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Literary Criticism of 'Catch 22'

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The moment we laugh at something for the first time is the moment we change its truth value, undermining its solemnity, its accuracy, its authority, and become free to discard it. This is the effect Joseph Heller and Stanley Kubrick intended to evoke in their respective satires. Heller and Kubrick’s protagonists live in a world where individuals are subjected to the capricious authority of an impersonal and preeminent bureaucracy, and have no free agency of their own. In Catch-22, Heller’s protagonist, Yossarian, realizes the logic and reason of those in a bureaucracy is arbitrary through his encounters with his ambitious and impersonal superior officers, and decides he wants nothing to do with it. In Dr. Strangelove, the bureaucracy is portrayed by General Ripper, who commands a massive nuclear strike to set off the Soviet Doomsday Device and create a nuclear holocaust if it succeeds. The individual struggling against the bureaucracy is the protagonist, Mandrake, who challenges Ripper’s authority and works to avert the impending nuclear disaster. While both works use satirical techniques and a background of war to make clear the absurd nature of bureaucratic systems, the protagonists have their own methods to attempt to regain their free rein. Yossarian in Catch-22, seeks to avoid the war to to unshackle himself from bureaucracy, while Mandrake, in Dr Strangelove attempts to overthrow it.

In Catch-22, Heller uses satirical techniques on multiple occasions to reveal the absurd nature of war and the bureaucratic systems that control it. Heller’s satire frequently appears in his descriptions of the officers to comprise of the bureaucracy and their actions. Mudd, generally referred to as “the dead man in Yossarian’s tent” (Heller 21) was a squadron member who was killed in action before he could be processed as an official member of the squadron, thus being listed as never having arrived. As a result, no one has the authority to move any of the dead soldier’s belongings. This annoyed Yossarian so much that he had gone to the orderly room several times to complain to Sergeant Towser, but was rejected because Towser refused to admit that Mudd existed because he was never listed. The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a campaign started by Captain Black as an act of revenge against Major Major for stealing his promotion. Heller writes: “The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a glorious pain in the ass, since it complicated their task of organizing crews for each combat mission Men were tied up all over the squadron signing, pledging, the missions took hours to get under way” (Heller 124). This oath forces all men to swear elaborate oaths of loyalty before doing just basic things like eating meals. He then refuses to let Major Major sign the oath in hopes of making him appear disloyal. The satire is evident because the policies in itself are self-defeating as they are meant to help the war effort by ensuring loyalty, but as a result hurt it by complicating the task of organizing crews for missions. In Dr Strangelove, Kubrick uses satirical techniques through General D. Ripper to portray the absurdity of the bureaucratic systems. As Ripper tells Mandrake about Plan R, an emergency war plan, Kubrick uses a low-angle close up to emphasize the phallic cigar coming from his mouth. This is later satirized when Ripper whips a phallic gun out of a golf bag to defend against approaching troops. This highlights Ripper’s absurdity and insanity which then reflects the absurdity of bureaucratic systems.

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In Dr Strangelove, individuals are subjected to the authority of impersonal and arbitrary bureaucrats whose ignorance of the realities of war causes them to be incapable of understanding the result of their decisions. This is reflected through General Ripper and General Turgidson’s decisions to advocate nuclear war. Turgidson relies heavily on the Big Board, a computerized screen in the war room that provides him with a simplified view of the war to gauge progress. For Turgidson, war is no more than a game to him, and the subjected soldiers are simply just numbers. His failure to recognize the true horrors of the war becomes clear when he becomes willing to sacrifice millions of people, as he is incapable of viewing these people as humans, and sees them as just numbers. Similarly, in Catch-22, the lives of the men in Yossarian’s squadron are dictated by the decisions of an impersonal and arbitrary bureaucracy, and not of their own. The men are forced to risk their lives even though they know their missions are pointless, as they are forced to keep flying combat missions even after they learn that the Allies have already essentially won the war. The bureaucrats are insensible to any attempts the men make to reason with them as they defy logic at every turn. It is stated in the novel: “Major Major never sees anyone in his office while he’s in his office” (Heller 112), meaning that he will only admit people into his office when he is not in it himself, which is absurd in itself. Major Major, in fact, was only given his role as Major simply because his name was already Major, and the bureaucratic system thought a man of this name must be promoted to Major. In another instance, the chaplain is taken into a cellar and accused of a crime, but the men interrogating him are not sure what the crime is, and they hope to find out by interrogating him.

Mandrake seems to do the exact opposite to what Yossarian does to fight against the bureaucratic system. Paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper of Burpelson Air Force Base, believing that fluoridation of the American water supply is a Soviet plot to poison the U.S. populace, is able to deploy through a back door mechanism a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union without the knowledge of his superiors. It is revealed that the U.S.S.R has a doomsday device that will go off in the event of being hit by nuclear.

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Literary Criticism of ‘Catch 22’. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/literary-criticism-of-catch-22/
“Literary Criticism of ‘Catch 22’.” Edubirdie, 25 Nov. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/literary-criticism-of-catch-22/
Literary Criticism of ‘Catch 22’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/literary-criticism-of-catch-22/> [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].
Literary Criticism of ‘Catch 22’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Nov 25 [cited 2023 Feb 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/literary-criticism-of-catch-22/
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