Analysis Of Joseph Heller's Use Of Satire And Dark Humor In His Controversial Work Catch 22
When people hear the words war, death, mental health, and pain, the last thing you would probably think about is satire. However in the book Catch 22, author Joseph Heller uses satire to bring light to all of these subjects, point out flaws in characters, and provide comedic relief. Heller revolves his book around satire, in a time when nobody had really used, or even knew, what satire was. Heller’s writing introduced readers to a new way to express humor while also shedding light on the tragedies of war and changing people’s ideas on how they view war. Satire is truly a remarkable literary element which was used perfectly in the book Catch 22.
While satire and dark humor may be somewhat commonplace in today’s society, at the time of Catch 22’s release it was seen as gross and immature. Writer Whitney Balliett writing for the New Yorker described this style of comedy by saying “Heller uses nonsense, satire, non-sequiturs, slap-stick, and farce. He wallows in his own laughter and drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior the children fall into when they know they are losing our attention.”
It’s clear to see that at the time most people saw Heller’s form of comedy as a nasty grab for attention, rather than what it actually was; showing the dark ways that us humans use to cope in dark times like Yossarian does in the book to diminish and down play how bad the war actually is. The humor of the book is not the safe PG comedy people were used to at the time, it was a harsh, gritty, and coded humor with hidden messages and motivations behind each joke. However with time and the evolution of comedy, people have learned to appreciate Heller’s genius, comedy today has evolved so much in the last 50 plus years since the release of Catch 22.
Humor is subjective, and what the masses find funny is constantly evolving and changing, what people find funny will never stay the same and there will never be one thing that everyone finds funny. Catch 22 was without a doubt, ahead of its time. People were turned off by the crude humor and didn’t care enough to find the deeper meaning and loneliness behind the humor. The book is also very anti-war, now a days most people are actually opposed to war and while people at the time of Catch 22’s release didn’t necessarily want to go to war, there was definitely a different culture in people’s pride and passion for our military than we have today. This is a big reason as to why as time goes on, the book only gets more popular and the messages that it has hidden in front of our faces only ring truer.
Just looking at one of the first reviews that mentioned earlier compared to a quote from a more recent review from 2011 by Chris Cox for The Guardian there is a noticeable difference in the understanding of the humor and satire. Cox says “The power of Catch 22, for me, is the way in which it plunges into that emptiness at the end of the novel, when the source of its comedy is finally revealed. Throughout, the novel’s comic surface has been punctured by shards of Yossarian’s traumatic memories of a bombing raid in which a young, enlisted soldier bled to death from flak wounds. There seems to be something up for grabs in Catch 22’s circular logic – where madness begets laughter, and laughter begets madness.” The appreciation Cox for the hidden messages behind the satire is obvious.
The use of satire and irony in Catch 22 is truly amazing, there are some many great examples in this novel of Heller’s writing genius, using his pasts experiences and hatred for war as well as his witty and dark sense of humor to do so. He uses the ignorance of characters to express their naivety and hypocritical stances shining light and mocking modern America at the time. For example Major Major, a man who always did exactly what his elders told him was described in this way by characters in the book “He never once took the name of the Lord his God in vain, committed adultery or covered his neighbor’s ass. In fact, he loved his neighbor and never even bore false witness against him. Major Major’s elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant noncomformist.”
Major Major did everything right and loved everyone equally but was still disliked by people because of beliefs. Shining light on the fact that society in America is so self centered that people will find a way to dislike even the good men in this country because everyone is so bitter and further proves the idea that in America we have a huge problem where if people do not thing like the majority they will be disliked and ridiculed for their beliefs no matter what kind of person they actually are. Other good examples of the satire as well as Heller’s masterful way to express imagery through words in the novel are expressed through many traumatic experiences of Yossarian. Like the moment when he makes the gruesome discovery after opening Snowden’s flight jacket and Yossarian standing naked in a tree at Snowden’s funeral. Hellers goal here is to undermine the serious threats to not only Yossarian’s life but the lives of those around him, putting those threats behind Yossarians crisi of the paranoia that everyone is out to get him and that he’s living in a catch 22, a reality where nothing he does is right, and any decisions he makes just result in more pain, death, and suffering.
The way that Heller is able to use his past experiences with being a pilot in the war and use that to transition these experiences into creating the character Yossarian is remarkable. Heller perfectly mocks and pokes fun of the laughably corrupt and hypocritical society in America. And how quickly people are to happily jump into the machine of the military and die for silly reasons that they aren’t even aware of for a completely corrupt government. He expresses the flaws in people overly praising the military and having blind patriotism. He shows flaws and hypocrisies in religion and teachings in society as to what people should be.
An article published by The Pennsylvania State University Press called Studies in American Humor describes the humor and satire of Catch 22 perfectly by saying this: “ Perhaps the most significant dimension in which it is important to distinguish the humor of Catch-22 from simple comedy is that of the normative values which are essential to satire. As Northrop Frye points out, unlike a comedy, a satire’s ‘moral norms are relatively clear, and it assumes standards against which the grotesque and absurd are measured.’
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