Joseph Heller the Novels Catch-22 and Something Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Joseph Heller

The novels "Catch-22" and "Something Happened" demonstrates the inevitable presence of black humor, irrationality and immorality that prevails in times of war or conflict in human society, as humans pursue power and superiority -- that is, survival (of the fittest).

Outlining of the three major themes discussed in the paper, namely: black humor, irrationality, and immorality in Catch-22, mainly centering on the characters in the novel. Comparison of "Catch-22" against another Heller novel, "Something Happened."

Illustrations of Black Humor in "Catch-22" vis-a-vis "Something Happened"

Demonstrations of irrationality in "Catch-22" vis-a-vis "Something Happened"

Presence of immorality in "Catch-22" vis-a-vis "Something Happened"


Heller's consistent portrayal of humanity as ultimately irrational and immoral portrays humans' innate need to survive regardless of the means by which they achieve it (survival).

Conclusion: Reiteration of the thesis statement

Black Humor, Irrationality and Immorality of Human Society as Portrayed in Joseph Heller's novels (Catch-22 and Something Happened)

Mid-20th century had been a pivotal point in people's lives, wherein significant events occurred that radically changed the values, beliefs, and ideology of human society as it moved towards modernization. American society, in particular, had been directly affected and influenced by the effects of the Cold War, changing the way their perceived nationalism, patriotism, and heroism in the 20th century. The Cold War had taught people that it is not bad to be selfish, to think about one's welfare and survival in life. The failure of American governments throughout the years to give justification to war and other forms of conflict lessened support for it, hence, people have become more skeptical about the honor that comes with sacrifice and selflessness for the sake of the country.

People's disillusionment also led to the development of black humor in American culture. More commonly described as the "humor that deals with unpleasant aspects of life in a bitter or ironic way," black humor became the American people's outlet to express their feelings of disillusionment and hopelessness (Microsoft Encarta 2002). Indeed, this is the central theme that emerged in Joseph Heller's novel, "Catch-22." In this novel, Heller depicts through black humor the senselessness of war, particularly the act of enlisting young men in combat, individuals who have no idea about nor belief in the war they were supposed to be fighting.

Embedded in his technique of illustrating black humor in "Catch," Heller also centered on the themes of immorality and irrationality as the primary factors that reinforced the implementation of the concept of Catch-22. In highlighting the existence and prevalence of immorality and irrationality, he demonstrated this through the military dynamics, including other vital institutions in the society as well, such as the medical and business sectors.

Heller did not only demonstrate these themes of black humor, immorality and irrationality in "Catch." Its succeeding novel, "Something Happened," is also an example of how Americans and American life has been limited only as an ideal, because reality has made people feel disillusioned with the downward spiral of quality of life (i.e., happiness and satisfaction). In it, Heller used the character of the American male who lived in modern society, who remained unhappy, dissatisfied, and continually skeptical about life despite the comfortable life that he leads, living the "American dream."

The persistence of these three themes -- black humor, immorality, and irrationality -- is discussed in this paper. The discussion and analysis of "Catch-22" (primarily) and "Something Happened" (secondarily) posit that the inevitable presence of black humor, immorality and irrationality that prevails in times of war and conflict in human society, as humans pursue power, superiority, and ultimately, survival.

II. Black humor in the concept of "Catch-22"

The concept of Catch-22 is, in itself, a product of Heller's use of black humor in his novel. In order to effectively convey how black humor operates, it is essential to determine the core idea behind the rule that is Catch-22 (18):

All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. There was no end in sight. The only end in sight was Yossarian's own, and he might have remained in the hospital until doomdsday had it not been for that patriotic Texan ... The Texan wanted everybody in the ward to be happy but Yossarian and Dunbar. He was really very sick.

This passage brought into light the underlying 'principle' behind Catch-22: "a rule which allows you no way out, when another rule apparently does allow a way out" (Warburton, 2003:31). Catch-22 is a rule that has two claims, which opposes each other. It claims that a man is insane when he willingly engages himself in numerous flying missions, while a sane man would not want to go on missions. However, there is no way out of this predicament: men who do not want to go on missions would plead insanity, only to be told that if they are truly insane, they would not mind doing flying missions. Insane or not, these young men are indirectly forced to engage in combat and fight for a war they do not have any idea about.

Black humor is already apparent in the idea of this rule. Because almost all the young men in Yossarian's team wanted to escape death by escaping these flying missions, they feign insanity. Unfortunately for them, Catch-22 made it impossible to escape these missions. Thus, Yossarian and his fellow soldiers are stuck with amidst people who are truly insane and those who are feigning insanity. In this example, Heller tried to create a comic element to the sorry state Yossarian found himself in. Stuck in a generally mad situation wherein the military wanted to win the war at all costs, he was forced to conform to people's insanity; otherwise, he will not be able to escape his mad reality. In effect, Yossarian and his fellow soldiers opted to feign insanity than face the reality that they are governed and controlled by mad military superiors.

Apart from the rule of Catch-22, black humor was demonstrated when the young soldiers were depicted as far from being patriotic and brave. In the passage cited earlier, Heller noted that "[t]he only end in sight was Yossarian's own, he might have remained in the hospital until doomsday had it not been for that patriotic Texan." The loathing that Yossarian felt contradicted the "ideal feelings" soldiers should feel when risking their lives in combat. Ideally, it takes a person's courage and love for his/her country that would make him/her engage in a deadly conflict. However, since Yossarian and the other soldiers were forced to engage in a conflict not of their own wanting and on their own accord, they only feel resentment for the stupid rules and responsibilities that they needed to follow while under the control of the military.

A third example of black humor in "Catch" involved the inhumane and unsanitary treatment of the "soldier in white," whose identity and sudden appearance and disappearance in the first chapter of the novel remained a mystery for Yossarian. The soldier in white received inhumane and unsanitary treatment simply because he was fed with his own bodily wastes, the hospital staff taking advantage of the fact that the soldier in white was incapable of moving around, putting him therefore in the control and mercy of the doctors and nurses. To fully grasp the absurdity of the staff's poor treatment of the soldier in white, a passage about him and his condition is quoted as follows (10):

He had been smuggled into the ward during the night ... Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clear jar. A silent zinc pipe rose from the cement on his groin and was coupled to a slim rubber hose into a clear, stoppered jar on the floor. When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that the stuff could drip back into him.

This blatant neglect for the soldier in white reflected the plight of the soldiers who had the misfortune of being wounded, injured, and perhaps maimed to the point of immobility and dependence on others. For Yossarian, the soldier in white was the symbol of the senselessness of the war, a conflict wherein the only real casualty is the soldiers' death -- literal death and/or death of their desire to serve for their country and act courageously. The soldier in white helped Yossarian realize that it was more important to become selfless and survive than sacrifice for one's country, only to end up being humiliated in the most absurd manner (similar to the soldier in white's predicament).

These snippets of Yossarian's life under the rule of Catch-22 showed black humor was prevalent whenever hopelessness and suffering thrived.…

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