Joseph Hellers themes and narrative styles in Catch-22

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Joseph Heller’s themes and narrative styles in Catch-22


I decided to write my assignment about Heller’s Catch-22, because I admire his narrative style and the use of irony, parody and humor in his most successful novel.

Moreover, the novel takes place in a time that is still close to the present.

 If you look at the American literary epochs you find “Literature of the Early Republic”, “Romanticism and American Renaissance”, “Realism”, “Naturalism”, “Modernism” and at the end “Postmodernism”. When you are dealing with the earlier epochs, you learn a lot about our history and important works in those times that expressed the feelings and fears of the people in those periods. Looking at the epoch of Postmodernism, it feels a bit different, because we are not talking about the “way back” past, but about the time after World War II, which ended just 64 years ago and still affects our lives now.

The idea of Catch-22, the oppression of the individual by men in charge, is still present in today’s society.

I think it is very important to discuss works like that because we can learn from the past. The novel is not just about war, it can be seen as a metaphor for systems that make every decision end in a catastrophe.

In this assignment, I will start with a bibliographic overview of Joseph Heller’s life and follow up with the historical background for the novel. After that, I will take some time to define the terms “postmodernism and post modernity”, “American Dream”, “anti-hero” and “humor”. Then, I will introduce the novel with a plot summary. Moreover, I will slip in opinions and receptions to Catch-22 that appeared after the publication. The representation of postmodern narrative strategies in the novel will be dealt with before I will write a conclusion. I will reflect about my research, think about the importance of the novel in relation to the present and sum up the important findings I made.

1. Surrounding conditions

1.1 The author Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923 and grew up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York. His parents were poor Jewish from Russia. Already as a child, he enjoyed writing. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, he worked as a file clerk in an insurance office for a year. 1942, he joined the US Army Air Corps and when he was 21, he served in the US Air Force as a bombardier in Italy and flew 60 missions. In 1945, Heller married Shirley Held. After the war, he studied at the University of South California, obtained a MA in American Literature at Columbia University with his thesis “The Pulitzer Plays: 1917-1935” in 1949 and he spent time at Oxford University, England as a Fulbright scholar. 1950, he returned to Pennsylvania State University in order to teach composition. In the following years, he took a job as an advertising manager at the newspaper Times and worked as a promotion manager for Mc’ Call’s as well. In the meantime, he began to gather ideas and materials for a novel named “Catch-18”. As a short story writer, Heller at first did not intend the story to be longer than a novelette, but he succeeded in creating his first novel. 1958, Heller signed the contract for his war novel and just before its publication changed the name to Catch-22, because he did not want to cause any confusion with Leon Uri’s Mila-18. In 1961, Catch-22 was published. The novel reached number one in the bestseller list in Great Britain, however, in the USA it only sold 30,000 copies in its first year. After a while, in 1962, the paperback version was released and the book sold 10 million copies in the United States. Focusing on his academic career again, he taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

Starting 1964, he turned to full-time writing and was open for many other works: He completed a screenplay for the movie Sex and the Single Girl, helped with a television comedy script for the show Mc Hale’s Navy. Afterwards, he started to write Something Happened, which was going to become his second novel. He stopped work on this novel to write the play We Bombed in New Haven, which was broadcasted at Yale and on Broadway for eighty-six performances. As most of Heller’s writings, the play had an anti-war message. In this particular case, it discussed the Vietnam War. Heller continued to write on Something Happened when his play on Broadway closed due to mixed reviews. In 1970, Mike Nichols’s movie of Catch-22 appeared and, finally, puts the book onto the American best-seller lists. After teaching literature and writing in New York, his novel Something Happened is published in 1974. Even though critics liked the book, it was not that successful by the readers. Heller wrote additional four novels named Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Picture This (1988) and Closing Time (1994).

In 1981, Heller and his wife got divorced and soon afterwards, he learned that he suffers from a neurological disease called Guillan-Barré syndrome. During his recovery, he got to know the nurse Valerie Humphries and married her in 1987. Heller’s last novel is a sequel to Catch-22 and shows many characters from his first novel as they try to adjust to the world after the war. In 1991, he was appointed an Honorary Fellow at St. Catherine’s. Heller’s next book Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998) was a memoir recalling his childhood.

Joseph Heller died of a heart attack in his home on December 12, 1999 shortly after the completion of his last novel Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.

His wife survived him (cp. Potts 1989: ix-xi).

1.2 Historical Background

When we look at a novel, in my opinion, it is important to have an idea about the historical context.

Joseph Heller’s novel is set in the time of World War II, which took place from September 1, 1939 until September 2, 1945. WW II became a global military conflict when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 without a formal declaration of war. The USA was forced to change their non-interventionist military policy and got involved in the war that had only taken place in Europe until then. The impact of the war was immense and about 60 million people died. Not only soldiers were victims, but also many civilians died because of illnesses, hunger and attacks. War crimes were committed by the Germans and Japanese forces; about 12 millions of Jews died in concentration camps. At the end of the Second World War, even atomic bombs were used by the Americans to destroy the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki (cp. Wikipedia).

From the biography, we have already learned that Heller served as a bombardier in Italy during World War II. It seems that this is the reason why Catch-22 describes the life of American soldiers and colonels. Lieutenant Joseph Heller was stationed in Corsica and he divided his time for missions, sports such as basketball and baseball and wine and women from Rome as well. The way the beginning time of the war and life is described, it seems that Joseph Heller was enjoying it. Then, at a mission over Avignon, Heller experienced the fear of death, the danger of war and the panic that can start all of a sudden. The co-pilot was sending his plane into a steep dive. His co-pilot thought that something happened to him because he was waiting for his voice, but Heller’s microphone was not plugged in anymore and therefore there was no communication possible for some long-lasting seconds. Heller was ok; however, a young soldier was wounded and treated by Heller until they returned to the base safely. This was a very frightening experience for him; he never came that close to death again during the war. “And although he dutifully flew another twenty-three combat missions, the war was not as much fun after Avignon.” (Potts 1989:2) I find this close look at Heller’s life as a bombardier very interesting, because it can show what has helped him to see the reality of war. I am sure he made plenty of experiences that he could use for his book or that made him think of the representation of war to the American people, the cruel war system and the soldiers that are obeying demands and following orders blindly.

Soldiers who returned after the war have often demonstrated how war really functions to the public:  They experienced it as a nightmare where all decency was lost. Homecoming soldiers had to face many problems. Life was not the same anymore and not as nice as authorities promised it to them before. They had to learn to deal with horrible memories and to start settling in their towns again. Returning soldiers had difficulties finding jobs after the war and the people they left behind before hardly recognized them.

Joseph Heller used the post-war time to create his best novel ever.

2. Terminology

In the following, I will give several definitions to terms that play a bigger role in understanding Heller’s novel, the background and American beliefs.

  1. The American Dream and the concept of the anti-hero

Historically, the American Dream means a promise of freedom and opportunity for all. Anyone who has worked hard could expect to have a happy and prosperous life.

In other words, the American Dream is the concept widely held in the United States of America that through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve prosperity. Martin Luther King invoked the American Dream in his famous speech “I have a dream”. The idea of a classless society and the equality of all human beings is the root of the American Dream. Additionally, in the later half of the nineteenth century, many of America’s resources were undiscovered. Therefore, it could happen to come across a fortune through a lucky investment in land or industry. The American dream was a supporting factor in the Gold Rush, when people bought land with the hope of finding gold.

“The American Dream often refers to the opportunity for immigrants to achieve greater material prosperity than was possible in their countries of origin.” (Wikipedia) Destitute western Europeans came to America in order to escape a poor quality of life in their home countries. They had heard about the promise of freedom and financial security that existed in the United States. “America has been viewed as a land in which one's prospects in life are defined by one's talents and energy rather than by one's family wealth or political connections.” (Wikipedia)

Many people defined the American Dream and its phrase has developed over a long time; probably US citizens have to define what it means to them for themselves. Many literary works have been written about the American Dream and various definitions it can have. Now there is the great American novel expected, but mostly, the books or plays are about the negative sides of the American Dream.

The drama Death of a Salesman from Arthur Miller is a great example of a citizen “striving to or failing to achieve the American Dream” (Wikipedia): In this case, Willy Loman is an example of someone who feels betrayed because he cannot achieve the financial goals the society has conditioned him to strive for. It is very sad to see that when he fails as a salesman no other measure than success can heal him. He believes that a person who fails in business has no right to live. The love of his family or his talents cannot comfort him or give him the desire for life back. One could say that the American Dream lets him go mad.

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This drama, which I have been studying in school, underlines the danger of the American Dream and prognoses challenges that the phrase will have in the 21st century.

In addition, when we look in the past, we realize that since WW II, the possibility of great wealth has become more a distant dream for the citizens of the USA. “During the 1990s and 2000s, a period of remarkable wealth for the U.S., an increasing amount of people confess having lost faith in the American Dream.” (Wikipedia) I believe that this is explainable, because the American Dream focuses on the success of ...

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