Joseph Heller's "Catch 22"
As Postmodern Literature


Joseph Heller

The Author Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller was born in 1923 in Brooklyn New York to Russian- Jewish Immigrants .At a young age Heller lost his father because of a surgical operation when he was only 5 years old, multiple critics believe that this is where Heller developed his dark, wisecracking humor that is ever present in the multiple novels he wrote in his lifetime. After finishing High School in 1941, Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he flew 60 plus mission as a bombardier during WWII .His experience as a bombardier was shown in his first and most famous novel "Catch-22" , which followed a man named John Yossarian a bombardier who continually tries to get out of flying dangerous missions but finds that it is impossible because of the military's use of catch 22. When questioned later about his novel and his view of society Heller said " Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts.. and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society"(CNN, 1999).

The Novel

Catch-22 published in 1961

Catch 22 was written in 1961 and followed the experiences of Yossarian a bombardier and his fellow platoon as they flew dangerous bombing missions and through time were changed because of the military's illogical and inhumane practices during WWII. The bombardiers themselves were not the only ones effected by the practices of war but also various other military personal such as Milo Minderbinder a mess hall officer, Doc Daneeka the medical doctor for the base, a man known only as The Chaplain and many others that are all stationed on the island of Pianosa near the Italian coast in the Mediterranean Sea. The only chance any of the characters especially the bombardiers have of escaping the war alive is to be grounded or have Doc Daneeka declare that individual insane but there is a problem with this policy that is Catch-22. The catch first appears in a conversation between Doc Daneeka and Yossarian , where Yossarian is wanting to be grounded because of reasons of insanity. Doc Daneeka explains that a person can be grounded if they so ask to because they are crazy but as soon as a person asked he would no longer be crazy. Catch-22 specified that “a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind" (Heller, 1961 pg. 46). The paradoxical illogical reasoning of Catch-22 is the overall theme for the book as the stories of other individuals form and they become wrapped up in the illogical premises of the catch and become so lost in it that they lose all ability for logical reasoning and forget that they are in war.

Modern and Postmodern Literature
Postmodernism literature was a continuation and the further development of Modernism ideas in its structure of novels, subject matter, and its rejections of rigid genes order. In order to understand the different aspects of postmodernism, modernism must first be examined.

Modern Literature
The period of modernism lasted from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end of WWII and was defined by "its rejection of the literary convention
s of the nineteenth century and by its opposition to conventional morality, taste, traditions, and economic values." (Gale Cengage learning, 2010). Modernism movement was a rejection of and a critique of the intellectual trends that began as early as the Renaissance.
According to Mary Klages in her book Literary Theory: A guide for the perplexed (2007),the main literately characteristics of modernism include:

· An emphasis on writing styles such as irony
· Movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient the person narrators and away from clear cut points and moral positions
· Blurring between genres of writing such as poetry and documentaries
· Fragmented forms, discontinues narratives and random seeming colleges of different materials
· A rejection of the distinction between high and low popular culture

While many of these ideas of modernism are similar in post modernism, distinct differences are seen in the way that the fragmentation of the literature is perceived. In different works such as the poem The Wasteland by T.S.Eliot , fragmentation is seen as something negative and should be mourned as a lost. While in postmodernism the idea of fragmentation is not seen as something to be mourned but rather something to be celebrated in that it plays with the idea of nothingness and no coherent patter and meaning to human life.

Example of a Postmodern Poem T.S. Eliot

Postmodern Literature
Postmodernism is defined as the "writing from the 1960s forward characterized by experimentation and continuing to apply some of the fundamentals of modernism" (Gale Cengage learning, 2010). From modernism, postmodernism went a step further in its rejection of the traditional genres of literature, the attributes of its characters and the structure of the writing. Examples of postmodernism include:

· The rejection of the traditional forms or genres of writing
The rejection of traditional forms or genres include the lines that distinguish between "
lyric form or the short story form, and various patterns for Poetry, such as the Verse form or the stanza form". (Gale Cengage learning, 2010). The ability to distinguish between traditional forms of literature such as poetry and short stories became a difficult task as literature became less defined in the traditional genres.

· The anti-novel preferred over the novel
A traditional novel is a long fictional narrative which follows a general pattern of introduction, body and conclusion, it is also organized in having a plot or a theme that contains focus on a character development. The anti-novel is a term coined by Jean-Paul Sartre which refers to a novel that avoids the use of normal convections of a traditional novel .The structure of an anti-novel is characterized by fragmentations and distortion of the experience of its characters. The reader of an anti-novel is forced to construct the reality of the story from the disordered narrative in the novel and cannot rely on a continuous patter throughout the novel.

· The Anti-Hero Over the Hero
A hero is traditionally defined as the principle sympathetic character that exhibit admirable traits such as "idealism, courage and integrity" (Gale Cengage learning, 2010). The anti-hero lacks the normal characteristics of a hero but rather does not trust in conventional values and are unable to commit to any ideals. Instead of feeling powerful over their world and situation the anti-hero often feels helpless and that they have no control over their situations and the world around them.

Example of Postmodern Author Kurt Vonnegut

How Catch-22 is postmodern literature
Joseph Keller's work Catch-22 is perhaps one of the most famous examples of post modern literature because of its lack of conformity to a traditional genre of literature, it's fragmented structure, and the nontraditional characteristics of its characters.

· The Nontraditional Genre
Joseph Keller's novel does not neatly fall under a traditional genre of literature in that it is not a documentary on WWII but at the same time it is not a fictional humorous novel .While the novel contains humor throughout the different accounts of the various characters at the same time it paints a picture of the horrors of war that the real bombardiers experienced while flying during WWII. At the same time the description of the experiences of the bombardiers are not accurate nor plausible because throughout the novel events happen to the characters that could not possibly happen in real life with the individual surviving but in the novel they do survive and continue to thrives such as with the character Orr. The novel based itself on the island of Pianosa and on the experiences of a bombardier but the message is also of irony in that it references WWII and its characters itself as seen it it's modeling of characters such as General Scheisskopf after Hitler because of his treatment of the bombardiers for his own self advancement. The overall message of the novel is also a reference to the everyday life of humans and their willingness to follow governmental structures. The governmental structures put in place in various societies are illogical and in humane to the point that the government ends up wrapping up their own citizens and leading them to their ruin for the governments own agenda and betterment. While as demonstrated by Yossarian in the novel the citizens of these countries allow for their ruin to happen because of they stopped believing in the power and control of the government and stop accepting it, it would cease to exist.

· The Anti-Novel
The structure of Catch-22 is not that of a normal novel that has an introduction , body and conclusion rather each chapter is fragmented and does not necessarily follow a pattern .The novel begins with what could be considered the conclusion of the book which is when the main protagonist Yossarian is in a hospital pretending to be ill and has memories of the main event of the novel which is the death of Snowden during a mission which isn't described until the second to last chapter of the novel. Throughout the novel the narrative continually jumps from before the death of Snowden and after, without the climax of the novel happening till the very end of the novel instead of during the body which is what is commonly seen in novels. The novel does not end with a conclusion where everything is answered and complete but rather it is left open ended with questions not answered and no solution to the conflict that was present throughout the novel. The meaning of the novel and the meaning behind different actions taken by the characters are left for the interpretation of the reader and are not answered within the novel itself.

· The Anti-Hero
The main protagonist of the novel Yossarian does not contain the normal characteristics of a hero seen in most novels such as courage and integrity in that he is a coward and has little moral values. Throughout the novel Yossarian is continually thinking of ways that he can avoid being sent on dangerous flying missions and one of the main ways he avoids this is by lying and deceiving the doctors in the clinic by saying that he is in pain and deadly sick when in reality nothing is physically wrong with him. When he is forced to fly missions he is not courageous and heroic in protecting his fellow bombardiers rather his evasive flying puts the rest of them in danger but keeps Yossarian himself rather safe. As the anti-hero he prevails instead of other bombardiers Havermeyer who do not fly like Yossarian and demonstrates courage but is still the one who meets his untimely death instead of Yossarian. His main objective is to survive the war and be sent home and he is not concerned with the rest of his squadron and eventually when he acknowledges the ridicules and illogical nature of catch-22 he does not try to save the squadron and overthrow the hieratical control of General Scheisskopf but rather runs and escapes it alone.

Gale Cengage learning. (2010). Retrieved from
Heller, J. (1961).
Catch-22. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Heller's legacy will be "catch-22' ideas. (1999, December 13). Retrieved from
Klages, M. (2007).
Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed . Retrieved from