November 10, 1961

Catch-22 Summary. Captain John Yossarian, a World War II bombardier, is stationed on the island of Pianosa. He is an individualist who seeks to protect his own life by fleeing to the hospital, since a “catch-22” in the Air Force regulations preve...

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Historical FictionwarSatire

544 Pages

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Catch-22 Summary. Captain John Yossarian, a World War II bombardier, is stationed on the island of Pianosa. He is an individualist who seeks to protect his own life by fleeing to the hospital, since a “catch-22” in the Air Force regulations prevents him from being grounded for illness or obtaining a leave.

Catch-22 is a satirical war novel by American author Joseph Heller. He began writing it in 1953; the novel was first published in 1961. Often cited as one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century. it uses a distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration, describing events from the points of view of different characters. The separate storylines are out of sequence so the timeline develops along with the plot.


The novel is set during World War II, from 1942 to 1944. It mainly follows the life of antihero Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. Most of the events in the book occur while the fictional 256th US Army Air Squadron is based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea, west of Italy, though it also covers episodes from basic training at Lowry Field in Colorado and Air Corps training in Santa Ana, CA. The novel examines the absurdity of war and military life through the experiences of Yossarian and his cohorts, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home.


In 1994 Heller published a sequel, Closing Time.


Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999) was an American author of novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. His best-known work is the novel Catch-22, a satire on war and bureaucracy, whose title has become a synonym for an absurd or contradictory choice.


It has  forty-two chapters


Chris Cox

he Catch-22 itself is a bureaucratic idiocy so sublime it leaves you staring out the window with wonder. As many of you will already know, the novel is set on a made-up island off the coast of Italy during the second world war, where an American bombing group is stationed. Desperate to impress his superiors, Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions his men have to fly. Our hero, Yossarian, has flown 50. Driven half-mad by his will to live, he wants out. But he's thwarted by Catch-22, a clause which states that pilots don't have to fly if they are certified as insane, but that being driven mad by fear is fundamentally rational. As it's described in the novel: "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." The result, put simply, is that no one can get off the ride.

It's hard to describe briefly just how gloriously, envelopingly hilarious this logic becomes as the novel unfolds. (I can't remember another book which I've had to put down so frequently to get on with the serious business of guffawing.) Its core paradox – that insanity is sanity – burrows inside everything.


For Heller, delineating the foolishness of war – and perhaps of bureaucracies more generally – becomes an ecstatic project. Madness runs through every exchange; absurdity informs every character. He creates a whole universe of folly, one where Colonel Cathcart "had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available". And where Doc Daneeka asserts: "It's not my business to save lives". And where Milo, an entrepreneurial officer, bombs his own airfield after striking a deal with the Germans.


It also manifests in Heller's gleeful use of repetition. Words and phrases are continually paired up so that everything plays snap with everything else. (For instance: "Dobbs and Captain Flume were so deeply disturbed by Hungry Joe's shrieking nightmares that they would begin to have shrieking nightmares of their own.") Nothing is allowed to reside in meaning something: instead, everything is mocked by its own echo. The effect, which accumulates over hundreds of pages, is a merciless, absurdist comedy which hints at the awful emptiness at the heart of things.


The power of Catch-22, for me, is the way in which it plunges into that emptiness at the end of the novel, when the source of its comedy is finally revealed. Throughout, the novel's comic surface has been punctured by shards of Yossarian's traumatic memories of a bombing raid in which a young, enlisted solider bled to death from flak wounds.


But it's only near the end, when Yossarian finally gives in and reflects fully on the episode – its gruesome details and savage lack of meaning – that the novel is transposed into a tragic key. Sure, it's been funny. But all along the comedy has been an expression of horror; it springs from outraged, stupefied humanity. There seems to be something up for grabs in Catch-22's circular logic – where madness begets laughter, and laughter begets madness – that makes me immediately go back and read it again; which is an impulse I think Heller, Yossarian and the rest of the gang would understand.



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