Catch-22 is usually called a comic satirical novel, but the category may be too narrow. Traditionally, literary satire involves a topical work that examines human folly, shortcomings, vices, abuses, or irrational behavior. The author might use exaggeration, distortion, or irony to hold up weaknesses for ridicule, derision, or just plain fun. Sometimes the result is amusing; sometimes it's touching or even horrifying. The seventeenth-century English poet, dramatist, and critic John Dryden distinguished between two major divisions of satire — comic and tragic — basing his categories on the contrasts in the works of Roman satirists Horace (65–8 b.c.) and Juvenal (a.d. 60-c.140). Simply put, Horace's poetry was more likely to invoke laughter in his audience; Juvenal more often moved his audience to outrage or anger. At first glance, Heller's novel seems more in the comic vein; but, as usual with Heller, it is misleading to stereotype his work. Just as we find the stories of the men of the 256th Squadron amusingly filled with outrageous antics, we're suddenly brought up short by the horror of war. Heller's passionate indignation is directed initially at military, political, and institutional targets experienced directly by the men stationed on Pianosa. In the end, however, we come away with the notion that the novel is dealing with universal flaws and truths that also exist beyond the squadron. Our inferences are both comic and profound.
One category of satire is the confusion between appearance and reality, in which the institution declares reality because of appearance and the institution's own limited view. Examples abound, but three are especially informative: the satin-ribbon bombing line, Doc Daneeka's death, and the dead man in Yossarian's tent.
When the squadron is assigned to bomb ammunition dumps at Bologna, the airmen know that the targets have the reputation of being some of the most heavily guarded and dangerous in the area. After the squadron...
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