thinking it will be easy to sell at the low price he bought it for. The cotton he buys is Milo s flaw, because he can not sell it. His syndicate begins to falter, and to recoup his profits, Milo begins to rent out his squadron as mercenaries. Milo is paid by the Americans to bomb a bridge that he is being paid by the Germans to defend. His squadron becomes a mercenary squad, until the one time Milo steps to far, and rents out his squadron to the Germans, to bomb his own base.
Milo s planes separated into a well-coordinated attack and bombed the fuel stocks and the ordinance dump, the repair hangars and the B-25 bombers resting on the lollipop-shaped hardstands at the field. His crews spared the landing strip and mess halls so that they could land safely when their work was done and enjoy a hot snack before retiring. They bombed with their landing lights on, since no one was shooting back. (Heller 267)
Milo s attack on his own men completes his downward spiral into greed, as Kennard explains “…by the time his activities have taken over Europe and North Africa in one vast syndicate and he has bombed his own men, he has become little more than a personification of greed”(Kennard 277). This barbed statement is epitomized in Milo s final order during the attack given from the control tower of his own base, which he is destroying:
The loud speaker began squaking. “Milo, this is Alvin Brown. I ve finished dropping my bombs. What should I do now?”
“Strafe” said Milo.
“Strafe?” Alvin Brown was shocked.
“We have no choice,” Milo informed him resignedly. “It s in the contract.”
“Oh, okay, then,” Alvin Brown acquiesced. “In that case I ll strafe”(Heller 269)
Milo throws himself into a viscous circle, fueled by his unwillingness to abandon his syndicate and its huge monetary wealth. He cheats his government, removes morphine from the planes, steals carbon dioxide canisters from life vests to make ice cream floats, replacing them with note that reads, “What is good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country”(Heller 317). Milo s only escape, only relief is to push himself deeper into the catch, further into the paradox, only because he can not abandon his greed, the true root of his catch.
Every character is forced into a catch-22, but none realize that their predicament is not individual. They all believe that the system is attacking them, and none others. Only in the eyes of the central character, Yossarian, are all the catch-22s seen as a single force affecting all. Yossarian plays a truth-teller, a prophet of sorts. His great awakening happens during a mission in which his tail gunner, Snowden, is badly injured by a piece of flak. Yossarian climbs to the rear of the plane to help Snowden, but does not realize the extent of his injuries:
Yossarian felt his hear stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was injured inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm…(Heller 449)
The traumatizing death of Snowden awakens a realization in Yossarian, bringing forth a passionate will for self-survival. The realization is referred to as Snowden s Secret throughout the novel, and is only explained at the very end:
It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden s secret. Drop him out a window and he ll fall. Set fire to him and he ll burn. Bury him and he ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden s secret. (Heller 450)
Yossarian is so deeply affected by this event, that he decides to survive. Until this point, Yossarian feels that his fate is controlled by specific “power characters”, Milo, Cathcart, and his greatest foe, the system. The event of Snowden s death bring about a realization that Yossarian will control his own fate, even if these :power characters” continue to oppress him (Burhans 230). In bucking the oppression of the controlling bodies, Yossarian s largest adversary is insanity, since the logic these bodies abide by is illogical in itself. David Littlejohn describes Yossarian s attempts at escape as attempting “hopelessly to stay sane in an insane world” (Littlejohn 229). Ironically, the closest the system ever comes to letting Yossarian out is through insanity. A rule states that any pilot who is insane can be grounded, all he must do is ask. The first catch-22 Yossarian encounters is this, the pilot who asks to be grounded is completely sane, because he is trying to persevere his own life. Yossarian continues to battle the system, running into catch after catch. He asks why he must fly the missions Colonel Cathcart asks if headquarters only requires forty, and he has forty-eight, the reply, “Catch-22, says you ve always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to”(Heller 67). Yossarian fight the system again and again, trying to escape, but can never find away.
While pursuing his own paradox, he realizes that all the others around him are fighting the same system, and all have failed or died trying. The hopelessness of the situation becomes so great that Yossarian gives up on his quest, admits that it is impossible to escape, and checks himself into the hospital to wait out the war. At this exact moment, the Chaplain comes running into the ward, screaming that Orr is alive and in Sweden. Yossarian, who thought Orr was dead to this point, all of a sudden is overwhelmed by the idea that you can beat the system, but not by fighting it. You must run from it, leave the paradox behind, abandon the situation completely. And so he does, in a final effort to escape, he runs for Sweden, knowing that the only escape from the catches that all were involved in is either death, or running.
Catch-22 is a novel individual to every novel ever written. It follows no set timeline, shows the evil of war in a war that most accept as right and just to enter. But Joseph Heller s novel is not about war, it is about society, our predetermined ideas and laws. Robert Brustein put it well, “it is a triumph of Mr. Heller s skill that he is so quickly able to persuade us (1) that the most lunatic are the most logical, and (2) that it is our conventional standards which lack any logical consistency”(Brustein 228). Catch-22 is about coping with what life throws you, then understanding the hopelessness, and still never giving up. Catch-22 is a novel that instructs the reader to do as Heller did, leave convention behind. It is wrong, only the individual matters, because without the soul, man is garbage.
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