(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

Catch-22 is set on the imaginary island of Pianosa during World War II and focuses on Captain John Yossarian and his attempts to survive the fanatical lunacy of his bomber squadron’s commanders long enough to get home. As the death toll rises, the quota of bombing missions required for home leave is repeatedly increased. By pleading insanity, Yossarian hopes to find a way out. However, his doctor quotes the infamous Catch-22: To get out of flying missions, a bombardier must plead insanity, but wanting to get out of flying missions is proof of sanity, so the minute a bombardier says he does not want to fly, he must. Yossarian is slow to realize the full implications of his predicament, but when he does, he has the courage to take the only definitive action still open to him: He heads for neutral Sweden.

Orr, a combat pilot and Yossarian’s tent-mate and alter ego, also functions as the “alter hero” of the book. In Orr there is something of the real “prophet,” for it is he who prepares the way for Yossarian. From the beginning, he is Yossarian’s double, acting in many ways like the ego to Yossarian’s id. Orr reacts objectively and rationally to their common predicament, while Yossarian behaves subjectively, whining, protesting, and acting moody. Orr is resourceful and cunning, living among his enemies in the guise of a shallow-minded joker while plotting his revenge; Yossarian has trouble getting beyond his own moods and emotions. The archvillain of the piece is Colonel Cathcart, model of robotlike conformity, always trying to adjust to the dictates of the bureaucracy and to avoid confrontations with officialdom. At the other extreme is the anonymous Soldier in White, the “arch-victim,” bandaged from head to foot and kept alive by an endless recycling of body fluids. What begins as a grim joke—fluids excreted at one end are injected at the other—becomes a grotesque symbol of the mechanical regulation of human life: facelessness, self-containment, and the withdrawal and...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Hospital. Military hospital in Pianosa in which the novel opens and to which it periodically returns; it is the refuge to which Army Air Force captain John Yossarian, the protagonist, escapes whenever the stress of dealing with the war and “catch-22” overcomes him. The hospital operates as a symbolic representation of a haven from the madness of the outside world that the war has created. It is immediately evident, however, that the hospital’s own activities are every bit as inane and insane as the world from which Yossarian is fleeing. Feigning an indefinable liver ailment, Yossarian utilizes the hospital for many of his shenanigans—such as censoring the correspondence of enlisted men erratically, impersonating other patients, and playing jokes on enlisted men.

The hospital serves as a microcosm of the larger world of war—replete with absurdity upon absurdity. The “craziness” of the hospital is exemplified in patients such as the “Soldier in White,” who has interchangeable intravenous tubes connected to his elbows and groin, and the “Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice.” These absurdities reflect the nonsense outside the hospital that terrifies Yossarian, who is convinced that people are trying to kill him.


*Pianosa (pee-ah-NOH-sah). Tiny island in Tuscan archipelago, off the west-central coast of Italy, near Elba and Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea, on which Yossarian’s bomber squadron is stationed. The island is the central location for much of the action that occurs—in a nonsequential order—within the novel. The absence of an ordinary fixed chronology gives the novel’s settings a larger significance because they are the only features of the narrative that remain fixed.

During World War II, Joseph Heller himself was stationed on nearby Corsica, and may have chosen Pianosa for its obscurity, thereby undercutting and satirizing the self-aggrandizing officers who appear in the novel who direct the squadron’s bombing raids from the island. Pianosa also functions as a counterpoint to other locations because its beaches provide some rare moments of tranquility for Yossarian and his friends. Thematically, Pianosa is also the setting for the pivotal and gratuitous death of Kid Sampson and the culminating climax when Milo Minderbinder actually bombs his own men in a perverted twisting of capitalistic ideals into war rhetoric that at the same time parodies the Machiavellian concept of the end justifying the...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

In forty-two dizzying chapters, Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid flying any more bombing missions during World War II. His superior officer, Colonel Cathcart, progressively increases the number of required missions, starting at thirty-five and going up to eighty, when Yossarian finally takes an effective stand. During that time, readers are witness to an absurd series of mishaps developing from (or in spite of) an incompetent U.S. military, which is somehow winning the war against Germany.

The chronology of events signaled by the number of missions that Yossarian has flown at any particular point, is deliberately obscured. Among chapters, and even in individual chapters, scenes occur out of order. Colonel Cathcart raises the required missions to fifty near the beginning of the book, but later readers learn about earlier missions; a soldier’s death, recounted at the end of the book, in fact precedes most of the other action. Yet, the subversion of a standard chronological sequence does not necessarily make the novel less accessible. Taken in the light of the novel’s subject—the insanity of war—Joseph Heller’s decision to depart from a conventional plot structure seems perfectly natural. Indeed, the unconventional storyline captures something of the turmoil inherent in his protagonist, Yossarian.

A psychiatrist diagnoses Yossarian at one point with a “morbid aversion to...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

US Soldiers in Italy During WWII Published by Gale Cengage

Italy in World War II
Catch-22 takes place on an American Army Air Force base on an island off the coast of...

(The entire section is 1509 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The novel's setting is the mythical island of Pianosa, modeled closely on Corsica and located off the coast of Rome, eight miles south of...

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Catch-22 is set on an army air force base on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy in 1944, toward...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The techniques of Catch-22 have generated much critical discussion and disagreement. One topic of debate has been the genre to which the work...

(The entire section is 728 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Catch-22 both absorbs and parodies a variety of literary genres. Given the book's fragmented chronology, episodic structure, and...

(The entire section is 680 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Heller's first novel was inspired by American political, military, and social events of the 1950s. In an interview with Ken Barnard, Heller...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Catch-22 has generated avid discussion among readers and critics since it was first published, for the novel was so experimental that it...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1940s: The U.S. invades Normandy France in June, 1944, while massively bombing Japan. Two atom bombs dropped on Japan in...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Catch-22 is an allegory; that is, each character represents some human quality. List the major characters and their allegorical...

(The entire section is 150 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Nelson Algren, "The Catch," in Nation, Vol. 193, November 4, 1961, pp. 357-58.


(The entire section is 604 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Karl, Frederick R. American Fiction 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. The judgment of an outstanding critic and biographer on forty years of American novels. Judges Catch-22 as an outstanding product of its time.

Martine, James J. American Novelists. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Heller.

Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22.” Studies in American Fiction 14, no. 2 (August, 1986): 139-152. Detailed discussion of the effect of the novel’s...

(The entire section is 200 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the philosophical terms "existentialism" and "nihilism" and show how they apply to the themes in Catch-22.


(The entire section is 105 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the antiwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Compare the reasoning antiwar activists presented for their opposition to war with the...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Catch-22 reveals the thorough acquaintance with modern literature of its author, a possessor of both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. The novel...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In 1967 Heller wrote a two-act play entitled We Bombed in New Haven that shares the antiwar stance of Catch-22 and, like the...

(The entire section is 331 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

A film of Catch-22 was released in 1970 in the U.S., directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Buck Henry, starring Alan Arkin (as...

(The entire section is 121 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey is another novel about a man caught in an insane...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Kiley, Frederick, and Walter McDonald, eds. A "Catch-22" Casebook. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. Contains critical...

(The entire section is 139 words.)