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Joseph Heller
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Joseph Heller


Set toward the end of World War II in 1944, on an island off the coast of Italy, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a satirical antiwar novel. It features black humor, an unusual narrative structure, surrealism (a genre which features strange imagery and events), and a not-so-heroic protagonist who struggles to deal with the insanity of war and concludes that the only sane response to it is not to participate in it. Heller began writing Catch-22 in 1953, and a chapter from the still-in-progress novel was published in an anthology in 1955. The completed novel was published in 1961.

American army pilot John Yossarian is an antihero, that is, a protagonist lacking some traditionally heroic qualities. He is obsessed with being rotated out of active flight duty. His commander, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of missions the men in the squadron must fly before they can be rotated out. Consequently, Yossarian is desperate to find another way out of his dilemma. He asks the squadron's doctor, Doc Daneeka, to declare him unfit for duty by reason of insanity. Doc refuses, citing the mysterious Catch-22: if Yossarian asks to be let out of his duties, he must be sane. Only a crazy man would want to continue to fly missions, but the only way Daneeka can ground him, according to Catch-22, is if he asks to be grounded—which would indicate his sanity. The circular reasoning of this "catch" is the central metaphor for the absurdity of war and the military bureaucracy.

Yossarian's questions and responses to his situation show that he is indeed a sane man in an insane situation. Heller uses black humor, absurd and even surreal events, and a nonlinear narrative structure in which events are arranged by theme rather than by chronology, to drive home his point that institutions such as the military, big business, government, and religion are corrupt and individuals must find their own responses to this corruption. Heller's questioning of these respected institutions, and of war in general, foreshadowed the social protests and antiwar movements of the late 1960s, and made it one of the most popular and enduring novels of its time.

Author Biography

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1923 and grew up in Coney Island. This oceanside town had a large population of Russian Jewish immigrants, including Heller's parents, and was known for its amusement park. Heller's biting sense of humor may have been influenced by growing up in this somewhat surrealistic, carnival-like neighborhood.

After his 1941 high school graduation, Heller worked in an insurance office for a short time. The next year, 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and in 1944, the year in which Catch-22 is set, Heller was stationed on the island of Corsica (located in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coasts of France and Italy). There he was a bombardier who flew sixty combat missions, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit citation. After the war ended in 1945, Heller married Shirley Held and went to college, eventually earning a B.A. in English from New York University and an M.A. from Columbia University. He then attended Oxford University in England as a Fulbright Scholar for a year, then moved to Pennsylvania, where he taught English at Pennsylvania State University for two years. Heller then changed careers, working as an advertising copywriter from 1952 to 1961 at such popular magazines as Time, Look, and McCall's. These jobs influenced his 1974 novel Something Happened. While working as a copywriter, Heller wrote short stories and television and film screenplays, and began writing Catch-22.

The first chapter of Catch-22 was originally published in an anthology in 1955, and the entire work was published in 1961. After the novel's great success, Heller quit his copywriting job and concentrated on writing. In December 1981, he contracted a rare disease of the nervous system, which he wrote about in his book No Laughing Matter (1986) with his friend Speed Vogel. Heller has written other novels, many of which employ the plot of an individual battling against a powerful institution such as the military, government, or a corporation. These works capture Heller's basic pessimism about the power of the individual to fight society's corruption. Heller has also written a play, We Bombed in New Haven, about a group of actors who are supposed to play an Air Force squadron in an unnamed war, but who question their roles in the play. Heller also adapted Catch-22 for the stage, but critics consider the book much better than the play. To date, none of the author's writings have achieved the acclaim or success of Catch-22, which is still considered a modern classic for its black humor and absurd portrayal of war. Heller continues to write, and lives in New York.

Plot Summary

The "Catch-22"

Joseph Heller's satirical war novel Catch-22 depicts the absurdity and inhumanity of warfare through the experiences of Yossarian, a bombardier pilot stationed on the island of Pianosa (near Italy) in World War II. Heller does not tell Yossarian's story chronologically. Instead, the novel revolves around episodes in Yossarian's life (particularly the gruesome death of Snowden, a young airmnan) and employs flashbacks and digressions to jump back and forth between events.

Yossarian is terrified of flying bombing missions and attempts throughout the novel to escape this duty. He is thwarted, however, by his superiors and by "Catch-22," an ever-changing rule that keeps people subjected to authority. Early on, "Catch-22" works to keep all the men flying bombing missions, as Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian:

"Sure, I can ground Orr [who is considered crazy].

But first he has to ask me to."

"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"

"That's all. Let him ask me."

"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.

"No. Then I can't ground him."

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

The book's final "Catch-22" is the most direct and the most sinister: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."

Life in the Squadron

The novel begins with Yossarian in a military hospital faking a liver ailment. He spends his time censoring letters until a talkative Texan drives him from the safety of the hospital. Upon Yossarian's return to active duty, we learn about the various men in his unit. We meet Orr, Yossarian's short, mechanically-gifted tentmate who keeps being shot down during bombing runs but wants to keep flying; McWatt, who likes to fly low and buzz Yossarian's tent in order to terrify him; Nately, a naive boy in love with a prostitute in Rome (who is only referred to as "Nately's whore") who barely notices him; Doc Daneeka, a depressed doctor continuously lamenting the loss of his lucrative practice in America; Yossarian's navigator, Aarfy, who calmly smokes a pipe and talks while Yossarian yells hysterically during bombing runs; Major Major Major Major, the pitiable squadron commander who resembles Henry Fonda and who avoids contact with everyone, leaping through his office window when people try to see him; Colonel Cathcart, a man so obsessed with promotion that he keeps increasing the men's bombing missions so that he might impress his commander, General Dreedle; and Milo Minderbinder, the unit's morally blind mess officer, a financial genius who believes only in unrestricted capitalism and who forms the M & M Enterprises syndicate, which eventually controls almost all black market commerce in the hemisphere.

Yossarian has been promoted to Captain to cover up the disaster at Ferrara, where six days passed without the squadron destroying a bridge; on the seventh day, Yossarian led a mission on a dangerous second bombing run which destroyed the target but resulted in the deaths of several men. During another incident before Yossarian's stay in the hospital, the men become panicked when they learn they must bomb Bologna, Italy, which they believe is heavily fortified. When they finally fly the Bologna mission, Yossarian pretends his plane is malfunctioning and turns back to Pianosa. Yossarian finds upon the squadron's return, however, that Bologna was a "milk run," an easy mission that involved no enemy resistance. Yossarian is the lead bombardier on the next Bologna mission. To everyone's astonishment, they encounter heavy enemy fire, which Yossarian frantically tries to avoid. Many planes are shot down. After the mission, Yossarian packs and flees to Rome on leave, where he spends his time in a brothel.

On a trip with Milo Minderbinder, Yossarian and Orr fly between countries on various trading missions of Milo's devising. They discover that Milo makes enormous profits buying and selling goods, often to and from himself. Milo reasons that the more he earns, the more the syndicate earns, and every soldier owns a share of the syndicate, though they themselves never see any money from it. Soon, Milo's fleet of planes fly everywhere, including enemy territory. For Milo, no country is an enemy because they all belong to the syndicate (except communist Russia). Milo even begins contracting with both sides to simultaneously attack and defend target sites, which leads to the death of many men. Milo does not blame himself for these deaths because he is merely a middleman, someone making a fair profit off inevitable attacks. Milo's main worry is unloading stockpiles of Egyptian cotton that he bought and now cannot sell. To alleviate his financial straits, Milo contracts with the Germans to bomb his own unit, wreaking great destruction. Milo escapes punishment when he opens the books to his military superiors and reveals the tremendous profit the syndicate realized on this deal.

Casualties of War

Soon, a series of tragedies hits the unit. McWatt, while jokingly flying low over the beach, accidently kills a member of the squad, Kid Sampson, with a propeller. McWatt flies the plane into a mountain rather than land. Colonel Cathcart responds to these deaths by raising the missions to sixty-five. Yossarian returns to Rome. Also in Rome, Nately finds the prostitute with whom he is in love and, instead of sleeping with her, allows her to sleep for eighteen hours. When she awakes, she suddenly discovers she loves him. Nately volunteers to fly more missions so he can stay near Rome. On one of these, Nately dies when another plane collides with his. When Yossarian tells Nately's whore of Nately's death, she tries to kill him. Yossarian escapes, but he must keep watch because she continually attempts to ambush him.

In response to Nately's death, Yossarian vows to fly no more missions. The men in his unit secretly tell him they hope he succeeds. Then Yossarian learns that Nately's whore and her younger sister have disappeared after the police cleared out the brothel. Yossarian goes AWOL (absent without leave) and flies to Rome, feeling remorse and guilt over his lost friends, including Orr, whose plane went down after the Bologna mission.

Yossarian begins looking for Nately's whore and her kid sister. In a passage reminiscent of a descent into the Underworld, Yossarian walks the streets and witnesses scenes of horrific brutality. He returns to his room, only to find that Aarfy has raped a woman and then thrown her out the window, killing her. Aarfy's indifference appalls Yossarian. Yet when the police arrive, they arrest Yossarian for being AWOL and apologize to Aarfy for the intrusion.

The Final Catch

On Pianosa, Colonel Korn, Cathcart's assistant, informs Yossarian that they are sending him home. Yossarian is a danger to his superiors because he has given the men hope that they, too, can stop flying missions. Yossarian's release comes with one condition: he must become his superiors' "pal" and never criticize them. Yossarian agrees to this "odious" deal. On his way out, Nately's whore attacks him, stabbing him in the side.

While sitting in the hospital, Yossarian recalls in full Snowden's death. During a mission, Snowden is wounded and Yossarian tries to treat him, discovering a large wound in Snowden's upper leg. Snowden keeps complaining that he is cold, even after Yossarian bandages the wound. Yossarian cautiously looks for another wound and removes Snowden's flak suit. Snowden's insides pour out. This moment traumatizes Yossarian, causing him to watch Snowden's funeral from a distance while sitting nude in a tree. Snowden's death has taught Yossarian a secret: "Man was matter.… The spirit gone, man is garbage.… Ripeness was all."

Major Danby from Yossarian's unit comes to see him. Yossarian tells him that he is refusing the "odious" deal, but Danby informs him that if he refuses to cooperate, Korn and Cathcart will court-martial him on a variety of charges, some real, most invented. Still, if he takes the deal, Yossarian would violate the memory of his friends and would hate himself. The squad's Chaplain Tappman rushes in and informs them that Orr was not killed when his plane crashed, but rowed to Sweden in a life boat. Yossarian realizes that all of Orr's crash landings were practice runs for this escape. Yossarian decides to escape as well, first to Rome to save Nately's whore's kid sister, then to Sweden. He is afraid but feels very good. As he leaves the hospital, Nately's whore jumps out, misses him with a knife, and he runs.


Captain Aarfy Aardvaark

Yossarian's navigator, Aardvaark pretends he can't hear Yossarian's commands and laughs when Yossarian or anyone else is in trouble, because deep down he's a sadist. Captain Aardvaark is wellmannered and respectful of the ladies on the surface, but he turns out to have a sinister side, coldly pushing a young girl out the window after raping her. What's one Italian girl's life worth, he asks Yossarian calmly. Against the hoffor of war, his question is a disturbing one, because we know that the answer is: not much.

The Chaplain

See Captain Albert Taylor Tappman


He is as all-American as apple pie, and "everything Appleby did, he did well." Although "everyone who knew him liked him," the men tease him with the absurd charge that he has flies in his eyes, and Yossarian despises him.

Captain Black

The squadron intelligence officer, Captain Black aspires to be squadron commander, even though he is not on combat duty. Outraged by Major Major's naming as commander, he starts the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade and refuses to allow Major Major to sign the voluntary oath. His power trip is ended by Major——de Coverley, who demands to be fed after he is asked to sign an oath.

Colonel Cargill

General Peckem's forceful yet inept troubleshooter. It's Cargill's job to get the troops excited about the lame U.S.O. shows that Peckem organizes, for example. Ruddy-complexioned, he is an aggressive man who made quite a good living in civilian life as a marketing executive, hired by firms that needed to lose money for tax purposes. He is a "self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody."

Colonel Chuck Cathcart

Cathcart is the squadron's colonel. In order to increase his chances of promotion, Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly before getting rotated. Because he is obsessed with being promoted to general, his priorities are absurd. For example, he asks the chaplain to lead the men in prayer before missions because it might attract the attention of the Saturday Evening Post, and a nice article on Cathcart and his squadron might boost his promotion chances. He is less concerned with his pilots' safety than that they create tight bombing patterns that will make "nice photographs" to impress his superiors. Also, he promotes Yossarian to cover for Yossarian's insubordination, lest anyone blame Cathcart for Yossarian's bombing run gone awry. He is a symbol of military corruption and blind ambition.

Cathcart's self-absorption also causes him to go into business with Milo Minderbinder, who will trade the men's valuable supplies just to make a quick buck. Cathcart also builds a skeet-shooting range for the officers—not because it will help them be better soldiers, but just because he loves shooting skeet. Thus, he represents not just military corruption, but the self-absorbed American businessman. Down deep, he is insecure, and relies on Colonel Korn to help him succeed. He hates Yossarian for standing up to him.


One of the members of the squadron, he is not "clever" as "Clevinger" suggests, but rather slowwitted. He argues with Yossarian about Yossarian's paranoid and dark attitude and calls him crazy, which carries no weight with Doc Daneeka when Yossarian wants to be released from duty. The war is a black-and-white issue for Clevinger, who conducts educational sessions for the men and disappears on the Parma mission.

The Controller

See Doc Daneeka

Major Danby

The group operations officer whose name suggests that he is namby-pamby, meaning he's weakwilled and unable to make decisions. He's sort of like a babbling university professor, concerned with ideas and unable to act. Danby argues with Yossarian about idealism and the ethics of deserting, and then helps Yossarian to go AWOL once and for all. General Dreedle threatens to shoot him.

Doc Daneeka

Doc Daneeka, the squadron doctor, looks out for himself first and foremost. He tells Yossarian he will scratch Yossarian's back if Yossarian will scratch his, but Doc's self-interest prevents him from doing what Yossarian really wants, which is to sign papers saying Yossarian is too crazy to fly (in contrast to Doctor Stubbs, who does this for some pilots). Doc delegates many of his duties to two men named Gus and Wes. This leaves Doc free to fret over his life. He is a hypochondriac, constantly having his assistants take his temperature. He is also worried about being transferred to the Pacific, with its unusual diseases. Back home, Doc's private practice had been struggling until the war came along and all his competitors were drafted. He thrived until he was drafted himself, and he complains about having lost the business he built up. Doc earns extra money, or flight pay, by having the pilots sign documents saying that he is on flights that he isn't on. This leads the Army to assume he is dead when one of his "flights" crashes, despite his obvious living presence on base. Heller ironically describes Doc as a warm and compassionate man who is fearful and never stops feeling sorry for himself.

Major —— de Coverley

The mysterious de Coverley's first name is never given, and no one seems to know exactly what his job or rank is. An inspiring figure, he has some sort of godlike power; for instance, he is able to march into the mess hall and end Captain Black's Great Loyalty Oath Crusade with a simple command: "Gimme eat!" An older man, de Coverley has one eye, loves to play horseshoes, and has a skill for obtaining luxury apartments in recently recaptured cities. About halfway through the novel, he mysteriously goes off to Florence and is not heard from again.


A pilot. He flies with Huple on the Avignon mission in the number two seat and grabs the controls midair. When Colonel Cathcart raises the number of missions, Dobbs tries to assassinate him but is stopped by Yossarian.

Media Adaptations

  • A film of Catch-22 was released in 1970 in the U.S., directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Buck Henry, starring Alan Arkin (as Yossarian), Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, and Art Garfunkel. Available on videotape from Paramount Pictures.
  • Catch-22: A Dramatization was a one-act play based on the novel, produced in East Hampton, New York, at the John Drew Theater, July 23, 1971. Script published by Samuel French, New York, 1971.
  • Catch-22, a sound recording on two cassettes (approx. 120 minutes); abridged by Sue Dawson from the novel by Joseph Heller, read by Alan Arkin. Published by Listen for Pleasure, 1985.
  • Catch-22, an unsold pilot for a television comedy series, was created in 1973. Written by Hal Dresner, directed by Richard Quine, it starred Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian.

General Dreedle

The wing commander, General Dreedle, is a solid military man who is moody but only requires that the men "do their work; beyond that, they were free to do whatever they pleased." He employs his annoying son-in-law, Colonel Moodus, to assist him. His nurse-mistress accompanies him everywhere, and he demands that people show her respect. He is constantly up against General Peckem, who is vying for Dreedle's job, but ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen helps Dreedle as much as he can until Peckem finally wins and replaces Dreedle. He is not upset when Yossarian goes naked, and he dislikes Colonels Korn and Cathcart. He seems more benevolent than the other authority figures in the novel, but his hands-off attitude allows Cathcart to keep increasing the number of missions the men must fly.

Nurse Sue Ann Duckeft

A nurse in the Pianosa hospital who takes care of Yossarian and later has an affair with him. Her name suggests that she ducks out of his embraces when she's not in the mood. A serious and practical young woman who also enjoys sensual pleasures, she ends up marrying a doctor who will make a lot of money.

Lieutenant Dunbar

A fighter-pilot captain, Dunbar is Yossarian's companion in the hospital more than once, and even trades beds with the soldier named A. Fortiori to be near his pal Yossarian. He tries to make time "go more slowly," a twist on the idea that people want time to fly, so that he doesn't have to return to combat. He is a man of ethics, so he and McWatt get upset when they're instructed to bomb a defenseless village just to block a road. After this protest, Dunbar disappears. Yossarian wonders if it has something to do with the mysterious soldier in white who appears in a hospital bed. Is there a conspiracy to shut up Dunbar? he asks himself.

Captain Flume

Flume is a public relations officer who is terrorized by his roommate Chief Halfoat's threats to slit his throat. At one point, he is so traumatized that he moves to the woods, where he lives alone, eating strawberries.

A. Fortiori

A mysterious soldier who is involved in several mix-ups over identity. A. Fortiori's name is a Latin term used in logic for a conclusion that is more reliable than the previous conclusion or reasoning it is based on.

Chief White Half oat

Halfoat is a semi-illiterate assistant intelligence officer who drinks a lot, beats up Colonel Moodus (which is just fine with Moodus's fatherin-law, General Dreedle), and makes his roommate Flume crazy. Halfoat, whose Indian-sounding name is reminiscent of "half-crocked" or "half-nuts," is indeed a little wacky, with reason. He is a half-blooded Creek Indian. Halfoat says that the government used to chase his family around Oklahoma. Inevitably, wherever they settled, oil was found, so they kept moving on, to the point where the government wouldn't even let them settle in before they started digging. He resents having had his family exploited in this way. He is set in his ways, from hating foreigners to insisting that he will die of pneumonia, which he does.

Captain Havermeyer

Havermeyer is the best bombardier in the squadron, according to Colonel Cathcart, who defends Havermeyer's upsetting habit of shooting field mice at night with a gun stolen from the dead man in Yossarian's tent. Cathcart likes Havermeyer because he flies straight toward a target, taking no evasive actions that might make his bombing less accurate and his men more safe. As a result, the men can't stand flying with him.

Hungry Joe

Another member of the squadron, Hungry Joe is a woman chaser, pretending he is a photographer (which he really was in civilian life) as a come-on. He has nightmares on nights when he doesn't have a bombing run scheduled the next day, suggesting that while bombing runs are terrifying for the men, there is some perverse comfort in the ritual of bombing. In fact, his nightmares disappear when Cathcart increases the number of missions he must fly. Despite his anxieties over the war, Hungry Joe ends up being killed by his roommate Huple's cat, which smothers him.


Huple is the underage roommate of Hungry Joe who is only fifteen years old; his cat kills Hungry Joe. Huple, a pilot, flies the Avignon mission on which Snowden is killed.

The Kid Sister

She is the twelve-year-old sister of Nately's whore. She tries to be seductive, like her big sister, but Yossarian and Nately look out for her because they see her as a child growing up too quickly.

Lieutenant Colonel Blackie Korn

Lt. Colonel Korn is Colonel Cathcart's assistant. He runs the farm he and Cathcart co-own, which Milo provided to them. His name is reminiscent both of corn, the crop, and "corny," meaning overly sentimental and cloying. Colonel Cathcart is annoyed by Blackie Korn, but he relies on him for help, since Korn is smarter and more devious. For example, Korn is the one who suggests that they give Yossarian a medal for his ill-fated bombing run over Ferrara in order to spare the military any embarrassment.


Kraft is a young pilot who is killed on the Ferrara mission, which makes Yossarian feel terribly guilty, for he was the one who ordered a second pass on the target. Kraft only wanted to be liked. His name suggests craft, or skill, which is a joke because he is too inexperienced to have gained any skill as a pilot before he dies.


Yossarian's Italian girlfriend whom he sees at the officers' club. Her name is derived from the Italian word for "light." She seems, at times, to know Yossarian better than he knows himself and what he will do. She laughs off his proposal of marriage.

Major Major Major Major

Major Major Major Major is the long and bony squadron commander who resembles actor Henry Fonda and is deliberately never in his office. The military insists on making him a major because they can't keep straight that Major Major Major is the man's given name, not his rank (it was a joke on his father's part). Major Major is not much of a leader, and now that he's an officer he misses being just one of the men. A timid man, he's afraid to ask Major — — de Coverley which of the two outranks the other. To relieve his boredom, he begins his own secret rebellion, signing orders as "Washington Irving" (the American novelist) and later as "John Milton" (the British author of "Paradise Lost").


A crazy pilot who shares a tent with Clevinger and then Nately, McWatt relieves his stress by buzzing people—flying as low as possible over them—just for fun. His stunts end in his accidentally killing Kid Sampson, who is on the raft; after this McWatt intentionally crashes his plane, killing himself. While he's crazy—"the craziest combat man of them all probably, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war"—he isn't a bad person. After all, he, along with Dunbar, protests when ordered to bomb a defenseless village just to block a road.

Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder

The ultimate capitalist, he is a mess officer turned businessman, trading all sorts of supplies on the black market and assuring everyone not to worry, they'll all be rich by the end of the war. He takes essential supplies from the planes but says that because everyone has a "share" in his business, it's for their own good. At one point, he makes a deal with the Germans in which he will have the Americans bomb their own base. He is Heller's symbol of capitalism at its most corrupt as well as its most powerful. As Milo's German bombing affair shows, wars come and go, but business goes on as usual.

Colonel Moodus

Moodus is General Dreedle's son-in-law and assistant. He is so annoying that Dreedle actually hires Chief Halfoat to punch him.


Mudd is the dead man in Yossarian's tent. Actually, he's not really there. He's a pilot who died on a mission before he even checked in at Pianosa. Mudd's name is forever linked with the clutter that Yossarian's roommates find and throw out. The military insists Mudd is still alive because of their bureaucratic ineptness.

Lieutenant Nately

A squadron member, Nately is a gentle, sheltered nineteen-year-old kid from a wealthy family. He romanticizes his relationship with a whore he wants to save from prostitution and argues about the purpose of war and life with the old man in the whorehouse. He is killed, along with Dobbs, on the La Spezia run.

Nately's whore

An Italian prostitute, Nately's whore is too exhausted from her hard life to care about Nately, even though he's completely infatuated with her. She just uses him for his money, which supports her and her kid sister. However, one night after a good eighteen hours' sleep she wakes up and realizes she does love him after all. When Nately is killed, she blames Yossarian, who had broken Nately's nose but isn't really responsible for his death. Yossarian is, to her, a symbol of the war and all the pain it has caused her, so she tries to stab him to death. Her surrealistic pursuit of Yossarian, and the fact that she stabs him just when he makes his deal with Cathcart and Korn, suggest that she is a symbol for Yossarian's conscience.

The Old Man in Rome

The old man runs the whore house and lectures Nately on the meaning of war and life. His philosophy is the opposite of the young pilot's: he believes it is better to live on your knees than die on your feet. He also attacks and blinds Major — de Coverley, to everyone's astonishment.


Yossarian's roommate, Orr is a handyman who builds many projects with Yossarian. His tinkering with mechanical objects sometimes irritates Yossarian. Orr is a skilled pilot as well, but he keeps getting shot down in his plane and ending up in the ocean. He is nonchalant about this, even though no one wants to ride in his plane because they feel he has tremendously bad luck. Orr eventually crashes near Italy and while his crew rows toward shore, he rows his own raft to Sweden, where he sits out the war. Yossarian realizes this was Off's plan all along, because Orr had made mysterious comments about his crashes being "good practice." Off's name is reminiscent of "oar," a tool he uses to row to freedom, and the word "or," which reminds the reader of options and choices.

General P. P Peckem

In charge of Special Operations/Services, General Peckem is an ambitious military man given to issuing silly orders, such as insisting that the men in Italy pitch their tents with their openings facing the Washington Monument in the United States. His assistant, Colonel Cargill, helps him in his effort to take over command from General Dreedle. His name suggests "pecking order," or hierarchy, as well as a certain part of the male anatomy.

Captain Piltchard

See Captain Wren

Kid Sampson

A pilot who is killed by McWatt in a violent accident while he is standing on the raft in the ocean.

Lieutenant Scheisskopf

A pompous but ambitious officer who is promoted to general when General Peckem takes over command from General Dreedle and who eventually becomes Peckem's superior. Scheisskopf, whose name is German for "shithead," loves parades and organizes one to honor Yossarian. He also has a very sexy, promiscuous wife that the men drool over.


The young gunner on Yossarian's B-52 who dies a gruesome death as Yossarian tries in vain to save his life. His horrible death haunts Yossarian throughout the book. A sad symbol of the sheer waste of war, Snowden is so anonymous that at his funeral no one can give a eulogy because none of the commanding officers remember much about him.

The Soldier in White

Covered from head to toe in bandages, he is supposedly Lieutenant Schmulker, but no one can tell for sure. His appearance in the hospital coincides with the disappearance of Dunbar, which makes Yossarian suspicious that he's really some sort of spy, especially since his body seems to be a slightly different size the second time he shows up.

Doctor Stubbs

Doctor Stubbs is a flight surgeon who resents having to treat wounded men only to have them fly again and expose themselves to danger. Unlike Doc Daneeka, Stubbs will help pilots get excused from duty, and he is punished by being sent to the Pacific.

Captain Albert Taylor Tappman

Everyone calls Captain Tappman "Father," but as he tells them, he's not Catholic but an Anabaptist. He's not the sort to push the point, however, being very sweet-natured and shy. He's uncomfortable around officers and hates to have to eat in the officers' mess tents, especially since he has a hard time keeping track of which tent he's supposed to eat in each day. He lives alone in his own tent, and misses his wife and child back home. He often wonders about philosophical questions, "yet they never seemed nearly as crucial to him as the question of kindness and good manners."

Because he is quiet and unassuming, sometimes people take advantage of him, but he stands up for things that are important. He asks Colonel Cathcart to stop sending the men on so many missions, and he insists that Corporal Whitcomb not send form condolence letters to the families of men killed in combat. He puts himself on the line for others, as when he claims to be the forger instead of pointing his finger at the real culprit—Yossarian.

Corporal Whitcomb

The assistant to Chaplain Tappman, he's an opportunist, looking to advance his career, and an atheist. He doesn't get along well with his boss. For example, he wants to send form letters to the families of dead soldiers, which horrifies the sensitive Chaplain. He initiates the C.I.D. investigation of the Chaplain, fingering his boss as the forger.

Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen

A former private first class (P.F.C.), he is the mail clerk at the 27th Air Force Headquarters who tosses Peckem's silly orders into the waste basket and processes Dreedle's orders, which he thinks are written in better prose. He's constantly being promoted and then demoted, and goes AWOL (absent without leave) regularly. By taking it upon himself to forge and discard documents, he gains a lot of power over the squadron. His name suggests that he never goes away, like an evergreen that stays green in winter.

Captain Wren

Along with Captain Piltchard, one of the squadron's operations officers whose job it is to organize combat missions. Piltchard and Wren have petty ambitions, as their names suggest ("pilchard" means sardine, and a wren is a small bird).

Yo Yo Yossarian

See Captain John Yossarian

Captain John Yossarian

The central character of Catch-22 is Yossarian, a bombardier who is a captain with the 256th squadron. He is well-liked by his fellow bombardiers, and the Chaplain admires him, and even covers for him when he forges a document. Yossarian has friendships and people value his opinion (Dobbs and Milo ask him for advice, for example), but he considers himself a loner. Physically, he is big and strong and twenty-eight years old, but we learn no more than that. Yossarian also has an offbeat sense of humor, which he uses to cope with his frustration over being unable to get out of flying any more missions. He's an intelligent, complex character, honest and not given to deluding himself. He is familiar with world literature and identifies with the loners in great works of the past. Yossarian is the kind of man who is uncomfortable interacting with a woman sexually unless he is in love with her, and he cares about kids, as we can see by how he treats the kid sister of Nately's whore. He even goes AWOL (absent without leave) to find her when she's missing.

Despite his intelligence and influence, Yossarian feels powerless because his superiors keep increasing the number of missions he needs to fly before he can go home. Though he feels helpless and angry about the situation, he asks very pointed questions of the people in charge about why things are the way they are. Yossarian's questions are Heller's; they show the illogic and futility of war. His attitude toward the war and the military angers Colonel Cathcart, who resents that Yossarian, for all his powerlessness, does not cave in to the values the military promotes, such as blind obedience and unquestioning patriotism. Yossarian has a moral center that he cannot put aside for the convenience of the military, which is why he makes the squadron bomb the ocean instead of an Italian town that has no military or strategic value. He hates war and cannot ignore its horrors, and he cannot stop reliving the horror of Snowden's death. When given a final "Catch-22"—either accept a honorable discharge by lying about his refusal to fly or face a court martial—Yossarian finally discovers a way out. By following Orr to Sweden, Yossarian can finally live with his conscience. As he tells Major Danby, "I'm not running away from my responsibilities, I'm running to them."


Individual vs. Society

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 traces the efforts of Yossarian, an American bombardier in World War II, to escape participation in a war that seems meaningless. Yossarian represents the individual against a huge, corrupt institution of any sort, whether it is the army or a large corporation. The bureaucracy and rules of such large institutions, Heller suggests, often exist for their own sake, not for a good reason. Milo Minderbinder's M & M enterprises represents the corrupt corporation. In the pursuit of profits and wealth, he will trade anything, even life rafts or morphine that is needed to save the lives of the pilots, with anyone, including the enemy. The obvious question is, if we can communicate enough with the enemy to make business deals, why can't we settle our differences instead of killing each other? Negotiating peace is not the concern of Milo or his customers, however. Thus, Heller suggests that some businesspeople value money even more than human life. When Milo actually has the American pilots bomb their own base as part of a business deal with the Germans, it is perfectly logical and at the same time completely unethical. Yossarian, the sane individual, recognizes that this act is insane and evil.

The other corrupt institution in Catch-22 is, of course, the military. Yossarian is the voice of reason. He is stunned by the priorities of the army, which at best are absurd and at worst evil, such as when the military police care about his going AWOL more than Captain Aardvaark's rape and murder of the Italian girl. Many of the orders issued by the men in power serve only to secure their own positions. Yossarian is constantly questioning the foolish arbitrary military rules and decisions and even sabotages his plane's communications systems in order to abort a mission that he feels is wrong. Individual men such as Yossarian are powerless to fight the army's corruption, which is why Yossarian decides he must leave rather than be a part of it.

Sanity and Insanity

The outrageous military regulation called Catch-22 captures Heller's attitude toward sanity and insanity. It is, he suggests, impossible to exist as a sane person in an insane environment. Heller portrays life for the men in the squadron as completely crazy. They are at the mercy of ambitious commanders who care more about their own careers than the men's lives. Their sanity is challenged by military rules that make no sense but which they must blindly obey. They see ethics thrown out the window, by Milo in pursuit of profit, for example, or by the old man in Rome, who lives only for pleasure. They are asked to endanger their lives, and begin to question why this is necessary, especially when they are asked to bomb an innocent village just to block a road.

The men deal with this insanity in different ways. Yossarian fakes illness to hide out in the hospital. McWatt buzzes people with his plane. Most of the men visit the whorehouse and have meaningless sex-"banging" women, as Yossarian calls it—to distract themselves from their fears and their deep-rooted feeling that they are risking their lives for foolish reasons.

Only Orr seems to cope well, to stay sane amid the madness, and the reader later learns it is because he has been focused on a plan to escape, and has even been practicing that escape. When Yossarian realizes what Orr has been doing, he makes the choice to escape as well. Despite the tremendous odds against the success of Yossarian's plan, Heller suggests it is not a crazy but a sane response to an insane situation over which Yossarian has no control.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the antiwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Compare the reasoning antiwar activists presented for their opposition to war with the ideas presented in Catch-22.
  • Discuss the themes of greed and corruption in the business world in Catch-22. Find a real-life case of a disaster caused by corporate greed and compare it to Milo Minderbinder's actions.
  • Research the military justice system. Investigate under what circumstances a soldier may be charged with disobeying orders or desertion and what the penalties are. Then analyze how Yossarian's actions in Catch-22 would have been charged and penalized.
  • Discuss how Heller uses language itself to show that war is absurd. Use examples from several characters and be sure to take quotes from the text to support your analysis.

Heroes and Heroism

The protagonist of a novel is generally called the hero because he or she usually has heroic, admirable qualities. An antihero, however, is someone who does not have heroic qualities such as courage and selflessness, but is still admirable because he has qualities that may mean just as much to the reader. Yossarian is certainly not courageous: he will do anything to get out of combat, even fake illness. He's not selfless; in fact, he's obsessed with saving himself from danger. Note that Heller chose as his setting World War II, an unambiguously "good" war to most Americans. Yossarian is rebelling against fighting a just war against a very evil empire, Nazi Germany. In theory, the reader should not like or identify with such a protagonist.

However, the war that we see in the book is not the Allies versus the Axis powers but the individual against the bureaucracy. Again and again, the military and business bureaucracies steal the dignity and hope of the men in Yossarian's squadron. The reader can understand Yossarian's point of view and empathize with him because he can never reach the number of missions he must fly before he goes home; the number will constantly be bumped up—not because that is what is necessary to stop the enemy, but because more missions will help the individual ambitions of one man gunning for a promotion. The reader sees Yossarian helpless against an absurd militaristic bureaucracy, held hostage and even physically endangered by the mercenary, money-grubbing business dealings of M & M Enterprises. The reader comes to like and respect Yossarian for standing up to the absurdity, refusing the dishonesty of betraying his fellow men by taking Cathcart and Korn up on their offer (he'll be discharged if he lies and tells people he never refused to fly or challenged his superiors). Under the circumstances, Yossarian's character flaws are no match for his decency and honesty, traits which seem utterly absent in the military.

Absurdity Language and Meaning

While the purpose of language is to communicate, Heller shows that corrupt people and institutions misuse language in order to confuse and manipulate others and avoid responsibility. The characters' bizarre and illogical uses of language help create an atmosphere of absurdity—a state in which unreal, irrational things happen every day. In the beginning of the book, readers may be cOrrused by the seemingly illogical discussions of flies in Appleby's eyes or Orr's story of stuffing crab apples or horse chestnuts in his cheeks to make them rosy, but soon it's clear that the men's unorthodox use of language mirrors that of their commanding officers'. Colonel Cargill tries to instill pride in the men, saying, "You're American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement." This self-evident statement has no real meaning. Captain Black says signing his loyalty oath is voluntary, but anyone who does not sign will be starved to death. And Major Major tells his assistant "I don't want anyone to come in to see me while I'm here." While the sentence is grammatical, it makes no sense. It is just a round-about way of saying he doesn't want to see anyone, ever, which of course is absurd. He has to talk to people to do his job. Circular logic and redefining words, Heller shows, allows people to avoid the reality of situations, or to twist reality to suit their purposes. No wonder that when asked if Appleby has flies in his eyes, Yossarian thinks this impossibility might be true because "it made as much sense as anything else."



Catch-22 is set on an army air force base on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy in 1944, toward the end of World War II. The majority of the action takes place on the base itself, in the B-52 bomber planes as they go on raids, and in the local whorehouse, where the men relax; there are also flashbacks to training camps in America and some scenes in Italy. The island is real, but there was not a base on it in WWII. Note that the 256th is an army squadron of pilots; the army and navy both had air forces during the war but a separate U.S. Air Force was not created until 1947.

Point of View

The story is told in third person. Sometimes the narrative is omniscient ("all-knowing"), meaning that readers can see the large picture and everything that goes on. Sometimes, however, the narrator's vision is somewhat limited: we see things as if through a particular character's eyes. For example, the first several chapters are really from the point of view of Yossarian, but then in chapter nine we pull back and see the larger picture. This switching from limited to omniscient narration allows Heller to focus on the big picture or just one character.


Catch-22 is not a linear novel in which events follow each other chronologically. Instead, to underscore his points, Heller has the narrative jump around in time, using flashbacks and déjàa vu —a French term for repetition meaning "already seen." This allows the author to juxtapose scenes that have a strong connection to each other thematically. The reader can follow the chronological chain of events by noting the references to Cathcart's continual raising of the number of missions the men must fly; the growth of M & M enterprises, which becomes increasingly powerful over time; and the revelations about the gruesome death of the young pilot named Snowden, a singular event that serves as an epiphany for Yossarian, that is, a moment that makes him "see the light." After he finally relives the event in full, he is determined to escape the insanity of war rather than try to find a way to cope with it.

The scrambling of scenes serves a second purpose as well: to reflect the state of mind of a combat pilot. Life in the military is in certain ways controlled and orderly, even dull, but it is intermingled with the sheer terror of death, which is completely unpredictable. Heller wants the reader to understand that time itself has a different meaning for someone in this situation, that what is important is not each day's separate events but the themes that are apparent in so many different situations at different times: the absurdity of bureaucracy, the callousness of ambitious men, the difference between reality and appearance.

Irony, Satire, and Black Humor

Writers often combine irony, satire, and black humor to express their themes and ideas, because the three techniques work together well. Heller uses all of these techniques liberally in Catch-22. One definition of irony is the use of words to express something other than their literal meaning—or even the opposite of their meaning. Thus, naming a pilot who is inexperienced at his craft "Kraft" is an ironic choice. Satire is the holding up of human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn through wit and sarcasm. Catch-22 is a social satire, ridiculing targets such as the military (an example would be Scheisskopf's absurd obsession with military parades) and big business (witness the success of Milo's M & M Enterprises: countries that are actually at war with each other hypocritically do business with each other as well). Satire usually involves extremes, and certainly much of the absurdity in Catch-22 is due to extreme examples of bureaucracy run amok, or capitalism at its most corrupt. The absurdity Heller creates is also funny, although not in a lighthearted way. Heller uses black humor, that is, humor with a dark tone to it, or an edge. Joking about death, for example, is a form of black humor. Thus, when Heller makes the army unable to recognize that Mudd is dead and Doc is alive (because they have more faith in the military's records than in the reality of one dead and one live body), it is black humor.


Allusions are subtle references authors make to other books or events that are relevant to the point at hand, or to other events within the book itself. Throughout Catch-22, Joseph Heller makes references to literature, the Bible, and other writings and historical events. So, for example, when Yossarian censors letters in an absurdly nonsensical way, he signs off on them as "Washington Irving" or "Irving Washington." Washington Irving, a nineteenth-century novelist and essayist, often used black humor, and created the famous character Rip Van Winkle, who was, like Yossarian, an antihero (a protagonist whose admirable qualities are not the usual ones). This allusion points out to the reader that Yossarian identifies with the antihero Van Winkle and with Irving's black humor.

Allusion can also achieve a comic effect. At one point, Heller turns around Shakespeare's classic proclamation that "some men are born to greatness" and "some men have greatness thrust upon them" by writing that Major Major Major was "born to mediocrity" and had "mediocrity thrust upon him." The reader, remembering the loftiness of the original quote and its source, is meant to see the humor in changing "greatness" to "mediocrity," as if mediocrity, like greatness, could be stunningly admirable and spoken of with the utmost respect.

Finally, allusions to events within the novel itself remind readers of thematic connections between the events. Heller makes many such allusions to drive home his themes.

Historical Context

Italy in World War

Catch-22 takes place on an American Army Air Force base on an island off the coast of Italy. Italy had been drawn into World War II by Benito Mussolini, a former Socialist who had come to power in 1925. His fascist government, marked by strict government control of labor and industry, ended civil unrest in the country but limited the rights of its citizens. Mussolini was constantly engaged in military campaigns, conquering Ethiopia in 1936, for example, and that same year he signed an agreement with Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler to cooperate on a mutually beneficial foreign policy. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Great Britain and France declared war, and Italy officially joined Germany in the alliance of Axis Powers in 1940.

Italy had neither the economic or strategic resources to succeed for long, and by mid-1943 the Allied Forces of the United States and Great Britain had begun occupying Italian territory. By this time, Mussolini was in political trouble, and he was exiled and eventually executed in 1945. A new government of Italian businessmen and workers signed an armistice with the Allies, and in October 1943 declared war on Germany. The Germans, however, still controlled the northern part of the country and Italy now found itself divided. By the time that Yossarian and his combat crew entered the war, Italy had largely withdrawn from the war and Germany still occupied portions of the country. Although the war with Germany ended on May 7, 1945, the Allies would continue to occupy Italy until a peace treaty with the country was finally signed in 1947.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1940s: The U.S. invades Normandy, France, in June, 1944, while massively bombing Japan. Two atom bombs dropped on Japan in August will lead to Japan's surrender. The war ends in 1945.

    1960s: In November 1961, President Kennedy begins increasing the number of American advisers in Vietnam, which will grow from 1,000 to 16,000 over the next two years. Two U.S. Army helicopter companies, the first direct American military support of South Vietnam, arrive in Saigon. In 1965, President Johnson will begin sending combat troops, without getting the approval of Congress.

    Today: Recent police actions, such as Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the 1983 invasion of Grenada (an island in the Caribbean), have been publicly questioned by Americans even as these actions were taking place. Congress must now vote on such actions.

  • 1940s: Jim Crow laws in the South are the most obvious evidence that blacks are expected to keep their distance from whites. Throughout the country, African Americans have fewer educational and economic opportunities.

    1960s: The Civil Rights movement is in full swing, as African Americans forced the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1957. Movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., advocate peaceful civil disobedience, but others, such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, suggest that armed resistance against white oppression should not be ruled out.

    Today: Racism continues to afflict America, as the different responses between African Americans and whites to the 0. J. Simpson trial pointed out. African Americans still have higher rates of infant mortality, joblessness, and poverty than whites do.

  • 1940s: While many men are off at war, women work as "Rosie the Riveters," taking jobs in the war industry. For many women, this is the first time they have entered the work force and eamed their own money.

    1960s: Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique in 1963, launching the modern-day feminist movement. The movement focuses on individual women at first, and only begins to be a major political force toward the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.

    Today: The term "feminism" has become so loaded with contradictory meanings that many women who are technically feminists (anyone who believes in political, social, and economic equality of the sexes) avoid it. Women make up 46% of the work force but still only make 75 cents for every dollar men eam.

U.S. War Involvement

Italian territory occupied by Allied forces provided good locations for air force divisions, which played a key strategic role during World War II. The United States Army Air Force employed two types of military bombers: the smaller fighter bombers, and the strategic bombers, which were large, long-range planes that could attack targets deep in enemy territory. They generally held between two and eight people. In the novel, Yossarian flies aboard a B-25, one model of this type of strategic bomber. The men on board these planes had distinct duties. Seated in the nose of the plane were the bombardier and the navigator. While the navigator directed the plane toward its destined target, the bombardier timed the release of the plane's bombs to most effectively destroy that target. These two men had to work closely with each other to facilitate the exchange of inflight information. Above and behind the nose was the pilot's compartment. Here the pilot and copilot steered the plane toward its destination and through any enemy fire, or "flak." The body of the plane held the bomb bay and the radio compartment. Radio operators generally worked as communication men as well as gunners. Also on the planes were men who worked as aerial engineer gunners and armorer gunners, whose mechanical backgrounds would come into play when planes suffered damage. Altogether, though each of them held a different post and their ranks varied, the crew worked as a unit each time its members entered the sky.

Catch-22 is set at the end of World War II, the so-called "good war" because almost all Americans supported it. Any reluctance to join the Allies in their battle against Germany's Adolf Hitler and the Axis powers was erased in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Having already been through a world war, however, Americans realized that wars rarely settled political grievances; they were becoming more cynical about war in general. The Korean War (technically only a "police action" that lasted from 1950 to 1953) left Americans wary about the futility of entering "limited" wars in other countries. The Vietnam War, which America began to enter in the late 1950s, was not yet unpopular in 1961, but Americans after the Korean War would soon embrace Heller's absurdist, antiwar message as strongly as they did his satire of Cold War America.

The Cold War

While Catch-22 takes place in 1944, in it Heller makes frequent allusions to events in America in the 1950s, even using anachronisms (things out of time) such as computers and helicopters so that people would think of the Korean War as well as WWII. Heller felt that the Cold War era, far from being an ideal, peaceful time, was filled with tension and paranoia. Allusions to the 1950s abound: the C.I.D. (a representative of the CIA or FBI) accuses the Chaplain of hiding documents in a plum tomato stolen from Cathcart's office. Absurd though it sounds, Heller was drawing upon the story of real-life state department official Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a communist and of hiding documents in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Captain Black starts a loyalty oath "crusade," and Chief Halfoat makes references to being "red"— talking about communism, not skin color. When Milo claims "what's good for the syndicate is good for the country," he is echoing a member of President Eisenhower's cabinet, who said, "what's good for General Motors is good for the country." These are ideas that Americans would come to question in the 1960s.

The Zeitgeist of the 1960s

Readers of Catch-22 responded to the novel's celebration of the individual and its satire of institutions such as the government, the military, and business corporations. Yossarian stands up against absurd and corrupt authority, dismisses the shallow values of ambition and materialism, recognizes the hypocrisy of the army, and bravely makes up his own mind about how to respond to a demoralizing situation. He wrests control of it, and overcomes his powerlessness.

These themes would become a crucial part of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, in the 1960s. American youth were questioning the idea that American institutions and politicians were completely trustworthy and free from corruption. The communist witch-hunts of the 1950s led by Senator Eugene McCarthy, in which people were hounded and blacklisted from their professions because they were suspected communists, had made many Americans rethink their blind trust in politicians and the government. This distrust would build to a peak in the early 1970s, when the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration eroded the public's faith in the presidency. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, the Vietnam War took increasingly more American lives and became even more violent and bloody. People started to question why politicians had led the country into it initially, and why they were still there, especially since there was no end in sight. Had the U.S. become involved for idealistic reasons, or because of business deals between the country and Vietnam? Why was there still fighting if there did not seem to be any progress? Could it be that politicians just didn't want to admit they had been wrong, and were letting young men die in Vietnam rather than being honest about the situation? As more Americans asked these difficult and important questions, they began to rethink other issues as well. They stopped taking for granted that the status quo (the way things are) was the best that it could be.

Racism and Sexism

Until the late 1950s and early 1960s, few white Americans gave any thought to the plight of black Americans. "Negroes" were, after all, a minority, and segregation kept them in different neighborhoods, different schools, and in the South, even in different restaurants, bus seats, and bathrooms. However, black Americans were beginning to take action against the treatment they received. Their "separate but equal" schools were inferior to white students' schools. A 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. the Board of Education, forced school integration, and helped launch the Civil Rights movement. The movement, which would be led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to gather power, inspiring the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Civil Rights Commission and spelled out penalties for voting rights violations, and the Voter's Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed black Americans access to the voting booths. Other black leaders and organizations, from Malcolm X to the Black Panthers, demanded respect and power for their people. Heller alludes to the growing civil rights movement when he has Colonel Cathcart claim that he would never let his sister marry an enlisted man—in other words, an inferior. This summed up many white American's attitude towards blacks: they would claim to have many Negro friends, but in the end, they wouldn't want a relative to actually marry a black person.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, the feminist movement was just beginning. In 1963 journalist Betty Friedan published a best-selling book called The Feminine Mystique, which pointed out that housewives were on the whole an unhappy lot, unfulfilled because their lives were built around men's. The book launched an entire movement, as women began questioning what they needed and wanted for themselves as individuals outside of their relationships to others. In 1961, Heller's portrayal of military women, prostitutes, and nurses seemed funny, honest, and deadon. It would be several years before most people would notice that the female characters in Catch-22> are mostly shallow, portrayed as sex-starved and preoccupied with men.

Critical Overview

When a chapter of Catch-22 was first published as a novel-in-progress in 1955, Joseph Heller got several letters of encouragement from editors. Then, when the finished book was published in 1961, Orville Prescott of the New York Times described it as "a dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights." Half the reviews were positive, but the other half were negative, and some were downright scathing. New York Times Book Review contributor Richard G. Stem said the novel "gasps for want of craft and sensibility," "is repetitious and monotonous," "is an emotional hodgepodge" and certainly no novel, and, finally, that it "fails." The structure was problematic for some: acclaimed author Norman Mailer said in Esquire: "One could take out a hundred pages anywhere from middle … and not even the author could be certain they were gone." New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett said it "doesn't even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper," and that "what remains is a debris of sour jokes." Further, the critic said Heller "wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it."

The last laugh was on these reviewers, however, because although the book did not win any prizes or appear on any best-seller lists, it soon became an underground hit and sold extremely well in paperback. More and more critics began to see in it what readers saw. The book had quickly become a favorite of the counterculture because of its antiauthoritarian and antiwar attitude. As Eliot Fremont-Smith said in the Village Voice (New York City's progressive counterculture newspaper), "[Catch-22] came when we still cherished nice notions about WWII. Demolishing these, it released an irreverence that had, until then, dared not speak its name." While Catch-22 was set in World War II, its message was very contemporary. As some critics pointed out, in Catch-22 the real enemy is bureaucracy, and Vietnam was a war in which the real enemy seemed to be not the Viet Cong but the U.S. military and big business, which dehumanize people. Carol Pearson wrote in the CEA Critic that the book captures how people "react to meaninglessness by renouncing their humanity, becoming cogs in the machine. With no logical explanation to make suffering and death meaningful and acceptable, people renounce their power to think and retreat to a simpleminded respect for law and accepted 'truth." Jean E. Kennard wrote in Mosaic, "Heller's horrifying vision of service life in World War II is merely an illustration of the human condition itself."

Raymond M. Olderman wrote in Beyond the Waste Land that the key scene of the novel is when the M.P.s arrest Yossarian for being AWOL while they overlook the murdered young Italian girl lying in the street. This incident, Olderman said, symbolizes "much of the entire novel's warning—that in place of the humane … we find the thunder of the marching boot, the destruction of the human, arrested by the growth of the military-economic institution." This institution is personified by Milo Minderbinder, the wheeling and dealing businessman who values money and business deals above all else. In the Canadian Review of American Studies, reviewer Mike Frank said that "for Milo, contract, and the entire economic structure and ethical system it embodies and represents, is more sacred than human life." After all, Milo even trades away the men's life rafts and makes a deal with the Germans to bomb the Americans' own base.

Critics pointed out that Yossarian's sense of powerlessness in the face of large institutions such as the military, the government, and big business are experienced by people everywhere. Yossarian became a timeless symbol of rebellion and reason, and his decision to take the moral high ground and defect despite the odds against him was embraced by many. Olderman noted that Yossarian's choice in the end was more admirable than it appears on the surface. As he points out, Yossarian's choices are that "He can be food for the cannon; he can make a deal with the system; or he can depart, deserting not the war with its implications of preserving political freedom, but abandoning a waste land, a dehumanized, inverted, military-economic machine."

Critics also noticed Heller's distinctive use of language. Kennard of Mosaic wrote that in the novel, "Reason and language, man's tools for discovering the meaning of his existence and describing his world, are useless." Language, Heller reveals, can be easily manipulated to the point where it doesn't reflect reality but instead has the power to "divest itself from any necessity of reference, to function as a totally autonomous medium with its own perfect system and logic," as Marcus K. Billson II pointed out in the Arizona Quarterly. Of course, the most memorable misuse of language is in the circular logic of the fictional military rule called "catch-22."

While Heller's novel is humorous, he said he wanted the reader to be ashamed that he was amused and to see the tragedy. Morris Dickstein in the Partisan Review pointed out that Milo's antics, which are funny at first, "become increasingly somber, ugly and deadly—like so much else in the book—that we readers become implicated in our own earlier laughter." Nelson Algren in the Nation also saw the more serious side of the novel: "Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II."

Today, more than ten million copies of the book have been sold, and Catch-22 is considered a classic novel. As Richard Locke said in the New York Times Book Review, "It is probably the finest novel published since World War II … the great representative document of our era, linking high and low culture." Indeed, the term "catch-22" has entered the language itself and can be found in many dictionaries.


Darren Felty

Felty is a visiting instructor at the College of Charleston. In the following essay, he discusses how Catch-22 explores larger issues of social order and individual responsibility within the context of a war novel.

As most critics recognize, Catch-22 offers more than a critique of World War II, despite its focus on the destructiveness of warfare. Instead, Joseph Heller employs this setting to comment upon the condition of mid-century American life. His satire targets not just the military but all regimental institutions that treat individuals as cogs in a machine. His central character, Yossarian, recognizes the insanity of social institutions that devalue human life and tries to rebel against them, first in minor ways and finally through outright rejection of them. Yet Yossarian is not, as some have contended, an immoral or non-idealistic man. He is a man who responds to human suffering, unlike characters such as Colonel Cathcart and Milo Minderbinder, who ignore the human consequences of their actions. Yossarian's perceptions conflict with most everyone else's in the book. Thus, his encounters with people inevitably lead to mutual misunderstandings, to Yossarian labelling everyone else crazy, and to a sense of pervasive lunacy. This lack of rationality creates wild comedy in the novel, but, ultimately, it drives the book toward tragedy.

Yossarian sees the conflicts of the war in purely personal terms. To him, his enemies, which include his superior officers, are trying to murder him. Those who believe in the war cannot comprehend his reduction of its conflicts to personal assaults. The young airman Clevinger, for instance, refuses to accept Yossarian's views that people are trying to kill him:

"No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.

"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.

"They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered.

"They're trying to kill everyone."

"And what difference does that makeT'

Clevinger was already on the way, half out of his chair with emotion, his eyes moist and his lips quivering and pale.… There were many principles in which Clevinger believed passionately. He was crazy.

Yossarian reduces the war to its barest elements and refuses to see himself as one component in a wider cause, which befuddles the "principled," patriotic Clevinger. Yet Yossarian does not reject the aims of the war (stopping the spread of Nazism); he reacts the way he does because he sees that the aims have been perverted. The men no longer serve a cause; they serve the insane whims of their superiors.

Men with authority in the novel do not focus on a common goal (which Clevinger believes), nor do they recognize the humanity of those they command. They value only the power they hold in the military (or the medical, religious, or commercial professions). To gain more power, these men corrupt and exploit the founding principles of the institutions they serve. For instance, instead of fighting to stop totalitarian regimes that would eliminate freedom, the military itself has imposed totalitarian rule. To maintain it, they utilize "Catch-22," a rule that they can change to fit their needs and that keeps the men trapped in their current roles. "Catch-22" grows more sinister as the novel progresses. It begins as a comic absurdity reflecting the essential powerlessness of those in the squadron since it keeps them flying the additional missions Colonel Cathcart orders:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr [who wants to keep flying] was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

When Yossarian attempts to go over Colonel Cathcart's head to division headquarters, the rule simplifies further. Despite the fact that he has flown the number of missions needed to complete his tour of duty, as specified by Cathcart's superiors, he still must obey Cathcart because "Catch-22" "says you've always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to." The soldiers, who see no altemative to these rules, accept them. Thus, everyone (except Yossarian and a scant few others) is insane because they ascribe to insane principles. They see not reality but the "reality" constructed by those who manipulate them. And they die, not to stop the Germans, but to fulfill the ambitions of their superiors and to maintain the institutions that abuse them.

What Do I Read Next?

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey is another novel about a man caught in an insane institution, in this case literally. Randall Patrick McMurphy was sent to an insane asylum as part of a plea bargain arrangement, and must fight to retain his sanity and sense of himself when he is confornted with the brutal authoritarian figure of Big Nurse, who runs the ward.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is another semi-autobiographical, satirical novel that uses a nonlinear structure to make its points about the horror and absurdity of war. The main action is set during the Allied bombing of Dresden, Gertnany, in World War II, and the main character, Billy Pilgrim, like Yossarian, is a bombardier.
  • Going after Cacciato (1979) is an antiwar novel by Tim O'Brien, set during the Vietnam War. In it, the main character, Cacciato, like Yossarian, tries to escape the war, in this case Vietnam, and arrive in a safe place, Paris. O'Brien, like Heller, uses black humor and surrealism to bring out his themes.
  • V. (1963) by Thomas Pynchon is a novel about a mysterious woman who shows up at key points in European history. Pynchon uses black humor to point out the flaws in American values in the 1950s. He also shows, like Heller, that language can serve to confuse people rather than clearly communicate. Also, like Catch-22, V. has an unusual narrative structure that jumbles chronology.
  • The Best of Abbie Hoffman: Selections from "Revolution for the Hell of It," "Woodstock Nation, " "Steal This Book," and New Writings (1990) by Abbie Hoffman, edited by Daniel Simon. Abbie Hoffman was a highly influential political activist, radical, and counterculture hero of the 1960s who, like Joseph Heller, used humor to make important points about American society and values, as well as to criticize the war and big business. He believed that "street (guerilla) theater" got people's attention in the television age, so he arranged stunts such as dropping dollar bills on the Stock Exchange and threatening to have people meditate en masse, causing the Pentagon to levitate. He explained his ideas in several nOrriction books, excerpted in this collection.
  • M*A*S*H*, like Catch-22, was a satirical movie about the insanity of war, released in 1970 in the U.S., directed by Robert Altman, screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr., starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Sally Kellerman, and Robert Duvall. Available on video from 20th Century-Fox.

Of even wider significance than military authoritarianism, however, is Milo Minderbinder's capitalistic fervor and the excesses he commits in its name. Through Milo, Heller condemns the unscrupulous expansion of commercial interests that exploit people for profit or even reduce them to the status of commodities. Milo himself acts not out maliciousness, but out of blindness. He recognizes only the right to profit, which forms his very morality. Milo embodies an American ideal. He is an individualist who believes in initiative, hard work, and opportunism, and these principles make him rich. But he is also the ultimate organization man. He forms the M & M Enterprises syndicate on the premise that every man owns a share. Thus, by supposedly incorporating everyone into his ventures, he monopolizes the black market and ensures the cooperation of those he manipulates. His vision proves destructive, however, because it excludes any notion of humanity. For instance, he contracts with the Allies and the Germans to both bomb and defend a bridge at Orvieto, and he even bombs his own squadron to make money to offset his losses in the Egyptian cotton market. When Yossarian criticizes him for his actions at Orvieto, Milo replies, "Look, I didn't start this war.… I'm just trying to put it on a business-like basis. Is anything wrong with that? You know, a thousand dollars ain't such a bad price for a medium bomber and a crew." Here, Milo unwittingly reveals his purely economic intelligence, which equates men with machinery. His agreements also betray his notions of loyalty: neither the Allies nor the Germans are his enemies because they both belong to the syndicate. He remains loyal only to his economic empire, in which the sanctity of a contract means more than the sanctity of life.

The catastrophic results of the callous misuse of power in the novel find their most wrenching expression in "The Eternal City" chapter. This chapter loses all vestiges of comedy and becomes a nightmare vision of brutality run amuck. Yossarian wanders through Rome encountering a succession of horrors and thinks, "Mobs with clubs were in control everywhere." He also learns the essence of "Catch-22": "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." Power is all. And the power to control belief is even more valuable than the power to kill, since, as Yossarian realizes, "Catch-22" works because people believe that it exists when it actually does not. Like Milo Minderbinder's capitalistic rationalizations, it serves to "bind" people's minds. Therefore, they accept the abuses heaped upon them and the world turns absurd.

In such a world, Colonel Cathcart can keep raising missions and Milo can brazenly bomb his own squadron. Hence, the restraints governing commerce and the military have completely collapsed. Survival becomes all that matters, and one must look to save himself because the institutions that supposedly support him actually look to cannibalize him. Yossarian learns this lesson most forcefully through the death of Snowden, an event that haunts him throughout the book but which he only fully understands at the novel's end. When Snowden's insides spill out as Yossarian is trying to save him, Yossarian discovers a secret: "Man was matter.… Bury him and he'll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage." He graphically encounters human vulnerability and comprehends the essential need to understand another's humanity, to see his "spirit," not to view him as only an expendable object.

Thus, the more Yossarian understands the abuses of those who wield power, and the more he sees people suffer because of these abuses, the more stubborn he becomes in his refusal to participate in the war. When he finally decides to desert from the military altogether, he does not run from the defense of principles of freedom, individuality, and justice. He, like his dead comrades, defended those ideals. His only recourses besides desertion are imprisonment or accepting Cathcart and Korn's deal to become their "pal." Both options ultimately defend Cathcart and Korn's actions and spur others to continue fighting. If imprisoned, Yossarian implicitly validates his superiors' "right" to punish him. If he accepts their deal, he would advocate murder, since men are now dying not for the cause but to help maintain their superiors' hold on authority. As Victor J. Milne contends, Yossarian's flight affirms "that an individual has no right to submit to injustice when his action will help to maintain an unjust system." Instead, Yossarian tries to flee the system itself. However futile this effort, he refuses to sanction corrupt officials and become, like them, an exploiter of others for personal gain, thereby preserving his own moral character.

Source: Darren Felty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale 1997.

Louis Hasley

In the following essay, Hasley explores how Heller uses a dramatic contrast between humorous and harrowing incidents to heighten the horror of the novel

A book that was widely acclaimed a classic upon its appearance and that has suffered no loss of critical esteem deserves many critical examinations. Now, more than ten years after its first publication in 1961, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 may justify another attempt to fix certain qualities in it more precisely than has yet been done. My special concern here is the pattern of dramatic tension between the preposterous events of the story and the built-in dimension of laughter. It is part of the pattern that the laughter, intermittent and trailing away just before the end, contributes to a catharsis in which the grimness of war provides the dominant memory.

It is part of the book's greatness that its hilarious force comes so near to a stand-off with the grimness. Heller has achieved his declared purpose, mentioned elsewhere, not to use humor as a goal, but as a means to an end. "The ultimate effect is not frivolity but bitter pessimism," he said (Time, Mar. 4, 1966). And yet the alternating play of humor and horror creates a dramatic tension throughout that allows the book to be labeled as a classic both of humor and of war. It is not "a comic war novel" despite the fact that comedy and war are held more or less in solution, for the war is not comic but horrible—this we are not allowed to forget. The laughter repeatedly breaks through the tight net of frustration in which the characters struggle only to sink back as the net repairs itself and holds the reader prisoned in its outrageous bonds.

Right here the unskillful reader may protest that Catch-22 is a comic war novel. For who could believe that war is conducted as the novel pictures it—realism blandly ignored, motivations distorted beyond recognition, plausibility constantly violated. Even conceding that war is not peace, that the conditions of any war are abnormal, could any serious work stray so far from what we know of human character?

The answer lies in an artistic strategy relating to the thesis of the novel, which, put simply, is this: War is irrational; and the representative things that happen in war are likewise irrational, including man's behavior in war. This thesis is an underlying assumption, a donnée, illustrated not documentarily but imaginatively throughout the book. It is, in terms of the book, unarguable—you take it or leave it—for the author has seen to it that all the evidence favors his thesis. What he asks, and it is everything, is that his readers accept the credibility of his characters and their actions, if not at face value, then as wild, ingratiating exaggeration that nevertheless carries the indestructible truth that war is irrational.

It would be an uncritical reader indeed who would accept at face value the greater part of what is related in this hilarious, harrowing book. For the absurd, the ridiculous, the ludicrous, are pyramided, chapter after chapter, through the lengthy book's entire 463 pages.

Starting with the opening page in which Captain Yossarian, the book's non-hero, is goldbricking in a hospital bed and censoring letters which he as censoring officer signs "Washington Irving" and sometimes with variant whimsicality "Irving Washington," to the last page in which "Nately's whore" makes a final but unsuccessful attempt to stab Yossarian because he had told her of Nately's death—through all this the predominance of the outre in events and behavior is unchallenged. One such episode has Yossarian appearing naked in formation to be pinned with the Distinguished Flying Cross by General Dreedle. Another has Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder directing his buddies in the bombing of their own camp and leaving the runways and the mess halls intact so they could make a proper return landing and have a warm snack before retiring. But it is useless to enumerate. "So many monstrous events were occurring that he [the chaplain] was no longer positive which events were monstrous and which were really taking place." That quoted sentence can stand as characterizing the events of the entire book.

The effect of such wildly imagined actions is an artistic triumph in which the reader perceives the author's attitude as overtly playful in expression and managed event, this being the only way, or at least a meritoriously acceptable way, of facing the fundamental inhumanity and irrationality of war. The author begins with an absurdum, though the reader does not always recognize it as such, and makes it into a further and unmistakable reductio ad absurdum. It thus becomes unabashed hyperbole; its literary costume is familiar to one who has read Cervantes, or Rabelais, or Swift, or the American humorists of the Old Southwest and their principal heir, Mark Twain, who could be as darkly pessimistic as is the author of Catch-22.

Heller's comic genius, however, does not come to rest in the mere contrivances of exaggeration, daft though the exaggerations are. No part of the whole texture of objectively rendered dialogue, narrative, description, and introspective characterization fails to enhance the total artistry. Of random examples, let us cite first a bit of comic circularity—not hard to find—such as this one in which the staff psychiatrist, Major Sanderson, questions Yossarian:

"Hasn't it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?"

"Yes, sir, it has."

"Then why do you do it?"

"To assuage my fears of sexual impotence."

Even in a paragraph of only ten lines, Heller can blend a telling bit of narrative with characterization and cynical reflective analysis:

Nately was a sensitive, rich, good-looking boy with dark hair, trusting eyes, and a pain in his neck when he awoke on the sofa early the next morning and wondered dully where he was. His nature was invariably gentle and polite. He had lived for almost twenty years without trauma, tension, hate, or neurosis, which was proof to Yossarian of just how crazy he really was. His childhood had been a pleasant, though disciplined, one. He got on well with his brothers and sisters, and he did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been very good to him.

Verbal humor crops up with considerable frequency in Catch-22. Yossarian, for example, said he "would rather die than to be killed in combat." A certain apartment maid in Rome (who wore limecolored panties) "was the most virtuous woman alive: she laid for everybody, regardless of race, creed, color or place of national origin.…" Often the irony is both humorous and grim, as in Corporal Whitcomb's form letter for Colonel Cathcart's self-serving and hypocritical condolence:

Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs.: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.

Much of the verbal humor still more acutely serves Heller's almost constant preoccupation with characterization, as when Colonel Cathcart adjures his men to attend a U.S.O. show.

"… Now, men, don't misunderstand me. This is all voluntary, of course. I'd be the last colonel in the world to order you to go to that U.S.O. show and have a good time, but I want every one of you who isn't sick enough to be in a hospital to go to that U.S.O. show right now and have a good time, and that's an order!"

Some indication of the mixture of horror and hilarity appears in examples already cited. But not enough to show how the cumulus of horror maintains itself against the pull of hilarity and finally establishes its ascendancy. Reappearing periodically throughout is Yossarian's memory of the bombing flight over Avignon when Snowden is mortally wounded and Yossarian as bombadier bandages a thigh wound of Snowden only to find that "whole mottled quarts" of Snowden's guts fall out when Yossarian rips open the injured man's flak suit. Memory of this experience recurs to Yossarian at intervals throughout the book, but it is so metered that it is only in the second to the last chapter that the horrible trauma experienced by Yossarian is brought home to the reader, helping to provide a clinching explanation of his refusal to obey any further flying orders and his decision to desert.

But there are other notable horror scenes of a different kind. In a chapter called "The Eternal City," Yossarian wanders through the bombed ruins of Rome compassionately in search of a twelveyear-old girl who has been made homeless. It is a dark night of the soul, a nightmare of the bizarre and the surrealistic typified by a blue neon sign reading: "TONY'S RESTAURANT. FINE FOOD AND DRINK. KEEP OUT." As Yossarian tramps the streets in the raw, rainy night,

A boy in a thin shirt and thin tattered trousers walked out of the darkness on bare feet.… His sickly face was pale and sad. His feet made grisly, soft, sucking sounds in the rain puddles on the wet pavement as he passed, and Yossarian was moved by such intense pity for his poverty that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence because he brought to mind all the pale, sad, sickly children in Italy.… He made Yossarian think of cripples and of cold and hungry men and women, and of all the dumb, passive, devout mothers with catatonic eyes nursing infants outdoors that same night with chilled animal udders bared insensibly to that same raw rain.

Other similarly pathetic sights whip up in Yossarian a tide of frenzied anguished questions.

The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.

Another dramatically moving horror scene centers on an unfortunate character whose name, given him by a father with a bizarre sense of humor, is Major Major Major. By the whim of an IBM machine he is vaulted from private to major in four days; later he is arbitrarily named squadron commander by Colonel Cathcart, whereupon Major Major Major Major is dogged by ineptitude, loneliness, and ostracism. In a desperate attempt at fellowship he joins in an outdoor basketball game, first disguising himself with dark glasses and a false moustache. The scene that follows gradually takes on the ritual killing of a scape-goat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's brilliant horror story, "The Lottery."

The others pretended not to recognize him, and he began to have fun. Just as he finished congratulating himself on his innocent ruse he was bumped hard by one of his opponents and knocked to his knees. Soon he was bumped hard again, and it dawned on him that they did recognize him and that they were using his disguise as a license to elbow, trip and maul him. They did not want him at all. And just as he did realize this, the players on his team fused instinctively with the players on the other team into a single, howling, bloodthirsty mob that descended upon him from all sides with foul curses and swinging fists. They knocked him to the ground, kicked him while he was on the ground, attacked him again after he had struggled blindly to his feet. He covered his face with his hands and could not see. They swarmed all over each other in their frenzied compulsion to bludgeon him, kick him, gouge him, trample him. He was pummeled spinning to the edge of the ditch and sent slithering down on his head and shoulders. At the bottom he found his footing, clambered up the other wall and staggered away beneath the hail of hoots and stones with which they pelted him until he lurched into shelter around a corner of the orderly room tent.

Of course, Yossarian is no King Lear whose single tragic fault causes him to fall from on high. He lies, goldbricks, fornicates, cheats at gambling, even for a time goes about naked. Yet he is more sinned against than sinning. The military organization, commanded by a vain, selfish publicity seeking, ambitious, greedy and unscrupulous authoritarian, has persecuted his squadron beyond endurance by periodically raising the number of missions required before a flier can be sent home. The number starts at twenty-five and moves by stages up to eighty. It is only after Yossarian points out that he has now flown seventy-one "goddam combat missions" that his rebellion becomes final and he refuses to fly any more missions.

The central actions of Yossarian are nevertheless not to be seen as those of a strong-minded individualist. The entire sense of the book is that war, in itself irrational, makes everyone connected with it irrational. There are no good guys in this book. Just about everyone of the approximately two score characters of some importance is called crazy at one time or another. Not only can Nature be hostile ("There was nothing funny about living like a bum in a tent in Pianosa between fat mountains behind him and a placid blue sea in front that could gulp down a person with a cramp in a twinkling of an eye"); the Deity is likewise roundly vituperated by Yossarian. In an adulterous visit to Lieutenant Scheisskopf s wife (on Thanksgiving!) he argues with her about God.

"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued.… "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else he's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about—a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed.… What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatalogical mind of His when He robbed old people of power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did he ever create pain?"

Even the chaplain is not immune from what seems the universal corruption of war. He

had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated at his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character. With effervescent agility the chaplain ran through the whole gamut of orthodox immoralities.…

The responsive reader of Catch-22 is thus made to walk a tight-rope as he leans first to riotous humor and then tips to the side of black tragedy. There is much in the book that illustrates Charlie Chaplin's dictum that humor is "playful pain." "The minute a thing is overtragic," says Chaplin, "it is funny." And he is supported emotionally, if not logically, by W. C. Fields, who said: "I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible. If it causes pain, it's funny; if it doesn't it isn't." The humor in Catch-22, we are forced to conclude, is only secondary. Where Heller comes through in unalleviated horror is where the message lies. The book's humor does not alleviate the horror; it heightens it by contrast.

It is not therefore the disinterestedness of pure humor that we find in Catch-22. It does not accept the pain of life with wry resignation. Instead it flaunts in bitterness the desperate flag of resistance to the wrongs of this life—wrongs suffered, not by the wholly innocent, but by the insufficiently guilty. And the wrongs are perpetrated not only by unscrupulous, ignorant, and power-hungry men, but also by the inscrutable Deity.

Source: Louis Hasley, "Dramatic Tension in Catch-22," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, January, 1974, pp. 190-197.

Walter R. McDonald

In the following excerpt, McDonald places Yossarian's character within the tradition of "American rebels" such as Huck Finn, Hester Prynne, and Ike McCaslin.

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Source: Walter R. McDonald, "He Took Off: Yossarian and the Different Drummer," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 36, No. 1, November, 1973, pp. 14-16.


Nelson Algren, "The Catch," in Nation, Vol. 193, November 4, 1961, pp. 357-58.

Whitney Balliett, in a review of Catch-22, in The New Yorker, December 9, 1961, p. 247.

Marcus K. Billson II, "The Un-Minderbinding of Yossarian: Genesis Inverted in Catch-22,"in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 315-29.

Morris Dickstein, "Black Humor and History: The Early Sixties," in Partisan Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1976, pp. 185-211, reprinted in his Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, Penguin, 1977, 1989, pp. 91-127.

Mike Frank, "Eros and Thanatos in Catch-22," in Canadian Review of American Studies, Spring, 1976, pp. 77-87.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Kvetch-22," in Village Voice, March 5, 1979, pp. 74-75.

Jean E. Kennard, "Joseph Heller: At War with Absurdity," in Mosaic, Vol. IV, No. 3, Spring, 1971, pp. 75-87.

Richard Locke, "What I Like," in New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1997, pp. 3, 36-37.

Norman Mailer, "Some Children of the Goddess," in Esquire, July, 1963, reprinted in Contemporary American novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 3-31.

Raymond M. Olderman, "The Grail Knight Departs," in Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 94-116.

Carol Pearson, "Catch-22 and the Debasement of Language," in The CEA Critic, November, 1974, pp. 30-5.

Orville Prescott, review of Catch-22, in New York Times, October 23, 1961, p. 27.

Richard G. Stem, "Bombers Away," in New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1961, p. 50.

For Further Study

Alex Cockburn, review in New Left Review, Vol. 18, January-February, 1963, pp. 87-92.

Cockbum praises Heller's humor but criticizes him for never moving beyond parody into satire.

Review in Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 92, No. 1, Winter, 1963, pp. 155-65.

A scathing review of the novel, focusing on its immoral underpinnings and Heller's faults as a writer.

Gary Lindberg, "Playing for Real," in The Confidence Man in American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1982.231-58.

Lindberg contrasts Yossarian and Milo as Confidence-men figures, and favorably compares Yossarian to Huckleberry Finn.

Robert Merrill, "The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 2, Autumn, 1986, pp. 139-52.

Merrill focuses on Heller's use of cyclical repetition of episodes that "move from the comic to the terrible" in the novel, causing the reader to reevaluate his own reactions to these episodes.

Robert Merrill, Joseph Heller, Twayne, 1987.

Merrill examines Heller's thematic and technical concerns in his work.

Victor J. Milne, "Heller's 'Bologniad': A Theological Perspective on Catch-22,"in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol 12, No. 2, 1970, pp. 50-69.

This critical article examines Heller's use of the mock-epic form, as well as Heller's asserting a humanistic Christian ethic over a destructive competitive ethic.

James Nagel, editor, Critical Essays on Joseph Heller, G. K. Hall, 1984.

A collection of critical essays on Heller's work.

George J. Searles, "Joseph Heller," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, edited by Daniel Walden, Gale, 1984, pp. 101-107.

An overview of the author's works and career.

David Seed, The Fiction of Joseph Heller: Against the Grain, Macmillan, 1989.

A full-length study of Heller's body of work.

Leon F. Seltzer, "Milo's 'Culpable Innocence'" Absurdity as Moral Insanity in Catch-22,"in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol 15, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 290-310.

Seltzer provides an in-depth study of Milo, focusing on his extreme commitment to capitalistic ideals and the moral blindness that results from this commitment.

Jan Solomon, "The Structure of Joseph Heller's Catch-22," in Critique, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1967, pp. 46-57.

Solomon asserts that the differing time sequences of Yossarian's and Milo's stories reinforce the absurdity of the novel.

Jeffrey Walsh, "Towards Vietnam: Portraying Modern War," in American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam, Macmillan, 1982, pp. 185-207.

Walsh contends that the novel's satire, themes, and forn distinguish it from the traditional war novel.

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Catch-22, published in 1961, is probably the best-known and most widely read novel of World War II. Its author, Joseph Heller, saw combat as an American bombardier in the last year of the war, but Catch-22 is unlike the more conventional novels of World War II that preceded it. It mixes scenes of outlandish, over-the-top satire with scenes that depict the mortal terror and horrific violence of combat. Reading Catch-22 can be both entertaining and disturbing, as the narrative veers from wild slapstick to sheer terror and back again in just a few paragraphs. It is a wild, surreal, hilarious, and often unsettling evocation of the absurdity and violence of war.

Catch-22 follows the experiences of Captain Yossarian, a bombardier in the Mediterranean theater of World War II in 1944, who flies missions from the island of Pianosa over targets in Italy and France. He is surrounded by a huge cast of colorful and often bizarre characters, who are intended to satirize not only military life but life in any large institution. They include Doc Daneeka, the base medical officer who is more concerned with his own problems than with those of his patients; Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer who uses his connections to build a massive commercial empire that includes dealing with the enemy; Major Major Major, a painfully shy man who looks like the actor Henry Fonda and who immediately rises to the rank of major; and Nately, the heartbreakingly naive lieutenant in love with an Italian prostitute who barely notices that he exists.

Catch-22 does not tell its story in chronological order but starts in the middle and jumps backwards and forward in time. The narrative is structured around chapters that focus on individual characters such as Colonel Cathcart, the squadron commander, or A.T. Tappman (who was called R. O. Shipman in the early editions of the novel), the base chaplain. It is also structured around extended sequences that stretch out over several chapters, such as the Great Big Siege of Bologna or the scenes of Yossarian and the other men on leave in Rome. A few episodes are returned to several times throughout the book. The most crucial of these is the death of the gunner Snowden in the raid over Avignon, France. The book returns to this scene again and again, revealing a little more each time, until the next-to-last chapter, when the full extent of Snowden's wounds is revealed in all its horror.

The book took Heller eight years to write. By the time it appeared at the beginning of the 1960s, a new kind of storytelling that used satire and black, or dark, comedy to examine some of the most unpleasant truths about human nature was coming to the fore in American culture, novels, movies, and works of popular art. Around the same time Catch-22 was published, topics that had only been dealt with seriously before were explored by such artists as the comedian Dick Gregory in his stand-up routines about racial injustice; by the novelist Ken Kesey, in his darkly comic novel about mental illness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and by the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, in his savage satire about nuclear holocaust, Dr. Strangelove. Foremost among these works of art was Catch-22, and its success, especially among college-age readers during the Vietnam War, is evident in its echoes in later works, such as Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five and the film and television series M∗A∗S∗H. Even the fictional rule, the Catch-22 of the title, has entered the dictionary and common speech as a term for an unsolvable and absurd paradox.


Chapter 1: The Texan

At the beginning of Catch-22, Captain Yossarian, a bombardier for the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, checks himself into the base hospital on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa with a pain in his liver. The doctors cannot find anything wrong, and the nurses do not like him. He passes the time censoring the letters of enlisted men, deleting passages at his whim and signing his work "Washington Irving." He shares the ward with a friendly Texan, his friend Dunbar, and the soldier in white, a silent patient wrapped head to toe in bandages. A man from the C.I.D. (Criminal Investigation Division) is sent to the hospital to discover the identity of Washington Irving. Meanwhile, Yossarian is visited by the base chaplain, A. T. Tappman, and Yossarian admits he is not really sick. He just does not want to fight in the war anymore. Finally, the annoying cheerfulness of the Texan drives Yossarian and Dunbar out of the hospital and back to duty.

Chapter 2: Clevinger

Before he goes into the hospital, Yossarian argues one night with Clevinger. Yossarian says that the enemy is trying to kill him, and Clevinger replies that they are trying to kill everyone, not just Yossarian. "And what difference does that make?" asks Yossarian. Yossarian shares a tent with Orr, who spends his time tinkering. On one side of them lives Havermayer, who shoots at mice with his .45, and on the other side live Nately and McWatt. Yossarian visits Doc Daneeka, the medical officer, and asks to be taken off combat duty, but Daneeka says the squadron colonel wants everyone to fly fifty combat missions before they can be relieved, and Yossarian has flown only forty-four.

Chapter 3: Havermayer

After leaving the hospital, Yossarian returns to his tent. He remembers the time on leave in Rome when a prostitute tried to kill Orr with her high-heeled shoe. In another tent is Hungry Joe, who screams in his sleep and keeps everyone awake. Meanwhile, General P. P. Peckem wants to replace General Dreedle as the unit commander. Peckem sends U.S.O. entertainers to the base, and his inept colonel, Cargill, orders the men to attend the shows whether they want to or not. Yossarian asks Daneeka again to ground him, and Daneeka says he has troubles of his own. Havermayer continues to shoot at mice, and Hungry Joe hides in one of the slit trenches that appeared after Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer, bombed the squadron in a business deal with the Germans.

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, and he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, near Coney Island. After graduating from high school in 1941, he worked as a file clerk in an insurance office and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. Inspired by heroic war movies popular at the time, he was eager to see combat action.

Heller served for three years in the Army Air Corps. From May until December 1944, he was stationed on the Mediterranean island of Corsica with the Twelfth Air Force, where he flew sixty combat missions over Italy and France as a bombardier in B-25 Mitchell bombers. On his thirty-seventh mission, over Avignon, France, his plane was badly damaged, and he was terrified of flying for years afterward. In December 1944, Heller was rotated home. He was discharged honorably as a first lieutenant, with an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation.

After the war, Heller attended college under the G.I. Bill and worked in advertising in New York. Based on his wartime experiences, Catch-22 was published in 1961 to mixed reviews and slow sales. After its paperback edition was released in October 1962, it sold two million copies in the first year alone and became one of the most widely read novels of the 1960s.

Heller wrote several other novels, a play, and a memoir. He died in 1999.

Chapter 4: Doc Daneeka

Doc Daneeka complains to Yossarian that the war has ruined his civilian medical practice. He broods over his own health and lets his orderlies do most of the work. Yossarian recalls disrupting the classes run by Clevinger in Captain Black's intelligence tent by asking surreal questions, causing Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn to make a rule that the only people who can ask questions are those who never do. General Dreedle orders the men to shoot skeet, leading to an escalation of the feud between Dreedle and Peckem, which is further aggravated by ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, a clerk at headquarters.

Chapter 5: Chief White Halfoat

Doc Daneeka tells Yossarian a story about two sexually inexperienced patients in his civilian practice. Daneeka's roommate, an Indian named Chief White Halfoat, complains that back in Oklahoma, oil was discovered everywhere his family lived, so that oil companies continually followed them around and then kicked them off the land. Later, Yossarian asks Daneeka to ground him again. Daneeka says he cannot because of Catch-22: No one can be grounded unless he is crazy, and even then he has to ask. But if he asks to be grounded in the face of the real dangers of combat, then he is not crazy and has to fly more missions. So if he flies, he is crazy and does not have to, but if he asks to be grounded, he is sane and has to fly. Yossarian recalls a mission over Avignon, France. As the bombardier, he directed the plane to the target, and the copilot, Dobbs, thought Yossarian had been hurt. But the only one hurt was a crewman named Snowden.

Chapter 6: Hungry Joe

Hungry Joe keeps flying the required number of missions, but every time, just before his discharge papers arrive, Colonel Cathcart raises the number. Chief White Halfoat punches Colonel Moodus, General Dreedle's son-in-law, in the nose, to General Dreedle's delight. He orders the chief to live with Doc Daneeka, in order to keep him under a doctor's care. Meanwhile, Cathcart raises the number of missions to fifty-five, and Yossarian complains to ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, who tells him that Catch-22 says he must keep flying.

Chapter 7: McWatt

Yossarian thinks that McWatt, his usual pilot, is the craziest man in the unit, because he is perfectly sane and still does not mind flying combat missions. Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, the new mess officer, is a skilled operator and tries to involve Yossarian in a series of complicated and shady business deals. Milo uses his position as mess officer to make a profit, and then claims he is doing it for the benefit of all the men in the unit.

Chapter 8: Lieutenant Scheisskopf

Clevinger is well-educated and clueless, a Harvard graduate with lots of intelligence and no brains. Clevinger and Yossarian went to cadet school together in Santa Ana, California, where they served under Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who is only interested in making cadets march on parade. Meanwhile, Scheisskopf's wife and her friend Dori Duz sleep with many of the cadets under Scheisskopf's command, including Yossarian, who hopes that the war will be over before his cadet training ends. Scheisskopf despises Clevinger for being smart and has him tried on trumped-up charges. At the trial, Clevinger is barely able to defend himself against the trial board's hostile and illogical questions, and he realizes that his own officers hate him even more than the Germans do.

Chapter 9: Major Major Major Major

Major Major Major was given his name as a joke by his father, a drunken farmer. A shy, docile man who resembles the actor Henry Fonda, he succeeds in college by doing whatever is asked of him. In the army, a computer error makes him a major, so that he is now Major Major Major Major. At cadet school, Lieutenant Scheisskopf does not know what to do with a trainee who outranks him, so he sends Major Major to a combat posting in Pianosa, where at last Major Major makes real friends. He then loses them when Colonel Cathcart makes him squadron commander out of sheer spite. Depressed, Major Major starts signing all official papers as "Washington Irving." A C.I.D. man is sent to investigate, and another C.I.D. man arrives to investigate the first C.I.D. man. Major Major tells his assistant, Sergeant Towser, that from now on he will only see people in his office when he is not in his office. Yossarian catches him one day outside the office and asks Major Major to ground him, but Major Major says there is nothing he can do.

Chapter 10: Wintergreen

Coming back from a mission, Clevinger's plane goes missing. His disappearance reminds Yossarian of an incident back in the United States. During training, he first met ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, who was always being punished for going AWOL (away without leave) by being made to dig holes and then fill them up. Meanwhile, Appleby, another officer, tries to report Yossarian to Major Major for refusing to take his antimalarial pills, but he cannot see Major Major unless Major Major is out. Appleby thinks all officers are crazy. Sergeant Towser thinks everyone in uniform is crazy, and he remembers Mudd, the dead man in Yossarian's tent. Mudd is not really in Yossarian's tent, but his gear is, where it has been since he was killed in combat before he officially reported for duty. Yossarian considers how Mudd's possessions are contaminated with death, just as everything else was after the Great Big Siege of Bologna, during which Colonel Cathcart volunteered his squadron to bomb the ammunition dumps in Bologna, Italy. Everyone is required to fly the mission, and Colonel Korn orders the medical tents nailed shut, so that no one can claim illness.

Chapter 11: Captain Black

Captain Black wants to be squadron commander and is furious when Major Major gets the job. He is thrilled by the raid on Bologna, because he hates the men and the raid will be especially dangerous. To get back at Major Major, Black begins the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade, requiring every man to swear a loyalty oath in order to receive the simplest necessities, like meals. The crusade is ended by Major—de Coverley, who refuses to swear and demands, "Gimme eat," in the mess line.

Chapter 12: Bologna

The raid on Bologna is delayed by rain, and the men hope it rains forever. When the rain stops, Yossarian secretly moves the bomb line on the map, so that Captain Black and Colonel Korn think that Bologna has been captured and the raid is no longer necessary. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen starts selling stolen cigarette lighters and wishes he could compete with Milo Minderbinder, who has cornered the market in Egyptian cotton and cannot sell any of it. Yossarian reveals to Clevinger that he moved the bomb line, and Clevinger accuses Yossarian of giving comfort to the enemy. Yossarian replies that the enemy is whoever is going to get him killed, no matter which side he is on. When he goes for a dangerous jeep ride with Nately, Dunbar, and a drunken Chief White Halfoat behind the wheel, Yossarian discovers that the rain has stopped. Hungry Joe is tormented by Huple's cat, which likes to sleep on Hungry Joe's face.

Chapter 13: Major—de Coverley

Major—de Coverley is older than the other officers in the squadron and more mysterious. With a thick head of white hair and an eye patch, he devotes himself to playing horseshoes and to renting apartments in captured cities for the men to use on leave. Major—de Coverley is so intimidating that none of the men, except for Milo, know how to talk to him. Milo arranges to have—de Coverley transport fresh eggs from Malta. Colonel Cathcart recalls the time he gave Yossarian a medal for leading the squadron in a dangerous second bombing pass over Ferrara, Italy. A crewman named Kraft was killed as a result, and in order to save the squadron from criticism for taking two tries to hit the target, Cathcart gives Yossarian a medal and promotes him to captain.

Chapter 14: Kid Sampson

At last the raid to Bologna takes off, and Yossarian is now too afraid to go over the target even once. Faking a malfunction in the plane's intercom, he orders the pilot, Kid Sampson, to return to base, where Yossarian sleeps on the beach until the rest of the squadron comes back. When the squadron returns with no losses, Yossarian assumes that clouds over the target kept them from bombing it, but it turns out there was no antiaircraft fire, and the raid was a milk run, or a perfectly safe one.

Chapter 15: Piltchard & Wren

Captains Piltchard and Wren, the squadron's operations officers, enjoy flying combat missions. They gently chastise Yossarian for turning back from Bologna. They also reveal that the first raid missed the ammunition dumps, so the squadron will have to return. They assign Yossarian to be lead bombardier. Yossarian thinks the raid will be another milk run, but this time there is fierce antiaircraft fire. Yossarian desperately guides McWatt, the pilot, through evasive maneuvers and loses his temper at Aarfy, the navigator, who is eerily cheerful. Yossarian watches several planes go down in flames. He thinks one of the destroyed planes might be Orr's, but then he sees Orr's plane, damaged but still flying. After returning to base, Yossarian flees to Rome for a leave.

Chapter 16: Luciana

Yossarian spends most of his leave with a beautiful young woman named Luciana who says that she will let him buy her dinner, but she will not sleep with him. Finally, she sleeps with him, and Yossarian decides he loves her. She tells him about a scar on her back that she got during an American air raid. When Hungry Joe bursts in with a camera, they get dressed and leave the building. She gives Yossarian her number, saying he will tear it up as soon as she is gone. Yossarian says he will not, and then he tears up her number as soon as she is gone. Returning to base, he finds out that Cathcart has raised the number of missions to sixty, and he checks himself into the hospital.

Chapter 17: The Soldier in White

This chapter returns to the scene of Chapter 1. Yossarian concludes that he is safer in the hospital, where the death rate is lower than in combat. He recalls the raid over Avignon, when he crawled to the dying crewman Snowden in the back of the plane. In the hospital ward, Yossarian, Dunbar, the friendly Texan, and the two nurses, Duckett and Cramer, contemplate the soldier in white, who is bandaged from head to toe. They wonder who he is and if there is even anybody inside the bandages. Yossarian considers the injustice of having to fly more missions and the dangers he faces from everyone from Hitler to his superior officers to the two nurses on the ward, all of whom, he thinks, want him dead. He asks Doc Daneeka again to ground him, and the doctor says he will, if Yossarian flies fifty-five missions. Daneeka asks Yossarian to have McWatt put the doctor's name on his flight manifest for each mission, so that the doctor can collect flight pay without having to go up in a plane.

Chapter 18: The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice

Back in the United States, when he is still a trainee, Yossarian fakes an abdominal complaint to get into the hospital. The doctors tell him he is in perfect health and ask him to leave, but instead, mimicking another patient, he claims to see everything twice. He spends Thanksgiving in the hospital and promises himself to spend every Thanksgiving there. The following year, however, he spends Thanksgiving in bed with Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife, debating the nature of God. In the hospital, when the soldier who sees everything twice dies, Yossarian announces that he is cured and asks to leave. The doctors ask him to pose as a dead soldier whose family has just arrived, hoping to see him before he dies. Yossarian meets with the family, who think he is their son.

Chapter 19: Colonel Cathcart

Colonel Cathcart is desperate to be a general and asks Chaplain Tappman to say a prayer before each mission, so that the colonel can be featured in the Saturday Evening Post. The chaplain suggests possible prayers, but Cathcart does not want anything heavy or sad, or anything to do with religion. When the chaplain says it would not be fair not to include the enlisted men, Cathcart gives up the whole idea. He offers the chaplain a plum tomato, and the chaplain meekly suggests the men are unhappy that Cathcart has raised the number of missions to sixty. Cathcart says to remind them that there is a war going on.

Chapter 20: Corporal Whitcomb

After his meeting with Colonel Cathcart, the chaplain runs into Colonel Korn, who implies that the chaplain stole the plum tomato Colonel Cathcart gave him. The chaplain lives in the woods away from the other men. He shares his tent with his assistant, Corporal Whitcomb, who resents the chaplain's belief in God and his lack of initiative. Whitcomb torments the chaplain by telling him that a C.I.D. man is investigating the chaplain for stealing the plum tomato and for signing the name "Washington Irving" to official documents. The chaplain is tortured by his own uselessness.

Chapter 21: General Dreedle

Colonel Cathcart thinks Yossarian and the problems he creates are preventing Cathcart from being promoted to general. General Dreedle, who always travels with his sexy nurse and his son-in-law, Colonel Moodus, arrives to award medals to the men, only to find Yossarian, who is to receive a medal, standing in formation naked. His uniform was soaked in Snowden's blood, and he refuses to wear it. Just before the Avignon raid, Dreedle, his nurse, and Colonel Moodus attend the mission briefing, and Yossarian moans at the sight of the nurse in her tight uniform. Soon the whole room is moaning, displeasing the general, and when Major Danby moans for a different reason, Dreedle orders him shot. Colonel Moodus talks his father-in-law out of it, and Colonel Korn takes over the briefing, hoping to impress the general.

Chapter 22: Milo the Mayor

On the Avignon mission, Yossarian finally loses his nerve. Having lied about his age to enlist, Huple, the pilot, is only fifteen years old, and the copilot, Dobbs, has no confidence in him. Dobbs tries to seize the controls away from Huple, sending the plane into a dive, which tears Yossarian's headphone jack out of its socket, cutting him off from the rest of the crew. When he plugs it back in, he hears Dobbs cry for someone to help Snowden, the new gunner. Yossarian crawls to the back of the plane to find Snowden fatally wounded. On the day Cathcart raises the number of missions to sixty, Dobbs asks Yossarian to help him kill Cathcart. Yossarian refuses. At another time, Yossarian and Orr accompany Milo on a supply run and discover that Milo is a powerful figure in various cities and countries all around the Mediterranean.

Chapter 23: Nately's Old Man

In Rome, Nately tracks down the whore he loves, but she wants nothing to do with him. Nately tries to persuade Yossarian and Aarfy to pay for two of her friends so that she will stay. Aarfy refuses, saying he never pays for sex. In the apartment where the prostitutes live, Nately debates a cynical old Italian man, who says that America will lose the war, because America is an empire and empires always fall, and Italy will win, because the Italian people always survive, no matter who conquers them. Bored, Nately's whore goes to bed alone. When Nately finally tries to sleep with her, the whore's kid sister interrupts them. In the morning, Nately is ashamed to realize that the cynical old man reminds him of his father.

Chapter 24: Milo

Milo Minderbinder's syndicate has become so large that he uses planes from every squadron to carry shipments all over the world. He has even had the planes repainted with the logo of M & M Enterprises. He contracts with the American military to bomb a German-held bridge and contracts with the Germans to direct the antiaircraft fire at the American planes during the same raid. Mudd, the dead man in Yossarian's tent, is killed in this raid, and Yossarian is angered. Meanwhile, Milo contracts with the Germans to bomb his own unit. This episode is nearly the end of M &M Enterprises, but Milo persuades nearly everyone that the privatization of war is good for democracy. Doc Daneeka tends the wounded from Milo's raid with the same care he tended Yossarian when he returned from the Avignon mission covered in Snowden's blood. Yossarian refuses to wear his uniform after that and watches Snowden's funeral naked, from the limb of a tree.

Chapter 25: The Chaplain

Chaplain Tappman doubts the existence of God and whether he is doing anybody any good at all. No one realizes he is a normal human being who misses his family and dreams that terrible things are happening to them. He wonders if the naked man he saw in the tree at Snowden's funeral (who was Yossarian) is a sign of God's displeasure with him. He finally confronts Major Major about the number of missions, but he can only go into Major Major's office when Major Major is out. He tries to comfort Captain Flume, who lives in the woods because he is worried that his tentmate, Chief White Halfoat, wants to cut his throat. Meanwhile, Colonel Cathcart promotes Corporal Whitcomb to sergeant because he has created a form letter for notifying families of a soldier's death. Cathcart accuses the chaplain of stealing the plum tomato that he had given the chaplain in Chapter 19, and he has the chaplain thrown out of the officer's club when he tries to socialize with the men.

Chapter 26: Aarfy

Nately falls in love with his whore in Rome one night when she is ignored by the other men. She refuses to take his money, and Nately defends her against Aarfy, who says she is just a whore. Aarfy is a navigator who is always leading his squadron into antiaircraft fire, especially on the mission where Yossarian is wounded by flak. In the hospital, Yossarian and Dunbar pretend to be other people so that they can stay in the same ward. Dunbar pretends to be an enlisted man named A. Fortiori. Nurse Duckett leads Yossarian back to his own bed by his ear.

Chapter 27: Nurse Duckett

In the hospital, Yossarian slips his hand up Nurse Duckett's skirt. She shrieks and a furious doctor chastises Yossarian. Yossarian says he did it because he is crazy. Dobbs visits Yossarian in the hospital and tries again to persuade him to kill Colonel Cathcart, but Yossarian wants to wait and see if the colonel raises the number of missions. After a second psychiatric session, Major Sanderson decides that Yossarian really is crazy and should go home. Instead, he sends the real A. Fortiori home by accident. Yossarian is assigned again to combat, and he tells Doc Daneeka that the psychiatrist said he was crazy and that they shouldn't send a crazy man into combat. "Who else would go?" says Doc Daneeka.

Chapter 28: Dobbs

Yossarian agrees to help Dobbs kill Cathcart, but now Dobbs has flown the required sixty missions and does not need to. Meanwhile, Orr has crashed his plane in the ocean again and was rescued. He tries to persuade Yossarian to fly with him, even though he knows that Yossarian has specifically asked not to. As an incentive, he offers to tell Yossarian why the girl in Rome was hitting him in the head with her shoe, but Yossarian says no. On the next mission, Orr's plane goes down in the ocean. All of Orr's crew members are rescued, except Orr, who drifts away in a raft and disappears.

Chapter 29: Peckem

General Peckem has Scheisskopf, who has been promoted to colonel, transferred to his command, hoping that Scheisskopf will help him in his rivalry with Dreedle. Scheisskopf is upset that he cannot march the men in parades and that he cannot bring his wife overseas. Peckem and Scheisskopf attend a mission briefing of Cathcart's squadron, where the men discover that they will be bombing an undefended Italian village for the sole reason of impressing Peckem with photographs of their tight bomb pattern. Cathcart is jealous that Peckem has brought another colonel to the briefing and takes it over himself. He starts out poorly but is pleased with his performance by the end.

Chapter 30: Dunbar

On the mission over the village, Dunbar deliberately drops his bombs hundreds of yards from the target. Yossarian decides he feels safer flying with McWatt than with Dobbs or Huple. He recalls the mission over Avignon, when he crawled to the back of the plane and found Snowden bleeding from a wound to his leg. On a training flight, McWatt flies too low just for the fun of it, and Yossarian, terrified, threatens to kill him if he does not fly higher. Meanwhile, Yossarian begins an affair with Nurse Duckett, and they have sex on the beach. Yossarian stares at the water and wonders what happened to Clevinger and Orr. One day, McWatt buzzes the beach too low and accidentally cuts Kid Sampson in half with a propeller. As Yossarian, Nurse Duckett, and the men on the beach watch in horror, McWatt, knowing he is in trouble, flies his plane into a mountain. Cathcart, upset by the two deaths, raises the number of missions to sixty-five.

Chapter 31: Mrs. Daneeka

Even though he was not actually on the plane, Doc Daneeka was listed as a passenger in McWatt's plane when it crashed. Everyone assumes he is dead, and Cathcart raises the number of missions to seventy. Daneeka finds it hard to accept that he is dead. Daneeka's wife is notified of his death, and Daneeka sends her letter saying that he is still alive, which the army tells Mrs. Daneeka is a sadistic prank. Her grief is mitigated by the money she collects from various insurance policies. Meanwhile, the men in the squadron ostracize Daneeka, blaming him for the raised number of missions, and he begins to believe that he really is dead. Mrs. Daneeka receives one of Whitcomb's form condolence letters, and she moves with her children to Lansing, Michigan, and leaves no forwarding address.

Chapter 32: Yo-Yo's Roomies

Kid Sampson's severed legs rot on the beach, since no one will touch them. Four young, energetic new officers are moved into Yossarian's tent, where they call him "Yo-Yo" and drive him crazy with their high spirits. He asks Chief White Halfoat to move in and scare them off, but the Chief has decided it is time for him to die of pneumonia. He moves into the hospital. Yossarian's new roommates burn the birch logs Orr left behind and throw out Mudd's belongings, and Yossarian escapes to Rome.

Chapter 33: Nately's Whore

In Rome, Yossarian looks for Luciana, but he cannot find her. He helps Nately rescue his whore from some other officers who are holding her in their room. Back in her own apartment, Nately's whore finally gets a good night's sleep and wakes up in love with Nately. She invites him into her bed, and Nately is so happy he begins to imagine his life in America with his whore and her kid sister. She is angry, however, when he tells her she cannot work as a prostitute any longer, and they fight. He also forbids her from talking to the cynical old man. But, she still misses Nately when he is not there.

Chapter 34: Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Day, Milo gives the men a huge feast and lots of whiskey, and that night the drunken men fire machine guns into the air for fun. At first, Yossarian is terrified, thinking that Milo is bombing the squadron again. When he realizes what is really happening, Yossarian grabs his pistol in a rage, wanting to kill somebody. Nately tries to stop him, and Yossarian breaks his nose, putting him in the hospital. The next day, Yossarian and Dunbar go the hospital so that Yossarian can apologize to Nately. Chaplain Tappman is also in the hospital, claiming to suffer from a fake malady he calls Wisconsin shingles. The chaplain is happy now that he has learned how to lie. The soldier in white is returned to the ward. In the general panic, Nurse Duckett tells Yossarian that she overheard some doctors talking about how they were going to make Dunbar disappear. Yossarian goes to warn Dunbar, but he is nowhere to be found.

Chapter 35: Milo the Militant

Chief White Halfoat dies of pneumonia, and Nately volunteers to keep flying more missions in his place, even though he has already flown the required seventy. He does not want to go home unless he can take his whore with him. Yossarian tries to talk him out of it and goes to Milo to for help. Milo's power is at its peak, and he tells Colonel Cathcart that he wants to fly more missions like the other men, though he does not really mean it. He offers to let Cathcart and Colonel Korn run the syndicate while he spends more time in combat. When Cathcart finds out how complicated the syndicate is, he decides—just as Milo wanted him to—that Milo is indispensable where he is. Milo manipulates him further into raising the number of missions to eighty. The next day, the men are rushed off to a particularly dangerous mission, during which Dobbs and Nately are killed.

Chapter 36: The Cellar

Chaplain Tappman takes Nately's death hard. Altogether, twelve men were killed. He drives to the airfield to console the returning men. Three anonymous officers arrest the chaplain and take him to a room in the cellar of Group Headquarters, where they ask him hostile and illogical questions and accuse him of writing "Washington Irving" on official documents and stealing the plum tomato that Colonel Cathcart gave him. They declare him guilty and let him go. The chaplain then confronts Colonel Korn about the disastrous raid, pointing out that some of the men who died had already flown seventy missions. The chaplain threatens to tell General Dreedle, and Korn tells him that Dreedle has been replaced by General Peckem as wing commander.

Chapter 37: General Scheisskopf

General Peckem has just moved into his new office when he learns that Scheisskopf has been promoted to lieutenant general. Scheisskopf, in command of combat operations, now outranks Peckem. Scheisskopf calls Peckem and tells him that he wants everyone to march on parade.

Chapter 38: Kid Sister

Yossarian refuses to fly any more missions. Cathcart and Korn reckon he is upset about the death of Nately. With uncharacteristic kindness, they send him on leave. In Rome, he tells Nately's whore of Nately's death, and she and her kid sister try several times to kill Yossarian. He still refuses to fly more missions, and other men, including Appleby, Havermayer, and one of his new roommates, tell him in secret that he is doing the right thing. Captain Black tells Yossarian that Nately's whore and her kid sister have been evicted from their apartment by the American military police.

Chapter 39: The Eternal City

Yossarian goes AWOL to Rome. Milo tells Yossarian that he is rocking the boat with his continued defiance. In the whore's apartment, the only person left is an old woman, who tells Yossarian that the soldiers chased away all the prostitutes, using Catch-22 as their justification. She does not know where Nately's whore or her kid sister has gone. Yossarian returns to Milo and promises to fly more missions if Milo will help him find Nately's whore's kid sister, who is only twelve. At first, Milo agrees but then becomes caught up with dealing in illegal tobacco, and he disappears. Yossarian aimlessly walks the streets of Rome, the Eternal City, all night. He witnesses horrific scenes of depravity and violence. Back at his apartment, he learns that Aarfy has raped and murdered a girl. Yossarian is outraged. The men hear the M.P.s coming. But when they arrive, the M.P.s apologize to Aarfy for intruding and arrest Yossarian for being AWOL. They escort him back to Pianosa, where Colonel Korn greets him by saying, "We're sending you home."

Chapter 40: Catch-22

Cathcart and Korn promise to send Yossarian home, with one catch. All he has to do is like them and say nice things about them back in the United States. Yossarian knows that this is not fair to the other men in the squadron, but he takes the deal. They shake hands, and he leaves happy. On the way out of headquarters, though, he is stabbed by Nately's whore, who is disguised as a private in green fatigues.

Chapter 41: Snowden

In the hospital, the doctors bicker over how to treat Yossarian. When Yossarian awakes from surgery, the chaplain visits him, and Yossarian tells him about the deal he accepted from Cathcart and Korn. He recalls what may have been a dream of a strange man saying, "We've got your pal." He decides that the man meant that death had claimed all his friends, like Clevinger, Orr, Dobbs, Kid Sampson, McWatt, Nately, and Dunbar. Only Hungry Joe is left, says Yossarian, and the chaplain tells him that Hungry Joe has died in his sleep, smothered by Huple's cat. After the chaplain leaves, a thin man in a bathrobe awakes Yossarian in the middle of the night and says, "We've got your pal." The man escapes, and Yossarian, in a cold sweat, finally remembers all the details of Snowden's death. At first, he thought Snowden was only wounded in his leg, but when he opens Snowden's flak suit, Snowden's entrails slither to the floor. Yossarian screams. In the pile of entrails, Yossarian reads the message that the spirit is gone, and man is garbage.

Chapter 42: Yossarian

Major Danby visits Yossarian in the hospital to tell him that the deal is still on with Cathcart, but Yossarian tells him he cannot accept it now. Danby tells him they will court-martial him if he refuses, but Yossarian says he will run away instead. Danby almost has Yossarian convinced that there is no hope in running when Chaplain Tappman comes in with the electrifying news that Orr is not dead; he paddled in his life raft all the way to Sweden. Yossarian realizes that everything Orr had done—ditching his plane in the sea repeatedly, asking Yossarian to fly with him—had been preparation for his escape. Yossarian leaps from his bed and says he is going to Sweden, too. Danby and the chaplain tell him he will never make it, but Yossarian dashes from the ward. Just outside the door, Nately's whore tries to stab him, missing him by inches, and Yossarian takes off.



Yossarian is perhaps the most famous example in American literature of an antihero, a protagonist whose qualities are the opposite of the traditional brave and selfless wartime hero, who is willing to risk death and injury for his country or for a cause. Instead, Yossarian holds one principle above all others, and that is survival, in particular, his own. This is clear from the first chapter, when he has checked himself into the hospital with a fictional liver ailment in order to avoid combat. Even before he is shipped overseas, he is afraid of dying. He hopes that the war will end before he has to go into combat. Yossarian is not necessarily a coward. On one early raid, he shows initiative and bravery, taking the squadron in a second pass over the target, but he loses his nerve for good after the raid over Avignon, when Snowden is killed. He spends most of the book pleading with everyone—his superior officers, Doc Daneeka, his friends Clevinger and Dobbs—to relieve him from combat and send him home. His reaction to the war is not a political or moral one; he never expresses any doubt about the necessity of the war or of defeating the Nazis. He simply does not understand why he has to be the one to risk his life, when there are plenty of others who have not flown as many missions as he has. Yossarian comes to think of everyone who puts his life in danger, especially the officers of his own army, as the enemy.

Heroism and Leadership

The entire book, not just the character of Yossarian, turns on its head the whole concept of heroes and leaders. Throughout Catch-22, most of the personnel of the Army Air Force are depicted as foolish, inept, self-serving, or corrupt. Rank does not matter: nearly everybody from ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen to General Peckem is more concerned with improving his own status and comfort than with fighting the war. Major Major Major Major is utterly inept. He is so afraid of leading that he makes a rule that no one can see him when he is in his office. They can only see him when he is not there. Colonel Cathcart is obsessed with impressing his superior officers and with getting his picture in the Saturday Evening Post, an important popular magazine of the time; he endangers his own men to do so, constantly raising the number of missions they must fly before they can be rotated out of combat. The only really competent officer in the book, Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, is also the most corrupt, trading with anyone, even the enemy, and using the men and materiel of the Army Air Force to make himself rich. He even makes a deal with the Germans to bomb his own air base. The most decent and compassionate character in the book, Chaplain A. T. Tappman, is also the most ineffectual, and he is never more ineffectual than when he is trying to do the right thing. He is only really happy when he starts to lie and cheat like everyone else, checking himself into the hospital with a fictional ailment, as Yossarian does in Chapter 1.

Violence and Death

The dark undercurrent of Catch-22 is the constant threat of violent injury and death. Though the book is not especially graphic in its depiction of violence, the threat of sudden death is in the background of nearly every scene. Death, when it happens, is sudden and unexpected, such as when two bombers collide in the raid over La Spezia, and Nately, Dobbs, and ten other men are killed in an instant. Even the comic scenes have a grim undercurrent, such as the scene in which Yossarian shows up naked to receive a medal because his uniform was soaked in Snowden's blood. Snowden's death, in fact, is at the root of Yossarian's fear of dying and at the heart of the book's moral outrage at the savage waste of war. The scene is repeated throughout the book like the tolling of a bell, showing a little more detail each time. In the final flashback, when Yossarian opens Snowden's flak jacket and the gunner's viscera spill out, Yossarian comes to realize: "The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all."


Literary Responses to World War II

The response by writers to the Second World War was different than the response of an earlier generation of writers to the First World War. After its conclusion in 1918, World War I was almost universally considered by writers and artists to have had a catastrophic effect on culture and civilization, rendering old ways of seeing the world obsolete. There were a couple of important literary responses to the changes wrought by the war. One was the rise of the literary movement known as modernism, as seen in such works as James Joyce's novel Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" (1922). Such works radically altered the way stories were told and delved more deeply than earlier works into the consciousness of their characters and of the time. Another important literary response after the war was the publication of a number of grimly realistic works which, unlike earlier works, not only refused to glorify war but expressed bitterness and even rage at the waste and futility of the war. These included the poems of British poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, the memoir Goodbye to All That (1929) by British writer Robert Graves, and the novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) by American writer Ernest Hemingway. The modernist movement and the series of brutally realistic war literature had a profound effect on subsequent literature.

World War I was supposed to be "the war to end all wars," but only twenty years later came World War II, an even more catastrophic conflict. The literary response, however, was more subdued and less artistically radical than the works that followed the earlier war. In part, this was because World War II was considered to be a good—or at least a necessary—war compared to World War I. The novels that followed World War II showed the hardship of combat but did not question the necessity of defeating the Nazis and Japanese imperialism. Within a few years of the war's end in 1945, a number of powerful, realistic novels by combat veterans appeared, including James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951), Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1951), and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948). Adding to this subdued response were the political tensions of the McCarthy era, when many people were jailed or driven from their jobs for radical political beliefs, and the tensions of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, with its underlying threat of a devastating nuclear war. It was in this context of weariness from two world wars in thirty years and fear for the future that Catch-22 took a radical new approach to World War II and its aftermath.

Satire, Black Comedy, and the Literature of the Absurd

Postwar tensions were expressed culturally in several ways. One response was the rise of the noir (French for "black") novel and film, dark crime stories that featured morally confused characters, a cynical approach to such institutions as law enforcement and business, and unhappy endings, in the works of writers like Americans Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith and French novelist Georges Simenon. At the same time, the group of writers known as the Beats, such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs, began to publish avant-garde works that rejected ordinary, middle-class American life. This postwar cynicism was perhaps most vividly expressed by a new generation of satirists, who wrote what came to be known as black humor. Stand-up comedians such as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory began to talk about politics, sex, and race in their routines, and writers like Terry Southern, Jules Feiffer, and Bruce Jay Friedman began to write wildly satirical books that attacked what they considered to be the lies and hypocrisy of mainstream culture.

At the same time, a long-standing European tradition of dark comedy and absurdism was becoming more widely read in America. This tradition included such works as the novel The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka, the novel The Good Soldier Svejk (1923) by Jaroslav Hasek, the play Waiting for Godot (1952) by Samuel Beckett, and the novel Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov, all of which took darkly comic or absurd approaches to such topics as justice, military service, and sexual obsession. In 1959, this approach was finally applied to World War II in the novel The Tin Drum, by the German author Guünter Grass, followed two years later by the absurdist comedy of Catch-22. Although the book was set during the war, Catch-22 was also intended as a critique of the fifteen years of postwar American life. In its portrayal of cynical officers such as Colonel Cathcart and General Peckem, the book satirized the corruption of large institutions. It criticized corporate capitalism in the person of Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder. These aspects of the book, along with its harrowing depiction of the terrors of combat, put Catch-22 in the forefront of a cultural movement that reached its peak in the 1960s, with such novels as Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), Thomas Pynchon's V (1963), and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and such films as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Mike Nichols's The Graduate (1967). The influence of Catch-22 came full circle when The Graduate's director and screenwriter, Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, went on to make the film of Catch-22 in 1970.


Simon & Schuster published Catch-22 in 1961. The novel immediately drew strong responses from reviewers. Some were baffled by its unusual structure and wild humor, and some were deeply outraged. One offended anonymous reviewer in Daedalus called the book "worthless" and stated that "its author cannot write." Most reviews, however, were glowing. Novelist Nelson Algren wrote in the Nation: "This novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years." Other important critics agreed. Orville Prescott, the reviewer for the New York Times, called it "a dazzling performance that will probably outrage nearly as many readers as it delights." Critic Robert Brustein, in an influential early essay in the New Republic, argued that the book was about more than just the air war in World War II and that the island of Pianosa was "a satirical microcosm for many of the macrocosmic idiocies of our time." He praised Yossarian's "anarchic idealism" and argued that his "obsessive concern for survival makes him not only not morally dead, but one of the most morally vibrant figures in recent literature."

In spite of the widespread praise, the book did not make the bestseller lists, selling only thirty-five thousand copies during its first year of publication. After Dell published the paperback in October 1962, however, the book sold two million copies in a year, with eight million in print by 1971. In the words of Robert Merrill in his book Joseph Heller, Catch-22 is "now widely recognized as one of the most important books written by an American since World War II." It is regularly taught in high school and college courses, and its title has entered the language as a metaphor for an inherently paradoxical situation.

Catch-22 was widely reassessed on the occasion of Heller's death in 1999. In his 1964 essay, "The Best Catch There Is," Norman Podhoretz called Catch-22 "one of the bravest and most nearly successful attempts we have yet to describe and make credible the incredible reality of American life in the middle of the 20th century." Thirty-five years later, after Heller's death, however, he accused the novel of contributing to the antimilitary attitude of the culture since the 1960s, and wondered if Heller's "literary achievement was worth the harm—the moral, spiritual, and intellectual harm—Catch-22 has also undoubtedly managed to do." Responding to Podhoretz in "Reassessing Catch-22," Sanford Pinsker agrees that any World War II novel that fails to acknowledge that the real enemy in World War II was not Milo Minderbinder or ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen "begs for moral reassessment." But he concludes by saying that Catch-22 "has earned its place as a classic of American humor … If Catch-22 is a shade less than the perfect novel that Heller's eulogists blathered on about, it is surely one helluva book."


Sanford Pinsker

In the following excerpt, Pinsker argues that the comic excess of Catch-22 is essential to its success. He also argues that the book stands in a uniquely American tradition of dissent against hypocrisy.


Catch-22, directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay by Buck Henry, was released as a film by Paramount in 1970. The film stars Alan Arkin as Yossarian, and the cast includes Orson Welles, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Art Garfunkel, Martin Sheen, and Jon Voight. It is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video, with a commentary track by director Nichols and the filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.

Catch-22 has been released in several different unabridged versions on audiocassette, and in an abridged version narrated by Alan Arkin, who starred as Yossarian in the 1970 film version. All of them are out of print.

Even those who did not bother to turn a single page of Catch-22 got the general idea—namely, that a ubiquitous, altogether scary "they" was out to kill John Yossarian, the novel's beleaguered jittery protagonist. As one fall-down, darkly comic episode after another makes clear, patriotic twaddle is inextricably tied to military careerism—and always with the same deadly result. Jump into the novel anywhere, and you'll find the enemy wearing an American uniform and acting foolishly ("Men," Colonel Cargill confidently exclaims, "you're American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement. Think about it"). And that perhaps is the point, for Catch-22 is hardly an example of the exquisitely crafted, probingly subtle Jamesian novel; rather, its repetitions (and repetitiousness?) work in roughly the same way that rapid-fire shpritz did for the comedian Lenny Bruce. Oceans of words washed across their respective audiences, overwhelming whatever objections to the material they might have had. Bruce enjoyed holding the feet of his with-it liberal fans to the fire while Heller engaged in a nonstop war against, well, war.

The trick, of course, is to get people to clap their hands raw if you are a stand-up comedian, and to turn the page, and then the next one, if you happen to be a writer. For Heller and Bruce, excess—usually fueled by moral indignation—came with the territory. The usual niceties, whether they be of literary convention or comic decorum, no longer mattered. Instead, the uncompromising truth (what Bruce, reverting to Yiddish, liked to call the emiss) was everything.

Yossarian's wacky persistence makes him a special case. Given his self-styled role as the one sane man in an insane world, it is hardly surprising that he is written off as a nut case—by the top brass as well as by many of his fly-boy buddies. When the required number of bombing missions begins to rise exponentially, there is every reason to resist, at least so far as Yossarian is concerned. He does this in any number of bizarre ways—by secretly moving bombing lines on a map; by going naked to a ceremony in which he is to receive a medal; by marching backward; and ultimately by refusing to fight.

That we first meet Yossarian in a hospital is significant because that is, one presumes, where the wounded and the sick are healed, and where his ambivalent liver causes so much consternation: "If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn't become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them." The grim truth, of course, is that, in Catch-22, one can die just as easily in a hospital as anywhere else. (Witness the ill-fated "soldier in white.") Nonetheless Yossarian takes a certain amount of pride in the reprieves from flying that his odd liver (temporarily) buy him. Nothing, after all, unsettles rigid bureaucratic minds more than an aberration lodging stubbornly between the cracks and just beyond the grip of rules. Yossarian's near-jaundice is a tiny but telling example. He spends as much time as possible in the hospital, not only because the meals are better there and because he can flirt with the nurses, but mostly because there he is safe.

Most of his energy, however, is taken up in efforts to make a case that somebody else should fly the missions that just might kill him. Yossarian blames his sad fate on the greedy (consider a case in point, Milo Minderbinder, who turns war-profiteering into an empire). Nearly anybody in the top brass is also greedy. All of this puts Yossarian squarely in the American grain, and Heller is the narrating presence that pits Self against Society, the pure-of-heart against the thoroughly corrupt. One thinks of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, of Mark Twain and Ralph Ellison—each in his way asking us to identify with, and cheer on, the underdog.

Heller, in short, belongs to this great American tradition of dissent, even as he extends it by changing the essential arithmetic that once came with the war novel. Instead of giving us a naive romantic protagonist who learns that war is not what recruitment posters advertise (as Hemingway shows in A Farewell to Arms), Yossarian steps onto center stage knowing the existential fact about battle: the enemy wants to kill you. But in the same way Norman Mailer once remarked that it is hard to imagine a novel which begins with a naked woman in Macy's window—his point being where do you possibly go from there?—what is one to say of a protagonist who has long antennae out for threats to his survival? Part of Heller's indisputable achievement is that he makes Yossarian interesting for as long as he does; another part is that Heller understands the alternating currents of paranoia better than most. Granted, some of Yossarian's fears are as unfounded as they are funny, but many are not. Like his nearly jaundiced liver Yossarian lives in the ambivalent middle.

Source: Sanford Pinsker, "Reassessing Catch-22," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 108, No. 4, October-December 2000, pp. 602-610.

James Webb

In the following essay on the occasion of Heller's death, Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, offers a combat veteran's appreciation of Catch-22.

It has been more than 30 years since I read Catch-22, but when I learned that Joseph Heller had died on Sunday, the book sprang back at me with a startling vividness. Yossarian in the hospital, censoring letters according to his own random formulas. Major Major, promoted because of his name. Milo Minderbinder, the cunning soldier turned war profiteer who eventually took advantage of both sides' war weariness by staging an entire battle for a fee. The hilariously inventive schemes to beat the system and come out of the war alive. The quietly tragic moments of death, on the bombing runs and again on the tranquil, protected beaches of their home base when an aircraft goes astray. One can debate many issues regarding the novel and the war it portrayed, but its lasting greatness is beyond dispute.

I actually read the novel twice, with stunningly different impacts.

Shortly after Catch-22 went into paperback, it moved through my high school near Offut Air Force Base, Neb., like wildfire. We were mostly Air Force brats, born just after World War II, raised on the stories of heroes and legends, many of whom were our own fathers. Our weekly television fare was heavy with the war's retelling, including such popular series as "Air Power" and "Victory at Sea."

We were fiercely proud of our fathers and of the role our country had played in the war. And yet the novel captured for us a humanity that was otherwise difficult to penetrate, and through its deliberate absurdity it gave us an understanding of how terrifying it is for anyone—no matter how brave, no matter how good the cause—to repeatedly place himself at risk in service of a higher ideal.

And in this sense many critics and fellow writers are wrong when they claim that the book's greatness was that it somehow anticipated wars that followed World War II. Alfred Kazin in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers From Hemingway to Mailer, wrote that Heller's novel "is really about the Next War, and thus about a war which will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end when no one is alive to fight it." But Catch-22's greatest power was that it took the ultimately justifiable war and stripped away cant and hypocrisy from the telling of how difficult it is to serve.

Great literature confronts comfortably held notions, and in the aftermath of the bloodletting and tragedies of World War II the national mindset was nothing short of adamant in its insistence on the fatalistic bravado with which our soldiers had faced death—and never mind that two-thirds of those who served were draftees. (By contrast, two thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers.)

Catch-22 laughed happily at this view. Heller's novelistic choice of absurdity over irony was the most effective way to make a point without demeaning true sacrifice or insulting our national goals. His grand and comical imagination took those of us born just after the war behind the newsreels and the stiff remembrances into the minds of individuals being impelled, often against their will, by historical events.

Heller was telling us that it's easy to believe in a cause, especially if someone else is dying for it, but that beyond politics and high-blown speeches the human mind is clever, innovative and laced tightly to the genetic code that has allowed our species to survive. It is for this reason, I believe, that the novelist Nelson Algren called Catch-22 "the best American novel to come out of World War II."

I read Catch-22 again in June 1969. I was sitting underneath an umbrella-like lean-to I had fashioned out of my Marine Corps poncho to protect me from the 100-degree head in a windless, treeless, sandy peninsula known as Go Noi Island. We had been drinking bad water for months and I had only recently overcome a case of hook-worm. I smelled so bad that when I fell asleep my own body odor woke me up.

In a few weeks I would be wounded and after being picked up by a medevac I would learn that I had dropped more than 30 pounds in four months. Typical of the Marine Corps experience in Vietnam—a war that produced five times as many dead Marines as World War I, three times as many as in Korea, and more total Marine casualties than even World War II—my rifle platoon had been frequently chewed up. Two of my original three squad leaders were dead, the other shot through the gut. I was on my third platoon sergeant and my fourth radio operator, who in a few days would be shot, to be replaced by a fifth, who a few weeks after that would lose an arm.

I had just received a letter from a Naval Academy roommate, posted from his minesweeper's liberty port in Mallorca. It was filled with well-intentioned politics, telling me how important it was that the war go on until we won, then remarking about how nice the Mediterranean was at that time of year, and at the end reminding me that he had been promoted to lieutenant junior grade, three months before I would reach first lieutenant. I found myself wishing I could strangle my roommate, or at least send him out on a long patrol with four canteens of wormy water while I was transported for an evening to Mallorca.

Then I looked across our sun-baked, bombcratered company perimeter and saw a fellow platoon commander running toward me. He was laughing uncontrollably, waving a book in the air. He crawled underneath my poncho hooch and held the book in front of me, open at a favorite page.

"Read this!" he said, unable to stop laughing. "Read it!"

He handed me Catch-22. I found the place his finger had marked and began reading. I was suddenly in the midst of World War II. Yossarian was at a bar, getting drunk, arguing with his fellow airmen about the war. "Who is the enemy?" he was persistently asking them. Of course we knew who the enemy was in World War II. But as with so much in Heller's masterpiece, Yossarian had a different answer. And for those who must do the fighting in any war, it rang timeless: "The enemy is anybody who shoots at you. And anybody who sends you out to get shot at."

In the next few days I devoured the book again. It mattered not to me that Joseph Heller was then protesting the war in which I was fighting, and it matters not a whit to me today. In his book, from that lonely place of blood and misery and disease, I found a soul mate who helped me face the next day and all the days and months that followed. His message was not that his war or mine was either good or bad. It was that all wars dehumanize. That few soldiers march happily to their fate. And that once the bullets start to fly, all battlefields become apolitical. For while there may be few atheists in a foxhole, there are even fewer politicians.

Literature remains the best mechanism to explain such anomalies. And great novels, unlike their authors, live on and on.

Source: James Webb, "The Novelist Who Put a Human Face on War," in the Wall Street Journal, December 15, 1999, p. A22.


Aldridge, John A., "Catch-22 Twenty-Five Years Later," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 379-80.

Algren, Nelson, "The Catch," in A "Catch-22" Casebook, edited by Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973, p. 5; originally published in The Nation, Vol. 193, November 4, 1961, p. 358.

Anonymous, "A Review: Catch-22," in A "Catch-22" Casebook, edited by Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973, pp. 27-28; originally published in Daedalus, Vol. 92, Winter 1963, pp. 155-65.

Bradbury, Malcolm, "Introduction," in Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, Everyman's Library edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, pp. vii-xviii.

Brustein, Robert, "The Logic of Survival in a Lunatic World," in A "Catch-22" Casebook, edited by Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973, pp. 9, 11; originally published in the New Republic, Vol. 145, November 13, 1961, pp. 11-13.

Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, Everyman's Library edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, pp. 20, 56-57, 145, 280, 378, 536, 545.

――――――, "Joseph Heller's Preface to the 1994 Edition of Catch-22," in Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, Everyman's Library edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, pp. 563, 564, 567.

Merrill, Robert, Joseph Heller, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 1, 3, 9.

Pinsker, Sanford, "Reassessing Catch-22," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 108, No. 4, p. 611.

Podhoretz, Norman, "The Best Catch There Is," in A "Catch-22" Casebook, edited by Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973, p. 237; originally published in Doings and Undoings, by Norman Podhoretz, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964, pp. 228-35.

――――――, "Looking Back at Catch-22," in Commentary, Vol. 109, No. 2, February 2000, p. 32.

Ruderman, Judith, Joseph Heller, Continuum, 1991, pp. 13-20.

Scoggins, Michael C., "Joseph Heller's Combat Experiences in Catch-22," in War, Literature and the Arts, Vol. 15, Nos. 1/2, 2003, pp. 214, 215.

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by Joseph Heller


A novel set on an American Army Air Force base on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy during the last years of World War II (approximately 1944-45); published in 1961.


A young bombardier, Yossarian, attempts to survive amid the chaos and absurdities of war.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born May 1, 1923, Joseph Heller flew as a bombardier on some sixty combat missions for the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He went on to teach English at Pennsylvania State University, then worked in magazine publishing, meanwhile writing the novel Catch-22 in his free time. Set on an American overseas air base during the Second World War, the novel conveys a sense of the author’s own wartime experience, more specifically his fears about dying in battle.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Italy in World War II

In the novel Yossarian and his bombardment group live on an island off Italy’s coast. Although they continually attack the Italian mainland, they also visit the city of Rome during their vacation leave. Such unusual circumstances were the result of Italy’s unique position during World War II, which resulted from events that occurred in the preceding decades.

After the First World War, Italy experienced social and economic distress. Industrially, it lagged behind most Westernized countries, while an expanding population drained its resources. Politically, various groups vied for control of the country. In this unstable climate, Italy’s Socialist Party rose to great power. Promising aid to the worker and an end to civil distress, the Socialists gained a loyal following.

The wealthier elements of Italian society feared that the Socialists and other leftist groups might cause a revolution and appropriate their assets. Given this situation, Benito Mussolini, a former Socialist, created a political group, Fascio de Combattiment (Combat Band), better known as the Fascists. Mussolini’s group opposed the strikes and factory occupations supported by Socialists and trade unions. Violent confrontations between the groups ensued, with Mussolini’s forces gaining a certain amount of popular support for opposing the disruptions of the leftists. Mussolini’s power grew. On October 28, 1922, he and his supporters conducted the “March on Rome,” a show of strength by several thousand Fascists. Following this display of solidarity, Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III named Mussolini as premier. By 1925 Mussolini ruled the nation as dictator—the king became little more than a figurehead.

Mussolini’s fascist government favored strict federal control of labor and industry. The dictator maintained his power through the use of his squadristi, a black-shirted band of armed police, and any political opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. The press and radio also came under state control, and with this Mussolini now wielded the powerful weapon of propaganda. Despite his heavy-handed control of the country, many viewed his rule as beneficial. In time, he instigated several public works projects, revitalized the Italian military, and most importantly, put an end to the civil distress. Italy underwent radical transformations because of Mussolini’s economic and social policies, from the wiring of much of the country for electricity, to the secure establishment of automobile and silk manufacturing, to the construction of a sizeable network of highways for transportation. Many of Italy’s youths, workers, and employers organized into groups designed to show support for II Duce, the leader.

Once Italy regained its political and economic footing, Mussolini embarked on several military campaigns. Between the years of 1935 and 1945, Italy was engaged in constant warfare. In 1936 it invaded and conquered Ethiopia. Later that year, Mussolini sent troops to aid Francisco Franco, a like-minded fascist, in overthrowing Spain’s government during the Spanish Civil War. Also in 1936, Mussolini signed an agreement with German leader Adolf Hitler that outlined a common foreign policy; their alliance became known as the Rome-Berlin Axis.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Great Britain and France immediately retaliated by declaring war on Germany, and World War II commenced. While Italy did not enter the war for some time, on June 11, 1940, Mussolini officially pledged his nation’s alliance with Germany. Italian troops began fighting on the French border, helping Germany to defeat France by June 22, 1940. Soon other war fronts opened. Mussolini and his government sent troops to Africa, Egypt, and Greece. Yet Italy found itself ill-prepared for war, both economically and strategically. It lost several important campaigns, and on July 10, 1943, the Allied Forces of the United States and Great Britain invaded the island of Sicily, the southernmost area of Italy. On July 19, during Mussolini’s meeting with Hitler, reports arrived about the Allied attack on Rome. By this time, factions of Mussolini’s own party wanted him overthrown. On July 25, King Victor Emmanuel III summoned Mussolini to the royal palace, dismissed him from office, and had him arrested and taken to a police station. German paratroopers eventually rescued Mussolini, September 13, from a hotel atop the Gran Sasso d’ltalia—the highest peak in the Abruzzi Apennines mountains. Although Hitler insisted that he establish a separate government in the German-occupied north of Italy, Mussolini was disillusioned by this time and did not take an active role in ruling the area. The “Fascist Republican Government” amounted to little more than a puppet regime controlled by Hitler.

Italian businessmen and workers, disillusioned by Mussolini’s rule, had meanwhile formed their own Committee of Liberation (CLN) and a new government was formed to replace Mussolini. On September 8, 1943, the government signed an armistice with the Allies, and in October declared war on Germany. The Germans, however, still controlled the northern part of the country and Italy now found itself divided. By the time that the novel’s character Yossarian and his combat crew entered the war, Italy had largely withdrawn from the war and Germany still occupied portions of the country. Toward the end of April 1945, while attempting to flee to Switzerland, Mussolini was captured by members of the Italian resistance, who executed him on April 28. Although the war with Germany ended on May 7, 1945, the Allies would continue to occupy Italy until a peace treaty with the country was finally signed in 1947.

Military bombers

During World War II, aircraft played a crucial part in wartime strategy. Bombing enemy targets in efforts to interrupt military supply lines or to prepare for invasions by ground troops gave the combatants’ air forces a dominant place in a major war for the first time in history. Ill-prepared at the start of the war, the United States Army Air Force quickly developed a powerful array of aircraft capable of carrying bomb loads. Fighter bombers served double purposes. This type of bomber was armed for air combat against enemy aircraft and was also designed to carry bombs—most often suspended from the wings—that could be dropped in support of ground troops. A second type of military bomber plane was the dedicated bomber. Although these aircraft carried machine guns for their own defense, they served primarily as carriers of bombs that the crew would drop on military targets. Thousands of dedicated bombers were used in raids on targets in Europe in preparation for the Allied invasion of the continent.

American aircraft companies built twin-engine and four-engine dedicated bombers with very different flight ranges, bomb capacities, and crew demands. By far the greatest number of raids in Europe involved the B-17, or Flying Fortress bomber. Carrying a crew of ten and a bomb load of 5,000 pounds, this four-engine plane was capable of flying to any target in Europe and returning to bases in Great Britain. The B-24, another four-engine bomber, had an even greater bomb capacity and longer range. Some B-24s were used successfully in Europe, but its long range made the B-24 even more popular in the Pacific.

America also made use of two-engine bombers with crews of two to four members. Chief among these were the B-25, known also as the Mitchell bomber, and the B-26, sometimes called the Flying Cigar. These planes were mostly used to reach short-range targets and to prepare the way for ground-troop penetrations. Included in the typical crew were a pilot, a co-pilot, and a bombardier. The pilot and co-pilot steered the plane toward its destination and through any enemy fire, or “flak.” Proving their mettle, the B-25s gained fame early in America’s participation in the war. On April 18, 1942, as Japanese forces were capturing one after another of the Allied bases in the Pacific Islands, General James Doolittle commanded a fleet of sixteen B-25s that carried out a dangerous raid to undermine Japanese morale. The sixteen planes were stripped of every unnecessary item, crammed with gasoline, and packed with their full bomb loads. When compared with the B-17s, the B-25s had a limited range. Their mission to bomb Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, was therefore a one-way flight. Bombers flew from an aircraft carrier drawn as near to Japan as possible and, after hitting their targets, flew the short distance onward to land in China. The success of this raid demonstrated the value of the B-25s and rattled Japan (whose military leaders had believed their country was unreachable by the Allies). Later, when the Allies invaded Italy, bombers of this variety were used in Europe to support ground troops and disrupt enemy supply lines. It is in Italy that the novel’s main character, Yossarian, mans a B-25.

Life in the combat crew

Yossarian’s air base in the novel lies on the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea. While the island itself actually exists, as Heller points out, “it is very small and obviously could not accommodate all of the actions described” (Heller, Catch-22 epigraph). A typical U.S. Army Air Force station usually contained a few thousand men. Among the personnel were combat crews and officers as well as support staff.

The enlisted men and officers had plenty of idle time to kill between combat flights. Most bases attempted to maintain some semblance of life back home. Radios provided an important connection for the homesick personnel, and programs such as the British Broadcasting Company and the Allied Forces Network offered a full range of music and news. Some stations could even pick up Germany’s English-language broadcasts. While all of these broadcasts were designed with propagandist intent, they nonetheless served to boost morale. In addition to the radio entertainment, the bases also provided movies and alcohol as diversions for the men. They seemed to crave anything that would keep their minds off the inevitable next mission.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Catch-22 focuses essentially on an American Army Air Forces bombardier and his attempt to survive the combat and general mayhem of World War II. Yossarian is stationed with the rest of his squadron on the island of Pianosa, just off the Italian coast. No newcomer to the war effort, Yossarian yearns for nothing more than to complete his string of forty-five combat missions and to return home safely in one piece. Unfortunately for the young bombardier, the officer in command, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of requisite missions for all his bombardiers in an attempt to earn a promotion for himself.

Yossarian did not enter into the war a coward. Like most new arrivals, he flew with brash confidence and patriotism. His excellent marksmanship earned him a position aboard the lead plane in the combat formation. With each flight, however, he feels his luck slipping bit by bit. Finally one event awakens Yossarian to the horrors of war and shakes his steel reserve. During a somewhat routine mission, Yossarian’s plane suffers heavy flak from antiaircraft forces. While Yossarian escapes without bodily harm, his psyche undergoes a tremendous shock. After the initial confusion of combat dissipates, Yossarian discovers that the bombardier, Snowden, has been hit by antiaircraft fire from the ground, which entered the plane through the bomb-bay doors. He attempts to stabilize Snowden, administering first aid and offering gentle words of encouragement. After tying a tourniquet on the man’s leg, Yossarian believes that the immediate danger to Snowden’s life has been removed. When he opens the man’s flak suit, however, he is greeted by Snowden’s entrails spilling out onto the floor. Aware that Snowden has suffered fatal injuries, Yossarian can only mumble vague platitudes and watch as the young man slowly dies. The macabre scene forever alters Yossarian’s attitude toward combat.

For his remaining time in the army, Yossarian focuses his attention on avoiding death at all costs. He checks himself into the infirmary with phantom diseases, refuses to fly, and at one point even dares to be absent without leave. He pleads with the base physician, Doc Daneeka, in an effort to be excused from combat on the basis of mental instability. Doc Daneeka informs him that according to army regulations, any man judged crazy must be grounded from further flight. As part of the rule, however, a man wishing to be grounded must ask the physician for the official decision. When Yossarian asks, “And then you can ground him?” (Catch-22, p. 40), however, Doc Daneeka replies in the negative. The doctor explains that the rule involves a catch, Catch-22: Anyone desiring to avoid combat duty is deemed not crazy. The stipulation states that “a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that [are] real and immediate [is] the process of a rational mind” (Catch-22, p. 40). This cyclical logic keeps Yossarian from realizing his wish.

This Catch-22 represents Yossarian’s overall Air Force experience. Actions do not necessarily proceed from reason, and all logical assertions seem to negate themselves. The words and actions of commanding officers appear to possess no rationale. For instance, Colonel Cathcart insists that his men drop their bombs in tight patterns so as to create impressive aerial photographs. When someone points out that these tight patterns often cause bombers to miss their targets, the colonel dismisses the comment as irrelevant. In the mixed-up world in which Catch-22 prevails, dead men remain “alive” because no one will remove them from the roster. Likewise, live men are considered dead when someone lists them incorrectly on a roster.

Yossarian begins to doubt his ability to escape from such mayhem. He becomes convinced that his friend and the role-model for his calculatedly erratic behavior, Orr, has downed his own plane so that he could disappear from the fighting. Orr, Yossarian concludes, managed to escape. Ultimately Yossarian concludes that there’s no harm in running away to save one’s own life. The close of the novel follows Yossarian as he departs into the unknown. One is certain only of his intent to carve out a future that carries him far from the war.

Catch-22 as a military satire

World War II marked an important turning point for Americans. While the First World War inspired a patriotic fervor on the home front, by the 1940s Americans took a more cynical approach. They saw that the first international conflict had settled few political grievances. In addition, the U.S. was emerging from the difficult years of the Great Depression. Such a cultural climate naturally bred a more critical view of the military. Reflecting this mood were other novels set during wartime, such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, (also covered in Literature and Its Times), that took a serious approach to the subject of combat. Heller’s novel, in contrast, employs a more comedic manner to convey disdain for the army.


The reader is meant to assume that “Catch-22” refers to an actual military code. In actuality, the phrase is an invention of the author’s own mind. Originally Heller intended to title his novel Catch-18. Because another writer, Leon Uris, had recently published a novel called Mila 18, Heller’s editor suggested changing the title to Catch-22. In this manner, he reasoned, they were sure to avoid public confusion. Heller responded readily to the suggestion. He felt that the new title was even more suitable for such a code. The expression “Catch-22” found its way into the American vocabulary, signifying a dilemma whose alternatives make no sense or are logically impossible because they cancel each other out.

The novel’s most obvious stab at the military stems from the repetition that the author employs. With his rhetoric, and even his plot structure, Heller conveys the image of a convoluted, bureaucratic system of waste. He tells Yossarian’s story through a series of flashbacks and memories. Events pile on top of one another so that the readers must sort through the plot on their own. In fact, the moment of Snowden’s death, which so shapes Yossarian’s view of military service, does not come into full light until the end of the novel. A sense of repetition is created through small details throughout the novel. Characters such as Giuseppe, a wounded man in the hospital, see things in double. Yossarian and his crew drop two sets of bombs over Ferrara. The character Major Major Major Major holds a name that’s twice doubled. At times, not even this doubling provides enough emphasis on the redundancy of military life. The novel describes certain tasks as being performed ad infinitum. Yossarian’s roommate, Orr, works on his stove in such a methodical and endless fashion that Yossarian almost loses his senses. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen continually digs and fills holes. Even the title of the novel, Catch-22, uses a repetitive number.


Joseph Heller created Yossarian’s World War II experiences based on his own memories. In 1942, at the age of nineteen, Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps for combat in Corsica. He became a member of the 488th Squadron, 340th Bombardment Group, 12th Air Force. By the time he was discharged in 1945, Heller had earned the rank of first lieutenant and possessed an Air Medal as well as a Presidential Unit Citation.

Like Yossarian, Heller entered the war seemingly prepared and fearless. Propagandistic war movies had inspired him to enlist without waiting to be drafted. As a gunner, he flew sixty combat missions in a B-25 over Italy and France. On his thirty-seventh mission, over Avignon, France, an event occurred that would alter his attitude on subsequent flights. Heavy flak caused Heller to believe that a part of his plane had exploded. For the remainder of the mission he feared for his life. Having thus been introduced to his own mortality in the face of war, Heller flew the rest of his missions under the pressure of his own barely restrained terror. He vowed that if he survived the war, he would never fly again. At the end of his combat duty, Heller returned to the United States by ship as if to prove his point.

During his time overseas, Heller kept a journal of his missions. He also composed short fictional pieces based on his experiences. His first short story, “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” saw publication in a special military issue of Story magazine in 1945. During that same year, Heller began working on the idea of a war novel. Although he did not actually begin serious work on Catch-22 until some ten years later, he maintained his original conception of the work. Heller had no desire to render a factual account of World War II. Rather, he wished to convey his own fear, primarily that of dying in combat. Like his main character, Heller had struggled with the horrors of war, and though he exited a survivor, the memories of the fear burned vividly inside him.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The Air Force of the Korean War

Although Heller’s novel centers around the trials of aerial combat during World War II, he did not begin writing his book until 1956. By this time, the United States had entered and exited yet another conflict, the war in Korea. As revealed, Heller never intended to compose a historically accurate work; rather he wanted to convey a sense of his own experience in war and his own fear of dying in combat. As such, the author “deliberately seeded the book with anachronisms like loyalty oaths, helicopters, IBM machines” (Heller in Ruderman, p. 19) that would be true for the later Korean War, but not for World War II. The helicopter, for instance, although used in a limited rescue capacity during World War II, did not play an armed combat role in the military until the Korean War.

By the time of the publication of Catch-22, the air force had changed considerably. Following World War II, the military organization found it-self in a paradoxical state. While tactical aviation had been honed to near perfection, the advent of the atom bomb seemed to make the very need for air combat pointless. After all, why risk the lives of hundreds of men in the sky when one bomb could annihilate an entire enemy city? This, along with several other factors, helped curtail the size of the tactical forces. In the postwar years, the budget for the U.S. Army Air Force shrank drastically. Although the commanders had planned for a postwar establishment of approximately seventy bombardment groups, they attained only forty-five because of budget restraints. Moreover, the purpose of these groups was to develop an intercontinental force capable of delivering atomic weaponry. In other words, a tactical force would engage its services only if an atomic attack failed to defeat the enemy. World War II had also brought with it the invention of the jet engine. By the time of the Korean War, it had become standard in aircraft. While planes could now fly at speeds up to 200 miles per hour faster than before, they also cost more to manufacture and maintain. Taken separately, each of these factors probably would not have had a great impact on the U.S. Army Air Force. When combined, however, these elements resulted in the tactical force no longer dominating the sky the way it once had in the U.S. military.

The Red Scare

In the novel, Captain Black, outraged at another soldier’s promotion over himself, institutes the practice of loyalty oaths. Captain Black hopes to expose the promoted soldier, Major Major, as an insurgent. The captain forces everyone but Major Major to repeatedly swear loyalty to his country and the flag. The situation escalates out of control until the men can barely use the latrine without a pledge of support. Heller admits that the loyalty oaths presented in his novel come not from the era of World War II, but instead from the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

McCarthyism refers to the accusations of communism and anti-American activities against a variety of individuals and groups that spread throughout the United States during the 1950s. The name derives from Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin who instigated a virtual witch-hunt for American communists. Following World War II, relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. degenerated in their competition for international leadership. The communist takeovers in Czechoslovakia and China during the late 1940s began what became known as the “Red Scare” (so named for the color of the Soviet flag and the color that represented international communism before the Russian Revolution). Tensions mounted when the U.S.S.R. developed its own nuclear weaponry and subsequently provided it to the communist government in North Korea. When North Korea invaded the South, the United States found itself forced into the position of world protector of democracy. While combating communist forces abroad, the United States government also began investigations into its own ranks.

Fear of espionage ran rampant throughout America. A Gallup poll of June 1946 showed that 57 percent of the polled Americans suspected that a “great many” communists resided in the United States. Another 28 percent felt that a “few” communists probably called America home (Fried, p. 60). International activities had fueled these fires of suspicion. In September of 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada, sought Canadian asylum. An investigation into his case unveiled a Soviet spy ring. Eventually the Gouzenko case exposed the German refugee scientist, Klaus Fuchs, who had worked with the Soviets to spy on the United States’s Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. The Fuchs trial, in turn, led to the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans accused of collaborating with the spy ring. Following a lengthy trial, in 1953 the Rosenbergs became the first Americans executed for espionage. Hitting even closer to home, however, Gouzenko insisted that an aide to the American Secretary of State was a Soviet agent. This began a virtual panic within the governmental ranks.

On March 22, 1947, President Harry S. Truman established the loyalty program. Following investigations made by federal agencies, accused employees of the U.S. government were brought forward for hearings. The accused faced dismissal on “reasonable grounds... for belief that the person involved [was] disloyal to the Government of the United States” (Goodman in Fried, p. 68). Such grounds included sabotage, espionage, treason, or affiliation with a “subversive” group. While most historians acknowledge that the United States government was probably not home to a host of Soviet spies within its ranks, the loyalty program fueled a public anticommunist passion that complemented the president’s foreign policy. In his sarcastic tribute to this era, Heller names his loyalty oath promoter “Captain Black,” referring to the secret “blacklists” of the 1950s that fingered supposed communist sympathizers. Eventually, the Red Scare dissipated, yet it left innumerable scars on those blacklisted members of the government and the individual artists who had been unjustly accused.


When first released for publication, Catch-22 met with mixed reviews. The New York Times called it both “a dazzling performance” and one that was “gasping for want of craft and sensibility” (New York Times Book Review in Ruderman, p. 20). This dual-edged reception seemed to set the standard for the book. Although Catch-22 sold thirty-two thousand copies in one year, Heller himself noted that the novel fulfilled his every fantasy except for two. The novel never made him a rich man, and it never sold enough copies in one week to make it onto the New York Times bestseller list. Released in paperback in 1962, however, the novel’s fortune changed. It became an instant hit, selling over 2 million copies in one year. Readers regarded Catch-22 as a protest novel to the Vietnam War, and the nonconformists and antiwar protesters of the decade embraced it. In fact, many now refer to Catch-22 as “the American counter-culture bible of the 1960s” (Ruderman, p. 20).

For More Information

Comer, John. Combat Crew. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Fried, Richard. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Dell, 1961.

Joes, Anthony James. Mussolini. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Ruderman, Judith. Joseph Heller. New York: Continuum, 1991.

Watry, Charles A. and Duane L. Hall. Aerial Gunners: The Unknown Aces of World War II. Carlsbad: California Aero Press, 1986.

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Hailed as "a classic of our era," "an apocalyptic masterpiece," and the best war story ever told, Joseph Heller's blockbuster first novel, Catch-22 (1961), not only exposed the hypocrisy of the military, but it also introduced a catchphrase to describe the illogic inherent in all bureaucracies, from education to religion, into the popular lexicon. The "Catch-22" of the novel's title is a perverse, protean principle that covers any absurd situation; it is the unwritten loophole in every written law, a frustratingly elliptical paradox that defies solution. As Heller demonstrates in his novel, Catch-22 has many clauses, the most memorable of which allows only crazy men to be excused from flying the life-threatening missions ordered by their military superiors. To be excused from flying, a man needs only to ask for release; but by asking, he proves that he is sane and therefore he must continue flying. "That's some catch," observes one of the flyers. "It's the best there is," concurs Doc Daneeka.

Heller drew deeply on his personal experiences in the writing of his novel, especially in his depiction of the central character, Yossarian, a flyer who refuses any longer to be part of a system so utterly hostile to his own values. Like Yossarian, Heller served in the Mediterranean during the later years of World War II, was part of a squadron that lost a plane over Ferrara, enjoyed the varied pleasures that Rome had to offer, and was decorated for his wartime service. And like Yossarian, Heller passionately strove to become an ex -flyer. (After one of his missions, in fact, Heller's fear of flight became so intense that, when the war ended, he took a ship home and refused to fly again for 15 years afterward.)

Although critics usually refer to Catch-22 as a war novel, the war itself—apart from creating the community within which Yossarian operates—plays a relatively small part in the book. While the military establishment comprises an entire society, self-contained and absolute, against which Yossarian rebels, it is merely a microcosm of the larger American society and a symbol for all other repressive organizations. In the novel, there is little ideological debate about the conflict between Germany and the United States or about definitions of patriotism. Heller, in fact, deliberately sets Catch-22 in the final months of the war, during which Hitler is no longer a significant threat and the action is winding down. The missions required of the flyers have no military or strategic importance except among the administrators, each of whom wants to come out of the war ahead. Inversely, however, the danger to Yossarian from his superiors intensifies as the war draws to a close. Yossarian wisely realizes that the enemy is "anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on." And Heller surrounds Yossarian with many such enemies—from generals Dreedle and Peckem, who wage war on each other and neglect the men under their command; to Colonel Scheisskopf—literally the Shithead in charge—who is so fanatic about military precision that he considers implanting metal alloys in his men's thighbones to force them to march straighter; to Colonel Cathcart, obsessed with getting good aerial photos and with making the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, who keeps raising the number of requisite flights; and Colonel Korn, who is so concerned that men might actually learn something at their educational sessions that he implements a new rule: only those who never ask questions will be allowed to do so. Entrepreneur extraordinaire and legendary double-dealer Milo Minderbinder is a new age prophet of profit: he steals and resells the morphine from flight packs and leaves instead notes for the wounded soldiers that what is good for business is actually good for them as well. (To prove his point, he notes that even the dead men have a share in his "syndicate.") Captain Black insists that everyone "voluntarily" sign his Glorious Loyalty Oath, except his nemesis, who will not be allowed to sign "even if he wants to." And Nately's whore, out to avenge her lover's death, persists in trying to kill the innocent Yossarian. (In Heller's logically illogical world, the whore is symbolic of the universal principle that Yossarian will always be unjustly beset upon—and will probably always deserve it.)

Yossarian's increasingly dramatic acts of insubordination against such an irrational system begin with his self-hospitalizations, where he meets the ultimate symbol of the bureaucracy's indifference to the individual: the soldier in white, a faceless, nameless symbol of imminent death. After his friend Snowden's death, Yossarian's insubordination escalates to his refusal to fly or wear a uniform again, and it ends with his decision not to compromise but instead to emulate his comrade Orr's impossible achievement and to affirm life by rowing a small boat to Sweden.

In the film adaptation of Catch-22 (1970), by focusing incrementally—as Heller did—on the Avignon incident during which Snowden literally loses his guts and Yossarian metaphorically loses his, director Mike Nichols succeeds in recreating the novel's circularity and its deliberately repetitive structure. By downplaying much of the novel's truculent satire of American capitalism, however, Nichols is able to concentrate on the traumatizing fear of death, a reality Yossarian (Alan Arkin) cannot face until he re-imagines it through the death of Snowden (Jon Korkes). Nichols also reformulates the well-intentioned capitalistic Milo Minderbinder; played by baby-faced Jon Voight, the film's Milo is a callous and sinister destroyer of youth, every bit as corrupt as his superior officers, the colonels Korn (Buck Henry) and Cathcart (Martin Balsam). Balancing the cynicism of the selfish officers is the affecting naïveté of their victims, including the earnest Chaplain Tappman (Anthony Perkins), the innocent Nately (Art Garfunkel), and the perpetually bewildered Major Major (Bob Newhart).

An even more effective balance is the one Nichols strikes between noise and silence: in sharp contrast to the busy confusion of some of the film's episodes, which aptly reflect the noisy chatter of the novel and the jumble of word games Heller plays, there are subtle moments of silence. The opening scene, for instance, begins in blackness, without words or music; then there appears a tranquil image of approaching dawn, replaced suddenly with the loud roar of plane engines being engaged. It is as if the viewer is seeing the scene through Yossarian's eyes, moving with him from a dream state to the waking nightmare (one of the film's recurring motifs) of his reality. Replete with inside jokes linking it to the Vietnam War (Cathcart's defecating in front of Chaplain Tappman, for instance, recalls LBJ's habit of talking to his aides while sitting on the toilet), Nichols' film adaptation of Catch-22 is thus an interesting and original work as well as a noteworthy reinterpretation of Heller's classic novel.

—Barbara Tepa Lupack

Further Reading:

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Kiley, Frederick, and Walter McDonald, editors. A Catch-22 Case-book. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.

Lupack, Barbara Tepa. "Seeking a Sane Asylum: Catch-22. " In Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1995.

——, editor. Take Two: Adapting the Contemporary American Novel to Film. Bowling Green, Popular Press, 1994.

Merrill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Merrill, Robert and John L. Simons. "The Waking Nightmare of Mike Nichols' Catch-22." In Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel, edited by Stephen W. Potts. New York, Twayne, 1989.

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CATCH-22, a 1961 best-selling novel by Joseph Heller (1923–1999), set on a U.S. Air Force base in the Mediterranean during World War II. A work of comic genius, Catch-22 represented not just a satire of life in the military but also a serious protest against the uselessness of both rationality and sentimentality in the face of unbridled power in any form.

The story recounts the efforts of the protagonist, Captain Yossarian, to gain a discharge despite the insane regulations of the military bureaucracy. The concept named in the title—which refers to a situation in which intentionally self-contradictory rules preclude a desired outcome—rapidly entered the American popular vocabulary and became widely used, without reference to the novel, to refer to any absurd situation in which rationality and madness are radically indistinguishable. By showing how catch-22 operated in every arena of authority, the novel staged a concerted assault on every truism and institution in America—including religion, the military, the legal and medical establishments, and big business. Heller's satire thus targeted not just the military during World War II but also the complacent corporate conformism of the 1950s, the self-serving cynicism of the professions, Cold War militarism and patriotism, and above all the bureaucratic mindset.

Despite Heller's difficulty in finding a publisher and initial critical disdain, Catch-22 quickly became one of the most popular American novels of all time. Its irreverence toward established authority helped make it one of the key literary inspirations of the culture of rebellion that erupted during the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. In his every phrase and motive, including his manic wordplay and compulsive sexuality, Yossarian embodied the decade's spirit of anarchic dissent. The Vietnam War, which seemed to many to embody and even caricature the madness depicted in the novel, greatly enhanced Catch-22's popularity.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.


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Catch-22 ★★★ 1970 (R)

Buck Henry's adaptation of Joseph Heller's black comedy about a group of fliers in the Mediterranean during WWII. A biting anti-war satire portraying the insanity of the situation in both a humorous and disturbing manner. Perhaps too literal to the book's masterfully chaotic structure, causing occasional problems in the “are you following along department?” Arkin heads a fine and colorful cast. 121m/C VHS, DVD . Richard Libertini, Bruce Kirby, Elizabeth Wilson, Liam Dunn, Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Art Garfunkel, Jon Voight, Richard Benjamin, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Charles Grodin, Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, Jack Gilford, Bob Balaban, Susanne Benton, Norman Fell, Austin Pendleton, Peter Bonerz, Jon Korkes, Collin Wilcox-Paxton, John Brent; D: Mike Nichols; W: Buck Henry; C: David Watkin.

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catch-22 a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. The term comes from the title of a novel (1961) by Joseph Heller, in which the main character feigns madness in order to avoid dangerous combat missions, but finds that Catch-22 specifies that a concern for one's own safety amid real and immediate dangers is taken to indicate a rational mind.

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catch-22 • n. a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

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CATCH-22 n. Cardiac abnormalities, Abnormal facies, T-cell deficiency (from absent thymus), Cleft palate, Hypocalcaemia, chromosome 22 (in which the defect lies): another name for di George syndrome.