Catch-22 remains one of the funniest and most celebrated books of all time and a cornerstone of American literature.
This is the story of Yossarian, an incomparable bombardier who is mad at thousands of people who have never met him, who are trying to kill him. However, the real problem is not with the enemy. It’s with his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly in order to complete their service.
However, if Yossarian attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions he’s assigned, he’ll be violating Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule: a man is considered insane if he continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he requests to be relieved, he is proven sane and thus ineligible.
You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Capt. John Yossarian, a World War II Air Force bombardier, decides that the only way he can survive the war is to desert.
Heller does not present the events of Catch-22 in chronological order, but in the order by which the main character, Yossarian, remembers them.
The time is July 1944, a year before the end of World War II, and the setting is a United States Air Force base on the imaginary island of Pianosa, off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, from which bomber planes are sent to destroy German troops in France and northern Italy.
Capt. John Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier of the 256th Squadron, is in the hospital complaining of a liver ailment. In 1941, while he was an air cadet at the Lowery field training camp in Colorado, he had discovered that military doctors were ignorant of liver ailments and that anyone who complains of such illnesses will be kept in the hospital indefinitely. This is his goal, since he wishes to avoid combat.
His regular duties as an officer include the censuring of mail written by enlisted men to their friends and family. To ease his boredom, Yossarian deletes key words from some letters and removes everything but the salutation in others.
He makes one letter look as if it is a love note sent by the squadron chaplain, A. T. Tappman, and on other letters he signs the censor’s name as “Washington Irving” (the American writer, 1783–1859).
In the ward with him are Lt. Dunbar, who thinks he can prolong his life by cultivating boredom (and therefore make time pass slowly); a C.I.D. officer (Air Force central intelligence division) who is posing as a patient in order to investigate “Washington Irving”; an educated Texan whose superpatriotic ideas alienate Yossarian and Dunbar; and the soldier in white, who is encased in bandages and whom Nurse Cramer finds dead one afternoon. Ten days after the Texan is admitted, Yossarian checks out because he cannot bear the talkative patriot.
Yossarian is afraid of dying in the war. He believes that “they” (i.e., the American political and military establishment) are out to kill him by forcing him to fight. He remembers the day at the officers’ club, a few weeks before entering the hospital, when he had argued this point with Clevinger, a member of his squadron, who thought Yossarian was crazy—and who pointed out that the Germans were shooting at everyone, not just at Yossarian.
Other members of Yossarian’s squadron present at the officers’ club include his roommate, Orr, a tinkerer who has transformed their tent into a semicomfortable abode; Havermeyer, the lead bombadier who eats peanut brittle and shoots field mice, and who “never takes evasive action” while going in to a target (and thereby endangers the lives of everyone in his formation); McWatt, a pilot who flies his plane as low as possible over Yossarian’s tent in order to frighten him; Nately, McWatt’s well-bred roommate who is in love with a prostitute in Rome; and Appleby, who excels at Ping-Pong.
Upon leaving the hospital, Yossarian learns that Clevinger has been declared missing in action after a bombing mission. Panicked by the thought of death, Yossarian rushes to see Doc Daneeka, a hypochondriac flight surgeon who has the power to ground men and whose helpers, Gus and Wes, efficiently run things for him. (In Catch-22, “grounded” means “to be removed from combat duty.”)
Yossarian knows that one can be grounded from flying status only if he has fulfilled the required number of missions or if he is declared insane. The sympathetic Doc, who had resented being forced to give up a lucrative medical practice when he was drafted into the Air Force, tells Yossarian that Col. Cathcart has raised the number of required missions for a completed tour of duty from 45 to 50.
Therefore, Yossarian must continue to fly, since he has only 44. Doc then explains the notion of “Catch-22” to Yossarian: A flier can be grounded if he is crazy, but if he asks not to go on any more missions, he is considered sane, not crazy, and thus cannot be grounded. Since Yossarian has asked to be grounded, he is therefore not crazy, and must continue to fly.
The narrator tells of the feud between Gen. P. P. Peckem, the commanding officer of the Special Services Corps, whose fanaticism for neatness and detail has made him unpopular with the men, and Gen. Dreedle, a practical, down-to-earth leader who has no use for Peckem’s inflated opinions of himself. Gen.
Peckem has moved his base to Rome, where the fliers on leave engage in sexual orgies with Roman prostitutes. Realizing that his influence has diminished back in Pianosa, and anxious to take over Gen. Dreedle’s command, he sends Col. Cargill there as his liaison and troubleshooter. Cargill, who in reality dislikes Peckem, fails to impress the men, especially when he gives them orders to attend a “voluntary” USO show.
The lustful Hungry Joe, another member of Yossarian’s squadron, poses as a photographer for Life magazine and takes lewd pictures of women, but they rarely develop. He loves the bombing missions, and whenever he approaches the required number of missions for being relieved of combat duty, he has nightmares and screams all night. When the number of missions is raised, however, he becomes happy again.
Other members of Yossarian’s squadron include Chief White Halfoat, a half-blooded Indian; Aarfy (whose real name is Aardvaark), Yossarian’s navigator; Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer; and Maj.—de Coverly, the one-eyed executive officer in charge of R & R (rest and recreation) activities such as horseshoe games.
The squadron commander is Major Major, whose father, Mr. Major, had given him the name “Major” as a joke. Four days after Major Major entered the Air Force, an IBM computer promoted him to the rank of Major, thus making him Major Major Major. Soon after the promotion, two C.I.D. men arrive at his camp to see if “Washington Irving” is there. From this moment on, Maj. Major signs his official correspondence “Washington Irving”—or “John Milton”—and decides that people can come to see him in his office only when he is not there.
Yossarian has frequent flashbacks to the “Great Big Siege of Bologna,” which occurred in May 1944. The men had been terrified of the mission, and the situation was aggravated by the long wait, the rainstorms, and an epidemic of diarrhea. Yossarian, who did not want to participate in the siege, contrived to delay the mission by instructing the cook to put detergent in the sweet potatoes so as to cause the diarrhea epidemic.
As another tactic for delaying the mission, Yossarian secretly moved the Bologna bomb line on the military maps. Prior to the mission, Capt. Black—the mean-spirited intelligence officer who had sought Maj. Major’s job as squadron commander after Major’s predecessor, Maj. Duluth, was killed—forced everyone to sign a statement opposing communism in the “Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade.” But the fierce Maj.—de Coverly put an end to Black’s plan, since he himself was inconvenienced by its restrictions.
Earlier in the war, Yossarian had been a brave and careful bombardier, striving to hit the target on the first attempt. On one occasion—at the bridge of Ferrara—he had even flown over his target twice so he could make sure it was completely bombed. Afterward, he was promoted and rewarded with a medal.
But by the time of the Great Big Siege of Bologna, Yossarian had lost his nerve. On the day when the planes took off, Yossarian ordered Kid Sampson, his navigator that day, to turn back because the intercom was broken.
Yossarian then spent the afternoon at the beach, only to learn that plans had changed and they were going to bomb Bologna the next day. To make matters worse, Yossarian was to be in the lead plane. The mission was frightening; German flak (antiaircraft fire) was everywhere, and some of it even came up through the floor of Yossarian’s plane, ripping Aarfy’s maps.
Orr was hit and had to crash-land. After that mission, Yossarian decided to take a recreational leave in Rome; but when he returned, he found that the number of required missions had been raised from 35 to 40.
At the time when the novel begins (1944), Yossarian has returned to the hospital, believing it to be safer than the battle zone. Back at camp, Col. Cathcart wants to be made a general. To impress his superiors, he keeps raising the number of missions above the number required by the 27th Air Force Headquarters.
He decides it might be to his advantage to be featured in an article in the popular magazine The Saturday Evening Post and thinks a religious angle to the story would be best. He summons Chaplain Tappman and suggests they have prayer sessions before each bombing mission; but he immediately abandons the idea when he discovers that officers and enlisted men must pray to the same God.
The chaplain returns to his tent and finds his subordinate talking to a C.I.D. man who wants to know if the chaplain knows anything about a “Washington Irving.” (The C.I.D. later accuses Tappman of being the forger.)
The chaplain has a strong sense of having seen the man before, but he often has these strange sensations. In fact, one time, while attending a funeral, he even thought he saw a naked man sitting in a tree.
The chaplain had told Cathcart that Yossarian was upset about the number of required missions being raised to 60. The mere mention of Yossarian infuriated Col. Cathcart, since he had felt embarrassed in the eyes of his superiors when Yossarian tampered with the bomb line before the mission to Bologna and when Yossarian circled the bridge at Ferrara twice.
Then, when Yossarian received the Distinguished Flying Cross after the disastrous Avignon mission in June 1944, he had accepted it naked, explaining that the blood of a dead man, the radio-gunner Snowden, had splattered on his uniform when he was killed.
After Avignon, Yossarian, Nately, and Aarfy went to Rome, where Nately met with the whore whom he loved. She was living in a whorehouse run by a seedy, 107-year-old man, Nately’s old man, who had explained to Nately that the trick to surviving wars was to lose them, not win.
Italy had been losing wars for centuries and had always managed to survive. Earlier, Yossarian and Orr had taken a “shopping” trip with Milo. Milo had started going on black-market trips under the pretense of looking for the fresh fruits prescribed for Yossarian’s “liver ailment.”
In April 1944, he began M & M Enterprises, which would soon become an international black-market syndicate, and through which he would eventually be elected mayor of several Italian cities. He obtained a number of planes, and bought, sold, and swapped everything, everywhere.
At Orvieto, Italy, the Americans paid Milo to bomb a bridge which the Germans had paid him to defend. The syndicate tottered on the verge of collapse, though, when Milo bought all the Egyptian cotton in the world and had problems selling it until finally making a deal with the U.S. government.
To earn extra money, he leased his planes to the Germans and engineered a German bombing of his own squadron at Pianosa.
Milo’s bombing had put the camp in a state of panic, and Doc treated the dead in the same understanding way he had at Avignon when Snowden died. Doc had helped Yossarian after Snowden’s death, when Yossarian refused to wear clothes.
Yossarian had even gone naked to Snowden’s funeral, and had watched from a tree. Chaplain Tappman had seen him there, which is why he had a strong sense of having already met Yossarian when he saw him, in the hospital during the month of July 1944.
Shortly after his meeting with the chaplain, Cathcart orders another bombing mission. This time Yossarian is wounded and wakes up in the hospital, where he is sent to a psychiatrist because of his strange dreams.
The psychiatrist diagnoses him as crazy and orders him to be sent home. The only problem is that the psychiatrist thinks Yossarian is someone named A. F. Fortiori. So, while the real Fortiori packs his bags, Yossarian is ordered back into combat.
Upon returning to camp, Yossarian is asked by Orr why he refuses to fly with him, and Yossarian is ashamed to say that he is afraid. On the next mission Orr is shot down and disappears.
Shortly afterward, Col. Scheisskopf, who had led Yossarian and the others through flight school in California, arrives in Italy and joins Gen. Peckem’s unit. Peckem is overjoyed, since his staff is now larger than Gen. Dreedle’s. But, ironically, Scheisskopf is soon made general in charge of everyone, including Peckem.
Meanwhile, McWatt alarms Yossarian by buzzing (i.e., flying very low over) Yossarian’s tent and taking great risks in his flying missions. One day he goes too far. Yossarian and the others are at the beach when McWatt, in an attempt to buzz them, accidentally cuts Kid Sampson in half.
Realizing the atrocity of his action, McWatt crashes his plane into a nearby mountain and dies instantly. Amid the confusion, it is revealed that Doc Daneeka had falsely signed himself on the flight log with McWatt. (Doc receives flight pay for spending time each month in a plane, but since Doc fears flying, McWatt has been signing his name on the flight log and making it appear that Doc was on the plane.)
The Air Force thus assumes Doc is dead, even though he argues that he is alive. Soon most of Yossarian’s friends are dead. While Dunbar visits Nately in the hospital (Yossarian had hit Nately in the nose), the “soldier in white” returns to the ward.
When Dunbar insanely shouts that the soldier is an empty shell, the doctors “disappear” Dunbar (i.e., take him away). Chief Halfoat dies of pneumonia in the hospital and Hungry Joe dies when his roommate’s cat smothers him.
Nately, anxious to stay in Italy to be near his whore, volunteers for more missions. Cathcart accommodates him by raising the number of required missions to 70. On his next mission, Nately is shot down and killed.
Yossarian tells Nately’s whore about Nately’s death. She receives the news badly and tries to kill him, somehow blaming Yossarian for the death. She follows him to Pianosa with a bread knife, and when he finds her there he flies her back to Rome. Yossarian decides not to fly any more missions, and the military superiors threaten him with a court-martial.
A few days later he hears that the police in Rome have raided the whorehouse and that Nately’s whore is missing. Yossarian decides to go AWOL (absent without leave) to Rome to look for her. While walking through the dark, wet streets of Rome, he sees a city filled with greed, poverty, death, sickly children, emaciated humans, and crime of every sort. He returns to his apartment to discover that Aarfy has raped the maid and thrown her out the window.
Yossarian tries to explain to him that one cannot treat humans that way, but he is interrupted by the police. They let Aarfy go free, but arrest Yossarian for being AWOL. He is sent to Cathcart, who says he can go home, but that there will be a catch: Yossarian can only leave if he promises to say favorable things about Col. Cathcart and his assistant, Col. Korn.
Faced with a court-martial, Yossarian agrees to the demand. As he leaves the room, he is knifed by Nately’s whore, disguised as a soldier. In the hospital, the chaplain tells him that Cathcart has filed a report stating that Yossarian saved him and Col. Korn from a Nazi assassin.
That evening Yossarian thinks of the dying Snowden, and recalls the horrible sight of Snowden’s raw, twitching muscles. Yossarian had bandaged the wound, but Snowden’s lips turned blue and he moaned that he was cold.
Finally, Yossarian realized that Snowden had been hit under his flak jacket. When he loosened the jacket, Snowden’s insides fell out and Yossarian screamed with horror. He then realized that the message of Snowden’s death was that “man is garbage” when his spirit leaves his body.
Yossarian is repulsed by his Catch-22 deal with Cathcart but knows that, if he goes back on his word, the colonels will change their report about his knifing. At that moment, the chaplain bursts into his room with the news that Orr has been found alive in Sweden.
Yossarian suddenly understands that Orr had been practicing all along for an escape; that was why he had asked Yossarian to fly with him. Yossarian suddenly decides to desert the Air Force and to try to get to Sweden.
He knows that it will not be easy, but that at least he will be taking responsibility for his life. As he runs from the hospital, he finds Nately’s whore waiting for him. Her knife misses him by inches as he runs off into the distance.
Col. Cathcart: Air Force group commander; age 36. Wants to become a general. Volunteers men for missions in order to further his own career.
Doc Daneeka: Flight surgeon. Fears flying. Complainer, but good-hearted. He explains Catch-22 to Yossarian, then gets caught in it himself when he tries to explain that he is not dead.
Gen. Dreedle and Gen. Peckem: In charge of flying operations of 27th Air Force headquarters in Mediterranean. Intensely jealous of each other.
Hungry Joe: Air Force flier. A man of insatiable lust.
McWatt: Yossarian’s pilot. Reckless daredevil. Kills himself.
Major Major: Squadron commander. Shy, passive, mediocre leader.
Milo Minderbinder: Mess officer; age 27. Forms syndicate dealing in black-market items. Makes huge profits from war.
Nately: Pilot. Comes from a wealthy family. Has an unquestioning belief in his country and in the patriotic ideals of war. Falls in love with a whore. Dies in combat.
Orr: Pilot; Yossarian’s roommate. A resourceful tinkerer. Escapes to Sweden.
Scheisskopf (German for “Shithead”): Yossarian’s commander at flight school in California. First a lieutenant, then a general. Does not care about people; passionate only about the military.
Chaplain A. T. Tappman: Air Force chaplain. Kind, friendly, but filled with self-doubt. In the end, he comes to grips with the idea that a religious person can also be a sinner.
Capt. John Yossarian: Air Force bombardier; captain of his squadron. His only goal is to get out of the war alive. Repeatedly rebels against Col. Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of required missions. Periodically “escapes” to the hospital to remove himself from war. Still has humanitarian ideals intact. Constantly victimized by Catch-22, but learns to take responsibility for his life by deserting Army Air Force.
Main Themes and Ideas
1. Catch-22: The Powerful and the Powerless
In the book Catch-22, there are two distinct groups of people: those with power and those without. The high-ranking officers, such as generals and colonels, possess authority, but they are often portrayed as self-centered and focused solely on advancing their careers, disregarding the safety and well-being of their troops.
For instance, Col. Cathcart keeps increasing the required number of missions to improve his image, despite knowing that this puts many lives at risk. On the other hand, the characters without power are the ones who are trapped in the illogical rules of “Catch-22.”
This military rule dictates that a pilot must be grounded if they are deemed insane, but to be grounded, they must first ask, and if they ask, they are considered sane and can’t be grounded. These bureaucratic regulations, including Catch-22, cause frustration and despair, leading to Yossarian’s eventual desertion.
2. The Absurdity of Catch-22’s World
The world of Catch-22 is meaningless and irrational, where human efforts are futile, and confusion reigns supreme. For instance, Hungry Joe’s pictures never come out right, and Scheisskopf’s parades always get canceled. Even language fails to make sense of the war or the military structure. Heller portrays it as a world of deadlocks, bureaucracy, and frustration.
He suggests that people traditionally attribute meanings to abstract terms like “God” or “patriotism” to provide purpose to an otherwise meaningless world. However, in Catch-22, traditional meanings are deemed worthless. Dunbar thinks that God is dead, the chaplain doubts the existence of the “immortal…English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God,” and Yossarian questions God’s intentions.
Heller suggests that people with nonconforming views are often labeled crazy, while the conformists are the true “crazies.” He urges people to rebel against religious, social, and governmental bureaucracy, as it is the only sane and responsible thing to do.
Yossarian feels responsible for the deaths of Snowden and Nately, but he doesn’t know how to address it. The offer made to him by Cathcart and Korn would keep him physically safe but morally corrupt, as he would continue to perpetuate the “system.”
Yossarian assumes responsibility for his life only when he decides to desert. On the other hand, Milo never acknowledges his responsibility and leads a morally corrupt life, according to Heller.
1. Brilliant Satire and Humor
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a masterful satire, blending the absurdities of war and bureaucracy with humor that ranges from subtle to laugh-out-loud moments. The novel’s characters and situations, like the outrageous antics of Lt. Milo Minderbinder and his egg business or the paradoxical logic of Catch-22 itself, showcase Heller’s talent for blending comedy and tragedy.
The dialogue, filled with ironies and hyperboles, adds to the satirical tone, making the reader question their own sanity while engaging with the characters. This approach creates a powerful commentary on war in general, beyond just the World War II setting.
2. Complex and Memorable Characters
The novel is filled with a colorful cast of characters, each with their own quirks and complexities. From the protagonist Captain Yossarian, the bombardier who fears for his life, to the ambitious Colonel Cathcart, who constantly raises the required number of missions to go home, each character leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
Other memorable characters, like Major Major Major Major, ex-PFC Wintergreen, and Milo Minderbinder, contribute to the novel’s rich tapestry of personalities and make the story all the more engaging.
3. Innovative Narrative Structure
Catch-22’s non-linear narrative structure is a bold and effective way of illustrating the insanity experienced by the characters. Heller presents the story as a jigsaw puzzle, with chapters connecting at random and leaving it up to the reader to piece together the events.
This unique approach mirrors the chaos and confusion of war, while also reinforcing the novel’s satirical themes. The non-chronological order and circular conversations between characters further enhance the sense of disorientation and absurdity, making Catch-22 a groundbreaking and unforgettable reading experience.
1. Repetitive and Tedious Storytelling
Catch-22 is often praised for its humorous and satirical elements, but as a reader, I found that the novel became repetitive and tedious as it progressed.
The structure of the chapters and the self-contained stories within them felt monotonous, and as Norman Mailer pointed out, removing a significant portion of the book wouldn’t detract from the overall experience. While there are undoubtedly moments of genuine humor, the dreariness and repetitiveness overshadow these instances as the novel goes on.
2. Bitter and Mean-Spirited Tone
Joseph Heller’s anti-war sentiments are clear throughout Catch-22, but as the novel progresses, the tone shifts from being satirical to bitter and mean-spirited. Heller’s portrayal of American fighter planes strafing Americans is twisted, and his overall disdain for war at all costs feels outdated and out of touch with the modern world.
The novel’s protagonist, Yossarian, places his fellow soldiers in danger due to his own refusal to do his duty, an action that is neither humorous nor admirable. This shift in tone detracts from the novel’s overall impact and leaves a sour taste in the reader’s mouth.
3. Unconvincing Portrayal of War and Leadership
Catch-22 aims to critique the military bureaucracy and the absurdities of war, but Heller’s portrayal of commanding officers as universally idiotic and worthy of contempt ultimately falls flat.
The novel’s attitude towards war, leadership, and duty feels like a relic of the 1960s, out of touch with the realities of today’s world, where the threat of terrorism and the complexities of geopolitics are ever-present.
Moreover, the novel’s simplistic and naive view on war and its associated values may be jarring to those with firsthand military experience or knowledge of the sacrifices made by service members.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a novel that has been on my “To Read” list for a long time, and I am glad I finally took the plunge. This book exceeded my expectations with its blend of humor, heartbreak, and thought-provoking content. The haphazard plot is cleverly crafted, with seemingly absurd details later becoming pivotal moments in the story.
While the novel does explore the ridiculousness of war and the unsavory characters that inevitably arise in such situations, it is not merely an anti-war diatribe. Instead, it offers a fresh perspective on the complexities and absurdities of conflict, prompting readers to question the narratives presented by those in power.
Joseph Heller masterfully elevates absurdity to an art form, creating a book that is equal parts entertaining and moving. I highly recommend Catch-22 to anyone seeking a novel that will make them laugh out loud, tug at their heartstrings, and encourage deeper contemplation on the nature of war and humanity.
Joseph Heller (1923–99), born in Brooklyn, New York. Air Corps bombardier in World War II. Educated at University of Southern California, New York University (B.A.), and Columbia University (M.A.), where he won a Fullbright scholarship to Oxford University.
Taught two years at Pennsylvania State University, then went into business (advertising) in 1952. Spent eight years writing Catch-22. Later works include the play We Bombed in New Haven (1968), and the novels Something Happened (1974), God Knows (1984), and No Laughing Matter (1986).
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