Catch 22: Satire on WWII
Joseph Heller who is perhaps one of the most famous writers of the 20th
century writes on some emotional issues such as war. He does not deal with these
issues in the normal fashion instead he criticizes them and the institutions
that help carry these things out. Heller in fact goes beyond criticizing he
satirizes. Throughout his two major novels Catch-22 and Good as Gold he
satirizes almost all of America's respectful institutions. To truly understand
these novels you must recognize that they are satires and why they are.
Catch-22 is a satire on World War II. This novel takes place on the
small island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean sea late in the war when Germany is
no longer a threat. It is the struggle of one man, Yossarian, to survive the war.
Throughout this novel Yossarian is trying to escape the war, and in order to do
so he does many improper things.
Good as Gold is about a Jewish man named Gold. It is about Gold's
experiences with the government while being employed in the White House. It also
deals in detail with Gold's family problems and Gold's struggle to write a book
on the contemporary Jewish society.
Throughout these two novels, Catch-22 and Good as Gold, Heller
criticizes many institutions. In Good as Gold it is the White House and
government as a whole, and in Catch-22 it is the military and medical
In Catch-22 the military is heavily satirized. Heller does this by
criticizing it. Karl agrees with this statement by offering an example of the
satire of both the military and civilian institutions in Catch-22:
The influence of mail clerk Wintergreen, the computer
foul-up that promotes Major Major, and the petty
rivalries among officers satirizes the communication
failures and the cut-throat competition Heller saw
within both the civilian and military bureaucracies of
the 1950's. Even the Civil Rights movement, not yet
widespread in the 1950's, is satirized in Colonel
Cathcart attitudes toward enlisted men. (23)
Karl summarizes the satirazation of the military with this:
The enemy in Heller's book is not simply the chaos of
war, but also the deadly inhuman bureaucracy of the
military-economic establishment which clams to be a
stay against chaos while it threatens human life more
insidiously then battle itself.
Heller also questions the need for the death and carnage throughout the novel
asking if it is really necessary.
Many other institutions are also satirized in Catch-22. Bryant points
out the extreme variety of institutions that Heller satirizes with this "His
satire is directed toward the institutions that make up society, business,
psychiatry, medicine, law, the military. . ." (Bryant 228).
Medicine is one of the institutions that is heavily satirized. He does
this by portraying medicine as a science that is almost barbaric and not exact.
He writes of how the men of the squadron used the hospital as a way out of
battle. Catch-22 it self begins in the hospital where Yossarian is faking
Jaundice of the liver in order to avoid battle. Many characters also take this
up as a form of staying out of battle. Heller addresses the barbarism of
medicine with Dr. Daneeka's aides. He writes of them painting peoples gums and
feet violet in order to ward of certain illnesses.
In Catch-22 Heller also satirize religion. This occurs in Chapter
Nineteen when Colonel Cathcart is aspiring to become a general. In this chapter
religion is satirized in a number of ways. The first is when Colonel Cathcart
uses it for a social icon to improve his chance of becoming general. Dr. Peek
agrees with this by saying ". . . we see a satire on religion used as a matter
of social status" (25).
In Catch-22 there is also one more major satiriazation it is that of
industry and finance. The reason this is true is because of certain things Milo
says such as "What's good for the syndicate is good for the country" (Karl 34).
Good as Gold is manly a satire on the White House and government. Heller
portrays the White House as being, "disgraceful," according to Merrill. Merrill
believes that this work criticizes politics almost from page one and that it
does an excellent job of it in fact he writes "A number of reviewers found that
the Washington satire ‘brilliant and incisive'. . . (103).
The other device that Heller uses is humor. Catch-22 is so satirical in
places that it is hilarious. Mr. Heller's talent and use of comedy is so
prevalent in these novels that it caused The Atlantic to write "Mr. Heller's
talents for comedy are so considerable that one gets irritated when he keeps
pressing" (Phoenix 31). Other critics such as Brustein also wrote that Heller's
works are extremely hilarious (228).
Although the novel is funny is uses humor in order to further satirize.
Dr. Peek agrees with this statement by saying that "It's [Catch-22] not a flag-
-waving war adventure, but a novel using humor to discredit or ridicule aspects
of out society" (24). Dr. Peek also goes on to comment on the amount of comical
dialogue in the novel. He says that it contains a significant amount of this
dialogue and that it further adds to the humor (11). Heller even takes his humor
as far as naming his characters comically. Dr. Karl points out the comical
naming of Major Major which turns into Major Major Major Major with his
accidental promotion (11). The attaching of the prefix "Hungry" to Joe's name in
the novel is also comical, but Heller does not stop at that he goes as far as
naming a character Scheisskopf, the parade crazed lieutenant, which actually
means "shithead." (Peek 10).
Not only does Heller name characters comically he makes them act
comically. The Loyalty Oath Crusade is an excellent example of this. This
crusade is so completely absurd that it is humorous. Another example of the
humor in this novel is the parades that Scheisskopf orders. It is not that he
orders these parades that is comical it is his how serious he takes them. He
comments to himself throughout the novel on how he will improve his parades.
These ideas include nailing his marchers arms in the proper place.
Perhaps one of the best examples of a comical character and who acts
satirically is Milo Minderbinder. Milo runs a black-market syndicate in which he
claims everyone gets the profits. Milo's company acts as everything from a food
supplier to a mercenary. The Germans hire Milo to do a number of missions. The
one that Heller writes about in particular detail is the mission where Milo
bombs his own squadron killing countless lives. Heller writes that Milo claimed
responsibility for the act. As one would expect Milo would be arrested, but
Heller carries the satire further by having Milo go scott free after he says "it
made a huge net profit" (Peek 27).
Another of Heller's comical characters is the character of Peckem. In
the novel Peckem along with Colonel Korn plot to take over General Dreedle's
command. They do this by placing priority on such things as a perfect bomb
pattern which endangers many men's life's. Heller's description of Peckem is in
itself comical he describes him as having the "ability to get men to agree"
Still one further element of Heller's humor is his comical language. The
dialogue is extremely comical at times. An example of this is the hearing where
Clevinger is being tried. Throughout this entire scene the characters often
retort with just one word and even contradict something they said a moment ago.
Dr.Peek believes that the squadron sometimes overcomes the officers command of
the them by comical language (36).
Heller uses irony throughout both novels in titles and characters in
order to satirize. Throughout Catch-22 Heller discusses the theme of reality and
appearance. He also discusses the difference between what is said and what is
real. This leads to Heller's irony. The best example of this theme of reality is
when Colonel Catchart is discussing whether to punish Yossarian or give him a
medal (Peek 21). Dr. Peek also believes that the novel juxtaposes scenes in
order to great a "ironic perspective" (Peek 10).
In both Good as Gold and Catch-22 Heller names the books ironically. The
title of Catch-22 is very ironic because the definition of Catch-22 is that in
order to be removed from duty you must be insane. The catch to it is that if you
go to a doctor because you believe that you are insane and you want to be
removed from combat duty you cannot. The reason for this is that if you believe
you are insane and want to be removed from duty you must be sane because you
don't want to fight, hence risking death, any more. Olderman wrote about the
catch saying this " Catch-22 is the principle that informs the military-economic
machine, giving it power and making war possible in the first place . . . the
illogical must be done because the high command [Catch-22] says it is logical"
The title of Good as Gold is also ironic. It is because Good as Gold is
the name of the contemporary Jewish novel that Professor Gold writes in Heller's
work. The irony of the title means to say that the novel he writes is only as
true and good as Gold is himself.
Heller also makes his characters act ironically in both novels. In
Catch-22 "Heller treats the senior officers in his book with criticism and scorn.
General Dreedle's want to shoot Danby for moaning is an excellent example of his
portrayal of senior officers as incompetent, ridiculous characters" (Merrill 16).
The pinnacle of Heller's irony and therefore satire is in the characters and
situations surrounding the characters of Dr. Daneeka and Mudd. The satire in
both these incidents is directed toward record keeping. In Dr. Daneeka's case he
is believed dead because the plane he was supposed to be on crashed, yet he is
really alive. The opposite is true in the Mudd situation. In this situation Mudd
is killed before he signs onto the combat roster so therefore he is treated as
being alive while really dead as being alive. This treatment is such as his bags
will not be removed from his former tent, and also all of the enlisted men speak
of him throughout the book. Dr. Peek also points out one further ironic
highlight in the novel, McWatt's death. He believes that McWatt's death is
ironic because McWatt had no malice yet he was violently killed (Peek 24).
Good as Gold also has a certain element of irony although it is less
apparent. The characters of the White House seem to take their job lightly and
do the improper things. The offering of a White House job as high-level as the
Secretary of State to Professor Gold by Ralph Newsome, the presidential aide,
simply because the president liked Gold's book on him is ironic and a excellent
example of satire.
In Catch-22 Heller also portrays characters that hold high level
positions in the military as being incompetent and irresponsible. Merrill
believes that almost all of the characters in the novel are portrayed
incompetent which is according to satiric fashions. He sites the numerous
doctors that Yossarian fooled by faking a liver condition. He also cites Gus and
Wes, Doctor Daneeka's assistants, as being incompetent for their rushing of
people to the hospital for a fever and their painting to ill people's' toes and
gums violet (Merrill 18).
It is also obvious in the novel that the military decisions are made in
a absurd way and are highly illogical. The prime example of this is in the
character Wintergreen who intercepts mail between the generals and doctors
thereby allowing him to change orders to his liking. On this subject Burgess
commented in his work on contemporary fiction by saying "His approach [Heller's]
is not merely satirical it is surrealistic, absurd, even lunatic, though the aim
is serious enough to show . . . the monstrous egotism of the top brass" (Burgess
140). This example of Wintergreen and the Burgess quote further show the
irresponsibility and incompetence of high ranking officers.
Heller portrays the military in Catch-22 as being exploitative of it's
soldiers and society. This is true in certain circumstances such as the tight
bomb pattern that Colonel Cathcart deems imperative in order for him to be
raised in command level. The military seems to act irresponsibly almost all the
time. At one point in the novel the military ordered a whole civilian town
destroyed in order to obtain a picture of a tight bomb pattern. This portraysion
goes farther then a tight bomb pattern it extends to the point of total control
of the soldiers in the military. Dr. Peek comments on this saying that ". . .
satire against dominating bureaucracy in general as the squadron begins to
realize that administrators whose job is to serve them have taken control of
their lives instead" (20).
The last device that Heller uses to create satire is in Good as Gold. In
this novel he uses extreme amounts of caricature. This occurs especially in the
White House characters. Merrill also points out Heller's caricature of Jewish
people as whole by saying that their are no Jews in Good as Gold only
"caricatures conceived on a level somewhat between sitcom and slapstick" (100).
Heller's two novels, Catch-22 and Good as Gold, in short contain much
satire. Catch-22 contains satire which is deeply integrated into it's
architecture, while Good as Gold is more superficial but still substantial.
While Catch-22 satirizes primarily the military, Good as Gold satirizes the
White House and government. These two novels contain many devices such as humor,
irony, and caricature in order to achieve the desired effect of satire. As Karl
points out Catch-22 had a profound effect on peoples views on war and also a
impact on war novel's of the 1960's and 1970's. If these novels are read as
anything but satires they will not be appreciated nor understood totally.
Brustein, Robert. "The Logic of Survival in a Lunatic World." The Critic as
Artist: Essay on Books 1920-1970 1972:47-54. Rpt. in "Heller, Joseph."
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Eds. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale,
Bryant, Jerry H. The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel
and It's Intellectual Background. 1970:156-159. Rpt. in. "Heller,
Joseph." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Eds. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3.
Detroit: Gale, 1975. 229.
Burgess, Anthony. The Novel: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction. 1967:53. Rpt.
in "Heller, Joseph." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley.
Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 140.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Dell, Aug 1963.
Heller, Joseph. Good as Gold. New York: Simon,1979.
Karl, Frederick R. Barron's Book Notes Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1983).
Merrill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Ed. Warren French. Twayne's United
States Authors Series. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Olderman, Raymond M. "The Grail Knight Departs." Beyond the Waste Lands: A
Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties. Rpt. in "Heller,
Joseph." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3.
Detroit: Gale, 1975. 229-230.
Peek, C. A., Ph.D. Cliffs Notes on Heller's Catch-22. Ed. Gary Carey. Cliff
Notes. Lincoln: Cliff, 1993.
Phoenix, James. "Joseph Heller: The Comedian." Atlantic Sept 1987: 47-52.