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Crisis of Conscience

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In Catch-22, Joseph Heller creates a surreal world of irrationality to illuminate madness and corruption. Through the satirical characterizations of the novel's leaders, Heller criticizes not just the institution of war but all forms of bureaucratic establishment. The authority figures in the novel are portrayed as selfish and deranged maniacs without any sense of morality, driven purely by their desires to expand their power and reputations. These leaders are able to skew reason to their benefits through their followers’ acceptance of conformity and conventions. The novel's protagonist, Yossarian, however, rejects the pressures of conformity and is unwilling to accept his leaders' illogical projections of truth and duty. By running away to rescue Nately's whore's sister, Yossarian is able to overcome the oppression of authority and find his own sense of purpose by deciding for himself what is right and pursuing it. This victory advances Heller’s commendation of standing up against the conventions of society and refusing to accept truth blindly.

Joseph Heller’s novel makes use of humorous surrealism to illuminate corruption in society. Heller admits that in his novels, “the texture, the approach,” as opposed to the “basic story line, the sequence of action,” is what “makes them distinctive” (Rielly). Indeed, at its most basic level, the plot of Catch-22 is hardly surrealistic or unconventional at all; it is a reasonably historically accurate portrait of the end of the Second World War. The missions Yossarian flies, the deaths he witnesses, and the poverty he observes are all true to the setting. Many events in the book, such as the mission where Yossarian and his comrades are ordered to bomb a civilian city to create a roadbloc...

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...on to be part of an "American traditions" of literary rebels who "escap[e]... in order to save [themselves] from absurdity, compromise, or dispair" (McDonald). Though Heller intended the moral ambiguity of escaping military service "to raise a question rather than answer one," Yossarian's final action ultimately represents a triumph of nonconformity (Rielly). He is able to see the fraudulence of the war and decides that a 'disobedient' life helping a lost girl is more worthy than a 'dutiful' one serving a corrupt general. Through this decision, Yossarian is able to find purpose and moral satisfaction in his own life. This personal victory celebrates the power of nonconformity. In boldly rejecting societal expectations to pursue the life one believes in, goodness can be pursued, evil can be challenged, and the truth strength and value of an individual can be found.
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