Satire in Catch 22

Instructor: Lindsey Coley
In Joseph Heller's novel Catch 22, he takes the reader on an unforgettable, engaging, and emotional journey through the extended and expert use of satire. Read on to learn more.

Besides the Title of a Novel, What Is a Catch 22?

Have you ever spent a day at the Department of Motor Vehicles? You walk in and you pick the registration line because, amidst the holidays, your brief bout with the flu, and a few extra overtime hours at work, you missed your registration date and your vehicle is no longer legal. You wait thirty minutes only to find out that because you've moved in the last twelve months you need to get your insurance updated first.

Now you haul yourself out to your illegal car (naughty you) and you call your insurance company only to find out they need a valid registration to update the address on your insurance. This might be where the frustration sets in, or the cursing. You, my friend, are caught in a catch 22. One hand needs to help the other, but both are tied down by logistical politics. Essentially, it's a stalemate: where both parties need to move forward, but neither can move before the other.

What Is Satire?

The phrase 'catch 22', which has become a common expression in American culture, is derived from the title of the great Joseph Heller novel about a 28-year-old World War II soldier named Yossarian, who experiences these types of catches one after another while being stationed on an island called Pianosa, just off the Italian coast. These catch 22s are the perfect vehicle for Heller to deliver his satire.

Satire is when one uses comedy to expose another's flaws. In Heller's case it is the flaws of the several American institutions, such as religion and war, he wishes to expose. Just as you maybe later told your DMV experience to a friend and exaggerated the clerk's responses or ridiculed their nonsensical tone to show how silly the situation was, Heller exaggerates policies and procedures to make the reader horrifically aware of the indignities of war and politics through the comedy of satire.

Specific Satire in Catch 22

Heller strikes early and infuses every moment with his satire. Our very introduction to Yossarian is as a young man in the military hospital just short of jaundice. The doctors won't treat him because the jaundice isn't fully developed, and they can't release him because the jaundice has begun to set in a little at least.

This is a catch 22 that uses satire to emphasize the time wasted in medical indecision when someone could actually be treated. The doctors want to wait until he's extremely sick, in which case treatment may no longer be helpful. Throughout the novel we see these ridiculous scenarios, which waste time, money, supplies, health, and essentially add up to a waste of human life. Heller's use of satire makes us laugh, but as we come down from that laughter we are struck by the horror of the situations time and time again.

The dead man in Yossarian's tent, who is referred to repeatedly, is really the belongings of a dead man who arrived to camp and was never properly checked in before being hoisted off to a mission in which he died a terrible, mangling death. Because he never checked in, he doesn't exist in the camp according to the official word. This leaves Yossarian with the remnants of the dead man's life in his tent and nothing he can do with him.

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