Places: Catch-22

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Metafiction

Time of work: 1944

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedHospital

Hospital. Catch-22Military hospital in Pianosa in which the novel opens and to which it periodically returns; it is the refuge to which Army Air Force captain John Yossarian, the protagonist, escapes whenever the stress of dealing with the war and “catch-22” overcomes him. The hospital operates as a symbolic representation of a haven from the madness of the outside world that the war has created. It is immediately evident, however, that the hospital’s own activities are every bit as inane and insane as the world from which Yossarian is fleeing. Feigning an indefinable liver ailment, Yossarian utilizes the hospital for many of his shenanigans–such as censoring the correspondence of enlisted men erratically, impersonating other patients, and playing jokes on enlisted men.

The hospital serves as a microcosm of the larger world of war–replete with absurdity upon absurdity. The “craziness” of the hospital is exemplified in patients such as the “Soldier in White,” who has interchangeable intravenous tubes connected to his elbows and groin, and the “Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice.” These absurdities reflect the nonsense outside the hospital that terrifies Yossarian, who is convinced that people are trying to kill him.

*Pianosa

*Pianosa (pee-ah-NOH-sah). Tiny island in Tuscan archipelago, off the west-central coast of Italy, near Elba and Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea, on which Yossarian’s bomber squadron is stationed. The island is the central location for much of the action that occurs–in a nonsequential order–within the novel. The absence of an ordinary fixed chronology gives the novel’s settings a larger significance because they are the only features of the narrative that remain fixed.

During World War II, Joseph Heller himself was stationed on nearby Corsica, and may have chosen Pianosa for its obscurity, thereby undercutting and satirizing the self-aggrandizing officers who appear in the novel who direct the squadron’s bombing raids from the island. Pianosa also functions as a counterpoint to other locations because its beaches provide some rare moments of tranquility for Yossarian and his friends. Thematically, Pianosa is also the setting for the pivotal and gratuitous death of Kid Sampson and the culminating climax when Milo Minderbinder actually bombs his own men in a perverted twisting of capitalistic ideals into war rhetoric that at the same time parodies the Machiavellian concept of the end justifying the means.

Yossarian’s tent

Yossarian’s tent. Living quarters on Pianosa that Yossarian shares with fellow officer Orr. His tent is a site where bureaucratic absurdity invades his personal life, as during the episode when a dead body cannot be removed from his tent because it does not officially exist. Yossarian’s tentmate, Orr, baffles Yossarian throughout most of the novel with nonsensical circumlocutions and non sequiturs but finally becomes one of the few men actually to escape both the war and “catch-22.” Symbolically, Orr defines the concept that responding crazily to a crazy situation (such as a war) is a valid response while sanely planning one’s escape. Yossarian’s tent is thus the locus for one of the novel’s basic truths and a perception of how to respond to such a truth.

*Bologna

*Bologna (boh-LOH-nyah). Industrial town in north-central Italy, at the foot of the Apennines, that becomes the major target of squadron bombing raids. Whereas almost all chapters in the novel take their titles from characters, the fact that chapter 12 is titled “Bologna” has a special significance. With its long history, dating back to the Etruscans, and its noted Renaissance university, Bologna functions as a symbol for humanist civilization, providing a thematic contrast to the wanton destruction of the bombs, which are often erroneously and erratically dropped.

The concern Yossarian has about bombing Bologna becomes a focal point for the men, who are seen as both willing and unwilling pawns in an American assault on the city. The issue that war gives arbitrary power to some to send others to their death is echoed in the general agreement that it is Yossarian’s “job” to get himself killed over Bologna. Through trickery, Yossarian manages to postpone the raid the first time it is scheduled. The second time, he gets his plane to turn back, thereby avoiding the conflict. Ironically, the raid turns out to be a “milk run,” and Bologna afterward haunts him, because of his own sense of mortality and his inability to subscribe to a system that insists one be killed.

*Rome

*Rome. The capital of Italy is the subject of the novel’s thirty-ninth chapter, titled “The Eternal City,” in which Yossarian goes to Rome after it is liberated from Axis control. This is a defining chapter that culminates in Yossarian’s realization that all of society–not just the military–is permeated by the principle of “catch-22.” Besides depicting a nightmarish Rome fallen prey to all kinds of brutality and victimization of humanity that a state of war allows, the chapter portrays a city, long a place where the airmen came for rest and recreation (mostly with prostitutes), as a mental state for Yossarian where some sanity (love, pleasure, sensuality) could exist, but which is now in shambles. As Yossarian seeks the kid sister of Nately’s whore, hoping to save and protect her, Rome becomes a rich symbol for human suffering and for what the truly human must summon from within in order to survive. There, Yossarian finally realizes that the “catch” of the book’s title does not exist; however, that realization does not greatly matter because people believe that the catch exists. Rome, like Bologna, signifies human history and culture perverted and destroyed by war, yet it manifests how civilians, rather than military personnel, are so tortured by its costs.

Yossarian’s airplane

Yossarian’s airplane. Bomber in which Yossarian acts as bombardier during bombing raids. The plane is setting for much of the air action and is the place where Yossarian experiences horrendous fear and horror–such as the bombing raid over Ferrera in which Kraft is lost, or the recurring motif of Snowden and his grisly death. The plane functions as a telling emotional portrayal of the true reality of war and the singular, actual, human beings who engage in it.

BibliographyKarl, Frederick R. American Fiction 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. The judgment of an outstanding critic and biographer on forty years of American novels. Judges Catch-22 as an outstanding product of its time.Martine, James J. American Novelists. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Heller.Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22.” Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (August, 1986): 139-152. Detailed discussion of the effect of the novel’s unusual structure on the message it conveys about society.Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984Potts, Stephen W. Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne, 1989. The first single volume devoted exclusively to Catch-22. Discusses most of the major aspects of the novel.Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. Rev. ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995. For further commentary on the place of Catch-22 in the cultural climate of the 1960’s and its reflection of counterculture attitudes.Ruas, Charles. Conversations with American Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Contains a section on Heller in part 2 with a detailed interview on his life and intentions that focuses on Catch-22.
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