First edition cover
Author(s) Joseph Heller
Cover artist Paul Bacon[1]
Country USA
Language English
Genre(s) Black humor, satire, war fiction, historical fiction
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Publication date 11 November 1961
Media type Print (hardback)
Pages 453 pp (1st edition hardback)
ISBN 0-684-83339-5
OCLC Number 35231812
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 22
LC Classification PS3558.E476 C3 2004
Followed by Closing Time (1994)

Catch-22 is a satirical, historical novel by the American author Joseph Heller. He began writing it in 1953, and the novel was first published in 1961. It is set during World War II in 1943[2] and is frequently cited as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century.[3] It has a distinctive non-chronological style where events are described from different characters' points of view and out of sequence so that the time line develops along with the plot.

The novel follows Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier, and a number of other characters. Most events occur while the Airmen of the fictional 256th squadron are based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy.



Among other things, Catch-22 is a general critique of bureaucratic operation and reasoning. Resulting from its specific use in the book, the phrase "Catch-22" is common idiomatic usage meaning "a no-win situation" or "a double bind" of any type. Within the book, "Catch-22" is a military rule, the self-contradictory circular logic that, for example, prevents anyone from avoiding combat missions. In Heller's own words:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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 were 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. (p. 46, ch. 5)

Other forms of Catch-22 are invoked throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. At one point, victims of harassment by military police quote the MPs' explanation of one of Catch-22's provisions: "Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating." Another character explains: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." The theme of a bureaucracy marginalizing the individual in an absurd way is similar to the world of Kafka's The Trial, and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The concept of "doublethink" has definite echoes in Heller's work[citation needed].

Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist, there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of force with specious and spurious legalistic justification is one of the book's primary motifs.

The motif of bureaucratic absurdity is further explored in 1994's Closing Time, Heller's sequel to Catch-22. This darker, slower-paced, apocalyptic novel explores the pre- and post-war lives of some of the major characters in Catch-22, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Yossarian and tailgunner Sammy Singer.


The development of the novel can be split into segments. The first (chapters 1–11) broadly follows the story fragmented between characters, but in a single chronological time in 1943. The second (chapters 12–20) flashes back to focus primarily on the "Great Big Siege of Bologna" before once again jumping to the chronological "present" of 1943 in the third part (chapter 21–25). The fourth (chapters 26–28) flashes back to the origins and growth of Milo's syndicate, with the fifth part (chapter 28–32) returning again to the narrative "present" but keeping to the same tone of the previous four. In the sixth and final part (chapter 32 on) while remaining in the "present" time the novel takes a much darker turn and spends the remaining chapters focusing on the serious and brutal nature of war and life in general.[4]

While the previous five parts develop the novel in the present and by use of flash-backs, it is in chapters 32–41 of the sixth and final part where the novel significantly darkens. Previously the reader had been cushioned from experiencing the full horror of events, but now the events are laid bare, allowing the full effect to take place. The horror begins with the attack on the undefended Italian mountain village, with the following chapters involving despair (Doc Daneeka and the Chaplain), disappearance in combat (Orr and Clevinger), disappearance caused by the army (Dunbar) or death (Nately, McWatt, Mudd, Kid Sampson, Dobbs, Chief White Halfoat and Hungry Joe) of most of Yossarian's friends, culminating in the unspeakable horrors of Chapter 39, in particular the rape and murder of Michaela, who represents pure innocence.[4] In Chapter 41, the full details of the gruesome death of Snowden are finally revealed.

Despite this, the novel ends on an upbeat note with Yossarian learning of Orr's miraculous escape to Sweden and Yossarian's pledge to follow him there.


Many events in the book are repeatedly described from differing points of view, so the reader learns more about each event from each iteration, with the new information often completing a joke, the punchline of which was told several chapters previously. The narrative often describes events out of sequence, but events are referred to as if the reader is already familiar with them, so that the reader must ultimately piece together a timeline of events. Specific words, phrases, and questions are also repeated frequently, generally to comic effect.

Much of Heller's prose in Catch-22 is circular and repetitive, exemplifying in its form the structure of a Catch-22. Heller revels in paradox, for example: "The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him", and "The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with." This atmosphere of apparent logical irrationality pervades the whole book.

While a few characters are most prominent, notably Yossarian and the Chaplain, the majority of named characters are described in atypical extent, with fully fleshed out or multidimensional personas, to the extent that there are few if any "minor characters".

The seemingly random non-chronological structure to the novel is misleading. Catch 22 is actually highly structured, but it is a structure of free association where ideas run into one another through seemingly random connections. For example, Chapter 1 entitled "The Texan" ends with "everybody but the CID man, who had caught cold from the fighter captain and come down with pneumonia."[5] Chapter 2, entitled "Clevinger", begins with "In a way the CID man was pretty lucky, because outside the hospital the war was still going on."[6] The CID man connects the two chapters like a free association bridge and eventually Chapter 2 flows from the CID man to Clevinger through more free association links.

Major themes

One of the first themes developed in the novel is the question of what is right to do in a basic moral dilemma/social dilemma/prisoner's dilemma; where a person can cooperate with others to their collective greater payoff; or can sell them out by not cooperating, and reap even greater benefits as an individual. Yossarian is presented as having decided upon and relishing the immoral choice to such questions: "Yossarian throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at [the officers' club building] and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his", which solidly casts Yossarian as an anti-hero to the reader. Yossarian (and Doc Daneeka) wonder "why me" when it comes to taking risks when others aren't. To this, Major Danby asks Yossarian, "But suppose everybody on our side felt that way", to which Yossarian replies, "Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn't I?"

Another theme is the turning on their heads of notions of what people generally think of as morally right or wrong, particularly patriotism and honor, which lead most of the Airmen to accept abusive lies and petty rules of bureaucrats, though Yossarian whole-heartedly disregards all such notions. When Major Major asks why he wouldn't fly more missions, Yossarian answers:

"I'm afraid."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of," Major Major counseled him kindly. "We're all afraid."
"I'm not ashamed," Yossarian said. "I'm just afraid."

Several themes flow into one another, for example, "that the only way to survive such an insane system is to be insane oneself", is partially a take on Yossarian's answer to the Social dilemma (that he would be a fool to be any other way); and another theme, "that bad men (who sell out others) are more likely to get ahead, rise in rank, and make money", turns our notions of what is estimable on their heads as well.

Heller suggests that bureaucracies often lead organizations, especially when run by bad or insane people, to trivialize important matters (e.g., those affecting life and death), and to grossly exaggerate the importance of trivial matters (e.g., clerical errors). Everyone in the book, even Yossarian at the beginning, is behaving insanely in their clerical decisions.

As the narrative progresses, Yossarian comes to fear American bureaucrats more than he fears the Germans attempting to shoot down his bomber; he feels that a majority of people are "out to get him", regardless of their nominal allegiance. Among the reasons Yossarian fears his commanders more than the enemy is that, as he flies more missions, the number of missions required before he can go home is continually increasing: he is always approaching the magic number, but he never reaches it. He comes to despair of ever getting home and is greatly relieved when he is sent to the hospital for a condition that is almost jaundice. In Yossarian's words: "The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live." (Chapter 12)

This is reflected in the fact that, while the (official) enemies are the Germans, no German ever appears in the story as an enemy combatant. This ironic situation is epitomized in the single appearance of German personnel in the novel, who act as pilots employed by his squadron's very own mess hall officer Milo, who comes to devote most of his time not to war maneuvers but as a relentless private entrepreneur darting from country to country in search of profit. This predicament indicates a tension between traditional motives for violence and the modern economic machine, which seems to generate violence simply as another means to profit, quite independent of geographical or ideological constraints.

Developing both of the above themes, eventually Milo's pursuit of profit leads to him conducting missions for the Germans as well as the US military; this absurdity culminates in him organising a bombing of his own base, resulting in the death of many of his and Yossarian's colleagues, and serving to reinforce the latter's fear of his 'own' side.

List of Themes/Motifs:
  • Sanity and insanity[7]
  • Heroes and heroism[7]
  • Absurdity and inefficiency of bureaucracy[7]
  • Power of bureaucracy[8]
  • Questioning/Loss of religious faith[8]
  • Impotence of language[8]
  • Inevitability of death[8]
  • Distortion of justice[9]
  • Concept of Catch-22[9]
  • Greed[9]
  • Personal integrity[9]
  • Capital and its amorality[10]



Although Heller always had a desire to be an author from an early age, his own experiences as a bombardier during World War II strongly influenced Catch-22;[11] however, Heller later said that he "never had a bad officer."

Czech writer Arnošt Lustig recounts in his book 3x18 that Joseph Heller personally told him that he would never have written Catch-22 had he not first read The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek.[12]

In 1998, some critics raised the possibility that Heller's book had questionable similarities to Louis Falstein's 1950 novel, Face of a Hero. However, Falstein himself never raised the issue between Catch-22's publication and his death in 1995, and Heller claimed never to have been aware of the obscure novel. Instead, Heller stated that the novel had been influenced by Céline, Waugh and Nabokov. Many of the similarities have been stated to be attributable to the two authors' similar experiences; both served in the U.S. Air Force on bombing crews in Italy in World War II. Their general themes and styles are quite different.[13]

Literary allusions

Catch-22 contains allusions to and draws inspiration from many works of literature, both classical and modern. Howard Jacobson, in his 2004 introduction to the Vintage Classics publication,[14] wrote that the novel was "positioned teasingly ... between literature and literature's opposites – between Shakespeare and Rabelais and Dickens and Dostoevsky and Gogol and Céline and the Absurdists and of course Kafka on the one hand, and on the other vaudeville and slapstick and Bilko and Abbott and Costello and Tom and Jerry and the Goons (if Heller had ever heard of the Goons)."

Explanation of the novel's title

The title is a reference to a fictional bureaucratic stipulation which embodies multiple forms of illogical and immoral reasoning. That the catch is named exposes the high level of absurdity in the novel, where bureaucratic nonsense has risen to a level at which even the catches are codified with numbers.

The opening chapter of the novel was originally published in New World Writing as Catch-18 in 1955, but Heller's agent, Candida Donadio, requested that it change the title of the novel so it would not be confused with another recently published World War II novel, Leon Uris's Mila 18. The number 18 has special meaning in Judaism (it means Alive in Gematria) and was relevant to early drafts of the novel which had a somewhat greater Jewish emphasis.[15]

The title Catch-11 was suggested, with the duplicated 1 paralleling the repetition found in a number of character exchanges in the novel, but because of the release of the 1960 movie Ocean's Eleven this was also rejected. Catch-17 was also rejected, so as not to be confused with the World War II film Stalag 17, as well as Catch-14, apparently because the publisher did not feel that 14 was a "funny number". Eventually the title came to be Catch-22, which, like 11, has a duplicated digit, with the 2 also referring to a number of déjà vu-like events common in the novel.[15]

A 1950s/early 1960s anthology of war stories included a short version as "Catch-17".[16]

Literary significance and criticism

As commented on by Heller himself in the preface to Catch-22 from 1994 onwards, the novel prompted polarized responses upon its first publication in the United States.

Reviews in publications ranged from the very positive; The Nation ("was the best novel to come out in years"), the New York Herald Tribune ("A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book") and The New York Times ("A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights") to the highly negative; The New Yorker ("doesn't even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper," "what remains is a debris of sour jokes") and from another critic of the New York Times ("is repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest").[17]

Although the novel won no awards at publication, it has stood the test of time and is seen as one of the most significant novels of the 20th century.[3] Scholar and fellow World War II veteran Hugh Nibley said it was the most accurate book he ever read about the military.[18]


  • The Modern Library ranked Catch-22 as number 7 (by review panel) and as number 12 (by public) on its list of the greatest English language novels of the twentieth century.[19]
  • The Radcliffe Publishing Course rank Catch-22 as number 15 of the twentieth century's top 100 novels.[20]
  • The Observer listed Catch-22 as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time.[21]
  • TIME puts Catch-22 in the top 100 English language modern novels (1923 onwards, unranked).[22]
  • The Big Read by the BBC ranked Catch-22 as number 11 on a web poll of the UK's best-loved book.[23]
  • In 2011 Catch-22 was voted Best Novel On Earth.


  • Catch-22 was adapted into a feature film of the same name in 1970, directed by Mike Nichols.
  • Heller also dramatised his own novel for the stage, and wrote another short play, Clevinger's Trial, that was based on scenes from Catch-22.[citation needed]
  • Aquila Theatre produced a stage adaptation of Catch-22 directed by Peter Meineck and based on Heller's own play which he wrote in 1971. This production toured the USA in 2007/8 with a New York City production in the fall of 2008.[24]
  • A pilot for a comedy series based upon Catch-22 was made and televised in 1973, with Richard Dreyfuss in the starring role of Capt. Yossarian.[25]
  • Catch 22 is also the name of a ska band from New Jersey that takes the name of the book.

Release details

This list covers the first and most recent printed publications by the original publisher Simon & Schuster as well as all other formats. Other print publishers include Dell, Corgi, Vintage, Knopf, Black Swan, Grasset & Fasquelle and Wahlström & Widstrand.

The original manuscript is held by Brandeis University.[26]

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal

Notes and references

  1. ^ "Paul Bacon cover artist". Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  2. ^ Rosenbaum, Ron (2011-08-02). "Seeing Catch-22 Twice: The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.". Slate Magazine. "There is no mention of Normandy in the novel, the Herman Goering Division is still a force to be reckoned with, even the Italian campaign was not a done deal. Mussolini is still in power in the novel, so its time frame must be 1943." 
  3. ^ a b "What is Catch-22? And why does the book matter?". BBC News. 12 March 2002. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Clinton S. Burhans, Jr. Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch 22. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 239–250, 1973. JSTOR online access
  5. ^ Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (Simon and Schuster, New York. 1996), p. 24
  6. ^ Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (Simon and Schuster, New York. 1996), p. 25
  7. ^ a b c "Catch-22 Themes". 2 November 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c d "Catch-22 Themes, Motifs and Symbols". Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c d [,pageNum-94.html Catch-22 Themes CliffsNotes[dead link]
  10. ^ Deadly Unconsious Logics in Joseph Hellier's Catch-22, RM Young – Psychoanalytic Review, 1997
  11. ^ DM Craig. From Avignon to Catch-22. War, Literature, and the Arts 6, no. 2, 1994 pp27-54.
  12. ^ Zenny Sadlon. "Personal testimony by Arnošt Lustig". Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  13. ^ Gussow, Mel (29 April 1998). "Critic's Notebook; Questioning the Provenance of the Iconic 'Catch-22'". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 April 2010. 
  14. ^ Random House ISBN 978-0-09-947046-5 Vintage Classics
  15. ^ a b N James. "The Early Composition History of Catch-22". In Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings, J Barbour, T Quirk (edi.) pp. 262–290. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
  16. ^ Anthology formerly in the possession of this Wikipedian.
  17. ^ "The Internet Public Library: Online Literary Criticism Collection". Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  18. ^ Hugh Nibley and Alex Nibley, Sergeant Nibley PhD.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2006, p. 255
  19. ^ Modern Library's 100 best novels of the twentieth century
  20. ^ Herbert Huber. "Radcliffe Publishing Course: the twentieth century's top 100 novels". Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  21. ^ Robert McCrum. "The Observer's greatest novels of all time". The Observer. UK.,,1061037,00.html. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  22. ^ "Time's top 100 English language modern novels". TIME. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  23. ^ The BBC's Big Read
  24. ^ Phythyon Jr., John. R. (2 March 2008). "Catch-22 a nearly perfect adaptation". The Lawrence Journal-World & News. 
  25. ^ Catch-22 at the Internet Movie Database
  26. ^ Heller archive, Brandeis University

External links

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  • catch — [ katʃ ] n. m. • 1919; mot angl., abrév. de catch as catch can « attrape comme tu peux » ♦ Lutte très libre à l origine, codifiée aujourd hui. Prise de catch. Match, rencontre de catch, spectacle de cette lutte. Catch à quatre. Catch féminin. ●… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Catch — Catch, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Caught}or {Catched}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Catching}. Catched is rarely used.] [OE. cacchen, OF. cachier, dialectic form of chacier to hunt, F. chasser, fr. (assumend) LL. captiare, for L. capture, V. intens. of capere to… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • catch — [kach, kech] vt. caught, catching [ME cacchen < Anglo Fr cachier < VL * captiare < L captare, to seize < pp. of capere, to take hold: see HAVE] 1. to seize and hold, as after a chase; capture 2. to seize or take by or as by a trap,… …   English World dictionary

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  • catch — [kætʆ] verb caught PTandPP [kɔːt ǁ kɒːt] [transitive] 1. be caught in something to be in a situation that is difficult to escape from: • The government is caught in the middle of the dispute. • The yen was caught in a downward spiral. 2 …   Financial and business terms

  • catch — ► VERB (past and past part. caught) 1) intercept and hold (something thrown, propelled, or dropped). 2) seize or take hold of. 3) capture after a chase or in a trap, net, etc. 4) be in time to board (a train, bus, etc.) or to see (a person,… …   English terms dictionary

  • Catch-22 — ist der Titel des 1961 erschienenen ersten Romans von Joseph Heller über die Absurdität des Krieges und die Dummheit der Militär Maschinerie. Das anfangs wenig erfolgreiche Buch wurde erst durch Mundpropaganda und Weitergabe und Empfehlung des… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Catch — or caught may refer to:In sports: * Catch (baseball), a maneuver in baseball * Caught (cricket), a method of getting out in cricket * Catch or Reception (American football)In music: * Catch (music), a form of round * Catch (band), an English band …   Wikipedia

  • catch — catch; catch·er; catch·ing; catch·man; catch·ment; catch·pole; see·catch; un·catch·able; catch·ing·ly; catch·poll; …   English syllables

  • Catch — Catch, n. 1. Act of seizing; a grasp. Sir P. Sidney. [1913 Webster] 2. That by which anything is caught or temporarily fastened; as, the catch of a gate. [1913 Webster] 3. The posture of seizing; a state of preparation to lay hold of, or of… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • catch — s.n. Gen de lupte libere în care sunt permise aproape orice mijloace pentru înfrângerea adversarului. [pr.: checi. – var.: catch can (pr.: checi chén) s.n.] cuv. engl. Trimis de valeriu, 03.03.2003. Sursa: DEX 98  CATCH [pr …   Dicționar Român

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