Catch-22 Essay
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Nov 19th, 2019

Catch-22 Essay

Joseph Heller was a famous and well-renowned author in the United States, often remembered for his most famous book Catch-22. Heller was born on May 1, 1999 in Brooklyn, New York to first generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. When he was five, his father died due to an unsuccessful surgery, and his mother and siblings struggled to survive in the carnival-like atmosphere in Coney Island; some scholars hypothesize that this environment was a major source of Heller’s wry humor and irony that eventually made him famous.

Though it is largely unconfirmed if Heller was an aspiring author during his childhood, many people credit The Illiad as a notable book that was influential to him in his youth.

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A year after Heller graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corp, and by 1944 Heller flew 60 combat missions for the Allied forces in World War II. He was awarded an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. After the war, Heller married Shirley Held in 1945 and they had two children.

Heller also took advantage of the G.I. Bill which allowed him to study English at the University of South Carolina and New York University. By 1949, Heller had received an M.A. from Columbia University as well. He spent some time as a instructor at Penn State University and also at Yale University before working as a copywriter, most notably for Time Magazine.

Heller’s most celebrated book is Catch-22. Published in 1961, it is a novel about a World War II pilot who tries desperately to get out of combat flying, but continually finds himself doing just that. Initially, the novel was slow to be recognized in the United States, but eventually it was critically acclaimed and eventually sold over ten million copies. It is often noted for it’s satire and dark comedy. The book became so popular that even the title was coined into an everyday term to describe an impossible solution to a dilemma.

The idea for Catch-22 came from Heller’s personal experiences from World War II. The feelings that Yossarian and the other bomber pilots felt were taken directly from his own personal feeling and problems he suffered while on duty. Heller was able to make it out of the war, but the experience tortured him and it took until 1953 before he could start writing about it. The war experience turned Heller into a “tortured, funny, deeply peculiar human being”. After publication in 1961, Catch-22 became very popular among teenagers at the time. Catch-22 seemed to embody the feelings that young people had toward the Vietnam War.

It was joked around that every student who went off to college at the time took along a copy of Catch-22. The popularity of the book created a cult following, which led to over eight million copies being sold in the United States. In addition to Catch-22, Heller wrote about another half-dozen novels, along with a number of plays, screen writings and short stories. Most notable was his second novel, Something Happened, published in 1974, as it went on to be listed on New York’s Best-selling novels. Though it is not as popular as Catch-22, some scholars suggest that Something Happened was the more sophisticated and better written piece of literature.


The story follows Captain Yossarian of the Army Air Corps, a B-25 bombardier who is stationed on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy during World War II. Yossarian and his bomb squadron friends endure a farcical, absurd existence in where bureaucracy and moronic superior officers prevent them from ever leaving the dangers of war. Yossarian wishes to be evaluated as insane by the squad flight surgeon, rendering him unfit to fly. However, to be evaluated, he must request the evaluation, an act that is considered sufficient proof for being declared sane (Heller 55). This was the first of many lose-lose situations, or Catch-22’s shown in this story. Throughout the novel, Yossarian’s main concern is that people are trying to kill him. Clevinger, a highly educated fellow airman who’s optimism causes Yossarian to hate him, and accuse each other of being crazy. In a conversation with Clevinger, asks “Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?” “Every one of them,” Yossarian told him.

“Every one of whom?” “Every one of whom do you think?” “I haven’t any idea.” “Then how do you know they aren’t?” (24) Yossarian and the other airmen are particularly distraught by the rising number of missions required to have fulfilled their military duties and be sent home. Despite Yossarian’s desperate measures to avoid more combat flights, he always ends up back in the plane. As the novel progresses through its loosely connected series of recurring stories and anecdotes, Yossarian is continually haunted by his memory of Snowden, a soldier who died in his arms on a mission when Yossarian lost all desire to participate in the war.

After a darker tone is established for the last four chapters, including the deaths and disappearances of many of his friends, Yossarian rebelliously refuses to fly more missions. Colonel Cathcart offers Yossarian a deal: Yossarian will be sent home if he promises to praise his commanding officers. If he refuses, he will be court martialed. Realizing that such a bargain would betray his fellow soldiers, Yossarian refuses to sell-out. The story ends on a slightly optimistic note; Yossarian tries to escape this conflicting choice by fleeing to neutral Sweden, where he would be live in danger of being court martialed for desertion.

Key plot points are scattered intermittently throughout the book in a non-chronological manner. These are told from differing points of views, and slowly the reader learns more of each event from each iteration, with the newly revealed information telling something deeper about the situation – its cause, its consequences, when it happened, or the punchline for a joke set up in prior references to that situation. Heller tends to repeat things a lot – words, catchphrases, references to events, and important scenes.

These repeated events serve as touchstones through which readers can become oriented again in a story that is often wildly absurd, circular, and difficult to follow. For example, the death of Snowden is rendered in all of these ways, first as the subject of casual comments (where it is not even clear that Snowden has died), then as the occasion for brief, inconclusive scenes, finally as the novel’s most powerfully dramatized episode (337-340). The early references are naturally confusing because they allude to a scene not yet fully rendered. Mr. Heller died a long time ago, so it is impossible to know for sure, but I sincerely doubt that the relative lack of structure of Catch-22 is an accident. It’s a parallel to the chaos, muddle, and ineptitude of bureaucracy.

Parts that stood out to me AKA Ideas

Catch-22’s In Catch-22

The most infamous example of this paradoxical situation was summed up earlier. However, there are many other catch-22’s that can be inferred from the behaviors and interactions of these cartoonish characters.

When Yossarian is courting the prostitute Luciana, he thinks he falls in love with her. He express his desire to marry her, but she replies that she will not marry him. He asks why not, and she replies that he is crazy. When he asks why she thinks he is crazy, she responds that he must be crazy if he wants to marry her. Just as he cannot avoid flying dangerous combat missions, he cannot convince Luciana to marry him.

The military police chase the whores away from Yossarian’s favorite place in Rome. When asked what right they have to do this, they reply, “Catch-22.” Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything that you can’t stop them from doing (407).” “And if you ask to see Catch-22, the law says they don’t have to show it to you.” “What law says they don’t have to?” “Catch-22″’ (p. 398).

Major Major is a commander who doesn’t command. He hates dealing with people, and is somewhat frightened of them. He therefore instructs his receptionist/orderly that, whenever he is in his office, any visitors should be told he is out. When he leaves his office (sneaking out the back window), the receptionist can send visitors in to see him. In short, the only time you can see Major Major in his office is when he’s out. If he’s in, you can’t see him.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed (55).”

Snowden’s Secret

While building up to the book’s powerful emotional climax , Yossarian’s vague recollections of Snowden and Snowden’s secret are stated. Yossarian is motivated not by a selfish instinct for survival but by his final understanding of Snowden’s secret. One must say final because a first version of this secret is offered in an earlier rendering of Snowden’s death: “That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon – they were out to get him.” (172). Much later, Snowden’s secret is significantly redefined. It is revealed that Snowden was hit with flak, and literally spilled his guts on Yossarian.

He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all (440).

It is the spirit which counts, not matter. To capitulate to Cathcart would be to kill the spirit, to deny the distinction between man and other forms of garbage. Yossarian cannot do this even though it would insure the physical safety he has pursued so zealously, for he has finally learned the secret embedded in the entrails of all the Snowdens: men and women must protest against the forces that would render them garbage or they are indeed nothing more than droppable, burnable, bury-able matter. This event, not revealed until the penultimate chapter, and the revelations that spilled out of it explain Yossarian’s supreme fear of dying. “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.” (29).

It is the same priority of self-preservation that creates conflict within Yossarian. He is determined to save his life at all costs, but genuinely cares deeply for his friends in the squadron and is traumatized by their deaths. His nightmarish flashbacks to the horror of Snowden’s death came from the realization that his own body was just like Snowden’s – as destructible and fragile as his. In the end, when Yossarian is offered safety for either himself or his entire squadron, he is unable to choose himself above others. So he is stuck in one final catch-22: life is not worth living without moral concern for the well-being of others, but a moral concern for the well-being of others can put your own well-being at risk.

On a semi-related note, it was much more difficult to google Snowden because of the recent news on the NSA and how they [comment removed].


Absurdity in the form of a character’s actions is a common theme in Catch-22. Yossarian’s strategies for surviving the war, mess officer and syndicate-running Milo, Cathcart’s blind ambition, and the background of Washington Irving all reflect unreasonable behaviors.

In the order of most understandable to least understandable actions, Yossarian constantly tries to avoid combat flight with an “by any means possible” approach. He frequently checks into the hospital for “a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice,” the fictitious Garnett-Fleischaker syndrome, and exploiting his unnaturally high running temperature of 101 degrees (7). He orders his pilot to perform extreme evasive action at the earliest signs of flak, peaking when he threatens to kill pilot and close friend McWatt during some risky aerial maneuvers.

After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that he was going on a very dangerous mission. “They asked for volunteers. It’s very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I’ll write you the instant I get back.” And he had not written anyone since (8).

He postponed a dangerous mission during the Great Big Siege of Bologna by poisoning the whole squadron. Yossarian also snuck into his squadron’s operations tent and moved the bomb line on the map forward, leading to his superiors believing that their air raid was no longer necessary. Even though Yossarian is the protagonist and one of the sanest characters introduced, he is still prone to behave in absurd fashion.

Milo had used his business acumen to take advantage of markets in the entire theater of war, and had consolidated his influence and wealth into the M & M Enterprises. In a short while, he controlled the international black market, played a role in the global economy, and used air force planes from all over the world (Axis and Allied) to deliver his shipments. And everybody had a share. Milo contracts with the Americans to bomb the Germans, and with the Germans to shoot down the incoming bombers. One evening after dinner, Milo’s planes begin to bomb Pianosa; he had landed another contract with the Germans. Many men were killed or injured in the attack. Everyone demands that M & M Enterprises be disbanded forever, but Milo shows them how much money they have all made, and the survivors quickly forgive him.

An example of absurd leadership is seen in Colonel Cathcart’s ambition to become a general. Seen as nothing more than inhuman resources, Cathcart volunteers his bomber group for every mission, even the most dangerous. On these bombing runs, it was deemed more important to get good aerial photography of explosions rather than to actually hit the target.

While other bomber groups only required 50 missions to go home, Cathcart keeps raising the amount of required missions to 60, 65, 70, 80 missions. Cathcart hates Yossarian almost as much as Yossarian hates him. When Yossarian publicly refuses to fly any more missions, Cathcart jumps at the opportunity to have him court martialed, but his right hand man, Colonel Korn, talks him out of it, advising him that a dismissal from the military is exactly what he wants; Cathcart instead decorates him to ensure that he will stay in the service.

First signed as a forgery by Yossarian in the hospital, the name Washington Irving (or Irving Washington) is soon adopted by Major Major, who signs the name because the paperwork with Irving’s name on it never comes back to him. Washington Irving is a figment of the imagination who is, in a sense, the perfect person to deal with bureaucracy: because he does not exist, he is ideally suited to the meaningless shuffle of paperwork.

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