In Catch-22 (1961), Joseph Heller (1923-1999) uses humor and paradox to satirize the absurdity of war and the dehumanizing effects of large-scale bureaucracy. Having flown 60 missions during WWII, Heller had witnessed the devastation of conflict firsthand and was disturbed by the impact of the Cold War. With Catch-22, he challenged his readers to think about the real impact of war. The novel is regarded as a landmark work of 20th-century American literature.

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Table of contents

    Catch-22 Summary

    Catch-22 takes place on an American airforce base off the coast of Italy during WWII. The novel is a non-linear series of stories and recollections told from the perspective of Yossarian, the captain of a bomber crew. His squadron flies dangerous bombing raids over enemy territory and suffers a high mortality rate. While the men are supposed to return home after completing the designated number of missions, their scheming commander, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of required missions.

    Yossarian seems to be the only one on base who recognizes the insanity of the situation and attempts to escape service by claiming he is insane. The base doctor, Doc Daneeka, explains that he cannot be grounded because of the military rule known as Catch-22. Since Yossarian is formally acknowledging insanity, according to Catch-22, he is considered sane enough to keep flying.

    Frustrated by the circular logic of the army's bureaucracy, Yossarian is surrounded by a cast of wild characters; his tentmate, Orr, stuffs his cheeks with apples and always crashlands his plane when returning from missions. One of the base's commanding officers is called Major Major Major. Major Major Major only received his promotion due to a clerical error. The base's mess officer, Milo Minderbinder, is focused solely on profiting from the war effort and goes as far as negotiating bombing targets with the enemy to ensure neither side's business interests are harmed. The only voice of sanity Yossarian encountered is the base chaplain, who is kind but allows himself to be bullied by his atheist assistant.

    Catch-22, Yossarian was a B-52 bomber, Summary StudySmarterYossarian is the captain of a B-52 bomber crew. Pixabay.

    Yossarian spends much of the novel attempting to sabotage his missions to be grounded permanently. During one mission, he remembers the trauma of having a young tail gunner named Snowden die in his arms. The co-pilot wrestles back control of the plane as they come under heavy fire. Yossarian receives a leg wound and is hospitalized. He is finally deemed insane and ordered to be sent home, but another soldier with a similar name is sent home in his place due to an administrative mistake.

    As the death and chaos mount, the number of missions is raised to 80, forcing Yossarian to go AWOL. After traveling to Rome, he encounters the actual cost of war on the civilian population as the decimation has reduced the great city to a state of anarchy. Wandering aimlessly, Yossarian encounters Aarfy, a member of his squadron. Aarfy has just raped and murdered a maid but seems wholly detached from his actions. The Military police arrive at the crime scene, but in another twist, they arrest Yossarian for desertion.

    Back at the base, Cathcart offers Yossarian a deal; he will receive a promotion to Major and be allowed to return home on the condition that he condones Cathcart's policy and pretend to be friends with the base commanders. Stuck in a Catch-22, Yossarian accepts the offer. He learns that Orr's plane crashed in the ocean during a mission; however, Orr survived the crash and made it to the shore of neutral Sweden, where he will sit out the rest of the war in peace. Yossarian decides he will do the same and sets off for Sweden.

    Catch-22 Meaning

    The novel's title has become a common idiom to describe inescapable situations, usually caused by contradicting rules or bureaucratic incompetence. People are trapped by Catch-22s all the time:

    An entry-level job asks for five years of experience. The applicant who has never had a job before needs the position to get experience, but they can't get the experience without the job.

    A person locks their keys in a car. To retrieve their keys, they need their keys to open the lock.

    Catch-22, circular logic, StudySmarter

    Yossarian finds himself caught in the circular logic of a faceless bureaucracy. Pixabay.

    The situations Heller presents as Catch-22s are usually examples of circular logic or a logical paradox.

    Paradox describes a situation that contains contradicting qualities.

    While Heller created the phrase to satirize the circular logic of the military bureaucracy, the term has become part of everyday use for times when individuals feel trapped by the rules of bureaucratic systems. Just like Yossarian, people in the modern world face many baffling restrictions.

    Catch-22 is full of Catch-22 paradoxes! Here are a few examples of the circular situations Yossarian finds himself in:

    • Yossarian has a relationship with a woman who claims he's crazy because he doesn't want to marry her. When Yossarian proposes, she refuses him because he's crazy!
    • Throughout the novel, Yossarian often receives contradicting orders from superior officers, and he is not able to carry out his orders because he's not allowed to disobey an order.
    • In the end, Yossarian's commanding officers are caught in a Catch-22. Wanting to punish him for disobeying orders, they threaten to send him home, but this is what Yossarian actually wants.

    Catch-22 Themes

    With Catch-22, Heller blends absurd humor with sharp observations to satirize the need and justification for war. Here are some of the key themes in the novel.


    The idea of paradox recurs throughout the novel. The title itself refers to the paradox Yossarian is trapped within. Heller uses minor and major paradoxes to expose the contradictions and absurdity of Yossarian's environment. For example:

    • Yossarian fulfills his duty by flying missions, but since the number of missions keeps rising, he will never be able to fulfill his duty.

    • While Yossarian is supposed to be fighting the Germans, he fears that the people on his side are more likely to kill him.

    • The chaplain is charged with taking take of the men's religious and spiritual needs; his assistant is an atheist.

    Many of the novel's paradoxes are used to display the illogical and humorous side of life in the military system and war in general. However, Heller also employs these paradoxes to satirize the bleak reality of war. While soldiers like Yossarian risk their lives to fly pointless missions, those in command can progress their careers or, in the case of Milo, increase their profits.

    Bureaucracy and absurdity

    As Yossarian is stuck in the giant, entangled bureaucracy of the US military, he suffers the loss of his individuality and rights. His life is at the whim of a faceless and distant command. While this system makes decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people, it is shown to be inherently flawed and absurd.

    The bureaucratic machine messes up several times during the novel. Major Major Major is promoted to an office of high command by accident. He is incompetent and uninterested in the role but remains in a position of power. Doc Daneeka has a pilot falsely record that the doctor accompanies him on flights. When the pilot crashes, Doc Daneeka is recorded as amongst the dead, even as he loudly declares himself alive!

    The absurdity is not always humorous, as Heller shows the system's level of control. With the war's end in sight, Yossarian and his comrades are forced to fly deadly missions that serve little strategic purpose to the overall war effort simply because they have to fulfill the quota. Heller uses the bureaucracy and its absurdity to present the cruel insanity of war.

    War and Capitalism

    Heller uses the character of Milo Minderbender to represent the close relationship between war and capitalism. Milo is able to successfully profiteer from the war by reselling military goods and services. He can con everyone on the base into supporting his crimes by promising them fake shares in his company, M&M Enterprises. While airmen happily make sacrifices for the promise of profits, even going so far as giving up their parachutes so Milo can sell the cotton, Milo owes no loyalty to his comrades or country.

    Heller shows that Milo is able to succeed and thrive within the military system because war is good business. As Heller wrote the novel during the 1950s, there was increased debate about the growth of the military-industrial complex as the defense budget swoll during the Cold War. Ironically, Milo is happy to deal with all of America's enemies, except the Communists.

    In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his farewell address to warn about the dangers of America's ballooning military defense budget. He feared a private sector of arms manufacturers would monopolize public funds and threaten democracy. Eisenhower's concern was that the military-industrial complex would be more concerned with the profitability of war rather than the security of peace.

    Catch-22 was based on Heller's experiences as a bomber pilot during WWII, but much of the book's satire is not based on the conflict. It was written during the 1950s, and Heller was increasingly alarmed at the repressive political movement known as McCarthyism.

    At the height of America's Cold War with Russia, many people believed that the Communist Regime was attempting to infiltrate powerful institutions of American society. This "Red Scare" of the 1950s led to a series of congressional hearings by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Many people were interrogated and had their livelihoods and reputations ruined by these public hearings.

    Heller, along with many other artists, was shocked by the paranoia and authoritarian tactics of the era. Many of these themes of abuse of power and the system crushing the individual would be challenged into Catch-22.

    Catch-22, anti-war themes, StudySmarterThroughout the 1960s, anti-war protests in America called for an end to the Vietnam War. Pixabay.

    After the novel was published in 1961, America became increasingly involved in the fight against Communism in Vietnam. As the conflict escalated, America committed more troops, and the war became more deadly and unpopular.

    The American counterculture of the 1960s was a popular youth movement that openly questioned societal norms surrounding race, class, and gender. With a firmly anti-establishment outlook, they protested the Vietnam War as an unjust conflict. As the anti-war movement grew through the decade, Catch-22 became especially popular and important to those who disagreed with the war. As well as finding many parallels with the book's depiction of needless conflict, they related to Yossarian's rebellion against the establishment.

    Catch-22: Characters

    Joseph Heller used many of the characters in Catch-22 to represent many aspects of the absurd reality of life during the war.

    Captain John Yossarian

    John Yossarian is the novel's protagonist and the captain of a bomber squadron who desperately wants to escape the insanity of the war. While the rest of the men in the squadron seem content, or in some cases enthused, about flying in an endless number of deadly missions, Yossarian is traumatized by the death of the young airman Snowden. He is wary of risking his life and becomes openly hostile to the chain of command.

    Heller presents Yossarian as the ultimate individual standing against the bureaucratic system. Even his name and Assyrian heritage mark him as different from the other men on the base. As an outsider, Yossarian wants to escape or beat the system; however, he does so to secure his safety. Because of this, the character is considered an antihero.

    Traditionally, a novel's protagonist is a classic hero; brave and unique, they fight for a greater good by doing the right thing. An antihero usually lacks these qualities but sometimes does the right thing for the wrong reason.

    The Chaplain

    The base Chaplain is Yossarian's only ally and is shown to be one of the only characters to remain morally upstanding throughout the novel. In the beginning, he is weak and easily dominated; however, through his friendship with Yossarian, he learns to become more assertive. In the end, he pledges to remain on the base and fight against the system.

    Milo Minderbinder

    Milo is the base mess officer and uses his position to resell military goods and services on the black market for his own personal gain. As a tireless entrepreneur, Milo is only focused on profit and ultimately owes no allegiance to his country or comrades. He forms a company called M&M Enterprises and strikes deals with the enemy to protect his business interest. Heller uses the character of Milo to represent unregulated capitalism.

    Colonel Cathcart

    As the base commander, Colonel Cathcart is the embodiment of the bureaucratic system Yossarian is fighting against. Cathcart yearns to be promoted to general and is willing to risk the lives of his men to get it. He continually raises the number of missions in an attempt to be noticed by his superiors and is happy to lie about his actions.

    Catch-22: Quotes

    Heller uses humor to highlight the absurdity of military bureaucracy and question the need for war. The prose contains many humorous examples of paradox and dark humor, which is a literary device used by writers to address serious or taboo subjects in a light-hearted manner. Here are a few quotes from Catch-22.

    Major Major never sees anyone in his office while he's in his office." (Ch. 10)

    His father named him Major Major Major as a joke. The army mistook his name for his ranking, so overnight, Private Major Major Major was promoted to Major Major Major Major. Knowing that he is entirely unfit for his office, the Major insists on booking appointments for times when he isn't in the office. In a classic example of the Catch-22 trap, it is impossible to ever actually see the Major.

    Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many counties can't all be worth dying for." (Ch. 23)

    While men fight and die on an industrial scale, they are reminded of their duty to defend the country. Only Yossarian notices that every side is motivated by the same cause. Heller uses humor and dry observations like this to question the ideals of nationalism and the wars fought in a country's name.

    Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian's fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them." (Ch. 39)

    This is another example of the Catch-22 trap; according to the military command, it's fitting that Yossarian should fight and die for the ideals of freedom and independence, as long as he doesn't practice them!

    Catch-22 - Key Takeaways

    • Catch-22 is a satirical novel by Joseph Heller set during WWII.
    • The novel's protagonist, Captian Yossarian, attempts to escape service by claiming insanity. According to the Catch-22 rule, he is sane enough to fly because he is sane enough to recognize his insanity.
    • The novel's title has become a common phrase to describe paradoxical situations in everyday life.
    • Heller uses humor to highlight the absurdity of the military bureaucracy.
    • The novel's popularity increased through the counterculture movement of the 1960s as its anti-war themes connected with the protests against the Vietnam War.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Catch-22

    Who wrote Catch-22?

    Catch-22 was written by Joseph Heller.

    What is the main theme in Catch-22?

    The main theme in Catch-22 is the absurdity of war and large bureaucracies. 

    What is the moral lesson of Catch-22?

    In Catch-22, Joseph Heller argues that war is often brutal and unnecessary.

    What is Catch-22 about?

    Catch-22 follows airforce Captian Yossarian as he attempts to escape dangerous bombing missions over Italy during WWII. 

    When was Catch-22 published?

    Catch-22 was published in 1961.

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    Which war does Catch-22 take place during?

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