Book Reviews, Review

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

I had to do a book report last year, and the book I chose to do was Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. It was an interesting and REALLY confusing read. After (literally) reading it over 4 times, I finally understood what everything meant. Here is my report from last year:

P.S.- Please do not copy and paste my work if you are currently doing this book for a report. It isn’t beneficial for me, and it certainly won’t be beneficial for you when you get caught.


“Catch-22,” is not organized in a chronological sequence of events. Heller writes the majority of the novel out of order, switching from past to present and moving through time and other events in a seemingly unsystematic assortment. The plot can be analyzed in two different ways; by sequence of events according to time or by sequence of events according to each chapter/character. In this essay, the plot is analyzed according to what happens in each chapter, as opposed to trying to find the linear sequence of events in time.

If divided up into four sections, the plot according to the chapters is a bit easier to make sense of. From chapters 1-18, the novel explains who is who and the idiocy and illogicality of the military, capitalism, and bureaucracy, having more of a humorous, absurd tone. The first part also explains how everyone sane and logical is illogical and punished in Yossarian’s world, and everyone who acts illogically and without reasoning gets rewarded for it and is considered sane. The second fourth of the novel, chapters 19-26, goes deeper into how futile the situation they are in and how illogical everyone’s actions are. Everyone is calling everyone else crazy, and nobody knows what to do in order to achieve their own personal goal, causing the tone of the second part of the novel to be more confused and more desperate to find a resolution. By the third section of the novel, Chapters 27-34, most of the characters have reached the goal that they wanted, only to be thwarted by things completely out of their control (death is a prevalent theme in this section). The third section has a tone of hopelessness and futility. The last section, 35-40, is where Yossarian desperately tries to find a way out as his friends die around him. Here, he sees the true atrocities of war. Near the end of the novel, he realizes the full extent of humanity’s evilness and has the epiphany that Catch-22 which “says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing,” is not real. He walks away from the war in order to preserve what is right and what is in the best interest of the people he cares about (including himself).

Point of View/Perspective

“Catch-22” is solely told in the third person omniscient, an all-knowing narrator who tells and goes into detail of the stories of almost every single character that is mentioned in the novel. The narrator focuses on a lot of characters’ independent stories, but always finds a way to connect it back to the protagonist, Yossarian. The dialogue between characters and the omniscient narration is often confusing and hard to follow. The narration in some chapters can provide a lot of insight into how the characters are thinking at that very moment. A good example of the narrator’s description of what is going on can be shown in the conversation between Milo and Yossarian in Chapter 7 about Yossarian’s fruit. When read without the omniscient narrator’s explanation of how the characters are feeling and thinking at that moment, the dialogue would present itself in a way that would simply suggest that Yossarian has no idea what he’s talking about, and Milo is asking questions that have no reasoning behind it. By adding the descriptions of how the characters are feeling in the conversation, the narrator shows that Milo shows deep discomfort and some physical pain in learning that all of the fruit Yossarian has is essentially going to waste by Yossarian giving it away, but trusts Yossarian completely with every secret except where he hides his money, and that Yossarian cares about his friends who needs the fruit more, but is slightly “distrustful” at the fact that he seems so “indignant” in how he acts and seems (64). Sometimes, however, the omniscient narrator provides examples and details in the novel that don’t really have anything to do with what the characters just finished talking about, straying away from the sequence of events going on. An example of this would be in the beginning of Chapter 8 when Lieutenant Scheisskopf is saying he isn’t going to punish anyone for doing something, and then the narrator goes in-depth about who he was (which does provide some useful insight as to what type of person the Lt. is), but then goes into detail about the Lt.’s wife and how she slept with a lot of people, and then about how the Lt. liked parades (68-71).
The confusing changes in perspective from character to character and strange dialogue and narrative descriptions emphasizes the novel as a whole. It emphasizes the underlying message of Catch-22 being a satire of a bureaucracy, where nothing really makes sense, but because everyone fervently believes it makes sense, it makes sense. The characters that the omniscient narrator tells the stories of are connected to each other by this theme of absurd logic. In having slightly haphazard and changing points of views, the Heller further emphasizes how all the characters in the novel have been sucked in and trapped by a world that doesn’t make sense and is constantly being proved illogical.
Protagonist The protagonist of, “Catch-22” is John Yossarian, a captain in the 256th Bombardment Squadron of the Army Air Corps, which is revealed in the very beginning of the novel. John’s sole goal in this novel is to stay alive. This goal is supported by his other major goal in life, which is to go home (so he doesn’t have to fight and die in the war). His extreme want to leave the war and live forces him to do some questionable things and to try and take every route possible for him to not risk his life, as shown in the following passage, “…Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever o die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive” (29). He frequently goes to the hospital for randomly made-up diseases and ailments so that he does not have to fly on missions, and sometimes makes himself sick or tries to be in the worst health possible so he doesn’t have to fly any missions and can go home for not being useful to the military.For example, throughout the novel, Yossarian says that he is insane in order to get grounded from duty, as shown on Chapter 27, pages 293-298, when he claims that he is insane and dreams of holding a live fish in his hands, and then suggests, “perhaps I ought to be grounded and returned to the states (298)”. None of his superiors are able to ground him on insanity because of Catch-22, however, which stated, “…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…[if one was crazy he] 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. [Someone] 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” (46). Therefore, Yossarian is in the maddening position where he can’t escape his situation no matter where he turns.Yossarian is also one of the only characters in the novel who realize the futility and absurdity of war, seeing that the point in living is not to kill or die for the sake of killing, but to live. His will to live is perpetuated by his constant want to fall in love with as many women as possible and to go home. His somewhat strange, straightforward logic and reasoning actually makes sense to the reader, whereas in Yossarian’s world of bureaucracy and confusion, other people find his logic to be crazy. This is explicitly and somewhat sarcastically shown in the text where it describes the reaction of some of the men about how Yossarian was openly defying his orders and the war because he has the right to do so, “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” (405).Other characters acknowledge that his way of thinking is “crazy” compared to everyone else’s way of thinking, as shown in Clevinger’s description of what is wrong with Yossarian: “an unreasonable belief that everybody around him was crazy, a homicidal impulse to machine-gun strangers, retrospective falsification, an unfounded suspicion that people hated him and were conspiring to kill him” (20). A number of characters, however agree that he is in fact sane because he thinks differently than other people (who are crazy), as described by Dr. Stubbs in Chapter 10, “’Yossarian? Who the hell is Yossarian? What the hell kind of a name is Yossarian, anyway?…That crazy bastard.’ ‘He’s not so crazy,” Dunbar said. “He swears he’s not going to fly to Bologna.’ That’s just what I mean,” Dr. Stubbs answered. ‘That crazy bastard may be the only sane one left’” (110).Yossarian’s thinking in terms of the war is a direct result of a traumatic event that he went through when he was just starting out in the war. On one of his flights, a man named Snowden lay dying in the back of his plane. When Yossarian landed, he began to cutt the off Snowden’s clothes to try and help heal his body. After cutting open his clothes, Snowden’s entrails spilled onto Yossarian, covering him in blood and revealing to him a message about humanity and life, which was to (basically) not take life for granted, because at any point in time, someone might die. Eventually, fed up with the complications of war but not wanting to betray his fellow soldiers and friends, he tries to escape and run away from the war altogether by escaping to Sweden.

“Catch-22” is set during World War II, and the time period jumps around past and present, staying within the confines of the 1940’s. The locations the book describes are usually associated with the 256th squadron in Pianosa. Looking it up on a map, Pianosa is located a bit off the coast of Italy. The novel also partly takes place at Rome and mentions a lot of locations where Milo Minderbender’s black market trade goes on (from Africa, to Egypt, to New York City). Interestingly enough, though this is a book from the U.S. set during WWII, “Catch-22” does not name the Germans, the Axis Powers, or the Allies as “the enemy”. Instead, the setting shows through the characters’ (esp. Yossarian’s) perspective that everyone is the enemy if everyone is trying to kill them, and whoever is not the enemy isn’t out to get them.

The setting is definitely the backbone for the novel; without “Catch-22” being set in a time period of great anxiety, confusion and war, the novel would not have been as effective in sharing its message about bureaucracy and how corrupt it is. Because the majority of the novel is set in an American-run squadron, a lot of the characters display American patriotism (even though a lot of them don’t know why), so therefore Americans would be more likely to relate to this novel. However, if done correctly, the story could have followed an almost exact sequence of events if it was applied to a differently allied country or in a different time period. The major points of the setting would be to make sure that it was during a major war and that the armies followed a bureaucratic system.

A lot of the locations that are described in the novel are much described in the tantalizing way that bureaucracy and fighting for a war is like. This is definitely shown in the description of Rome before and after the bomb hits and the police storm in to chase the prostitutes out of the apartment, where it was a refuge for the prostitutes and “sweet girls” that lived there. When Yossarian goes to tell Nately’s whore of his death, he finds it in ruins, “Rome was in ruins, he saw, when the plane was down…Nately’s whore’s apartment was a shambles…” (406). We find out shortly after from the old lady who owned the apartment building that police stormed in and chased away the girls for no real reason, claiming they had permission to by the law of Catch-22, which stated, “they have the right to do anything we can’t keep them from doing”. This drastic change in setting helps emphasize the events that are happening in the novel as well as perpetuate the idea that bureaucracy, while it looks fine and good to get into and join (like joining a bureaucratic military system), it will eventually give way to the “real” absurd laws that make it work and imprison those who fell into their trap, leaving the victims worse than where they started out as and not knowing why.

Arguably, the most major theme in the novel deals with the idea about how life is absurdity and corruption of logic that bureaucracy forces onto the characters. This is permeated throughout the novel by the characters’ experiences and thoughts that reflect on who is sane, what actions are considered sane and why these actions and people are considered sane or insane.

Bureaucracy is defined by as, “government by a rigid hierarchy of officials; group of officials; excessive administrative routine”. The fact that the novel is set during the time of World War II should suggest that bureaucracy in the military is required to maintain order and structure in order to complete the united goal of defeating the enemy. However, Catch-22 shows the reader that the situation that the enlisted men are in because of bureaucracy is absolutely hopeless and manipulatory, as every action the men do are forced upon them by superiors that want to move up or flamboyantly express their rank. Many of the things the men do are either extremely dangerous or serve very little purpose (or both, in some cases), and are usually in done with a vain understanding that the majority of the acts and rules placed by the bureaucracy don’t help the war effort at all.

However, those that are in higher power constantly try to convince the men that what they are doing in the war effort is helping in some way to the military effort. People in command force absurd and illogical rules upon the enlisted men to make them seem more impressive to their superiors. The enlisted men, though try to make sense and logic of their actions or try to be useful and helpful, their wholesome acts and logical thoughts usually results in them being punished for no logical reason, and people are praised for illogical actions.

One example of this is in Chapter 8 when Clevinger is going under his trial for Lieutenant Schiesskopf’s accusation of crimes that he never did. It is revealed before the trial starts that Lieutenant Schiesskopf hates Clevinger for thinking logical thoughts (hinting at the fact that those in power want to remain in power and the only reason why they make sure that everyone else is following irrational orders is to make sure that the people below them will never get anywhere) and wants nothing more from the trial than to get him in trouble, “Clevinger had a mind, and Lieutenant Schisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart sometimes. Such men were dangerous…The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with” (71).

The trial itself and the dialogue that occurs between all three of the characters is completely absurd and no logical resolution is ever found. The colonel gets off topic easily and is constantly being reminded about what he talking about. Every time Clevinger pleads for innocence, the colonel says that Clevinger is guilty about things that doesn’t make sense, as shown in this passage, “’What did you mean,’ he inquired slowly, ‘when you said we couldn’t punish you?…‘I’m sorry, sir. But I don’t know how to answer it. I never said you couldn’t punish me.’ ‘Now you’re telling me when you did say it. I’m asking you to tell us when you didn’t say it…Didn’t I tell you to keep your stupid mouth shut?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Then keep your stupid mouth shut when I tell you to keep your stupid mouth shut. Do you understand? Will you speak up, please? I couldn’t hear you,’” (76-77).

No matter how hard Clevinger pleads for innocence, he will not get it, and Lieutenant Schiesskopf makes sure of this, “…Lieutenant Schiesskopf was one of the judges…[he] was also the prosecutor… [and] the officer defending [Clevinger] was Lieutenant Schiesskopf” (75-76), and the bumbling, idiotic colonel supports the futility of trying to be rational in an illogical world. Here, Clevinger is almost completely subjected to whatever torture Lieutenant Schiesskopf and those in the room wants to enforce on him, no matter if he’s innocent or not. They exercise their power by making whatever nonsensical rules they want (that often contradict each other) and punishing Clevinger for following and not following those rules.

The bureaucratic military’s absurd sense of logic and its effects on the mentality and morality of those affected by it is highlighted in Chapter 39 when Yossarian is wandering through Rome. Yossarian is arrested for being in Rome without a pass while Aarfy, Yossarian’s selfish and horribly cynical navigator, gets an apology from the police for barging in after he raped and murdered a girl. “’I only raped her once,’ he explained…’Aarfy, are you insane?’ Yossarian was almost speechless. ‘You killed a girl. They’re going to put you in jail!’…’She was only a servant girl. I hardly think they’re going to make too much of a fuss over one poor Italian servant girl when so many thousands of lives are being lost every day. Do you?’…They arrested Yossarian for being in Rome without a pass. They apologized to Aarfy for intruding’” (418-419). In this example, morals are nonexistent when put under the ridiculous laws made by a bureaucratic military.

Title The title, “Catch-22” comes up frequently throughout the novel, and is described directly by the dialogue of the characters or narration of the narrator. “Catch-22” is first brought up in Chapter 5 by Doc Daneeka: “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…[if one was crazy he] 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. [Someone] 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” (46).

“Catch-22” is mentioned and elaborated throughout the novel through many other characters. The description that sums up the law of “Catch-22” is described by an old lady while talking to Yossarian, “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing” (408). The reader can then assume that there really is no such thing as the law of “Catch-22”; it is merely an imaginary, paradoxical law made by the bureaucratic military to keep those affected by it helpless and trapped in an illogical reality. They are forced to do whatever someone above them tells them to do, whether or not it makes sense.

Personal Recommendation
“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is one of the hardest books I’ve ever read. The plot structure is confusing if one does not take the time to stop and process the information that they are being given. It is also difficult to remember which character is which, because there are many characters introduced and explained in the novel.

Many philosophical questions stemmed from a lot of the subjects that were in, “Catch-22”. “Catch-22” caused me to question life and what the purpose of rules and manners were. What was the purpose of living when we are all going to die anyway? Is it better for one to extend one’s life by doing activities that were boring and unenjoyable, or is it better for one to spend one’s life shortly by doing activities that were enjoyable and made time pass quicker? What was the purpose of an organized bureaucratic system when everyone in that system is working toward making everyone else work inefficiently? If everyone is insane, wouldn’t everyone also be sane by being similar to each other?I am pretty sure that “Catch-22” is already part of the AP curriculum, and for good reason. “Catch-22” requires a great amount of patience, understanding, and time in order to figure out what is going on.

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