Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Special Commissioned Essay on Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Kathi A. Vosevich

See also Joseph Heller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 8, 11.

“There was only one catch … and that was Catch-22,” Doc Daneeka informs Yossarian. As Yossarian, the lead bombardier of Joseph Heller's landmark first novel, soon learns, this one catch is enough to keep him at war indefinitely. After pleading with the doctor that he is too crazy to fly bombing missions, Yossarian is introduced to Catch-22, a rule which stipulates that anyone rational enough to want to be grounded could not possibly be insane and therefore must return to his perilous duties. The novel Catch-22 is built around the multifarious attempts of Captain John Yossarian to survive the Second World War, to escape the omnipresent logic of a regulation which somehow stays one step ahead of him.

At the time of its publication in 1961, Heller's antiwar novel met with modest sales and lukewarm reviews. But by mid-decade, the book began to sell in the American underground, becoming a favored text of the counterculture. Heller's novel burst onto an American culture that “still cherished nice notions about WW II,” Eliot Fremont-Smith recalled in the Village Voice. “Demolishing these, it released an irreverence that had, until then, dared not speak its name.” With millions of copies in print, Catch-22 is generally regarded as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It “is probably the finest novel published since World War II,” Richard Locke declared in the New York Times Book Review.Catch-22 is the great representative document of our era, linking high and low culture.” The title itself has become part of the language, and its “hero” (more aptly an anti-hero), Yossarian, according to Jack Schnedler of the Newark Star-Ledger “has become the fictional talisman to an entire generation.”

About The Work

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Kathi A. Vosevich

SOURCE: Vosevich, Kathi A. “An Analysis of Catch-22.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 131, edited by Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2003.

[In the following original essay, Vosevich examines Heller's Catch-22 on a number of levels, assessing the plot, characters, themes, evolution of the work, the novel's historical significance, and how the work has been studied since its publication.]

Joseph Heller's Catch-22, first published by Simon and Schuster in 1961, was the consummation of nearly ten years of intense writing and rewriting. It began as a series of note cards that outlined characters in a military setting,1 and then developed into brief sketches. One of these sketches became the basis for the short story “Catch-18,” ultimately the first chapter of the novel.2 This short story was published in 1955 in the Seventh Mentor Selection of New World Writing, an anthology of the best new literature and criticism, along with an excerpt from what would become Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Heller took almost another year to complete the next chapter, and in 1961, he finally finished the novel under the title Catch-18. Earlier that same year, the well-known and popular writer Leon Uris had finished his new novel, Mila 18. Since Heller was by far the lesser-known writer, and his publishers felt that two novels with “18” in the title would confuse sales to Heller's detriment, a search began for a new title. After brief flirtations with Catch-11 and Catch-14, Bob Gottlieb, an editor at Simon and Schuster, came up with Catch-22—a phrase that has become part of our everyday English language.

Catch-22 sold well in America, but it got mixed reviews and did not make the best-seller lists. However, “while America slept” as one Simon and Schuster ad...

(This entire section contains 10973 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

complained, the novel became a “#1 bestseller in England.”3 Meanwhile, in the U.S. Simon and Schuster continued to advertise the novel, and Catch-22 gained favor from critics and on college campuses. It was also nominated for the Thirteenth National Book Award, but lost to Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.

The publicity that the heavily favored Heller gained from losing the prestigious award and the $1000 prize was invaluable. Columbia Pictures soon bought the film rights for $100,000 and a percentage of the profits, and Dell decided to publish the book as a paperback. The paperback, which Heller requested to come out on the first anniversary of the hardback version, quickly became a number-one bestseller, and by 1968, more than two million copies had been sold.4 Current estimates of all copies sold are upwards of 24 million. Not bad for a novel that, as Heller himself admits, “won no prizes.”5


Although Catch-22 is set off the Italian coast on the fictional island of Pianosa during the late stages of World War II, it is not strictly a war or antiwar novel in Heller's view. He says that it is “more anti-traditional establishment than antiwar” and that he uses the military organization “as a construct, as a metaphor for business relationships and institutional structures.”6 His contrapuntal style emphasizes the absurdity of these structures by not focusing on strict chronology, but ever circling, balancing, and counterbalancing his theme and characters.

The plot itself is relatively simple. Yossarian, a lead bombardier, has one goal: to live forever or die in the attempt. This goal is increasingly complicated after Colonel Nevers is killed in combat, and Colonel Cathcart replaces him. In an effort to get into The Saturday Evening Post, the new commander keeps raising the number of missions required before a pilot can return home. Yossarian's appeals not to fly the extra missions and prolong his life are complicated by Catch-22: if he were crazy, he could be grounded, but in order to be grounded he had to ask, and if he asked, then that proved he was not crazy, so he would not be grounded. The death of a young soldier named Snowden, who spills his guts literally and figuratively to show that man is just matter, triggers Yossarian's ultimate leap from all-consuming thoughts of self-preservation to the desire to take responsibility for himself and others.

The narrative structure, on the other hand, is not so simple as the plot. In fact, it is more of a jigsaw puzzle, and Heller himself had to put notes on a blotter while writing the novel (because of the abundance of characters and their interactions) to make sure all the pieces fit.7 He explained his lack of linear narrative structure as such:

Nine-tenths of Catch-22 is organized around three combat missions: the mission to Avignon, the mission to Bologna, and the mission to Ferrara. The first mission is the main one. The whole novel is a series of events that either deal with the missions or are outgrowths of events that happened on the mission. Now of course I was aware of this pattern; I had planned it at least a year before I began writing the novel.

The three missions have occurred before the time of the opening chapter, and they keep recurring. …

And this also is a part of the structure. I was very much aware that I was creating in the first, oh, four-fifths of the novel the effect of something being chaotic and anarchistic, and yet have the pieces come together much the way William Faulkner does in Absalom, Absalom!,The Sound and the Fury, and other works in which he deals with a large body of information presented in tiny fragments and then have the fragments connect toward the end of the book and give the whole picture.

The narrative line in Catch-22 assumes a forward motion only toward the end of the book when Yossarian decides to desert. Then the narrative goes straightforward with the exception of one flashback, the description of the death of Snowden, told in realistic form. Even the flashback is handled in traditional, straightforward narration. But until Yossarian's decision there is almost no forward action.8

As James L. McDonald explains, the “interplay between present narrative and the cumulative repetition and gradual clarification of past actions” portrays “dramatically, the manner in which the characters apprehend their world, and shows the impact of the past on their present attitudes and actions. Each moment in the present flashes their minds back to fragmentary images of past events which influence their behavior so heavily.”9 However, because Heller makes extensive use of flashbacks and circling back to scenes in an almost psychological order, the sequence of events is often lost. To untangle the plot into a linear sequence, a summary focused on Yossarian that follows the chronology of events on Heller's blotter may be helpful.10

As an enlisted man, Yossarian is stationed in Colorado where he meets, among others, Wintergreen. While there, Yossarian discovers the benefits of escaping into the hospital and mimics the disorder of the “Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice,” until the soldier dies. In early 1944, he is stationed in Santa Ana, California, as an aviation cadet and meets his friend Clevinger who goes on trial for telling Lieutenant Scheisskopf why morale is low. (Yossarian had warned Clevinger that Scheisskopf really does not want an answer to his pleas for enlightenment, but Clevinger ignores him.) Scheisskopf goes on to win awards for his parading cadets, and Yossarian goes on to sleep with the lieutenant's wife.

Yossarian is then shipped overseas to Pianosa and becomes a lead bombardier, gets demoted to wing bombardier, reinstated, then demoted again. The group commander, Colonel Nevers, is killed over Arezzo because he did not shirk his combat duties. He is replaced, unfortunately for the squadron, by Colonel Cathcart. At this time, the number of required missions is 25, and Yossarian has 23, but Cathcart immediately raises the number to 30. Cathcart volunteers his men for the mission to Ferrara to make a good impression for himself, but Yossarian has to go over the target twice because Aarfy, the navigator, cannot read maps. Kraft's plane is shot down the second time around, and Yossarian is at first reprimanded. However, to avoid criticism for a botched mission, Cathcart not only gives Yossarian a medal, but promotes him to Captain as well.

Milo, who is a pilot but acts as mess officer, has been providing fresh eggs for the soldiers, and making a profit for his syndicate. In April, with his money, he buys the entire Egyptian cotton crop. The same month, the squadron commander, Major Duluth, is killed in battle, and because it looks like there is an extra major job on the books, Captain Major is promoted and becomes Major Major (“Major” is his last name, as well as his title). He is immediately ostracized and victimized by Captain Black's Great Loyalty Oath Crusade. Black is jealous of Major Major's promotion, and in an unsuccessful effort to discredit him, he will not allow the new squadron commander to sign the oath.

In June, the Allies capture Rome, and Yossarian accompanies Nately to his girlfriend's whorehouse. Mudd, the dead man in Yossarian's tent, is killed the same day he arrives, and Yossarian is left with his unpacked belongings. Because the man never officially signed in to the squadron, Sergeant Towser will not allow his things to be removed—and so Mudd becomes an ever-present reminder of death, the one thing Yossarian is desperately trying to avoid.

The next big mission is Bologna, which Yossarian delays by poisoning the squadron's food and simply by moving the bomb line. When they finally fly the mission, Yossarian is so afraid that he pretends his intercom is broken and the plane turns back. The mission turns out to be a milk run, however, and when they go back the next day, Yossarian mistakenly takes no evasive action and runs into flak. Several planes are shot down, including his other tent-mate Orr's, but he manages to crash land safely. After the mission, Yossarian goes to Rome on a rest leave and meets the beautiful Luciana (with the invisible scar), who is not a whore but will sleep with him. He arrogantly and stupidly tears up her address and regrets his action for the rest of the novel. While he is in Rome, Cathcart raises the number of missions to 40, and Yossarian immediately runs to the hospital. This becomes a pattern with Yossarian, who only has 38 missions when Cathcart raises the number to 45. In the meantime, Milo bombs his own squadron for the Germans in an effort to recoup some of the monetary losses he suffered with the Egyptian cotton.

The most important mission in the novel takes place next: Avignon. In the briefing room before they fly, Yossarian starts a moaning fit among the men at General Dreedle's girlfriend/nurse. Dreedle orders the next man who moans to be shot, but Major Danby is so involved in synchronizing watches that he does not hear the order and moans. During the mission itself, Dobbs panics and seizes the controls from the pilot, Huple. The plane plunges into flak, and Snowden is shot, but Yossarian treats the wrong wound. He can offer no comfort other than repeating “there, there” because Milo has taken the morphine from the first aid kit for his syndicate's ventures. Snowden “freezes to death” and spills his guts, including the stewed tomatoes he had for lunch, all over Yossarian. Yossarian learns the secret: that man is matter.

Yossarian emerges from the plane naked. He even goes naked to the cemetery and sits in a tree at Snowden's funeral. Milo finds him in the tree and offers him chocolate-covered cotton that is, of course, inedible, and Yossarian refuses to eat it. This scene recalls the temptation in the Garden of Eden. In fact, Yossarian says he is in the “tree of life” and “of knowledge of good and evil, too” (272). As they are discussing the cotton, the Chaplain looks up and sees what he thinks is a vision. Yossarian is still naked when he receives his medal for the mission to Ferrara. Then, on the next mission, Clevinger flies into a cloud and never emerges.

Upset over Clevinger's death, Yossarian enters the hospital once again, faking a liver ailment. (This is where the first chapter of the novel begins.) To relieve his boredom, he censors letters and signs the name “Washington Irving”—which sparks a C.I.D. investigation into this crime. He soon meets the Chaplain and their awkward friendship begins. He also witnesses the death of the Soldier in White, who had been kept alive merely by switching the bottles that recycled fluids into and out of his body.

Yossarian leaves the hospital with 45 missions, but now he needs 50, so he tries to get grounded by Doc Daneeka, only to learn about the best catch there is, Catch-22, which prevents him from avoiding more missions; he cannot be grounded unless he is crazy and asks, but only a sane man would ask to be grounded and sane men are not grounded. He next goes to the Chaplain for help, and then to Major Major, who will only see him when he is not in his office. If he is in the office, then he will not see him, so Yossarian tackles him in a ditch, but there is nothing he or the Chaplain can do. By now, Yossarian has 51 missions, but needs 60. Dobbs snaps because of the unfair number of missions and asks Yossarian for his consent to murder Cathcart, but Yossarian refuses. Cathcart's latest scheme to get into The Saturday Evening Post is inadvertently thwarted by the Chaplain when he tells the colonel that enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.

On a milk run, Aarfy gets lost again, guides the planes over flak, and Yossarian is wounded in the leg. In the hospital, Yossarian gooses Nurse Duckett and begins an affair with her. He also sees a psychiatrist in the hospital and is judged to be crazy, but the doctor mistakes his name and sends another soldier home in his place. Meanwhile, Cathcart decides that all his “black eyes” have been caused by Yossarian. He is so distressed that even the name “Yossarian” terrifies him.

Cathcart volunteers the men for Bologna again, and Yossarian agrees to murder the colonel, but since Dobbs has his 60 missions, he is now repulsed by the idea. Orr invites Yossarian to fly with him, and Yossarian declines. When Orr's plane goes down, everyone survives, but Orr is lost. The next mission involves bombing a whole village to create a roadblock and Yossarian is very upset. Cathcart is more concerned with getting a tight bomb pattern and good aerial photographs than with the loss of innocent civilian lives.

Yossarian is relaxing with Nurse Duckett on the beach when McWatt buzzes him and accidentally cuts Kid Sampson in half. McWatt flies into a mountain in remorse, but since Doc Daneeka (who hates flying) is listed on the log to get flight pay, he is pronounced dead, too, even though he is obviously alive and standing on the beach. Cathcart uses these deaths as an excuse to raise the missions to 70.

On the next trip to Rome, Nately finally gets his girl. All she needed was a good night's sleep, and she wakes up in love with him. Nately's good fortune does not last long, however. After Milo's Thanksgiving Day feast, Sergeant Knight (who is jokingly firing a machine gun) awakens Yossarian. Yossarian is so angry that he tries to kill Knight, who he thinks is shooting at him. Nately tries to stop his friend and gets punched in the nose so hard that he is taken to the hospital. There, Yossarian learns that Nurse Duckett is dissociating herself from him because she wants to marry a doctor. He also learns that Dunbar has “disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Yossarian pleads with Nately not to volunteer to fly more missions (since he already has 70) to stay overseas with his girl and asks Milo for help. Milo talks to Cathcart and the end result is that the others in the squadron will have to fly 80 missions to make up for the fact that Milo has flown no more than five. Nately is ecstatic, but Dobbs causes a midair collision, and both he and Nately are killed over La Spezia. At the same time, the Chaplain, who has sinned by lying (he made up a disease called Wisconsin shingles to get into the hospital), is taken to a cellar for interrogation about a plum tomato, found guilty, then released. The squadron also gets a new general to Peckem's great disappointment: Scheisskopf.

Yossarian refuses to fly more missions, so he goes to Rome on a rest leave where he tells Nately's whore about her lover's death. She immediately tries to kill him. As Heller states on his blotter, “Nately's whore becomes a symbol of his guilt and responsibility for never intervening in the injustices he knows exist everywhere,” and she begins to haunt Yossarian. Finally, someone is out to kill him specifically, but he escapes temporarily to Corsica, and then soon returns to the eternal city of Rome to find and help Nately's whore's kid sister. While there, he discovers that the old Italian man that Nately used to argue with has died and that Aarfy has raped and murdered an innocent maid. When the M.P.s find Yossarian and Aarfy together in Rome, they make one arrest: Yossarian, who is AWOL.

Back at the squadron, Cathcart and Korn offer Yossarian a deal: he can return home if he “likes” them and becomes their pal. Yossarian accepts the arrangement, even though he is betraying his friends, but as he leaves their office, Nately's whore stabs him, and he ends up in the hospital again. When he finds out that Orr has successfully rowed to Sweden, he repudiates the deal and decides to run away to responsibility. The Chaplain (who has chosen to persevere after his trial in the cellar) and Danby help in his desertion. Danby offers him money and the Chaplain offers to beat up anyone who might stop him. Yossarian determines to head for Rome to help Nately's whore's kid sister, but as he begins on his way, he must first leap out of the way of Nately's whore's knife.

Perhaps the best way to end a discussion of plot summary would be to examine Heller's answer to the question of what his novel is about:

What was it about? That question still makes me squirm (and I'm still tremendously glad I never had to write a review of Catch-22, either—or its jacket copy). It was set toward the end of World War II—I could be straightforward about that much—and concerned men in an American bomber group on an island off the coast of Italy. And—I swear!—it was only then, in trying to talk about it coherently, that I realized for the first time how extensively I was focusing on the grim details of human mortality, on disease, accidents, grotesque mutilations. I was again awash in the reds and pinks of the Rorschach color cards, in blood, in the deaths of such characters as Kid Sampson and Snowden and even with my colorless Soldier in White. Although I had from the start, from the second chapter on, been dutifully following a disciplined outline, I hadn't perceived till then how much material of a gory nature was embodied in its fulfillment. There was certainly an awful lot for a novel that has since been described by many as among the funniest they've read.11


Heller was born in Coney Island, a neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City, on 1 May 1923, to Russian Jews who had immigrated to America in 1913. His father, Isaac, died when Heller was five years old, leaving his mother, Lena, as sole parent. Heller was raised with his older half-brother and -sister (products of his father's first marriage). In his memoirs, Heller describes his neighborhood:

While certainly not a slum, Coney Island was in my time a depressed area for its year-round dwellers. …

We were children from poor families, but didn't know it. I don't think I have ever in my life thought of myself a underprivileged, as unfairly deprived of something I might reasonably wish to own and didn't. … It was a blessing of our childhood to be oblivious of our low economic sate and of how others might regard us. …

Nearly all were immigrants and living on a roughly equal level. This was the nature of life; they had learned that in Europe. It was not stylish to bemoan. They expected life to be hard, and most were living better than they had been able to do in the Old World. I doubt that many had known the luxury of running water, central heating, and indoor plumbing before they arrived in America. …12

Even from an early age, Heller displayed an unusual sense of humor. He recollects this revealing event:

Rising on the sidewalk outside our building, near the curb, was a telephone pole, with spikes sunk into opposite sides on escalating levels to serve as steps for the serviceman to climb to the seat at the repair box about two stories up. They weren't difficult to mount once you attained the starting point at the bottom, a sturdy wedge of wood hammered into the pole for a first foothold about three feet from the ground. I found out how easy it was one day when, given a boost to that bottom wedge by a friend, I began going up the spikes, hand over hand and leg after leg. At the top, when I was at the seat, I discovered with happy surprise that I was gazing right into the open window of our kitchen. And I saw my mother there, busy at the stove inside just a few feet away.

‘Ma, can I have a glass of milk?’ I asked in my most innocent voice.

The look of bewildered amazement and then stark horror that struck her face when she turned and saw me posed in air just outside the window was so extreme that I feared I, too, might die of fright at just that moment. It could have been about then that my mother made for the first time the remark about my idea of humor that she would repeat many times afterward in maternal surprise and tribute, though often with a dismayed shake of the head:

‘You've [He's] got a twisted brain.’13


Heller graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, and worked as a file clerk at Manhattan Mutual Automobile Casualty Company and then as a blacksmith's helper at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and galvanized the nation for war, Heller joined the U. S. Army Air Force and subsequently became, like Yossarian, a bombardier on the B-25J Mitchell bomber.14 He was a member of the 488th Bombardment Squadron, which among other locations was stationed on Corsica in the Mediterranean. His experiences are the factual basis for Catch-22. David M. Craig states that:

Heller's experiences as a bombardier over Avignon during World War II were catalytic to his career as a writer. In them Catch-22 begins. Their spark was not to his desire to be an author. … Rather, Avignon provided in highly compressed form his essential subject, human mortality, and engaged his imagination in a way in which this subject could eventually be given expression.15

However, in a 1986 interview at the Air Force Academy, Heller claimed that most of his war experiences do not correlate to events in the novel:

Nothing of my personal experience comes through in the character of Captain Yossarian. … That part of my experience I did use in the novel had to do with the mechanics of missions by B-25 bomb groups stationed in Corsica in that particular war. … My own experience in World War II was, I'm ashamed to say, extremely beneficial—from the time I enlisted to the time I was discharged with the exception of a few months towards the end of my tour of duty when I was scared. … Yossarian's protest and indignation at the choices presented to him came to me as part of the American era that followed World War II.16

Yet the unit's unofficial history points out some compelling similarities between Catch-22 and what Heller's unit actually experienced. For example, in May 1944, the Germans launched a predawn air attack on the squadron that was led by a captured British Beaufighter airplane.17 The attack was serious enough that 24 purple hearts were consequently awarded.18 The history also mentions the numerous complaints about food and the frequency of hoarding eggs.19 Perhaps from these incidents, the character of Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer/pilot, began to form with his bombing raid on his own men and buying eggs for seven cents apiece, selling them for five, and making a profit—not to mention always getting fresh eggs for the mess.

In Now and Then, published in 1998, Heller himself points out more similarities between his World War II experience and his novel—notwithstanding his 1986 remarks at the Air Force Academy. For example, he talks about a pilot named Ritter, whose “patient genius for building and fixing things and these recurring close calls in aerial combat” were qualities from which he fashioned the character of Orr.20 Heller also reveals that he derived the name “Yossarian” (though none of the characteristics) from a friend named Francis Yohannon, and that Hungry Joe was based on a pilot named Joe Chrenko who always fought with Yohannon's dog.21 In the novel, Heller “turned the dog into a cat to protect its identity.”22 In addition, Heller states that Major de Coverley was based on the squadron executive officer, Major Cover, who rented two apartments in Rome for the use of the officers and enlisted.23

More importantly, Heller describes a report he heard of a mission to Ferrara where a radio gunner was “pierced through the middle by a wallop of flak … and he died, moaning … that he was cold.”24 Heller continues:

For my episodes of Snowden in the novel, I fused the knowledge of that tragedy with the panicked copilot and the thigh wound to the top turret gunner in my own plane on our second mission to Avignon. The rest of the details are all pretty much as I related, except that I did not, Like Yossarian, discard my uniform or sit naked in a tree, and I was not given a medal while undressed.25

After his copilot panicked, Heller says that he learned that “they were trying to kill me,” sounding much like Yossarian.26 In fact, as Heller retells this story in Now and Then, he goes back to it again and again, in a circular retelling, much as he does in the fictionalized version.27 Heller is also a victim of an increasing number of required missions—from 50 to 55 to 60—but unlike Yossarian, Heller completes his 60 missions and rotates home in 1945.

Despite what some critics see as an antiwar sentiment in Catch-22, Heller has often stated that his experiences during World War II were mostly positive—especially since he survived. He returned home to marry Shirley Held on 3 September 1945, and they had two children, Erica Jill and Theodore Michael. He received the G.I. Bill, which was the only way he could have afforded to attend college. He initially attended the University of Southern California where he changed majors from journalism to English. He describes the switch as a lucky escape from “an irreparable and very great disaster” that a career in journalism would have been for him.28 After a year at USC, he moved back home and subsequently graduated from New York University in 1948. He went on to earn a Master's degree from Columbia and studied at Oxford University on a Fulbright scholarship. After graduation, he worked as an English Composition instructor at Pennsylvania State, as an advertising copywriter first at the Merrill Anderson Company and then for Time until 1958, and as a production manager at McCall's until 1961. It was at the Merrill Anderson Company that Catch-22 had its genesis:

One morning I arrived at work with my pastry and container of coffee and a mind brimming with ideas, and immediately in longhand put down on a pad the first chapter of an intended novel, a chapter that, after expansion and revision, was published in 1955.29

After the motion picture rights were sold, Heller left McCall's to concentrate on his preferred profession of writing.

In 1984, two major events altered his life. He divorced his wife and developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). Both events left him emotionally and financially strained. In fact, the disease so debilitated him that he was in the hospital for two months, followed by months of rehabilitation. In 1987, he married his former nurse, Valerie Humphries who helped in his hospital recovery. The divorce, the disease, and his initial romance with Humphries are the subject of his memoir, No Laughing Matter.

Although Heller is most famous for publishing Catch-22, his second novel Something Happened (1974) arguably rivals the first in narrative experimentation and psychological depth. Besides these two masterpieces, which many critics consider two of the most distinguished American novels in the twentieth century, Heller also published five others: Good as Gold (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), God Knows (Knopf: New York: 1984), Picture This (New York: Putnam's, 1988), Closing Time (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994)—a sequel to Catch-22 with the characters as old men, and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). He also wrote two nonfiction books of memoirs, No Laughing Matter, with Speed Vogel (New York: Putnam's, 1986) and Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (New York: Knopf, 1998). In addition, he wrote three plays: We Bombed in New Haven (New York: Knopf, 1968), first performed in New Haven, Connecticut, on 4 December 1967; Catch-22: A Dramatization, performed in 1971 in New York and in touring companies, eventually published in book form (New York: Delacorte, 1973); and Clevinger's Trial (New York: French, 1973). Heller also did some screenwriting for Hollywood: screenplays for Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970). Although some critics have attributed Casino Royale to Heller, in a personal interview he revealed that this was not the case.30

Joseph Heller died from a massive heart attack on 12 December 1999. He was with his wife, Valerie, at home in East Hampton, New York. He is survived not only by his two children, but also by his legacy of work that made him a world-famous literary celebrity.


Aardvark (Aarfy): The plump, fraternity man, is a pipe-smoking navigator who pretends not to hear the wounded Yossarian's cries for help. He rapes a plain Italian maid, instead of going to a prostitute, then throws her out the window, but he is not arrested for the crime. He is an example of complete self-absorption. Although Yossarian is concerned with his personal survival, he is not unconscious of others as Aarfy is.

Appleby: Fair-haired boy from Iowa who does everything well; he believed in God, Motherhood, and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them.31 He is excellent in a mindless pursuit such as ping-pong, but a poor in seeing the big picture or asking the important questions.

Captain Black: Squadron intelligence officer who thinks he will become squadron commander, only to be disappointed when Major Major gets the job; as a result, he starts the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade and refuses to allow Major Major to sign. He buys Nately's whore to make Nately “eat his liver,” which is his favorite saying. He uses “patriotism” to his own ends, much as the historical figure of McCarthy did in his inquisition of supposed communists.

Colonel Cargill: General Peckem's troubleshooter; before the war, “a very bad marketing executive” who was “sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes” (36). He orders the squadron to have a good time at the U.S.O. show so that they do not upset the morale of the entertainment troupe. Heller uses him not only to expose the façade of a successful businessman, but also to satirize abuses of military authority.

Colonel Cathcart: “Slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man” of 36 who wanted to be a general and get in The Saturday Evening Post; he keeps raising the number of missions with no concern for the safety or sanity of his squadron (195). He is supremely anxious about getting more feathers in his cap than black eyes on his record, and is very upset when he attributes all his black eyes to Yossarian. He offers a deal to Yossarian to send him home at the end of the novel to save face. He is completely hypocritical and only concerned with his self-promotion.

Clevinger: “One of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains”; in short, “a dope” (77); he was a cadet with Yossarian at Santa Ana, California. There he is moved to tell Scheisskopf why morale is low and cadets march poorly—something Scheisskopf really does not want to know—and goes to trial for this “crime”. He dies when his plane does not come out of a cloud off the coast of Elba.

Nurse Cramer: “Shapely, pretty, sexless girl with a wholesome unattractive face” (179), whom Yossarian accuses of killing the soldier in white. She is completely innocent, of course, but nevertheless anxious about proclaiming her innocence.

Major Danby: Dreedle orders him shot when he inadvertently moans during a briefing. He offers to help Yossarian in his desertion at the end of the novel, but only after he questions Yossarian's motivations. Heller uses him, a former university professor, to explore the motivations behind Yossarian's desertion. When he offers his assistance, the reader realizes that even Danby, who had initially doubted the action, has come around to understand Yossarian's act of rebellion.

Doc Daneeka: Squadron doctor, who always feels sorry for himself; he hates to fly and gets pilots to enter his name in their flight logs to achieve his monthly flight time; he “dies” when he is logged on plane that McWatt crashes. Most importantly, he is the one who explains Catch-22 to Yossarian. He refuses to ground the bombardier because he will be overruled. His complete inaction makes it hard to distinguish between the “live” and the “dead” Doc.

Major de Coverley: “Majestic, white-haired major with a craggy face and Jehovean bearing” (126); he came back from Rome with an injured eye and wore a celluloid eye patch; he ended the Loyalty Oath Crusade with the words “Gimme eat” (126); he is the executive officer whom Heller pits against the old satanic Italian man who threw the thorned rose in his eye.

Dobbs: The worst pilot in the world and he knows it; he wants Yossarian to tell him it is okay to kill Cathcart when the Colonel raises the number of missions to 60 (236); he also goes crazy in mid-air over Avignon and seizes the controls from Huple on the mission when Snowden dies; he flies into Nately's plane when bombing an Italian cruiser and both die.

General Dreedle: Wing commander; he is a blunt, chunky, barrel-chested man in his early fifties who drinks a lot; he has his own private nurse and a son-in-law. His order to shoot Danby for the crime of moaning during a briefing points to the military's complete disregard for human life, as well as the abuse of power.

Nurse Duckett: “Tall, spare, mature, straight-backed woman with a prominent, well-rounded ass, small breasts and angular ascetic New England features that came equally close to being very lovely and very plain” (303); she makes love with Yossarian until she decides to marry a doctor, any doctor. She is incapable of real emotion, as she mindlessly switches the bottles for the Soldier in White.

Dunbar: Yossarian's friend who worked hard at increasing his life span by cultivating boredom (17); he has “disappeared” by the end of the novel when he discovers that the Soldier in White is an empty shell. He is a victim of a powerful bureaucracy that does not like people to think for themselves, as he does when he refuses to bomb an innocent village.

Dori Duz: A “lively little tart of copper-green and gold who loved doing it best in tool sheds, phone booths, field houses and bus kiosks” (79); she is Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife's friend who had a WAC uniform and found Yossarian only “fair.” However, she is a good diversion for him while he is in cadet school.

Captain Flume: Silent and haunted squadron public relations officer who lives in mortal fear that Chief White Halfoat will slit his throat while he is sleeping; in other words, he does not have good relations with the public, so he lives alone in the woods; he sleeps well but dreams he is awake and consequently looks haggard and ill. He says that he will return in the spring and he does—but only after Halfoat dies from pneumonia.

Gus and Wes: Two enlisted men who practically ran things for Doc Daneeka on their own. They succeed in elevating medicine to an exact science: all men reporting on sick call with temperatures above 102 were rushed to the hospital; all those reporting on sick call with temperatures below 102 had their gums and toes painted with gentian violet solutions and were given a laxative (41). They are completely insensitive and desensitized to the needs of the men who risk their lives daily.

Chief White Halfoat: Handsome, swarthy, Native American Indian from Oklahoma (52) who made up his mind to die of pneumonia; he was assigned to Black as assistant intelligence officer though he can barely read or write; he can barely read or write because every place his family pitched its tent, someone sank an oil well and they had to move; he symbolizes the plight of American Indians.

Havermeyer: Likes peanut brittle and shoots field mice at night; he was a “lead bombardier who never took evasive action going in to the target and thereby increased the danger of all the men who flew in the same formation with him” (38). He is the complete opposite of Yossarian who always takes evasive action. He is a thoughtless military machine with a penchant for cruelty against the helpless and meek.

Hungry Joe: Jumpy, emaciated wretch; a “ragged mass of motile irritability” (60); he has nightmares whenever he finishes his required number of missions and fistfights with Huple's cat—he is afraid of not being afraid; he is a former photographer for Life magazine who tries to take pictures of naked women but always forgets to put in film; he dies in his sleep while dreaming with Huple's cat on his face.

Huple: Fifteen-year-old pilot who lives in the same tent with Hungry Joe but amazingly never hears his screaming nightmares; he owns the cat that Hungry Joe fistfights with (60). He is an example of the senseless waste of youth in the war.

Colonel Korn: “Loyal, indispensable ally” (199) of Cathcart's; he was a lawyer and got on Cathcart's nerves. Although he is slick and sickens some other officers, Cathcart is secretly afraid of him but uses him as he can to promote his military career. With Cathcart, he offers Yossarian the chance to return home at the end of the novel.

Kraft: “Skinny, harmless kid from Pennsylvania who wanted only to be liked, and was destined to be disappointed in even so humble and degrading an ambition” (64); he died over Ferrara by an exploding engine after Yossarian took his flight of six planes in over the target a second time. He is an example of the wasteful death of a child.

Luciana: Tall, earthy, exuberant girl with an invisible scar who sleeps with Yossarian and does not ask for money; he tears up her telephone number, as she predicted, and immediately regrets it. She is completely honest and forthright in her dealings with Yossarian—an attribute that Yossarian still needs to learn.

Major Major: Born too late and too mediocre, the “long and bony squadron commander, who looked a little bit like Henry Fonda in distress” (31); he wants to be one of his men, but his promotion (due to the fact it looked like there was an extra Major on the books) ends this possibility; as a result, he withdraws and people could only see him when he was out; never when he was in.

McWatt: Pilot who flies too low and slices Kid Sampson off at the hips; he consequently crashes his plane into mountain. He is an example of the dehumanizing effects of war—he thinks it is fun to fly low over Yossarian and scare him to death, until he accidentally gets too close and cuts off the life of an innocent.

Milo Minderbinder: Twenty-seven-year-old pilot who volunteered to be mess officer; he starts his own syndicate and reveals how war can be profitable. However, he is careless of the lives of the soldiers in his squadron and even bombs his own group to recoup his financial losses. Because of his business prowess, he serves as leader (including Mayor) in several cities. His character points to the dehumanizing aspects of business that only demand that a profit be made. For example, he even takes the parachutes from the airplanes since there is a market for silk—with no regard for the fact that the men might ever need to save their lives with the parachutes.

Colonel Moodus: Colonel Dreedle's son-in-law who tells him that he cannot take Danby out and shoot him. He is one small voice of reason, but even he is tainted by the fact that his father-in-law obviously has gotten him a good job.

Mudd: Dead man in Yossarian's tent; he is a replacement pilot who had been killed in combat before he had officially reported for duty; the “unknown soldier who never had a chance” (118). He is a paperwork glitch. Since he never officially reported, he cannot be officially dead. More importantly, his possessions are evidence that death is always present—especially to Yossarian.

Lieutenant Nately: Nineteen-year-old sensitive, rich, good-looking boy; Yossarian punches him in the nose after he tries to stop Yossarian from murdering the men who are firing into the squadron on Thanksgiving. He is in love with a whore and wants to fly more missions so he can stay with her but gets killed on the very next mission.

Nately's Whore: Disdainful whore that Nately loves; she returns his love after he lets her get a good night's sleep. She implicates Yossarian in Nately's death and stabs Yossarian after he accepts the deal that Cathcart and Korn offer him. She is an omnipresent threat to Yossarian's existence and becomes a symbol of his initial lack of responsibility towards others that haunts him.

Colonel Nevers: Killed in combat; his replacement is Colonel Cathcart (who flies a total of five missions to Yossarian's 71); unlike Cathcart, Nevers did not shirk his combat duties, and unlike Cathcart, he is dead.

Old Man: Seedy, cackling, intoxicated old man who is like Satan himself (143); he reminds young Nately of his father and explains his theory of survival in terms of Rome's behavior in the war.

Orr: Yossarian's roommate with buck teeth and bulging eyes who keeps crashing his planes; it turns out that he practices these crashes and survival techniques in order to row to Sweden; as a kid, he liked to keep crab apples in his cheeks; he now likes to tinker with a stove in their tent so that Yossarian can be warm after he is gone. Once Yossarian learns that Orr has survived his last crash and rowed to Sweden, he is inspired to desert.

General Peckem: Regularly schemes against Dreedle for his own advancement; his struggle for power backfires when his own memoranda is approved and General Scheisskopf becomes the one in charge; he also likes tight bomb patterns for aerial photographs. In other words, he, too, is totally unconcerned for his men.

Piltchard and Wren: Captains who are the “inoffensive joint squadron operations officers;” they are both mild, soft-spoken men of less than middle height who actually enjoy flying combat missions (155). They represent men who thoughtlessly accept their duties.

Kid Sampson: Blond, pale scrawny kid who leaps to touch McWatt's plane just as an “arbitrary gust of wind or minor miscalculation of McWatt's senses dropped the speeding plane low enough for a propeller to slice him half away” (348). He is another example of a young life wasted for no good reason.

Major Sanderson: Soft and thickset smiling staff psychiatrist; Yossarian tells him Dunbar's fish dream and he concludes that Yossarian has a morbid aversion to dying (313). He also misdiagnoses Yossarian as crazy and sends him home; unfortunately, he thinks Yossarian is someone named A. Fortiori who gets the free ride home. Yossarian is clearly smarter than the professional psychiatrist who thinks that the only sane man in the novel is insane.

Lieutenant Scheisskopf: R.O.T.C graduate who loves parades; after Clevinger tells him why morale is low at cadet school, he puts the young man on trial for the crime of honesty. He is promoted to Lieutenant General and commanding officer, even though he is completely inept.

Lieutenant Scheisskopf's Wife: “Plump, pink, sluggish girl” (80); she wears her friend's WAC uniform and goes to bed with her husband's cadets to revenge herself against her husband “for some unforgettable crime she couldn't recall” (80). She gets upset when Yossarian does note believe in the kind God that she does not believe in.

Snowden: Young boy who freezes to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian on the mission to Avignon. His death keeps being replayed in Yossarian's psyche until he comes to the full realization of its significance—that man is matter.

Soldier in White: Soldier encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze; the jar that drips liquid into the insides of his elbow and the jar that catches the waste from his kidneys are regularly switched (18). He is not unlike Melville's white whale in that the characters project their various interpretations on him.

Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice: Soldier in the hospital at Lowery Field in Colorado whose family arrives to visit him after he dies; Yossarian is blackmailed into pretending to be him for their sakes. He is an embodiment of the repetitive structure of the novel.

Chaplain Tappman: Anabaptist who is charged with being Washington Irving and interrogated in a cellar; he thinks he sees a vision of naked man in tree, and this vision strengthens him to persevere. He also commits the grave sin of lying and his rebellion (which is great for him) counterbalances Yossarian's at the end of the novel.

The Texan: Educated, good-natured patient in the hospital whom nobody can stand; he is accused of killing the soldier in white by talking him to death (17). He is so racist and elitist that the men in the hospital would rather be in combat than listen to him.

Sergeant Towser: “Lean and angular and had fine blond hair so light it was almost without color, sunken cheeks, and teeth like large white marshmallows”; he “ran the squadron because there was no one else in the squadron to run it” (117). However, he is very much a soldier who does everything by the books—he obeys Major Major's ludicrous orders and insists that Doc Daneeka must be dead since he was on McWatt's manifest when his plane goes down.

Washington Irving/Irving Washington: Name that Yossarian signs to letters that he censors; his practice causes a C.I.D. man to investigate (16); Major Major takes up this small rebellion of Yossarian's and begins to use the same signature.

Corporal Whitcomb: Chaplain Tappman's assistant; a disgruntled atheist subordinate who felt he could do the chaplain's job better; he was “openly rude and contemptuous” (211) to the chaplain, since the chaplain let him get away with it; his great idea was to send form letters to the families of dead soldiers—another example of insensitivity to the real needs of real people.

Ex-PFC Wintergreen: Mail clerk at 27th Air Force Headquarters (35); he is a “snide little punk” (114) who controls communication to his own advantage. Like Milo, he also manipulates business and sets himself up as a competitor.

Yossarian: Twenty-eight-year-old bombardier who has decided to live forever or die in the attempt; he runs away to responsibility at end of the novel and tries to save Nately's whore's kid sister (38). He represents the only sane person in an insane world. Heller characterizes him in these words:

Yossarian has heroic qualities, but he acts anti-heroically as well. … I would never think of him as amoral. It seems to me it would have been immoral to think any other way than the way he does then. He has done all the 70 missions otherwise required during the war, and he thinks that's enough.32


Just as it is difficult to give a plot summary of Catch-22, so is it difficult to list its major themes. Various critics have noted at least 20 themes, ranging from the excesses of capitalism to the death of children. They analyze the novel as being antiwar, antimilitary, and antiauthority; Yossarian as being the alienated man, a modern hero, and the wandering Jew; the novel itself as detailing the absurdity of society and the subsequent alienation of its members.33 The themes that seem most pervasive not only in the novel but among the critics are: absurdity, abuse of power, and the destructive force of capitalism or big business. These themes are displayed most prominently through various characters.

Yossarian, as a sane man in an insane world, reveals Heller's theme of absurdity. He recognizes the chaos beneath the surface of mindless acceptance of a catch-all catch, and he does not want to be a part of the world as he sees and experiences it. His character also emphasizes the theme of the abuse of power. He is a helpless victim of Cathcart's maniacal raising of the number of missions in order to make a name for himself. The power abusers (there are far more than Cathcart) have utter disregard for anything but supremacy.

The destructive nature of big business is shown most notably in the character of Milo Minderbinder. He insists that what is good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country—but it is only good for the economy (especially his personal economy) to the detriment of human lives. These themes are further developed in Chapter 3 of this essay.


Around 1953, Heller began writing outlines for chapters and characters on note cards. James Nagel points out “that the heart of Catch-22, the basic plot and character formulations, the underlying conflicts and themes, were all devised at the initial stage of note card composition.”34 In addition, “virtually every character in the novel of any significance is covered by Heller in these entries”35—although some names do change: Aardvark is originally called “Aarky” and Peckem called “Peckenhammer.”

It is now difficult to determine the order of the note cards or when a particular card was drafted, but the cards nevertheless reveal the workings of Heller's mind and his method of composition. For example, on one of the cards, the following startling note appears:

Milo is exposed as the source of penicillin [sic], tricking both Aarky & Yossarian, and as the man who infected the girl to create a demand for his new wonder drug. Yossarian breaks with him.36

Apparently, at an early stage of composition, Heller had a more sinister plan for the character of Milo. To put this description in context of the rest of the card, Yossarian is searching for a cure for his syphilis in Rome. This line of action is perhaps too dark for Heller. In the novel, he only comments briefly (and much earlier) through Clevinger that if Yossarian had not had “‘venereal disease for ten days back there in Africa,’” he might have finished his 25 missions in time to be sent home before Cathcart came to the squadron (181). Moreover, instead of diabolically creating a need for a drug that only he has, in the novel Milo actually tries to help Yossarian find Nately's whore's kid sister—that is, until a better business deal comes along. Heller's final conception of Milo is that of “a very moral person, a very innocent person—innocent to the extent that he is either unaware or indifferent to the consequences of his activities.”37 Heller also described him as not being consciously evil, although bad things may be by-products of what he does.38

Another intriguing note indicates that Heller had a more drastic outcome for Yossarian on the bomb run to Bologna: “That was the mission in which Yossarian lost his balls.”39 Heller obviously changed his mind about the seriousness of his main character's wound.40 In the novel, Yossarian screams to Aarfy that he is wounded in the groin. Aarfy in typical fashion is completely insensitive and insists that he cannot hear Yossarian's cries for help. (He must also be blind, since Yossarian is bleeding so profusely that the next thing he knows, he wakes up in the hospital.) But the flak does not leave Yossarian physically wounded or maimed for life. Rather, Yossarian is wounded emotionally or spiritually—which is perhaps more ultimately destructive and constructive, in his case. The flak comes close to taking his manhood, but it is his humanity that is affected. “They” are trying to kill him, and they almost succeed, but Yossarian will live to run away another day—to a new sense of responsibility.

More evidence that Heller wanted to emphasize that Yossarian lives to survive (and survives to live) is another intriguing change of mind. On one card, Heller notes his intention that Yossarian has about “35 more years to live” and survives liver disease.41 While it is a fact of life that all humans must eventually die, it does not have to be a literary fact—especially when a novel's theme focuses on survival. In “The Preface to the Special Edition of Catch-22,” Heller asserts, “Sooner or later, I must concede, Yossarian, now seventy, will have to pass away too. But it won't be by my hand” (14). Even in Closing Time, the purported sequel to Catch-22, Yossarian, now an old man, survives.

The significance of the note cards, then, should not be underestimated. As Nagel points out:

What emerges from an exploration of these note cards is not so much a new interpretation of the novel as a record of a creative process at work, on that appears, finally, almost entirely at odds with the portrait constructed by the earliest negative reviews of Catch-22. What were then frequent charges of faulty construction, illogical structures, chaotic events, must now be measured against the author's record of detailed meticulous planning and analysis of his novel at each stage of composition. As these notes indicate, the creative impulse behind the novel was not a single conception but one that grew and altered slightly with reflection and revision.42

Heller expanded some of these cards into brief sketches. One of these ultimately developed into a short story that he entitled, “Catch-18,” which became the first chapter of Catch-22. Both the short story and the novel begin with the now famous opening, “It was love at first sight.” However, there are some interesting revisions to the rest of the text.

Heller deletes some extraneous dialog to make Yossarian's interactions with other characters terser. By saying less, he says more, as it were. For example, when the doctors exchange looks that suggest they doubt Yossarian's truthfulness about his lack of bowel movements, the short story has Yossarian protest, “‘You can ask the ward boy if you don't believe me.’”43 In the novel, Heller wisely cuts this line because the Catch-22 version of Yossarian would not undercut the absurdity of the situation by responding so pragmatically.

Heller also cuts out any hint that Yossarian has a woman who loves him back home. This decision helps to depict Yossarian more clearly as a loner who is consumed with thoughts of his own mortality. Giving him an “other” would obviously obfuscate this integral part of his character (and unnecessarily complicate his affairs with the whores in Rome). Therefore, instead of having Yossarian cruelly write his lover that he was going on a dangerous mission and would write the instant he got back, and then never write again, in the novel Heller has him write to “everyone he knew.” This act is by its nature more indiscriminately cruel, but since “they” are trying to kill him, perhaps he is trying to get back at “them.”

Other changes include compressions and deletions. In a 1975 Playboy interview, Sam Merrill asks Heller how many pages were cut from the novel. Heller responds, “Nearly 100.”44 When Merrill presses about what kind of material was cut, Heller says, “Adjectives and adverbs.”45 Heller's practice of eliminating extraneous descriptors is easily seen when the short story description of the chaplain is compared to that in the novel's first chapter. The short story version reads as follows:

The Chaplain flushed again and gazed down at his hands with the same shiny, diffident smile. He was a slight, mild-looking man of about thirty-two with smooth tan hair and brown, uncomfortable eyes. His face was narrow, oblong, and rather pale. An innocent nest of ancient pimple pricks lay minutely in the basin of each cheek. His manner was shy, tentative, and reluctant. Yossarian studied him and throbbed with beatitude. He wanted to help him.46

Compare the novel's version:

The chaplain flushed again and gazed down at his hands. He was a slight man of about thirty-two with tan hair and brown diffident eyes. His face was narrow and rather pale. An innocent nest of ancient pimple pricks lay in the basin of each cheek. Yossarian wanted to help him.


The short story has 75 words to the novel's 51, but Heller is not just economizing on space. He creates an impressionistic and suggestive portrait of the chaplain with his precise detail of innocent pimple pricks. This concrete description is sufficient to reveal the chaplain's shy discomfort without an overt statement about his manner and evokes an emotional response not only in Yossarian, but in the reader as well.

To avoid a lawsuit, Heller also changed the chaplain's name from “R. C. Shipman” to “A. T. Tappman.”47 Actually, the real Shipman was not portrayed in the novel, but only thought he was. He had worked at Penn State at the same time that Heller taught there, was married with three children, and had been a chaplain in the army. Based on these facts and others, he decided that it was his name in the novel. Heller insisted that it was merely a coincidence, but agreed to change the name to another seven-letter word.48

Yossarian's astonishment when he initially realizes he is talking to a chaplain is also distinct in the two versions. In the short story, Heller inflates Yossarian's reaction:

He had seen reverends and rabbis, ministers and mullahs, priests and pairs of nuns. He had seen ordnance officers and quartermaster officers and post exchange offices and other spooky military anomalies. Once he had even seen a justification, but that was a long time before and then it was such a fleeting glimpse that it might easily have been just an hallucination. Never, though, had he seen a Chaplain, never any clergyman in mufti before. He was ecstatic.49

In the novel, this reaction is telescoped and understated: Yossarian merely exclaims that he did not know that the Chaplain was a Chaplain. Heller abbreviates Yossarian's reaction in the novel to emphasize the shock of his realization. Instead of a long mental analysis of the situation that makes Yossarian's statement more calculated and perhaps cruel, Yossarian is immediately embarrassed by his lack of awareness, and the Chaplain (who flushes) echoes this embarrassment. Heller thus has these characters share an awkward moment of recognition in the first chapter that parallels another moment of recognition in the final chapter where they show that they have grown substantially.

Keeping the plot of a novel straight is obviously much more complex than crafting the plot of a 10-page short story. David M. Craig comments on Heller's methodology in developing Catch-22:

During the composition of Catch-22, Joseph Heller did two overviews of the novel on desk blotters. … The overviews illustrate Heller passion for order and detail. Viewed through the lens of the blotter, Catch-22 has as many interrelated plot strands as a Victorian novel does, each possessing its own developmental logic and integrity. Together with the novel, the blotter provides compelling evidence of Heller's concern with and mastery of his craft.50

The blotters are roughly 17 by 24 inches—the typical size of a desk blotter. The column headings across the top are: Chronology, Yossarian (two columns wide), Dunbar/McWatt, Clevinger/Nately, Hungry Joe/Dobbs, Orr, Milo, Aarfy, Capt. Black, Chaplain, Doc Daneeka/Dr. Stubbs, Other Combat Officers, Enlisted Men, Major Major/Major Danby, Col. Cathcart/Col. Korn, Gen. Dreedle/Gen. Peckem, Italians, Nurses & Other American Women, Casualties, and Notes. The left-hand margin also lists dates and the number of required missions, as well as where Chapter 1 begins (noted halfway down the column), and the right-hand margin lists actual events in the War in Europe that he feels are important to the action of the novel.51

The relative importance of characters can be seen in whether or not they rate their own column. Therefore, Yossarian (of course), Orr, Milo, and the Chaplain are weighted as main characters; the others share their significance. By having Cathcart and Korn share a column, then, Heller representationally shows that he views them as cut from the same mold. By giving the casualties an entire column of their own, Heller also emphasizes their value: the soldier who sees everything twice, Col. Nevers, Kraft, Maj. Duluth, Mudd, Anonymous (in the planes shot down on the mission to Bologna), Snowden, Clevinger, Soldier in White, Orr (presumably), Kid Sampson, McWatt, Dunbar, Nately, Dobbs, Old Italian Man, Maid, and Hungry Joe. Spaced out through the nearly 500 pages of text these numbers may be lost; listed in the column, the numbers achieve impact.

When specifically asked about his method of composition in a 1998 interview, Heller responded:

The method of composition was first to conceive the book, which happened very quickly. The idea of the book really, truly came to me overnight, and I wrote the first chapter the next morning. At that time and to this day, I write in longhand. And now I'm resigned to the fact that when I write in longhand, I can write for only one hour or two, and I hope to get the equivalent of one type-written page down at the first pass. I work on a lined pad—not legal-sized—letter-sized, and I try to get three hand-written pages done. I rewrite sentences. Then when I have a batch of these pages, for fear of losing them in a fire, I put them on the word processor, and I rewrite that. Then when I have a chapter done, I rewrite that chapter on the word processor, then I rewrite it again. It's very slow and tedious. I used to get infuriated with myself, and Catch-22, because I would work only evenings—I had other jobs and no time to write—but it was still the same thing. I would only write two or three pages a night. I would try to speed it up, and then write ten pages a week, then I wouldn't like it. I would have to rewrite, so it averaged to a page a night. Then when the book was done, Catch-22 was about 60 or 80 pages too long, and I had to cut it.52

As Heller fleshed out the blotter, one editor at Simon & Schuster, Bob Gottlieb, provided valuable suggestions after reading what would become the first 16 chapters of the novel:

I still love this crazy book and very much want to do it. It is a very rare approach to the war—humor that slowly turns to horror. The funny parts are wildly funny, the serious parts are excellent. The whole certainly suffers somewhat by the two attitudes, but this can be partly overcome by revisions. The central character, Yossarian, must be strengthened somewhat—his single-minded drive to survive is both the comic and the serious center of the story.53

Heller was willing to make these revisions to get the book published. In fact, he had high praise for Gottlieb's editing skills:

If it weren't for the fact that I do practically none of my own editing, I'd never finish anything at all. As I submit sections of a manuscript to my editor, Bob Gottlieb, I indicate areas that might be cut. Then we discuss them and a decision is reached. That's the ideal situation for me. …54

Heller also cut out digressions that distracted the progression of the plot, including a chapter involving Nately and his father.55 While the synergy between author and editor worked to hone and finely tune the novel to Heller's satisfaction, the efforts of the copyeditor were not so well received. She changed Heller's style so drastically that “Re-editing the book back into Heller's own conversational idiom took about six weeks in early 1961 and led to a delayed release date.”56

Examining the note cards, blotter, and editorial comments show the evolution of Catch-22. Heller remained faithful to his vision of a novel that played with structure and dialog, and faithful to his theme of survival in an insane world. In order not to make his plot too structurally challenging or descriptions too overt, he deleted extraneous material and adjectives and adverbs. He also strengthened the character of Yossarian and rethought darker, more extreme aspects of his personality; instead Heller focused on preparing for Yossarian's ultimate move towards responsibility for himself and others.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

While critics have found and analyzed various themes in Catch-22, perhaps the most written about are the themes of absurdity, abuse of power, and the destructive force of capitalism or big business. Heller uses World War II as a metaphor for contemporary society with all its faults and complications and insane institutions, a society that has lost touch with itself and its vestiges of humanity. The war becomes a vehicle for the exploration of these larger themes.


Throughout the novel, Heller gives us specific examples of absurdity—from Doc Daneeka's “death” to Cathcart's overarching desire to get into The Saturday Evening Post no matter the cost in lives of his men, to the trials of Clevinger and the Chaplain to the war itself. Charles B. Harris states:

As portrayed by Heller, the military bureaucracy is little more than the absurd institutionalized. Its hierarchical structure and its wanton use of ‘military logic’ are mere pretenses of order and reason, masks to hide its essential absurdity. By burlesquing military activities, Heller strikes through the mask, exposing the unreason which lurks behind.57

This theme permeates all aspects of the novel and even Heller's choice of language reflects it very efficiently. The most famous example is worth recounting here:

‘You mean there's a catch?’

‘Sure there's a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.’

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. 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 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

‘That's some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.

‘It's the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed. (55)

Heller's use of repetition and circularity verbally suggest his theme of absurdity. The all-purpose catch, which can be permutated to fit any situation, is absurd in its surface logicality, but it is so logical that it no longer makes any sense. In fact, it is downright unreasonable in that the people in power can use it to control those who are not. As such, it is closely tied to Heller's theme of the abuse of power.


In the midst of Captain Black's Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, a strange thing happened. The location of power changed:

Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.


By scaring the men into signing the oaths, Black becomes the most powerful man in the squadron—his revenge for not being promoted to Major. The soldiers are cowered by the administrivia rather than by the enemy or more obvious threats to their well-being.

A more obvious threat to their well-being is Cathcart's constant raising of the number of missions, even though a lesser number is actually required by the Air Force. Because he is the commander and has given the orders about how many missions must be flown, he must be obeyed. The men are at his mercy and his whim—just so that he can get good publicity in a magazine and advance his personal career.

Heller uses the theme of the abuse of power to make a statement about the military and other institutions' abuse of humanity. Power is sought for power's sake; it is an outgrowth of selfish greed and does not consider the cost of obtaining it. The people in power should use their authority to help those under them or to better a situation, for power entails responsibility. Unfortunately, Catch-22 exposes the fact that those in power only show responsibility to themselves—except for the lonely figure of Yossarian who finally empowers himself to run away to a responsibility that takes others into account.


Running throughout Catch-22, parallel in many ways to Yossarian's story, is that of Milo Minderbinder. He epitomizes the callous business world, though Heller tries to have him maintain his thoughtless (as opposed to careless) innocence. Although the men in his squadron are treated to the best food in the war, they are also stripped of their parachutes, morphine, and humanity by his syndicate. He tries to palliate their outrage by repeating again and again that what's good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country and by giving them meaningless shares in the syndicate, but his slogan and shares only serve to emphasize that he is completely unaware of the soldiers as human beings. He is not concerned with their well-being, unless he can profit from it.

Perhaps Heller's sharpest statement of the theme of the destructive force of capitalism and his most pointed indictment of it is the scene in which Milo bombs his own squadron.

M&M Enterprises verged on collapse. Milo cursed himself hourly for his monumental greed and stupidity in purchasing the entire Egyptian cotton crop, but a contract was contract and had to be honored, and one night, after a sumptuous evening meal, all Milo's fighters and bombers took off, joined in formation directly overhead and began dropping bombs on the group. He had landed another contract with the Germans, this time to bomb his own outfit. (267)

For the businessman Milo, honoring the contract is far more important than honoring the safety of his own men. The attack “punched jagged holes” in the men (268), but a business deal is a business deal. However, Milo certainly had gone too far:

Decent people everywhere were affronted, and Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. He could reimburse the government for all the people and property he had destroyed and still have enough money left over to continue buying Egyptian cotton. Everybody, of course, owned a share. And the sweetest part of the whole deal was that there really was no need to reimburse the government at all.

‘In a democracy, the government is the people,’ Milo explained. ‘We're people, aren't we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman. Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private business. …’


The line between war and business is blurred beyond distinction. Profit supersedes all other things. Since Milo was profitable, he considers himself successful—despite the cost in human lives that apparently he can put a dollar figure on anyway. Heller thus interrogates the business ethic with this show of its destructive capabilities and soundly punches home his theme.


Heller has repeatedly stated in interviews that his novel is not about World War II. Some of the events and characters are based on his wartime experiences, but as he readily admits, he benefited from the war and returned home to get a good education. His novel, then, raises questions that came out of the post-World War II era rather than from the war itself, as he knew it.

His focus on dehumanizing institutions, such as big business, perhaps stemmed from his personal experience as an advertising executive. In fact, many characters in the novel (Flume, Cargill, Korn, etc.) come from this world in their pre-war, civilian lives. Heller even went so far as to say that his novel does not even begin to rival the absurdity of the business world:

I think that to succeed in business—and this is based on limited observations, but personal observations—to really get to the higher echelon of a large company requires at least one special kind of intelligence, and requires a great deal of energy and hard work and ambition.

At the same time, the company, the organization that these people manage, is incredible. I mean, nothing in my book—nothing in the wildest satire—goes beyond it. The inter-office rivalries; the mistakes in communications; the difficulties of finding people to promote who can do a job well—the amount of waste in the life of any corporation, at the least the ones I've been with, is just extraordinary. …

And I begin to wonder whether the people involved really care about it as a profit thing. I think they care about it in terms of (1) their own security and (2) their own ego-fulfillment.58

Absurdity is not relegated just to the business world, however. Heller saw plenty of evidence of absurdity in the fifties with the McCarthy era. In fact, he anachronistically referred to McCarthy in Catch-22 and used the terms “un-American activities” (43) which recall the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that also worked to combat Communism in all its forms and representations. McCarthyism has come to be almost synonymous with false charges of disloyalty—similar to Captain Black's Great Loyalty Oath Crusade. Black declares Major Major to be a communist, although he is more guilty of looking like Henry Fonda than of being red, and quickly gets swept up in his own paranoia:

‘They're taking over everything,’ he declared rebelliously. ‘Well, you fellows can stand around and let them if you want to, but I'm not going to. I'm going to do something about it. From now on I'm going to make every son of a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath. And I'm not going to let that bastard Major Major sign one even if he want to.’


For an intelligence officer, Black is not very smart, and his crusade only disrupts life in the mess hall.59 The men must sign an oath to get their food, to get a seat, to get condiments, etc. The crusade comes to an end when Major de Coverley pronounces, “Gimme eat. … Give everybody eat!” (126) This absurdity satirizes the McCarthy hearings and the paranoia of the Cold War era. Although McCarthy was ultimately censured for abusing his power and his colleagues, the effect of his activities remained. As fears of subversion continued, people lost their jobs and reputations.

McCarthy's abuse of power is also reflected in the theme of the novel—as many officers are guilty of this crime. The most obvious is Colonel Cathcart, but Scheisskopf is a good illustration, too, especially in the scene of Clevinger's trial:

There were three members of the Action Board, the bloated colonel with the big fat mustache, Lieutenant Scheisskopf and Major Metcalf, who was trying to develop a steely gaze. As a member of the Action Board, Lieutenant Scheisskopf was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against Clevinger as presented by the prosecutor. Lieutenant Scheisskopf was also the prosecutor. Clevinger had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was Lieutenant Scheisskopf.


Clevinger has no chance with the odds stacked so totally against him. The balance of power is clearly not in his favor. Joan Robertson observes that Heller is crafting a detailed depiction of post-war America:

Heller's Pianosa is full of conspiracies, false testimony, investigations and trials. The anti-intellectualism of the era is often satirized in the novel, and in the figures of Captain Black and the bloated colonel we are shown McCarthy himself. Most effective is Heller's depiction of the fear of Communism that drives men like McCarthy.60

An overarching abuse of power, of course, lies in Catch-22 itself. It comes to mean anything “they” want it to, and they never include Yossarian. Near the end of the novel, the old Italian woman explains that “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing” (417)—a harsh but valid comment about postwar America during the Cold War.


In 1998, Lewis Pollock sent this question to the London Sunday Times:

Can anyone out there account for the amazing similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents in Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) and a novel by Louis Falstein, The Sky Is a Lonely Place, published in 1951?61

Comparisons are drawn between several scenes: Heller's Soldier in White and Falstein's pilot in a white cast, Heller's Thanksgiving scene with Americans firing guns that ends with Yossarian trying to kill the rabble-rousers with a.45 and Falstein's Christmas Eve party that is disrupted and ends in the same fashion; Heller's Italian maid that gets raped by Aarfy and thrown to her death and Falstein's Italian woman who gets raped, and so on.62 Many of these coincidences can be attributed to common wartime experiences. However, Mewshaw will not excuse all:

But several similarities seem to transcend any question of shared experience or literary archetypes. Catch-22 opens with a chapter titled ‘The Texan.’ In the first chapter of The Sky Is a Lonely Place, the narrator introduces a character referred to as ‘the stringy young Texan.’63

Heller dismissed attacks against his originality by saying that not even Falstein had even noticed or claimed the similarities.64

Moreover, in comparing the Texans that appear in the first chapters of Heller and Falstein, the reader can clearly see that the same theme can be represented effectively in various ways. Falstein describes his Texan in the following words:

Mel Ginn, the nose gunner in our crew who might have got to look like Calvin Coolidge, if he'd lived long enough, scratched his sandy-colored hair and said, ‘I see they's killing lotsa gunners in this war, but they ain't gonna get me, I guarantee ya that.’ Mel usually add the ‘I guarantee ya that’ to make sure his words were not taken lightly. ‘The way I look at it,’ the stringy young Texan continued, his rasping voice trailing off into a high falsetto, ‘they ain't gonna kill me 'cause I ain't lived yet. Just starting now, ya might say.’65

This description helps to convey the theme of the absurdity of war in deadly serious language. The clause “if he'd lived long enough” signals the reader that this young man is now dead. Falstein also uses a pun, as Heller loves to do, but to different purpose. Mel's bravado about surviving since he is just starting out in life is emphasized by his falsetto voice—his extreme youth is shown by his high voice and his prediction turns out to be false. He had not even matured into physical manhood. Mel is just one of the characters thrown together by circumstance in the first chapter—he has comrades from Georgia and Massachusetts and from different ethnic backgrounds as revealed by their names (Kowalski, Pennington, Fidanza, etc.).

Heller's Texan has quite a different introduction to the reader:

Then there was the educated Texan from Texas who looked like someone in Technicolor and felt, patriotically, that people of means—decent folk—should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists and indecent folks—people without means. …

The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.

He sent shudders of annoyance scampering up ticklish spines, and everybody fled from him—everybody but the soldier in white, who had no choice.


Heller's tone is very unlike Falstein's, as his choice of language highlights the absurdity it describes. A simple phrase (“Texan from Texas”) initiates the description with humor, and the reader unguardedly follows the Texan's views of “decent” folk until hit with the final phrase “indecent folks—people without means.” The line is funny until the reader realizes, with revulsion, that this man is elitist and racist. On the surface, he seems likable, but underneath, he is truly a bad person. Again, the theme of absurdity is clearly defined and Heller does not avoid reminding us of the real absurdity—the war—with his shocking detail of the helpless soldier in white. This soldier is not only helpless to get away from the Texan, but helpless as a result of the war. He is literally entombed in gauze.

Thus, in addition to there being common experiences during war, as Pollock's initial query to the Times point out, there are also common themes of absurdity and abuse of power, and how the authors use these incidents to convey their themes is very distinct. Falstein's autobiographical book is horribly realistic. The lunacy caused by this dark reality is not humorous by any stretch of the imagination:

The guilt ate at Dooley, and we all had it to a lesser degree. I had it because I felt I was cheating on the war, trying to escape from it. I felt guilty because I did not give enough to the war; there were too many reservations in my mind. I seized too eagerly upon the universal cynicism among the troops, the fatalism, and the undeniable fact that war was an amoral act and that it did not exalt or purify or uplift; it killed, crippled, dulled, paralyzed, and wrecked beyond repair. War, contrary to the notions of some doddering old fools, was not a normal pursuit of man. It was the most degrading, unnatural, and abnormal pursuit ever foisted upon man. And yet, there was Hitler, and you had to fight. I felt guilty because I too became a victim of the survival cult so prevalent among men who flew missions. Survival, fifty missions, was the goal—not the winning of the war. But survival for its own sake was a corrupt thing, like living only for the sake of living.66

The narrator has feelings similar to those of Yossarian's about war, flying missions, and death, but Falstein does not couch the cruel facts in terms of any comedy. His tone is as sober as the theme.

Heller has the same serious theme that war is absurd, but his tone towards the subject is satirical and irreverent:

Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. 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 or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

The men had loved flying behind Yossarian. …


Neither Heller nor Yossarian convey the slightest sense of guilt about wanting to survive. The humorous tone contrasts with the severity of the theme that war is indeed absurd and risks the lives of individuals, but this contrast works to heighten the sense of absurdity. In other words, Heller takes a different approach to revealing his theme. He had the same wartime experience as Falstein—both were in Italy at roughly the same time—but he chooses to intermix comedy and horror until the end of his novel when the reader is left only with the undiffused tragedy.

Another major difference in approach to theme may be due in part to the publication dates of the two novels. Falstein published his novel in 1951, 10 years before Heller published his. In the intervening years, contemporary events suggested a new theme to Heller—that of the destructiveness of big business or institutions in general. As Heller explained:

I regard this essentially as a peacetime book. What distresses me very much is that the ethic that is often dictated by a wartime emergency has a certain justification when the wartime emergency exists, but when this thing is carried over into areas of peace—when the military, for example, retains its enormous influence on affairs in a peacetime situation, and where the same demands are made upon the individual in the cause of national interest; the line that I like very much is when Milo tells Yossarian that he's jeopardizing his traditional freedoms by exercising them—when this wartime emergency ideology is transplanted to peacetime, then you have this kind of lag which leads not only to absurd situations, but to very tragic situations.67

Whereas Falstein is writing a wartime novel, Heller is writing a peacetime novel—and this accounts for the significant differences in the treatment of the same themes and the appearance of new themes. In Catch-22, when the military bureaucracy spills over into the business world, and vice versa, meaningless absurdity results. When Milo's syndicate takes over silk parachutes and morphine, when there is bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, when institutions dehumanize the individual, then Yossarian's survivalism can be more readily understood and appreciated. He is not Falstein's guilty flyer. His final decision to run away to responsibility is what he can to combat the absurdity.

Critical Response

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

When Catch-22 first appeared in print, its critical reception was quite mixed. Its style was described as dizzying, in an uncomplimentary sense, because of its abundance of characters. It was also descried as relying too heavily on anecdotes and as being repetitive and monotonous. The author's sense of humor and sanity were even questioned. Yet, at the same time, Heller's sense of humor was called outrageously funny and perceptive and his novel hailed as being the best American novel to come out in years. In other words, American critics as a whole were not quite sure what to make of Catch-22 in the beginning. John W. Aldridge sums up the reviews as such:

They ranged from the idiotically uncomprehending at the lowest end of the evaluative scale to the prophetically perceptive at the highest, and in between there were the reservedly appreciative, the puzzled but enthusiastic, the ambivalent and annoyed, and more than a few that were rigid with moral outrage.68

In England, on the other hand, the book received enthusiastic reviews and immediately became a bestseller. Nearly 40 years after its publication, however, the verdict is virtually unanimous worldwide: the novel is a brilliant piece of work.


The following reviews show the critical reception of Catch-22 in the United States and England after the novel was published in 1961.

From “Medals for Madness,” Saturday Review 1961:

“Heller's satire cuts a wide swath. He takes after a variety of bureaucrats, makes fun of security checks, ridicules psychiatrists and army doctors in general. Sometimes he shoots way over the mark, but often his aim is good. There are several extremely funny passages, the humor usually rising out of the kind of mad logic that seems to Heller the essence of modern warfare. … This is amusing and pointed, and so is much else, but the book as a whole is less effective than it might be. Heller has introduced so many characters, tried to deliver so many knockout blows, and written in such a variety of styles that the reader becomes a little dizzy.”69

From “Bombers Away,” The New York Times Book Review 1961:

Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility. A portrait gallery, a collection of anecdotes, some of them wonderful, a parade of scenes, some of them finely assembled, a series of descriptions, yes, but the book is no novel. One can say that it is much too long, because its material—the cavortings and miseries of an American bomber squadron stationed in late World War II Italy—is repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of it[s] many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest. Its author, Joseph Heller, is like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto one canvas, relying on their charm and shock to compensate for the lack of design.”70

From “The Catch,” Nation 1961:

“Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II. The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity are lost within it. That the horror and the hypocrisy, the greed and the complacency, the endless cunning and the endless stupidity which now go to constitute what we term Christianity are dealt with here in absolutes, does not lessen the truth of its repudiation. Those happy few who hit upon Terry Southern's The Magic Christian will find that, what Southern said with some self-doubt, Heller says with no doubt whatsoever. To compare Catch-22 favorably with The Good Soldier Schweik would be an injustice, because this novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years.71

From “The Logic of Survival in a Lunatic World,” The New Republic 1961:

“I believe that Joseph Heller is one of the most extraordinary talents now among us. He has Mailer's combustible radicalism without his passion for violence and self-glorification; he has Bellow's gusto with his compulsion to affirm the unaffirmable; and he has Salinger's wit without his coquettish self-consciousness. Finding his absolutes in the freedom to be, in a world dominated by cruelty, carnage, inhumanity, and a rage to destroy itself, Heller has come upon a new morality based on an old ideal, the morality of refusal. Perhaps—now that Catch-22 has found its most deadly nuclear form—we have reached the point where even the logic of survival is unworkable. But at least we can still contemplates the influence of its liberating honesty on a free, rebellious spirit in this explosive, bitter, subversive, brilliant book.”72

From The New Yorker 1961:

“Unfortunately, Catch-22, which deals with an American bomber squadron stationed on an island off Italy, is not really a book. It doesn't even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. Its techniques are borrowed from everywhere—the cartoon, the cinema, Kafka, Alice in Wonderland, Edward Lear, the Surrealist painters—and they are piled on one another in an swollen, nightmarish collage. Heller uses nonsense, satire, non sequiturs, slap-stick, and farce. He wallows in his own laughter, and finally drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior the children fall into when they know they are losing our attention.”73

From “Under Mad Gods,” the Spectator (London) 1962:

“Epic in form, the book is episodic in structure. Each chapter carries a single character a step nearer madness or death or both, and a step, to, into legend. The action takes place well above the level of reality. On leave or in action the characters behave with a fine disregard for the laws or results. Within its own terms the book is wholly consistent, creating legend out of the wildest farce and the most painful realism, constructing its own system of probability. Its characters are as boldly unlikely as its events, but when they dies, they dies with as much pain as any ‘real’ men, and when they are dead, they are wept for with real tears. There is a scene in which Yossarian bandages the wounded leg of one of his crew only to find that inside the man's flak-suit his vital organs have mortally spilled, a scene which is repeated again and again, each time with more detail and more dread. It acts as a reminder that Catch-22, for all its zany appearance, is an extremely serious novel. Against Catch-22 the man who does not wish to die has only his wits: war is not civilized, and to be caught up in it is to be reduced to a state of nature far worse than that visualized by Hobbes. Catch-22 is a book of enormous richness and art, of deep thought and brilliant writing.”74

From “Here's Greatness—in Satire,” the Observer (London) 1962:

“But it is death itself which is the principal target of this book, the principal object of Mr. Heller's horrified resentment. Unlike that old philistine Carlyle, he does not find it necessary to accept the universe. …

Yet it can hardly be too much insisted that Catch-22 is a very, very funny book and by no means a depressing one. To counter his horror of death Mr. Heller celebrates sexuality in a richly comic tone which is blessedly un-Lawrentian. What is so remarkable, and perhaps unique, is that Mr. Heller can move us from farce into tragedy within a page or two, and that we accept the transition without demur.”75

From “Review,” Daedalus 1963:

“Nothing is easier than to blast a book, especially a sitting turkey, and ordinarily, nothing more gratuitous. There will always be vulgar and non-authors vulgarly and noisily praised, and ill-written, uncreative, and tedious books for which the proprietors can drum up a claque. What gives the present enterprise its special significance is the peculiar kind of pretentiousness involved, and the dislocation in literary and moral standards encouraging this kind of pretentiousness. The appalling fact is that author, publisher, and reviewers seem unaware that the book is destructive and immoral, and are able to add to their economic and other delights in gratifying sensations of righteousness. There is the real “catch” of Catch-22.76


Aldridge sums up the critical reception of Catch-22 quite neatly and perceptively:

Catch-22 clearly seemed anomalous and more than a trifle ominous. It was a work of consummate zaniness populated by squadrons of madly eccentric, cartoonographic characters whose antics were far loonier than anything ever seen before in war fiction—or, for that matter, in any fiction. Yet the final effect of the book was neither exhilarating nor palliative. This was a new kind of comedy, one that disturbed and subverted before it delighted and was ultimately as deadly in earnest, as savagely bleak and ugly, as the most dissident war fiction of Erich Maria Remarque, Dos Passos or Mr. Mailer. In fact, many readers must have sensed that beneath the comic surfaces Mr. Heller was saying something outrageous, unforgivably outrageous, not just about the idiocy of war but about our whole way of life and the system of false values on which it is based. The horror he exposed was not confined to the battlefield or the bombing mission but permeated the entire labyrinthine structure of establishment power. It found expression in the most completely inhumane exploitation of the individual for trivial, self-serving ends and the most extreme indifference to the official objectives that supposedly justified the use of power.77

The range of appreciation or disapprobation was broad in the initial critical response toward the novel, but history has had a more even assessment. Catch-22 has come to be seen for the well-crafted, complex novel that it is, a novel that both anticipated the future in terms of its style and structure, and reflected the times in terms of its theme.

Critical Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Analyzing Catch-22 by one critical approach is a daunting task. Critics have chosen to examine character (focusing almost exclusively on Yossarian or Milo Minderbinder), structure, or theme. They have discussed its comedy and tragedy, its satire and straightforwardness, its realism and surrealism. Focusing on the death of Snowden, the central recurring image in the novel, brings all of these aspects into play. The death of Snowden shapes the novel and the character of Yossarian. As the novel opens in medias res, the young man is already dead, but Yossarian has not come to grips with this event. Yossarian therefore relives the death over and over again, each time revealing a bit more about the experience and its meaning.

Heller starts Chapter 1 after Yossarian has retreated to the hospital yet again. The hospital becomes his place of refuge from the war, and he runs to it whenever he wants to escape from the missions he must fly. This chapter sets in motion the theme of absurdity, but Yossarian's initial rebellion against it is small. He just censors letters in creative ways to break the monotony and then signs the name “Washington Irving.” This departure from the norm brings a C.I.D. man to the hospital to investigate the matter. Already the lunacy of the military bureaucracy is evident. They are searching out someone who is obviously just having fun at a boring task instead of concentrating on the war. A horrific reminder of the war is the presence of the Soldier in White. He is completely encased in a cast and the only way they know if he is alive or dead is by reading his temperature. This dramatic tension between comic and tragic events continues through most of the novel. Heller does not allow the reader to lose sight of the tragedy amid (or because of) the absurdity. At this point, the reader is unaware of Snowden, but his disturbing significance will soon emerge.

The first hint that something very unsettling has happened to Yossarian occurs during an educational session when the men start asking inane questions, such as “Who is Spain?” (43) Yossarian intrudes on this jocularity by asking “the question that had no answer”: “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” (44) Heller follows this question with the ensuing scene:

The question upset them, because Snowden had been killed over Avignon when Dobbs went crazy in mid-air and seized the controls away from Huple.

The corporal played it dumb. ‘What?’ he asked.

‘Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?’

‘I'm afraid I don't understand.’

Ou sont les Neigedens d'antan?’ Yossarian said to make it easier for him.

Parlez en anglais, for Christ's sake,’ said the corporal. ‘Je ne parle pas francais.

‘Neither do I,’ answered Yossarian, who was ready to pursue him through all the words in the world to wring the knowledge from him if he could, but Clevinger intervened, pale, thin, and laboring for breath, a humid coating of tears already glistening in his undernourished eyes.


Parts of this discussion sound like a bilingual Abbott and Costello routine, but the surface comedy belies the intensity of Yossarian's question. He is desperately struggling to understand the death of a young boy. Heller also suggests that only Yossarian is searching for answers—Clevinger cuts him off, and the others are satisfied not to pursue the issue. More significantly, Heller notes that Clevinger has “undernourished eyes,” perhaps suggesting that he needs to cry, too, over such tragedies, but instead ludicrously weeps only from his frustration at the meeting's disruption.

Heller returns to the Snowden motif with more detail after Yossarian learns about Catch-22 from Doc Daneeka. The absurdity of this catch with its immoral logic is a fitting prelude to the scene. This iteration of the event reminds the reader that Dobbs “went crazy in mid-air and began weeping pathetically for help”:

‘Help him, help him,’ Dobbs sobbed. ‘Help him, help him.’

‘Help who? Help who?’ called back Yossarian, once he had plugged his headset back into the intercom system, after it had been jerked out when Dobbs wrested the controls away from Huple and hurled them all down suddenly into the deafening, paralyzing, horrifying dive which had plastered Yossarian helplessly to the ceiling of the plane by the top of his head and from which Huple had rescued them just in time by seizing the controls back from Dobbs and leveling the ship out almost as suddenly right back in the middle of the buffeting layer of cacophonous flak from which they had escaped successfully only a moment before. Oh, God! Oh, God, oh, God, Yossarian had been pleading wordlessly as he dangled from the ceiling of the nose of the ship by the top of his head, unable to move.

‘The bombardier, the bombardier,’ Dobbs answered in a cry when Yossarian spoke. ‘He doesn't answer, he doesn't answer. Help the bombardier, help the bombardier.’

‘I'm the bombardier,’ Yossarian cried back at him. ‘I'm the bombardier. I'm all right. I'm all right.’

‘Then help him, help him,’ Dobbs begged. ‘Help him, help him.’

And Snowden lay dying in back.


Dobbs reacts to the terror of war by going crazy, as any sane man would, for war is absurd. As Yossarian points out over and over again, people he does not know are shooting at him, but in this case—purely by chance—Yossarian survives and Snowden does not.

Yossarian begins to display the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder more and more prominently as the recollections of Snowden intensify. Yossarian experienced a horrifying death and felt completely helpless; he has recurrent distressing memories; he has intense distress caused by cues that symbolize the event; he tries to avoid events associated with the trauma, and he often cannot recall important aspects of the event.78

To forget about war, Yossarian goes to Rome, but even there Snowden haunts him. It is in this young man's room that Yossarian had found the maid in the lime-colored panties:

Yossarian was in love with the maid in the lime-colored panties because she seemed to be the only woman left he could make love to without falling in love with. Even the bald-headed girl in Sicily still evoked in him strong sensations of pity, tenderness and regret.


Yossarian's idea of comfort and relief is emotionless sex. He does not want to experience sensations, such as pity, tenderness, or regret, in sex; more importantly, he does not want to experience these sensations at all—at least not yet. He does not deliberately recall Snowden's death; it just invades his consciousness, and he has no clue what to do with it. He just knows he does not want to feel it.

On the second mission to Bologna, Yossarian runs into heavy flak. (On the first mission, Yossarian lies about a faulty intercom and they turn back only to learn that it had been a milk run.) As usual, Aarfy is an unwelcome visitor to Yossarian's space in the belly of the plane. Yossarian tries to push and punch him out, but a shell explodes, and “The next thing he knew, it was snowing!” (159):

Thousands of tiny bits of white paper were falling like snowflakes inside the plane, milling around his head so thickly that they clung to his eyelashes when he blinked in astonishment and fluttered against his nostrils and lips each time he inhaled.


Then Yossarian sees Aarfy:

Yossarian was dumbfounded by his state of rapturous contentment. Aarfy was like an eerie ogre in a dream, incapable of being bruised or evaded, and Yossarian dreaded him for a complex of reasons he was too petrified to untangle. Wind whistling up through the jagged gash in the floor kept the myriad bits of paper circulating like alabaster particles in a paperweight and contributed to a sensation of lacquered, waterlogged unreality. Everything seemed strange, so tawdry and grotesque. His head was throbbing from a shrill clamor that drilled relentlessly into both ears. It was McWatt, begging for directions in an incoherent frenzy. Yossarian continued staring in tormented fascination at Aarfy's spherical countenance beaming at him to serenely and vacantly through the drifting whorls of white paper bits and concluded that he was a raving lunatic just as eight bursts of flak broke open successively at eye level off to the right, then eight more, and then eight more, the last group pulled over toward the left so that they were almost directly in front.

‘Turn left hard!’ he hollered to McWatt as Aarfy kept grinning. …


Here, the “snow” has the same effect on Yossarian as Snowden. Yossarian is bewildered and confused. He dreads Aarfy, who is completely unaffected by the reality of the threats to their lives, for complicated reasons that he is frightened of unraveling. Yossarian still has not and cannot come to grips with death. It is strange and terrifying, and he is not ready or prepared to deal with it. His goal is to live forever, to survive, but everywhere in war he sees his goal being jeopardized. He is affected more than others because he recognizes the dangers more than others—he snaps himself out of his terrifying reverie just in time to bark the orders that gets the plane out of the range of the flak.

For refuge, Yossarian retreats to the hospital again:

There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily. People knew a lot more about dying inside the hospital and made a much neater, more orderly job of it. They couldn't dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn't keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. There was none of that crude, ugly ostentation about dying that was so common outside the hospital. They did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarian's tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane.

‘I'm cold,’ Snowden had whimpered. ‘I'm cold,’

‘There, there,’ Yossarian had tried to comfort him. ‘There, there.’


Even in this safe harbor, memories of Snowden absurdly freezing to death in the summer intrude. This time Yossarian also remembers the all-too-brief interaction he shared with Snowden. All he could offer as comfort were two words that he kept repeating. He felt utterly helpless.

When Clevinger explains that Yossarian has some culpability for his situation—if he had not gotten venereal disease, he could have finished his missions before Cathcart became commander—Yossarian recoils:

‘And what about you?’ Yossarian had replied. ‘You never got clap in Marrakech and you're in the same predicament.’

‘I don't know,’ confessed Clevinger, with a trace of mock concern. ‘I guess I must have done something very bad in my time.’

‘Do you really believe that?’

Clevinger laughed. ‘No, of course not. I just like to kid you along a little.’

There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There was Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, for example, and they were all out to kill him. There was Lieutenant Scheisskopf with his fanaticism for parades and there was the bloated colonel with his big fat mustache and his fanaticism for retribution, and they wanted to kill him, too. There was Appleby, Havermeyer, Black and Korn. There was Nurse Cramer and Nurse Duckett, who he was almost certain wanted him dead, and there was the Texan and the C.I.D. man, about whom he had no doubt. There were bartenders, bricklayers and bus conductors all over the world who wanted him dead, landlords and tenants, traitors and patriots, lynchers, leeches and lackeys, and they were all out to bump him off. That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon—they were out to get him; and Snowden had spilled it all over the back of the plane.


Yossarian does not want to have any responsibility for his predicament. Rather, he views himself as a completely innocent victim who does not deserve a violent and senseless death. “They” are out to kill him, just as “they” had killed Snowden.

The Chaplain also has a haunting experience with Snowden. At the young man's funeral, the Chaplain looks up and sees what he thinks is a vision of a naked man in a tree. He cannot tell if it was a hallucination or a revelation. It was not déjà vu, since he did not recall having that vision before, but his confused mental discussion of the event has important ramifications for the theme and structure of the novel. Snowden's death scene recurs again and again, so it functions as déjà vu for the reader with each instance becoming a clearer rendering of the event. Moreover, his death is both hallucination and revelation to Yossarian. The scene is evoked with hallucinatory flashbacks, unwelcome and intrusive, but each time it recurs, Yossarian understands a bit more.

The naked man that the Chaplain thinks he sees is actually Yossarian who is attending the funeral from afar. He is naked because of the secret that Snowden had spilled all over him, but the Chaplain does not know that the “vision” is real. Snowden's senseless death triggers the Chaplain to try to find some sense and meaning in life. Like Yossarian, the Chaplain is searching for answers, but he is not quite sure of the questions, so he decides not to think of it any further for the time being (215).

When Yossarian receives his medal, he is still not wearing any clothes because, as another captain explains, “‘A man was killed in his plane over Avignon last week and bled all over him’” (228). Heller now begins to get more graphic with the recurring scene:

Yossarian lost his nerve on the mission to Avignon because Snowden lost his guts, and Snowden lost his guts because their pilot that day was Huple, who was only fifteen years old, and their co-pilot was Dobbs, who was even worse. …


With this iteration, we learn more about the death:

“Help who? Help who?”

“The radio-gunner,” Dobbs begged. “Help the radio-gunner.”

“I'm cold,” Snowden whimpered feebly over the intercom system then in a bleat of plaintive agony. “Please help me. I'm cold.”

And Yossarian crept out through the crawlway and climbed up over the bomb bay and down into the rear section of the plane where Snowden lay on the floor wounded and freezing to death in a yellow splash of sunlight near the new tail gunner lying stretched out on the floor beside him in a dead faint.


The word choice surrounding Snowden makes him seem like a pitiful lamb bleating—a sacrificial victim. He did nothing to deserve this death, and Yossarian is powerless to help him. Yet, unlike the others in the plane, who are begging for someone else to act or who have fainted away, Yossarian goes to the young man's side.

Since Heller is providing more information about Snowden's death, he circles back to interrogate familiar scenes in a new way. For example, he returns to Yossarian's nakedness and shows him getting some comfort from an unusual source:

Doc Daneeka tended each moaning man that night with the same glum and profound and introverted grief he showed at the airfield the day of the Avignon mission when Yossarian climbed down the few steps of his plane naked, in a state of utter shock, with Snowden smeared abundantly all over his bare heels and toes, knees, arms and fingers, and pointed inside wordlessly toward where the young radio-gunner lay freezing to death on the floor beside the still younger tail-gunner who kept falling back into a dead faint each time he opened his eyes and saw Snowden dying.


Yossarian does not want to wear his uniform any more not only because Snowden bled all over it, but also because of what it represents. Yossarian is participating in an absurd war where fifteen-year-old boys are pilots and other boys are being killed so that Cathcart can get publicity for a promotion. Of course, they are also fighting against Hitler, but death makes the war extremely personal. Heller repeats the scene with Snowden to make both the boy and Yossarian more real for the reader. Heller does not want the reader to lose sight of the individual sacrifices that comprise a military victory even in a righteous and necessary war. He wants the reader to feel the loss along with Yossarian.

To emphasize the overarching absurdity, Heller details the scene of the naked man in the tree again. Yossarian, still traumatized into naked rebellion, is watching Snowden's funeral from a distance when Milo tries to get Yossarian to eat chocolate-covered cotton. Young men are dying, but Milo is concerned about recovering his losses from the Egyptian cotton fiasco. When he finally notices the funeral, he asks what happened, and Yossarian replies with simple profundity, “‘He got killed’” (273). Milo only mourns his financial problems, and those at the funeral seem indifferent and aloof. Only Yossarian pays his respects by not dishonoring Snowden with his uniform—a symbol of military absurdity and thoughtlessness.

Yossarian questions this absurdity again when he next recalls Snowden's death:

Dobbs and Huple? Huple and Dobbs? Who were they? What preposterous madness to float in thin air two miles high on an inch or two of metal, sustained from death by the meager skill and intelligence of two vapid strangers, a beardless kid named Huple and a nervous nut like Dobbs, who really did go nuts right there in the plane, running amuck over the target without leaving his co-pilot's seat and grabbing the controls from Huple to plunge them all down into that chilling dive that tore Yossarian's headset loose and brought them right back inside the dense flak from which they had almost escaped. The next thing he knew, another stranger, a radio-gunner named Snowden, was dying in back. It was impossible to be positive that Dobbs had killed him, for when Yossarian plugged his headset back in, Dobbs was already on the intercom pleading for someone to go up front and help the bombardier. And almost immediately Snowden broke in, whimpering, “Help me. Please help me. I'm cold. I'm cold.” And Yossarian crawled slowly out of the nose and up on top of the bomb bay and wriggled back into the rear section of the plane—passing the first-aid kit on the way that he had to return for—to treat Snowden for the wrong wound, the yawning, raw, melon-shaped hole as big as a football in the outside of his thigh, the unsevered, blood-soaked muscle fibers inside pulsating weirdly like blind things with lives of their own, the oval, naked wound that was almost a foot long and made Yossarian moan in shock and sympathy the instant he spied it and nearly made him vomit. And the small, slight tail gunner was lying on the floor beside Snowden in a dead faint, his face as white as a handkerchief, so that Yossarian sprang forward with revulsion to help him first.


However, this illustration of the death scene adds some important details. Here, Yossarian wants to blame Dobbs for killing Snowden, even though it is Yossarian who treats both the wrong wound and the wrong man. Yossarian makes mistakes and perhaps somewhere in his subconscious he feels that he is responsible for Snowden, but he will not let himself admit this—he is still a victim of the madness of war that has placed him in this predicament.

After Yossarian decides not to fly any more missions, he makes a surrealistic visit to the Eternal City of Rome where he witnesses more awful atrocities, such as a small boy being beaten, a soldier being rolled, a dog being hit, and so on. In Rome, Yossarian is an observer of madness and cruelty, but he begins to acquire a sense of well-placed responsibility. When he is confronted by the body of the innocent maid that Aarfy has raped and then thrown out a window to cover up his crime, Yossarian screams, “‘You've murdered a human being. They are going to put you in jail. They might even hang you!’” (428) He sees cause and effect between the crime and the punishment—a correlation he cannot find in the case of Snowden. Yet it is Yossarian, not Aarfy, who gets arrested for the non-violent crime of being AWOL.

Amazingly, because Yossarian has refused to fly more missions, Cathcart and Korn offer him a deal to get exactly what he has wanted from the beginning—to go home. Initially, he accepts the deal despite the seeming betrayal of his friends. All he has to do is “like” the corrupt colonels and he can go home a hero. At this point, Nately's whore, who blames him for her lover's death, stabs him, and he goes to the hospital for the last time. Yossarian's thoughts return to Snowden's death, since he is so close to his own death for the first time.

Heller finally plays the entire scene for the reader in its uninterrupted entirety. Yossarian feels cold, and this sensation brings him back to Snowden. He runs through Dobbs's begging someone to help and his slow descent to where the boy is. He sees the wound, but can find no morphine in the first-aid kit. Milo has stolen the drug and replaced it with a card that reads “What's good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country” (446), so Snowden has no relief from the pain. Yossarian applies a tourniquet because that is something he knows how to do.

‘I'm cold,’ Snowden said softly. ‘I'm cold.’

‘You're going to be all right, kid,’ Yossarian reassured him with a grin. ‘You're going to be all right.’

‘I'm cold,’ Snowden said again in a frail, childlike voice. ‘I'm cold.’

‘There, there,’ Yossarian said, because he did not know what else to say, ‘There, there.’

‘I'm cold,’ Snowden whimpered. ‘I'm cold.’

‘There, there. There, there.’


As Yossarian cuts through the pants to see the wound, he believes the boy will indeed make it:

A long sigh of relief escaped slowly through Yossarian's mouth when he saw that Snowden was not in danger of dying. The blood was already coagulating inside the wound, and it was simply a matter of bandaging him up and keeping him calm until the plane landed.


Snowden is still cold and the pain is starting to intensify, but Yossarian can only offer him aspirin, thanks to Milo's greed. When his lips begin to turn blue, Yossarian is petrified and tries to treat the wound again: “The actual contact with the dead flesh had not been nearly as repulsive as he had anticipated, and he found excuse to caress the wound with his fingers again and again to convince himself of his own courage” (449). Yossarian thinks he has the situation under control until Snowden points towards his armpit with his chin:

Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden's flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden's insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out. Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes. His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to look again. Here was God's plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared—liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat. The tail gunner woke up while Yossarian was vomiting, saw him, and fainted again. Yossarian was limp with exhaustion, pain and despair when he finished. He turned back weakly to Snowden, whose breath had grown softer and more rapid, and whose face had grown paler. He wondered how in the world to begin to save him.


Finally, the secret is revealed:

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. 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.


Yossarian learns that death is real and that he has to be “ripe” or ready for it. He has to take responsibility for himself. The spirit makes man alive and once that is gone, he is just garbage. He tried to save Snowden, but despite his best efforts, he could not. Thus, he must go on and try to save himself by taking responsibility for living, instead of trying to avoid an unavoidable death.

Armed with this knowledge, Yossarian decides not to take the deal that Cathcart and Korn offered. Rather, he will desert. He is tired of seeing people “cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy” (455). He has fought to save his country, but now he wants to fight to save himself, not because he is a coward, but because he is not. He is not going to let them send him home or court-martial him or fly more missions, so he reasons that he must run away. Once he learns that his friend Orr has safely made it to Sweden after crashing his plane, Yossarian is even more adamant about his decision. In fact, Orr's success inspires the Chaplain to persevere in spite of the absurdity. He is going to stay and fight the madness, while Yossarian is going to run away and do the same.

However, Yossarian is not completely self-interested. He is going to take Nately's whore's kid sister with him, and as he makes his way, he makes a final literal and Kierkegaardian leap. He has to jump out of the way of Nately's whore's knife, and he has to take a chance on a new way of life, which, although it may still be incomprehensible and full of risk, is the only way to save himself from utter absurdity.

Work In History

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Catch-22 did not make the best-seller lists in America when it was first published. On the other side of the Atlantic, the British publishers Secker & Warburg turned it down as being too American right before Simon & Schuster released it in the States. However, another publisher in England, Jonathan Cape, due in large part to the director Tom Maschler, picked it up and released it in the Spring of 1962. Within a week of its publication, Catch-22 became a bestseller in England, ahead of novels by Iris Murdoch and J. D. Salinger—quite a different response than its lukewarm reception in America. Eller suggests the following as a reason for the discrepancy:

Heller's sharp and intense satire of American attitudes made it easier for the British to see the funnier side of World War II. British critics were better able to handle this issue than their American counterparts—at the time, differing cultural perceptions about the Cold War may have been the key. … From the English perspective, a satirical romp through World War II offered insight into the postwar American culture.79

Simon & Schuster quickly tried to take advantage of the British reaction to Catch-22 and placed an ad in the New York Times Book Review to prompt American readers to catch up to their British counterparts. Sales rose in response, and then remained steady through 1962, when Dell decided to publish a softcover or paperback version. Heller wanted the paperback to come out on the first anniversary of the hardback version, so Dell postponed shipments until this date arrived. The hype surrounding the delayed shipment helped to boost the paperback sales. As Eller points out:

Finally, Catch fans could soon point at sales which appeared to be record setting by any standard. By mid-November, Dell claimed that Catch-22 had been the number one best-seller in paperback for the previous three weeks. In December, Dell put that claim on a new series of promotional pieces, and announced sales totaling 800,000 in the first eight weeks of publication. The phenomenal rate decreased after Christmas, but remained steady and strong; by April, the Dell edition had sold 1,100,000 copies of the 1,250,000 in print.80

After the publication of the paperback version, Catch-22 seemed to catch on at college campuses and started to appear regularly as required reading in English classes. In 1962, Newsweek was reporting “The Heller Cult,” since the “book obviously inspires an evangelical fervor in those who admire it.”81 College students wore Army field jackets with nametags that read “Yossarian.” The anti-establishment theme caught their attention—especially as it related to the business and military establishment—and fed into their opposition to American involvement in Vietnam. As Heller explained in a 1975 interview: “‘As I've said, Catch-22 wasn't really about World War Two. It was about American society during the Cold War, during the Korean War, and about the possibility of a Vietnam.’”82 Bumper stickers that read “Better Yossarian than Rotarian” also began to appear, and after Heller's appearance on the Today show, the show's host at that time, John Chancellor, even created a “Yossarian Lives” sticker.


In a 1979 interview, Heller stated:

I don't for a second believe that a novel influences behavior in a significant way. However, some people say Catch-22 did have that effect to a degree. In the mid-'60s, sales of the paperback of that novel began increasing in relation to the Vietnam War and the protest against the war. So possibly it helped shaped attitudes.

I know a lot of people in Vietnam carried around copies, but I don't think it influenced their actions. It just confirmed their opinion that: “This is crazy! I don't know why we're here. And we'd better watch our superior officers because they can be as dangerous to us as the people out there.” That turned out to be true.83

Despite Heller's initial views on the subject, Catch-22 certainly played a role during the Vietnam protests. Overtly about World War II, the novel's “Pianosa is closer to Danang than Sardinia,” although Josh Greenfeld, writing in 1968, did not think the novel was necessarily as contemporary as it seemed:

Re-reading Catch-22 it struck me that its origins and ambience lie in between the forties and the sixties—in the decade when Heller conceived and wrote it. For if the fifties can be characterized as the age of acquiescence, when whispered demurral amounted to near-heroic protest in the face of Senator McCarthy's assault on the left (strange to recall that Joseph Welch and Edward R. Murrow were our heroes), then Catch-22 belongs more to that decade than to the present one, when active protest has re-emerged in such relatively extreme forms as draft resistance and military desertion.84

This is an interesting point of view considering that Yossarian's final revolt is indeed an act of desertion, but Greenfeld also takes exception with this argument and states that the ending is a “fifties cop-out” in which Yossarian basically learns a lesson through his experiences in war.85 This is undoubtedly true; however, the lesson still expresses itself as desertion. And a lot of soldiers apparently deserted in Vietnam after reading Catch-22.86 Thomas L. Hartshorne counters Greenfeld's argument and draws close comparisons between Yossarian's actions and those of the sixties protesters. He states that “the goals of the protest movements of the early sixties were limited, concrete, and realizable. The strategy was to choose a target which one could hit, to fight a battle one could win.”87 In other words, Yossarian was choosing a method of protest that he could accomplish successfully.

Hartshorne goes on to say:

From this perspective, Catch-22 seems almost to be a handbook for the protest movements of the early 1960's. The distinctive feature of these movements was not that they were directed toward new goals, based upon new ideologies, or addressed to the solution of new problems, but rather that they employed new styles of protest: the sit-in (not entirely new but never employed in the widespread fashion of the sixties), freedom rides, direct action, nonviolent resistance, the community organizing of the early years of the SDS, the idea of participatory democracy. At the same time, there was a tendency to avoid explicit ideological commitments and the discussion of long-term blueprints for the wholesale reconstruction of society. The goals of the movements were immediate and concrete: the integration of a particular lunch counter or waiting room, bringing people in a particular neighborhood together in order to achieve specific improvements in the neighborhood.88

Yossarian's protest sparked the protest of others. He inspired others to resist the insanity of the establishment. Aldridge would agree:

For with the seemingly eternal and mindless escalation of the war in Vietnam, history had at last caught up with the book and caused it to be more and more widely recognized as a deadly accurate metaphorical portrait of the nightmarish conditions in which the country appeared to be engulfed.89

The book's influence was obviously pervasive among protesters, but it even caught the imagination of the Supreme Court. Heller explains:

Catch-22 has been mentioned in a Supreme Court decision. It's when the chaplain is taken down to be interrogated. And they say, “We accuse you of crimes we don't know about. How do you plead?” And he says, “How can I plead if you don't tell me what they are?” And they say, “How can we tell you if we don't know about them?” That was quoted by Justice Powell in a decision.90

Heller himself had always been politically outspoken. In a 10 September 1968 New York Times article, Israel Shenker made these comments:

Mr. Heller is convinced that the sons of important people are not going to Vietnam. ‘Sons-in-law don't count,’ he insists. ‘They're expendable, especially [President Lyndon] Johnson's. The problem is: How can Johnson get out without accepting the stigma of defeat or without admitting he miscalculated shockingly. We did not go into World War II—as somebody should remind Dean Rusk—until after Pearl Harbor.’91

So it is not surprising that his novel should have such political and historical ramifications and reflections. He saw World War II as a necessary war that we fought for something—“for the survival of millions of people”; but Vietnam was a war against something—communism ostensibly, but “culture lag” in reality.92 He used World War II as a construct to reflect the moral insanity of contemporary culture. The enemy is not Germany but American government and business. Yossarian's rebellion against such bureaucratic oppression became the rallying cry of a generation.


The critical and popular response to Catch-22 when it first appeared in 1961 was clearly mixed. In fact, reviews were often diametrically opposed to each other as shown in the excerpts from well-known and well-respected critics. This jumble of responses points to the fact that the novel, perhaps, was ahead of the critics. In other words, literary criticism had to catch up with Catch-22.

That criticism has caught up to the novel is evidenced by the more sophisticated analyses that have appeared after the initial swarm of reviews. Heller has stated that he was “grateful to the hippie generation”93 who were not caught up with convention and helped to popularize his novel despite the negative reviews. Aldridge agrees with the assessment that criticism was not quite up to speed in relation to Heller's novel:

The history of Catch-22 is, in effect, also a significant chapter in the history of contemporary criticism—its steady growth in sophistication, its evolving archeological intelligence, above all its realization that not only is the medium of fiction the message but that the medium is a fiction capable of sending a fair number of frequently discrete but interlocking messages, depending of course on the complexity of the imagination behind it and the sensibility of the receiver.94

Writing on the 25th anniversary of the novel, Aldridge points out that two parts of the novel that were initially troublesome to critics—Yossarian's decision to desert and the shift away from comedy in the closing chapters—have been re-evaluated and re-interpreted in light of more sophisticated examination as “quite adequately prepared for” in the action of the novel.95 For the first point, Yossarian is now seen as resisting the insanity of the bureaucratic world and deserts to express his individualism. For the second point, the novel does not so much shift away from comedy as it allows the consistent theme of horror to take center stage without any release or relief through humor. In the 25 years since the novel's publication, criticism had evolved to the point where it could appreciate the complexities more completely.

In 1986, another event pointed to the re-evaluation of Catch-22. Who could have guessed back in 1961 that Heller would be invited to speak at the United States Air Force Academy? James H. Meredith describes the event:

While many reviewers erroneously considered Catch-22 an all-out antiwar novel, which it is not, the book has been almost standard issue in the literature classes at the United States Air Force Academy. Indeed, the Academy in 1986 was host to one of Heller's triumphant public events, the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Catch-22. To many observers, it was an incongruous event, but to Heller and those who had read his book closely, the connection was a natural one. He was being celebrated by a later version of the same military establishment he had triumphantly satirized twenty-five years before, and Heller enjoyed the irony.96

The English Department of the Academy even had t-shirts made with Yossarian sitting naked in a tree looking at the Cadet chapel in the distance.

In the 25 years since that celebration at the Air Force Academy, criticism has made even greater strides in reassessing the novel. Since Heller has written more novels, comparisons can now be drawn with his other works so that he, too, can be re-evaluated as a writer. Craig, for example, sees a recurrent theme in Heller's body of work: that of the death of a child. After the deaths of all the young boys in Catch-22 (Snowden, Kid Sampson, Clevinger, etc.), Yossarian wants to save a young girl—Nately's whore's kid sister. He wants to stop the cycle of particularly senseless and wasteful death. He wants to take responsibility for her and save her. As Craig postulates:

There is no reason to think that future Heller novels will not continue to tell the dead child's story. And no reason to think that Heller will not continue to wrestle with the problem of “Catch-22 Revisited,” the story which moves him, which impels him to tell the story he cannot tell. It is after all a story of death, not life, and the death of a child—if not rendered in the transcendent myths of religion—ends without the consolation of the end. So Heller will continue to revisit Catch-22, the place of “[his] war,” and to enact the ritual of telling, not telling, and suppressing the telling of the death of children.97

Heller felt the death of children to be the supreme waste. In “Catch-22 Revisited,” he retells a particularly moving account from a father about a young life that was in actuality a living death:

Then it came, in French, in a choked and muffled torrent of words, the answer to the questions I hadn't asked. He began telling us about his son, and his large eyes turned shiny and filled with tears.

His only boy, adopted, had been wounded in the head in the war in Indochina and would never be able to take care of himself. He could go nowhere alone. He was only thirty-four years old now and had lain in a hospital for seven years. ‘It is bad,’ the man said, referring to the wound, the world, the weather, the present, the future. Then, for some reason, he said to me, ‘You will find out, you will find out.’ His voice shook. The tears were starting to roll out now through the corners of his eyes, and he was deeply embarrassed. The boy was too young, he concluded lamely, by way of apologizing to us for the emotion he was showing, to have been hurt so badly for the rest of his life.98

Heller clearly felt the same about the victims in his novel. Now, after 50 years, Heller's book was no longer narrowly interpreted as simply being antiwar, but valued as the satire against mindless and dehumanizing institutions, such as the military and big business, as well as a statement against the consequences of such wasteful mindlessness, evidenced most bitterly by the death of children. His novel transcends the limitations of a small Italian island during World War II with a timelessness that is as unfortunately true for society today as it was in 1961.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The influence of Catch-22 on theater, film, and TV would be difficult to estimate. For example, although Robert Altman's film M*A*S*H appeared in theaters before the film version of Catch-22, its debt to Heller's 1961 novel is obvious, especially in its theme of trying to maintain sanity amidst the absurdity of war. Heller knew Ring Lardner, Jr., who wrote the screenplay very well and stated that Lardner knew Catch-22 very well.99 The TV series of the same name continued the depiction of this theme. However, only three adaptations of the novel have been made: the 1970 film directed by Mike Nichols and two plays by Joseph Heller, the first entitled Catch-22: A Dramatization (1971) and the second Clevinger's Trial (1973).

CATCH-22, THE FILM (1970)

At the Poetry Center, Young Men's Hebrew Association, in New York City in December 1970, Joseph Heller began his remarks on the recently released film version of his novel with the following understatement: “The huge problem of translating Catch-22 to a film: I suppose this can be discussed from several points of view.”100 He goes on to claim, “This sounds kind of surprising to many people, and perhaps even corrupt, but I really didn't give a damn what happened to it, once I sold it to Columbia Pictures and the first check cleared.”101 To mitigate the shock of such comments, he admits, “I didn't want to do a film script of Catch-22 because if I did work on it, I would have to be concerned with what came out, and I know that a scriptwriter has very little control.”102

To translate a circular and repetitive plot with 40 characters of roughly equivalent prominence was certainly a challenge. The film studio Columbia had originally bought the film rights but sold them to Martin Ransohoff who got Mike Nichols to direct. The screen version was finally released nine years after the publication of the novel, and then only after Buck Henry, the scriptwriter, eliminated scene after scene from his 385-page first draft. (Each page of a film script typically translates to about a minute of screen time.)103 It is easy to see why Henry had to cut so much. His task was to condense a nearly 500-page novel into a two-hour film!

Based upon the choices that Henry and Nichols made of what to keep, what to discard, what to rewrite, or (amazingly) what to invent, critics have either praised or panned the film. The praise is generally for the film's faithfulness to the novel, while the negative criticism is generally for its liberties.

The film opens to a quiet dawn with an occasional dog barking and bird chirping. The noise of propellers and a blinding white light breaks the tranquility. The camera pans to a bombed-out headquarters building with three men, Yossarian, Cathcart, and Korn, having an indistinct, virtually inaudible conversation. One man, Yossarian as played by Alan Arkin, leaves the building only to be stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant. As he falls to the ground, in the shadow of planes passing by, he has a flashback to another soldier's death. In fact, most of the film is Yossarian's flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. This opening is quite unlike Heller's now-famous opening lines: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him” (15). By giving the film the framework of a flashback, Heller points out an important difference from the novel:

In the film, anything is permissible because it all can be explained in terms of an [sic] hallucination, a nightmare, by Yossarian, who is nearly dead and is reliving all this in terms of how events of the past cross his imagination, so none of it has to be literally true. … In the novel, everything that happens really does happen. Almost everything, except for a few things described as dreams.104

Henry uses the flashbacks to evoke and recreate the circular movement of the novel. In the most effective use of flashback, the film returns again and again to Snowden's death scene, each time revealing a bit more of the mystery, and shrouds the scene in an eerie yellow-white light to distinguish it in texture and design from the rest of the film. Near the end of the film, the full scene of Snowden's death is finally played out. The whiteness of the scene contrasts with the awful, bloody mess of entrails that spill out over Yossarian. As Arkin plays the scene, his face contorted in a silent scream, we see his pathetic powerlessness when he finally is able to utter only, “There, there” to comfort the boy. This is the event that Yossarian struggles to understand throughout the novel and the film, and Henry teases the audience with partial glimpses of its significance that successfully reflect Yossarian's partial awareness—until the final comprehension that man is matter, blood and guts.

On the other hand, Henry and Nichols make other choices that are not nearly so faithful to the novel. They transform Milo Minderbinder from a black-mustachioed businessman to an Aryan Fascist played by Jon Voight who rides through the streets of Rome in Mussolini's actual Mercedes. Henry's Milo is concerned with dominating the world markets (if not the world), the embodiment of an evil profiteer. Heller's Milo is an innocent, a far cry from Mussolini:

My Milo Minderbinder tended to be a very moral person, a very innocent person—innocent to the extent that he is either unaware or indifferent to the consequences of his activities. … I was trying to portray my Milo Minderbinder as the essence of the materialistic ethic. … He is just motivated by profitable opportunities, and there is nothing externally malevolent or destructive about him. He has no real motivation towards power—towards domination.105

In another interview, Heller clarifies his version of Milo:

He's not consciously evil. He may create bad things as a by-product of what he does, but he is unaware of it. He's not a show-off; he's not greedy. What is good for Milo often is good for the country. The troops did get fresh eggs.106

It may be helpful to remember that Heller conceived of and created Milo in the late 1950s and early 1960s, whereas the film came out near the end of the Vietnam War. Henry may have been trying to make some political statements about the nature of the destructive, right-wing military professional who profits from war, and so made Milo an extreme, a Fascist (in some views, almost a cartoon), to emphasize his point.107

In the film, before the audience sees Milo, they are treated to a view of an egg in his hand that fills nearly half the screen. Milo and Colonel Cathcart then discuss profiting from the sale of eggs while a plane crash-lands and bursts into flames. They continue to talk over the scream of the ambulances and drive off in the opposite direction of the crash, totally unconcerned with the fate of their own men. Later, Milo is further demonized and made even more culpable when Nately is killed in the air raid that Milo orchestrates on his own squadron. Milo unemotionally dismisses his death and says that Nately was simply a victim of the economic pressures of supply and demand: the Germans agreed to buy Milo's cotton if he bombed his own base.

This is another clear departure from Heller's intent. In the novel, Nately's death is more attributable to Yossarian's actions. In an effort to save Nately, who wants to fly more missions to stay close to Rome and the whore he loves, Yossarian asks Milo for help. Milo then asks Cathcart if he can fly more combat missions (he has five if the time he bombed his own squadron counts), only to conclude he is too indispensable to fly, so others in the squadron will have to pick up his slack. Cathcart consequently raises the number of missions to 80 to compensate for Milo's dearth of missions, Nately gets to stay overseas, and Nately's plane goes down on his very next mission—all inadvertent consequences of Yossarian's trying to help his friend stay alive. Thus, it is not so surprising after all when Nately's whore blames Yossarian for her lover's death, even though he cannot understand it until his sense of responsibility develops and matures near the end of the novel.

Heller would agree with Henry's conception of Cathcart, however, whom he sees as a truly evil person. To show Cathcart's complete crudeness and callousness, Henry invents a scene with Cathcart on the toilet as the Chaplain tries to talk to him! (At least, he washes his hands afterwards.) Henry also invents a gratuitous nude scene with Paula Prentiss as Nurse Duckett. She is on the dock and throws her clothes to Yossarian who is trying to swim towards her. He reaches her clothes but sinks. To quote Heller, “I don't understand.”108

In addition, Henry loses the déjà vu theme so integral to the novel by minimizing the importance of the Chaplain (played in the film by Anthony Perkins). Instead of the haunting vision of the naked man in the tree that makes him question his view of reality again and again and leads him to eventually find meaning in his life, the Chaplain in the film glimpses something in a tree at Snowden's funeral, then gets a matter-of-fact pronouncement from Danby, “That's just Yossarian,” thus eliminating all the mystery. The Chaplain does not need to question a fact; he does not need to reevaluate his perception of a reality that impinges on his consciousness as déjà vu. It seems as if Henry were playing for a quick laugh instead of allowing the Chaplain to grow as a character, but then again with all the material to work with, he had to do some cutting.

Henry wisely chose not to cut the Eternal City part of Heller's novel. In extremely effective, nearly chiaroscuro cinematography, Yossarian wanders in this gray world as a distanced observer, still not seeing or thinking clearly, through the dark streets of Rome to see a sailor being rolled by children, a man getting beat, a horse being whipped, and the girl Aarfy has thrown out a window after he “only raped her once.” After an incredulous Yossarian is arrested for being AWOL while the murderer Aarfy is not even given a glance by the MPs, the film circles back to the beginning with Yossarian, Cathcart, and Korn in the headquarters building. This time, the conversation is clear. Yossarian is being offered a deal so that he can go home. As he leaves the building, Nately's whore stabs him, and Yossarian flashes back to Snowden's death for the last time. This time, however, he sees that he has dressed the wrong wound and that the boy is matter, just as Yossarian is.

The film then cuts to real time with Yossarian recovering in the hospital. After he learns that Orr has made it safely to Sweden, Yossarian decides to take a more active role in his destiny, to take more responsibility for himself, and deserts in a yellow dinghy. The camera pulls back and the film ends with Yossarian a solitary dot in the middle of the ocean.

When asked how he would rate the film adaptation of the novel, Heller replied:

Look, I think it's a better book than a film, if you're going to ask me that question. I would like to have seen this done (but it couldn't be done), that if this film were an Italian film by Fellini or Antonioni (and it came to this country with titles and we didn't have to use dialogue—all dialogue is bad in a film) I think every American critic who saw this film by Ingmar Bergman (or whoever else) would have hailed it as an unprecedented film masterpiece. Everybody would. It's because so many of the people, the reviewers, know the book so well that comparisons, I suppose, are inevitable, but I don't think they're valid. I judge it as a film. I can't think of any film I've seen in years, any American film, that I would put on the same level. I can think of a few European films. But that has to do with my taste, and I know what I like in films and I know what I like in novels. But if it's going to be compared with the book, then it suffers in just this inevitable way: I can't think of any film ever adapted from any work of literature that I or other people feel has any quality to it that even approaches the original work of literature that was its source.109


The play Catch-22: A Dramatization, written by Heller and directed by Larry Arrick, was first performed at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, New York, on July 13, 1971, and received laudatory reviews. The reviews particularly pleased Heller, since he was so conscientious about forestalling comments similar to those made by critics of the film. For example, Heller was often asked how the audience is supposed to know who stabs Yossarian in the opening scene of the film. This question bothered Heller to the point that he actually talked to the screenwriter, Buck Henry, about it. Henry said that it was not his intention to leave the identity of the would-be assassin vague.110 To prevent this question from surfacing in regards to his play, Heller has Nately's whore enter the scene about 20 lines before she attempts to kill him so that the audience has a clear idea of who the knife-wielding character is. In the final confrontation between Yossarian and her, she likewise enters the scene early to help with audience recognition.

But more had happened in the years between the novel and the play besides criticism of the film. As Heller points out in the foreword to his play, “By the time I went back to the play in 1971 the war in Viet Nam had been escalating openly for seven years, and the largest and most lethal belligerent in that devastating conflict was … us.”111 He continues, “Thematically, in fact, the play is structured around such unchecked misuses of authority in an atmosphere of war.”112 He then cites recent trials that are characterized, in his opinion, by the same unchecked misuses and abuses: Muhammed Ali, found guilty of violating the draft by refusing to go to Viet Nam; the Harrisburg 6, acquitted of conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger to protest the war; the Chicago 7, acquitted of conspiring to cross state lines to disturb the Democratic National Convention in 1968; and others.

In his foreword, then, Heller justifies the importance of trials to his play. After five lines of dialog, the Texan enters—a C.I.D. man involved in the undercover investigation of the person guilty of signing Washington Irving's name to censored letters. As Heller asks, “Preposterous? Of course. But any more preposterous than maintaining in court with a straight face that the Harrisburg group was seriously engaged in a plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger, a presidential aide, and blow up the underground heating system of Washington, D.C.?”113

Whether one agrees with his politics or not, Heller is just trying to explain the effect of current events upon the choices he made in cutting material from his novel to create his play:

What all these illustrations of due process gone awry have to do with the adaptation that follows [the play] may seem somewhat remote. Reference to them, however, may help explain several of the fundamental choices made in taking subject matter from a complicated and perhaps rather long novel published ten years earlier for use in a play that must by necessity be shorter, swifter, simpler, and more direct.114

In other words, he wanted his material not only to reflect the times, but also to take advantage of them.

Unfortunately, his efforts to reflect the insanity and preposterousness of the times frequently play to big laughs from the audience. As he admits, “if anything, the play possibly was ‘too funny,’ a bit more humorous in that first presentation than either I or Arrick had intended or would have wished.”115 Despite the inadvertently, often too humorous adaptation of the novel, his play is very important as it outlines what Heller saw as integral to his conception of Catch-22. In other words, Heller exploits this second chance, as it were, and condenses and conflates to reveal what he thinks is most essential to his theme.

The play opens with the Chaplain writing a letter: “Dear wife. In the hospital today I met a likable young man … ” and Yossarian enters.116 Like the movie, the play departs from the famous opening of the novel; however, the play at least focuses on the same two characters. The Chaplain continues, “ … who has a very simple wish. He wants to live forever.”117 And Yossarian finishes that thought, “Or at least die in the attempt.”118 Heller immediately foregrounds the central struggle in Yossarian's character. Intruding on Yossarian's lines, the Texan enters. Here, he is a C.I.D. man who is investigating the great crime of signing “Washington Irving” to censored letters. Again, Heller quickly wants the audience to see the insanity of the situation. In this quick-paced play, the audience is not allowed to be lulled into any sort of complacency. In fact, that is precisely what Heller is battling: he is shattering any illusion of sanity and traditional order the audience might hold.

Heller also uses the play to make clear any questions that critics may have had about the novel. For example, Clevinger plainly identifies Yossarian as an Assyrian. To make sure that the significance of this statement is fully understood, Clevinger explains that Assyrians are extinct—except, obviously, for Yossarian. Heller chose this nationality for Yossarian to make him both and outsider and an everyman, and he does not want this fact to be glossed over or missed. His hero is not an atypical case, but a representative of the human condition.

Heller likewise uses the play to emphasize characters or scenes that critics of the novel may have overlooked. Wintergreen becomes more noticeably prominent as the controller of communication. He could simply print up orders canceling the bomb run on Bologna—and it would be cancelled as quickly and easily as that—but he will not, preferring to make a profit off his cigarette lighters and compete with Milo. The fish dream sequence with Major Sanderson is highlighted in the play as well. Sanderson pronounces his patient to be crazy and therefore to be sent home, but he mistakenly thinks Yossarian is named Fortiori, so the wrong soldier is discharged.

Perhaps most importantly, Heller retains the Chaplain's interrogation or trial scene. Heller had been disappointed that no trials appeared in the movie, and with all the recent trials covered in the press, he was unwilling to sacrifice such an important and timely scene. When a bewildered Chaplain asks what crime he has committed, the Investigating Major replies, “We don't know yet. But we sure know it's serious. Please make yourself comfortable.”119 How can the Chaplain be comfortable if he is being charged with something serious? And how can it be a serious charge if no one knows what it is? The absurdity of his statements continue as he questions the Chaplain about censoring letters as Washington Irving and stealing a plum tomato from Cathcart. Once he is found guilty, the Major tells him, “Get the hell out of here”120 without pronouncing punishment. Perhaps suffering through the insanity of a mock trial is punishment enough in Heller's view.

On the other hand, Nately's prominence and that of the Satanic Old Man are diminished. Nately does not even appear until Act 2 and his exchanges with the Old Man are virtually excised. Heller's focus here is clearly not on America and war and how Italy will survive, but on the individual and his representative experience—and that individual is Yossarian. Perhaps the time limitations inherent to the genre may have affected his choices. In fact, Nately reveals his age to be 19, then exits to make love to his whore, and literally the next minute Yossarian announces that he is dead. This swift juxtaposition of life and death is shocking not only to the audience but to Nately's whore—she just as quickly tries to kill the bearer of the bad news. In this case, Heller uses the time limitations of the genre to his advantage.

But he also loses the sense of Yossarian's culpability in Nately's death. In the novel, Yossarian tries to stop Nately from flying more missions to stay with his whore and asks Milo for help; he in turn goes to Cathcart. This event triggers Cathcart's raising the number of missions, and Nately is killed on his very next flight, so there is a kind of cause and effect. In the play, Yossarian embarrasses Milo into asking Cathcart if he can fly more missions only after Nately is dead. Although the Chaplain says that “we” did not save Nately, Yossarian is not so implicated in the death as he is in the novel—except by Nately's whore's constant attempts on his life.

Because Heller cannot allow actions to unfold or character to develop over time as he could in a lengthy novel, he takes little for granted in the play. For instance, Heller has Milo bluntly point out that Yossarian uses the hospital as an escape. Moreover, the character of Cathcart, always preoccupied with figurative black eyes and feathers in his cap in the novel, literally comes on stage not only with a black eye, but also with an Indian headdress complete with feathers! The props and makeup help with the characterization in this case quite clearly.

Just as the depiction of Cathcart is exaggerated on stage, so the depiction of the death of young men is understated, but to great effect. The deaths of Nately and McWatt occur offstage and are reported, much as happens in ancient drama, until the end of the play when Snowden dies onstage. Having this young man die onstage after the others have died offstage intensely focuses the audience's attention on the significance of this event. The audience may have taken the other deaths as natural occurrences of war, some of the countless victims who merge into one collective tragedy. There were similar nightly news reports on the numbers killed in the Vietnam War. But Heller wants the audience to finally experience a death in all its terror and absurdity.

Snowden has no morphine to dull the pain because Milo has replaced it with a piece of paper that reads “What's good for Milo Minderbinder is good for the country.”121 Milo's business antics may have been funny before, but the horror of what he has done becomes painfully clear now. A young boy suffers needlessly before his inevitable death, and Yossarian can only offer comfort with the words, “There, there.”122 After Snowden dies, Yossarian explains to the Chaplain:

There was God's plenty, all right—liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach, and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch.123

He continues:

It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret.124

Yossarian verbally paints the awful death for us and concludes with the explication of Snowden's secret: “Ripeness is all,”125 to quote Hamlet. This secret leads Yossarian to break the deal he had made to go home. He will not join Cathcart and Korn and be their pal. He decides to run away to Sweden. However, since the character of Nately's whore's kid sister is not in the play, Heller cuts out the detail that Yossarian is not running away, but running to responsibility. In the play, Yossarian will live without capitulating to the insane establishment represented by Cathcart. Not only does he change, but the Chaplain experiences an epiphany as well. He will persevere in the face of the absurdity and even punches Cathcart in the nose (as he reports in a letter to his wife), unafraid of the consequences. Just as the play opens with the Chaplain writing to his wife, so it ends.

Perhaps Heller's play is not “too funny,” after all. By juxtaposing comedy and tragedy, the horror is intensified in contrast with the vaudevillian elements. Just as Shakespeare used comic scenes in Macbeth to relieve tension and stun the audience with the violence surrounding them, so Heller employs the same tactic. The shock of Snowden's death is much more forceful because it comes after so much humor. His death also tinges the preceding humor with a darkness that asks the audience to reevaluate their experience. There is nothing funny about death, and this is precisely the reason Yossarian wants to live forever. His efforts to do so in the face of such tragedy and meaninglessness are heroic. After all, why does Snowden die? So that Cathcart can get his name in a magazine? Heller thus distills his novel into a very effective play, but it still pales in comparison with his masterpiece.


When Heller saw the film version of Catch-22, he was disappointed that none of his trial scenes appeared. In an effort to correct what, in his view, was a huge omission, he wrote Clevinger's Trial as a one-act play, which is basically a dramatization of Chapter 8, “Lieutenant Scheisskopf,” of Catch-22. It begins as a flashback, with Clevinger walking his penalty tours at cadet school. In other words, it is a foregone conclusion that Clevinger has been pronounced guilty of his crimes—there is no dramatic tension as to the outcome. He has been tried and sentenced. What is interesting is how he gets to this point.

Despite Yossarian's caution that Scheisskopf really does not want to know why morale is low, Clevinger tells the Lieutenant anyway: the cadets do not want to march in parades and they would like to elect their own officers instead of having Scheisskopf appoint them. Clevinger immediately incurs the wrath of Scheisskopf and is put on trial. The Colonel in charge cowers everyone in his presence as he prosecutes not only Clevinger, but Scheisskopf, Metcalf, and Popinjay as well. In Popinjay's case, he irritates the Colonel so much that the Colonel pronounces that his trial will begin as soon as Clevinger's ends—although the audience realizes that Clevinger's is already over. He is in an impossible situation as he is asked to repeat what he did or did not say, only to be told that they are really just interested in what he did not say. Clevinger is manipulated into pleading, “I didn't always say you couldn't find me guilty, sir,” but even that does not satisfy the court because nothing he says could ever satisfy the court. When he brings up justice, the Colonel responds with a ludicrous and martial example that confounds sense. Clevinger was guilty or else he would not have been accused.

In the end, Scheisskopf is promoted to Major, Metcalf is shipped to the Solomon Islands to dig graves, Popinjay goes to jail, and Clevinger returns to marching his tours as he did at the play's start. The play has come full circle and is back in present time; the flashback is over. Yossarian joins him on the stage, and Clevinger (in front of Scheisskopf and the Colonel) states that the real enemies are the officers in charge. Yossarian marches with Clevinger to have their conversation, and then takes up his own rifle. It is clear to the audience that he is joining his friend in his punishment tours. It appears as if it is curtains for the two as the curtain falls and the play ends.

Heller thus dramatizes the conclusion of Chapter 8 in Catch-22 very effectively. In the novel, Yossarian tells Clevinger that “They hate Jews,” to which Clevinger weakly responds that he is not Jewish (90). Yossarian points out that it makes no difference, since “they” are after everybody. Heller concludes the chapter with this paragraph:

Clevinger recoiled from their hatred as though from a blinding light. These three men who hated him spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he saw their loveless faces set immutably into cramped, mean lines of hostility and understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or planes or submarines, not in the bunkers behind the machine guns or mortars or behind the blowing flame throwers, not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Hermann Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more.


In the play, Clevinger gets to make the point that he recognizes the enemy in his superiors—and they can hear him—but this revelation makes no difference. He still must continue his march. And Yossarian joins him. Perhaps Heller is diverting from the novel to make the point that no one is safe from such insanity—even a more experienced and cynical character like Yossarian. (Remember that the play was published in 1973 after the trials of Muhammed Ali, the Chicago 7, etc.)


In his review entitled “The Catch,” Nelson Algren unwittingly predicted many of the works that would come to be studied in conjunction with Catch-22: The Naked and the Dead,From Here to Eternity, and The Good Soldier Svejk. In addition to these war novels, Catch-22 is often studied with Going After Cacciato, as well as the poetry of Randall Jarrell and Wilfred Owen, to name but a few. Certain sections of the novel also merit comparisons with the epics The Iliad and Paradise Lost, as well as the dramas Julius Caesar and Macbeth. The following discusses Catch-22 in conjunction with these works that are similar by genre, literary movement, or theme.126


The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer:

Whereas Catch-22 deals with the war in Europe, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer is set in the Pacific Theater on a fictitious island called Anopopei. Neither novel deals with the enemy as a present threat (although of course they are always there as evidenced by the flak, etc.); rather the enemy is us. Mailer focuses on a handful of characters: Major General Cummings, a manipulator questing for glory at any cost; Lieutenant Hearn who is aware of Cummings' psychological and political games and tries to subvert them; and Sergeant Croft, the real leader of the troops, whose insubordination (because of his jealousy) gets Hearn killed. While these men are squabbling to disastrous personal results, other units in the war win the actual battle. Cummings then capitalizes on the victory—a victory earned while he is not even on the island—although to his great chagrin he may have to congratulate or even promote the officer who played a major role in the battle. Mailer also uses a structural technique similar to the one that Heller employs to break the narrative flow. As James H. Meredith puts it:

The ‘time machine’ chapters are the feature through which the novel tells the full story of these men. In these various interluding chapters, the reader discovers he pre-war lives of the characters—their backgrounds, fears, joys, and disappointments. Bitterly honest and highly developed, The Naked and the Dead tells the naked truth about the harsh reality of World War II and the flawed men who fought it.127

Although Heller's novel is antirealistic and Mailer's is realistic (emphasizing a truthful and authentic representation of events in a straightforward narrative), both works share similar themes. Like Cummings, Colonel Cathcart is only out for his own glory and fame at any price. Neither character values the lives of the men under his command. Like Hearn, Yossarian recognizes the mania of his commanding officer, but Heller's character survives the confrontation. Yossarian's belief that everyone is out to get him, even those on his own side, echoes Mailer's novel.

From Here to Eternity by James Jones:

This novel is set in Hawaii just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and is based on James Jones's experiences as a serviceman in the U.S. Army (just as Catch-22 is based on Heller's experience as a bombardier in Italy). Since the attack has not yet occurred at the novel's beginning, the United States is not yet at war, so as with the novels of Heller and Mailer, the enemy is not necessarily the Axis powers: the soldiers in Jones' novel spend most of their time fighting each other.

The main characters are Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt who killed a man in the boxing ring and Sergeant Milton Anthony Warden, a cynical military career man. Prewitt witnesses the murder of a fellow soldier, then murders the killer, and goes AWOL, only to be killed by MPs who mistake him for an infiltrator. (His rebellion against authority and injustice does not end as well as Yossarian's.) Warden has an affair with the company commander's wife Karen, and then turns down an officer's commission since he does not want to be an elite Army gentleman. After the affair ends, Karen goes back to the mainland and finds a new prospect on the ship. Warden literally sees the face of the Japanese enemy as he shoots down their planes, but still has to combat and overcome his own inner problems. As with Catch-22, the worst enemies seem to be the soldiers themselves and the bureaucracy.

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Haslev:

The Good Soldier Svejk was written by the Czech author Jaroslav Haslev after World War I. He had been taken prisoner on the Eastern Front and spent several years in Russian prison camps. He had intended to write six volumes about Svejk, but he died in 1923 with only four volumes written. In his “Preface,” he describes his hero:

Today you can meet in the streets of Prague a shabbily dressed man who is not even himself aware of his significance in the history of the great new era. He goes modestly on his way, without bothering anyone. Nor is he bothered by journalists asking for an interview. If you asked him his name he would answer you simply and unassumingly: “I am Svejk …”

And this quiet, unassuming, shabbily dressed man is indeed that heroic and valiant good old soldier Svejk. In Austrian times his name was once on the lips of all the citizens of the Kingdom of Bohemia, and in the Republic his glory will not fade either.

I am very fond of the good soldier Svejk and in relating his adventures during the world war I am convinced that this modest, anonymous hero will win the sympathy of all of you.128

However, Svejk is not a typical hero, but rather an antihero like Yossarian. Svejk bumbles his way through the war, although he was once officially declared an idiot, completely self-interested in his survival. He takes literalness to the level of art to confound his superiors and their loony bureaucracy with his “innocent” passive aggression. Haslev creates a surfeit of comrades and enemies for Svejk, not to mention several hilarious situations, as Heller does for Yossarian. Like Yossarian, Svejk uses the system that has sent him to war to his advantage (both even frequent the hospitals for some safety and peace), but Svejk persists in his rebellion from the start, helping others only when it can also benefit him. He has no great epiphany wherein he takes responsibility for others—he has a hard enough time taking care of himself and all his excesses, especially good food and good liquor.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut:

On the night of February 13, 1945, 773 RAF Lancaster bombers attacked Dresden, Germany—a city of little military importance and filled with refugees from the Eastern Front. On the next two days, the Eighth Air Force followed up with daylight attacks that used a total of 600 American planes. The city was destroyed in a vast firestorm that took the lives of approximately 70,000 people. (Estimates range from 30,000 to 200,000 dead.)

Kurt Vonnegut was held captive by the Germans and witnessed the annihilation of Dresden firsthand. His dark novel is based in part on his World War II experiences, but his satire takes on a universal, transcendent significance. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is an American prisoner-of-war (POW) when the bombing occurs, who becomes a time and space traveler after his alien abduction. He also becomes captive on the planet Tralfamadore, but nothing in the universe is so alien as the bombing of Dresden. Billy is an outsider (emphasized by his unique time traveling abilities) like Yossarian who has witnessed the insanity of war. However, Billy's experience is not limited to this world, and this fact emphasizes the complete incomprehensibility of war.

More importantly, there is a clear difference between the actions of Yossarian and Billy. Yossarian chooses to run away to responsibility in order to effect some sort of change, not only for himself but for Nately's whore's kid sister. Billy, on the other hand, can effect no change. Although he travels back in time before the bombing, he is powerless to change anything. In other words, while Heller protests against the absurdity, Vonnegut is more accepting—not happily accepting, but accepting nonetheless.

Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien:

Tim O'Brien served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. His novel Going After Cacciato (which won the 1979 National Book Award) is a blend of realism and fantasy that follows one soldier's decision to leave the jungles of war and head for the civilization of Paris. Or does it? O'Brien weaves three different storylines together: Cacciato's desertion and its consequences, the observation post, and the combat memories. Perhaps Cacciato's flight is just in the imagination of the main character Paul Berlin. Even the outcome of his flight, if it is real, is uncertain. However, O'Brien does not allow the reader to doubt for one moment the reality of the war. The novel opens with a listing of casualties in all their specificity and ends with a dim sense that is almost hope—a sense that kept the American soldiers in the Vietnam War going and made them heroic, if not heroes.

Heller employs a similar blending of storylines in his novel, as well as a blending of horror and comedy. However, he ends his novel on a positive note with the Chaplain's decision to survive and Yossarian's decision to desert. O'Brien, writing after the Vietnam era, couches the possibilities for desertion in terms of a dream—not something that a soldier actually does, but something he fantasizes about doing. The courage is in the staying, whereas for Yossarian it is in the leaving.


“Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen:

Wilfred Owen wrote “Dulce Et Decorum Est” as he was recovering from shell shock in Craiglockhart, a Scottish hospital, during World War I. While there, he met another poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged his writing and told him that his war experience would help his poetry. Owen returned to the front only to be killed a week before the Armistice, so Sassoon posthumously published his friend's poetry in 1920. Like Heller, Owen used his own war experience in his writing. As a result, his poems are not sentimental or patriotic; rather, he focuses on “pity,” to use his own word—the emotional reality of the horrible experience—much as Heller does in his depiction of Yossarian's response to Snowden's death.

The poem deals with a gas attack at the front. The soldiers are not glorious heroes, but bent like old beggars and coughing like hags. When the gas is thrown, they struggle to get the masks on in time, but one boy is unsuccessful and drowns in the thick air in agony. This image haunts the speaker, much as Snowden haunts Yossarian, and the speaker realizes the irony that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country) is a lie. Just as Yossarian does not want to die for Colonel Cathcart's desire to get in The Saturday Evening Post, so the speaker in the poem does not want to die for an empty and grossly untrue statement. There is no heroism in dying; man is matter and death reveals it in all its blood and guts.

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell:

Randall Jarrell enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942, but washed out as a pilot. He subsequently served as a control tower operator. His war poetry suggests the murderousness of war. In other words, he personalizes the war much like Yossarian does. In his five-line poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” he compresses the experience of death in war. It is narrated in the first person from the gunner's point of view. His extreme youth is emphasized since he falls into the depersonalized “State” from his mother's sleep. In fact, the imagery describes him as a fetus in the womb of the plane. He awakes from his peace in life to war and flak, and when he dies he is washed out of the turret—a terrible abortion. As with Owen and Heller, the reader is shocked with the reality of death in war. This young man does not get a chance in life; he is taken by the war and flushed out of the plane since so little of his physical presence remains. Man is indeed matter—and sometimes not even much of it is left.


The Iliad by Homer:

Both Catch-22 and Homer's Iliad begin in medias res, but the similarity does not end there. The Iliad has an opening scene that resonates throughout Catch-22. Agamemnon thinks that Achilles has tried to outwit him over a slave girl. Achilles responds by saying that he has no quarrel with the Trojans and is only there because of Agamemnon, and since the leader has insulted him, he will leave. Agamemnon makes no attempt to keep him there, and just as Achilles wrestles with thoughts of either killing the king or checking his own anger, Minerva intervenes and tells him to spare the king, although Achilles continues to rage.

Thus, both Achilles and Yossarian refuse to fight because they are upset at their commanders who are full of pride. But whereas Achilles gets divine intervention to help in his decision-making, Yossarian has to learn the hard way by experiencing Snowden's death. Moreover, Achilles is a hero (flawed but still a hero) with great strength and battle skills. Yossarian is an antihero who constantly fears for his safety, though he arguably becomes heroic when he decides to help Nately's whore's kid sister.

Paradise Lost by John Milton:

The scene with Yossarian sitting naked in the tree at Snowden's funeral recalls the temptation of Eve in John Milton's Paradise Lost. In fact, Yossarian even claims that the tree is not only the tree of life, but of knowledge of good and evil. But Heller inverts and subverts the serious theme of mans fall by couching it in terms of business. Is impersonal, if not inhumane, business the downfall of humankind?

Just as Satan in the guise of the serpent tempts Eve with a better existence, so Milo Minderbinder tempts Yossarian with the chocolate-covered cotton to give his M&M Enterprises a better financial existence. But Yossarian refuses to swallow the cotton or the line that Milo is feeding him about what is good for the country. By refusing to join Milo's plot to recoup his losses on the Egyptian cotton, Yossarian inadvertently brings death to the squadron when Milo bombs his own men so that the Germans will take the cotton crop off his hands. Thus, the fruit brings ultimate death to Eve, and the cotton (albeit refused) brings potential death to the squadron.

In an interesting reversal, however, Yossarian tempts the tempter by suggesting that Milo sell the cotton crop to the U.S. government. Milo is indeed intrigued by this possibility, especially when Yossarian adds that Milo could easily bribe the government into buying it. When Milo questions how that is possible, Yossarian simply explains that when bribes are involved, the government will find him. Thus, Heller couches the temptation story in terms of corrupt business deals and subverts not only Paradise Lost, but also the Genesis story upon which the epic is based.


Heller makes frequent allusions to several Shakespearean plays. Yossarian's delay in making a decision recalls Hamlet's delay in murdering his uncle, and the revelation that Yossarian has that ripeness was all is a paraphrase of Edgar's “ripeness is all” from King Lear. However, perhaps the two plays that figure most notably overall in Catch-22 are Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Heller's juxtaposition of the hilarity and horror suggests Shakespeare's effective alternation of comic and tragic scenes in Macbeth, and the attempted assassination of Colonel Cathcart evokes the assassination of Caesar.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare:

The so-called Porter scene in Macbeth occurs just before the discovery of the bodies of the murdered victims. The comedy of the drunken porter therefore works to heighten our sense of horror at what is soon to be revealed. The porter jokes and complains of his hangover and evokes a nervous laughter in the audience, but his words are thematically relevant to the whole play. For example, he talks of treason and uses a series of antitheses. His reference to treason suggests precisely what Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have committed in the murders, and his antitheses (for example, “provokes” and “unprovokes,” “sets on” and “takes off,” “persuades” and “disheartens”) suggest Macbeth's wrestling with oppositions of whether or not to do the deadly deed and Lady Macbeth's antithetical behavior (a murderous rather than nurturing mother who would dash her suckling baby's brains out, if she had so sworn, who becomes an insane weakling that cannot wash the blood from her hands).

Catch-22 also uses comedy to heighten the horror of its subject matter. Although some scenes, such as Clevinger's trial, are hilarious in their idiocy, they are also horrible in their message. Scheisskopf serves as prosecutor, defense counsel, and even one of the judges at the trial, and Clevinger is pronounced guilty of trying to improve morale at the Scheisskopf's request. This scene points to the supreme injustice of the court system that would twist an innocent man's words and condemn him without cause. In addition, the moaning scene, where Danby is so focused on synchronizing watches that he does not hear Dreedle's order against moaning and moans, is incredibly funny until Dreedle orders Danby to be shot. Danby faints in reaction to this fatal pronouncement and is saved only when Dreedle's son-in-law informs him that he is not allowed to have a man shot for moaning. The threat of death is ever-present, as Yossarian is well aware. The comedy only shocks the reader by contrast with the tragedy.

Comparisons can also be made between Lady Macbeth's bloody hands and her obsessive efforts to get the spot out and Yossarian's bloody hands scene with Snowden. The reality of death shocks Lady Macbeth into insanity (especially since she also perpetrated or instigated multiple murders). She has taken lives and cannot bear the guilt. Yossarian, on the other hand, has tried desperately to forestall not only his own death but also that of young Snowden. The boy's death shocks Yossarian into a clearer understanding of his own sanity and that man is matter. The graphic scenes in both Shakespeare and Heller reinforce the fact that ripeness is indeed all.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare:

The events leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar closely parallel the events leading up to the attempted assassination of Colonel Cathcart. Brutus, an honorable man just as Yossarian is in his own way, is distressed that Caesar may be chosen king of the republic—a complete incongruity. Cassius plays on Brutus's sense of honor in manipulating him to help in the assassination. Cassius says that Caesar has made himself a god, a Colossus to his petty underlings. Brutus admits that he has some suspicions about Caesar's intentions, but entreats Cassius not to act at present. He learns of the show that Caesar put on to incite the crowds to beg him to be crowned, and decides to talk further of their intentions. Brutus knows they must take a bloody course, yet he wants to spare Antony so that they do not look like butchers but like sacrificers who purged Rome of a great evil.

When Dobbs broaches the subject of murdering Cathcart to Yossarian, Yossarian's first reaction is “You want us to kill him in cold blood?” (236). Like Brutus, Yossarian is initially hesitant, but all Dobbs wants is for him to give the go-ahead. Just as Cassius needs an honorable man like Brutus to legitimize the murder, so Dobbs needs his friend's approval to legitimize his cause. Dobbs then suggests killing more and more people, but Yossarian objects to the bloodbath much as Brutus did. The irony of this interesting parallel of drama and novel is that Yossarian talks Dobbs out of the murder only to change his mind and later ask for Dobbs's assistance. Since Dobbs has finished his missions and thinks he can go home, he is no longer interested in getting rid of Cathcart. He is completely self-interested, as was Cassius, and only insists on murder when it would benefit him personally. Luckily for Yossarian, he abandons the idea of assassination, despite the fact that Cathcart has volunteered the group once again for Bologna to get another feather in his cap. Yossarian would rid the squadron of this evil, but he will not proceed without his co-conspirators. The squadron therefore has to live under the tyrannical rule of their show-off of a commander who persists in raising the number of missions, while Rome eliminated hers but had to fight to survive the ultimately misguided murder. Cold-blooded murder, despite the cause, is still murder.


  1. James Nagel, “The Catch-22 Note Cards,” Studies in the Novel 8 (1976): 394-405.

  2. James Nagel, “Two Brief Manuscript Sketches: Heller's Catch-22,Modern Fiction Studies 20 (1974): 221-224.

  3. This ad appeared in the August 15, 1962, New York Times.

  4. For a complete study of the publishing history of Catch-22, see Jonathan R. Eller, “Catching a Market: The Publishing History of Catch-22,Prospects 17 (1992): 475-525.

  5. Joseph Heller, “Preface to the special edition of Catch-22,” in Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1994, 10.

  6. Kathi A. Vosevich, “Conversations with Joseph Heller,” War, Literature & the Arts, Volume 11, Number 2 (Fall-Winter 1999): 94.

  7. See Chapter 2 for more information on the blotter.

  8. Richard B. Sale, “An Interview in New York with Joseph Heller,” Studies in the Novel 4 (1972), 63.

  9. “I See Everything Twice! The Structure of Joseph Heller's Catch-22,University Review 34, 1968, 177.

  10. The plot summary relies heavily on Heller's blotter.

  11. Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 228-229.

  12. Ibid., 37-38.

  13. Ibid., 74-75.

  14. One important piece of information about the J model that is of particular interest to Catch-22 was the incorporation of armor plating protection for the bombardier. See Steve Pace, B-25 Mitchell (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1994), 50.

  15. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller's Fiction. (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997), 40.

  16. Kathi A. Vosevich, “Conversations with Joseph Heller,” War, Literature & the Arts, Volume 11, Number 2 (Fall-Winter 1999): 95, 100-101.

  17. Round the World with the 488th Bombardment Squadron: Africa, Oceania, Corsica, Europe, India by Everitt B. Thomas, 134.

  18. Ibid., 138.

  19. Ibid., 140.

  20. Now and Then, 175.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid., 176.

  23. Ibid., 176-177. Heller also states that he learned a very useful phrase for his visits to the officers' apartment in Rome: “Quanto costa?” (177)

  24. Ibid., 177.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid., 178.

  27. Ibid., 177-181.

  28. Ibid., 201.

  29. Ibid., 167.

  30. Personal interview with Kathi Vosevich in New York, December 1998.

  31. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, [1961] 1994), 27. All subsequent quotations of this text come from this source.

  32. Vosevich, 95.

  33. Articles have also been written on themes such as the abuse of power, the mindlessness of the American press, man as a toy on a string, the insanity of the world, miscommunication and the debasement of language, déjà vu, and the wasteland of American culture, among others.

  34. “The Catch-22 Note Cards,” Studies in the Novel 8 (1976): 399-400.

  35. Ibid., 403-404.

  36. Quoted in Nagel, 54-55.

  37. Vosevich, 96.

  38. Vosevich, 94.

  39. Quoted in Nagel, 395.

  40. Perhaps Heller wanted to avoid overt comparisons with Hemingway's Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

  41. Nagel, 398.

  42. Nagel, 404.

  43. See Heller, “Catch-18,” New World Writing 7 (1955), 204-214, for the full version of the chapter.

  44. Sam Merrill, “Playboy Interview: Joseph Heller,” in Conversations with Joseph Heller, ed. Adam J. Sorkin (Jackson: UP of MS, 1993), 170.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Heller, “Catch-18,” 211.

  47. Heller had chosen the name “R.C. Shipman,” but a typesetting error made it “R.O. Shipman” and precipitated the problems with the real R.O. Shipman. See Jonathan R. Eller, “Catching a Market: The Publishing History of Catch-22.Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 17, 507.

  48. Ibid., 507-508. Heller chose another seven-letter name to avoid the problem of having to reset the entire book.

  49. Heller, “Catch-18,” 211.

  50. Craig, 263.

  51. See Chapter 10 for a full explanation of the historical events.

  52. Vosevich, 91-92.

  53. Quoted in Eller, 480.

  54. Merrill, 68.

  55. For one rendition of the interaction between Nately and his father, see “Love, Dad,” by Joseph Heller in Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald, eds., A “Catch-22” Casebook (New York: Crowell, 1973), 309-316.

  56. Eller, 483.

  57. Catch-22: A Radical Protest against Absurdity,” Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd (New Haven: College and University Press, 1971), 38.

  58. Paul Krassner, “An Impolite Interview with Joseph Heller,” in Sorkin, 26.

  59. Interestingly, Joseph McCarthy was an intelligence officer during World War II.

  60. Joan Robertson, “They're After Everyone: Heller's Catch-22 and the Cold War,” Clio 19:1 1989, 50.

  61. Quoted in “New Questions Dog ‘Catch-22,’” Michael Mewshaw, Special to the Washington Post, April 27, 1998, A01.

  62. Ibid.

  63. Ibid.

  64. Ibid.

  65. Falstein, Face of a Hero (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1998, first published in 1950 by Harcourt, Brace and Company), 1.

  66. Ibid., 142.

  67. Krassner, 22-23.

  68. “The Loony Horror of It All—‘Catch-22’ Turns 25,” The New York Times Book Review, 26 October 1986, 3.

  69. Granville Hicks, Saturday Review, 44 (1961), 33.

  70. Richard G. Stern, The New York Times Book Review (Oct. 22, 1961), 50.

  71. Nelson Algren, Nation, 193 (Nov. 4, 1961), 358.

  72. Robert Brustein, The New Republic, 145 (Nov. 13, 1961), 13.

  73. Whitney Balliett, The New Yorker, 9 Dec 1961, 248.

  74. Julian Mitchell, The Spectator (London), Vol. 208 (June 15, 1962), 801.

  75. Philip Toynbee, “Here's Greatness—in Satire,” The Observer (London), June 17, 1962, np.

  76. Roger H. Smith, Daedalus (Winter, 1963), 161.

  77. Aldridge, 3.

  78. The complete criteria for diagnosing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be found in Joseph M. Flora's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  79. Eller, 502-503.

  80. Ibid., 513.

  81. Newsweek, Vol 60 (October 1, 1962), 82.

  82. Merrill, 170.

  83. “Joseph Heller on America's ‘Inhuman Callousness,’” U.S. News & World Report, 9 April 1979, 73.

  84. “22 Was Funnier Than 14,” The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1968, 49.

  85. Ibid., 53.

  86. Merrill, 170.

  87. Thomas L. Hartshorne, “From Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse V: The Decline of the Political Mode,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 1978, 24.

  88. Ibid., 23-24.

  89. Aldridge, 3.

  90. Conversations with American Writers. “Joseph Heller. Charles Ruas. 154.

  91. “Joseph Heller Draws Dead Bead on the Politics of Gloom.”

  92. Merrill, 170.

  93. Chet Flippo, “Checking In with Joseph Heller,” in Sorkin, 233.

  94. Aldridge, 3.

  95. Ibid.

  96. “Joseph Heller,” Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1999. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. (Detroit: Gale, 2000), 122.

  97. Craig, 83-84.

  98. Catch-22 Revisited,” in Kiley, 331-332.

  99. Brother Alexis Gonzales, “Notes on the Next Novel: An Interview with Joseph Heller,” in Sorkin, 94.

  100. Heller, “On Translating Catch-22 into a Movie,” in Kiley 346.

  101. Ibid., 346-347.

  102. Ibid., 347.

  103. Ibid., 358.

  104. Vosevich, 96.

  105. Ibid., 94.

  106. It is interesting to note that in a 1970 interview right after the film opened in theaters, Heller was more cautious in his criticism of the characterization of Milo Minderbinder: “In saying that I couldn't get used to Voight, it doesn't mean that I disapprove of Nichols' conception. Nichols' conception of Milo was different from mine. To say it's different is not saying that in a pejorative sense” (quoted in Kiley 355). Perhaps he did not want to inhibit ticket sales.

  107. Heller, “On Translating Catch-22 into a Movie,” in Kiley, 356.

  108. Ibid., 361-362.

  109. Heller, “On Translating Catch-22 into a Movie,” in Kiley, 358.

  110. Heller, “Foreword,” in Catch-22: A Dramatization (New York: Delacorte, 1973), xiii.

  111. Ibid., xiv.

  112. Ibid., xx.

  113. Ibid.

  114. Ibid., xi.

  115. Heller, Catch-22: A Dramatization, 5.

  116. Ibid.

  117. Ibid.

  118. Ibid., 175.

  119. Ibid., 182.

  120. Ibid., 214.

  121. Ibid., 217.

  122. Ibid.

  123. Ibid.

  124. Ibid., 218.

  125. For more works that can be studied with Catch-22, see Eric Solomon's “From Christ in Flanders to Catch-22: An Approach to War Fiction” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (1969): 851-66.

  126. James H. Meredith, Understanding the Literature of World War II (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999), 9.

  127. Jaroslav Hasek, “Preface.” The Good Soldier Svejk. Trans. Cecil Parrott (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 1.

  128. See J.P. Stern's article “War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22” for a lengthy discussion of the two novels.

Additional coverage of Heller's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 187; Contemporary Authors Bibliographic Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 42, 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 8, 11, 36, 63; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 28, 227; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980, 1999; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors,Novelists, and Popular Fiction; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.


Essays and Criticism