Catch-22 is a satirical novel by American author Joseph Heller. He began writing it in 1953; the novel was first published in 1961. It is frequently cited as one of the greatest literary works 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 throughout World War II, from 1942 to 1944. It mainly follows the life of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. Most of the events in the book occur while the fictional 256th Squadron is based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea, west of Italy. The novel looks into the experiences of Yossarian and the additional airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they might return home.
The novel's title refers to that's repeatedly invoked in the story. Catch-22 starts as a set of paradoxical requirements whereby airmen mentally unfit to fly didn't have to do so, but couldn't actually be excused. By the end of the novel it is invoked as the explanation for a large number of unreasonable restrictions. The phrase "Catch-22" has after entered the English language, referring to a type of unsolvable logic puzzle at times called a double bind. According to the novel, people who were crazy weren't obliged to fly missions, but anyone who applied to stop flying was showing a rational concern for his safety and was, therefore, sane and had to fly.
The plotline follows the airmen of the 256th Squadron while in action over Italy, and their repeated attempts to avoid combat missions that appear to lead to certain death. Their attempts are almost always comical: when an officer refers to the string on a map representing the front line and states that they won't be able to fly if it moves beyond the target, the airmen begin watching the string obsessively until Yossarian secretly moves the string and the mission is cancelled. The officer isn't amused, and assigns them a particularly dangerous mission. The ultimate escape is to have oneself declared mentally unfit for duty, but the Army has made this impossible through the eponymous Catch-22. In spite of their best efforts, most of the airmen are killed over the span of the novel.
The development of the novel can be split into segments. The first (chapters 1–11) broadly follows the storey fragmented between characters, but in a single chronological time in 1944. The second (chapters 12–20) flashes back to focus primarily on the "Great Big Siege of Bologna" before once again jumping to the chronological 'present' of 1944 in the third part (chapter 21–25). The fourth (chapters 26–28) flashes back to the origins and growth of Milo's syndicate, with the fifth part (chapter 28–32) returning again to the narrative present but keeping to the same tone of the previous four. The sixth and final part (chapter 32 on) remains in the story's present, but takes a much darker turn and spends the remaining chapters focusing on the serious and brutal nature of war and life in general.
Previously the reader had been cushioned from experiencing the full horror of events, but in the final section the events are laid bare. The horror begins with the attack on the undefended Italian mountain village, with the following chapters involving despair (Doc Daneeka and the Chaplain), disappearance in combat (Orr and Clevinger), disappearance caused by the army (Dunbar) or death of most of Yossarian's friends (Nately, McWatt, Mudd, Kid Sampson, Dobbs, Chief White Halfoat and Hungry Joe), culminating in the unspeakable horrors of Chapter 39, in particular the rape and murder of Michaela, who represents pure innocence. In Chapter 41 the full details of the gruesome death of Snowden are finally revealed.
Despite this, the novel ends on an upbeat note with Yossarian learning of Orr's miraculous escape to Sweden and Yossarian's pledge to follow him there.
Many events in the book are repeatedly described from differing points of view, so the reader learns more about each event from each iteration, with the new information often completing a joke, the setup of which was told several chapters previously. The narrative's events are out of sequence, but events are referred to as if the reader is already familiar with them, so that the reader must ultimately piece together a timeline of events. Specific words, phrases, and questions are additionally repeated frequently, generally to comic effect.
Much of Heller's prose in Catch-22 is circular and repetitive, exemplifying in its form the structure of a Catch-22. Circular reasoning is widely used by a few characters to justify their actions and opinions. Heller revels in paradox, for example: "The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him", and "The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with." This atmosphere of apparently logical irrationality pervades the book.
While a few characters are most prominent, notably Yossarian and the Chaplain, the majority of named characters are described in detail with fleshed out or multidimensional personas to the extent that there are few if any "minor characters."
Although its non-chronological structure might at first seem random, Catch 22 is highly structured. It is founded on a structure of free association, ideas run into one another through seemingly random connections. For example, Chapter 1 entitled "The Texan" ends with "everybody but the CID man, who had caught cold from the fighter captain and come down with pneumonia." Chapter 2, entitled "Clevinger", begins with "In a way the CID man was pretty lucky, because outside the hospital the war was still going on." The CID man connects the two chapters like a free association bridge and eventually Chapter 2 flows from the CID man to Clevinger through more free association links.
Yossarian comes to fear his commanding officers more than he fears the Germans attempting to shoot him down and he feels that "they" are "out to get him." Chief among the reasons Yossarian fears his commanders more than the enemy is that as he flies more missions, Colonel Cathcart increases the number of required combat missions before a soldier might return home; he reaches the magic number only to have it retroactively raised. He comes to despair of ever getting home and is greatly relieved when he's sent to the hospital for a condition that's almost jaundice. In Yossarian's words:
- The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.
While the military's enemies are Germans, none appear in the storey as an enemy combatant. This ironic situation is epitomised in the single appearance of German personnel in the novel, who act as pilots employed by the squadron's Mess Officer, Milo Minderbinder, to bomb the American encampment on Pianosa. This predicament indicates a tension between traditional motives for violence and the modern economic machine, which seems to generate violence simply as another means to profit, quite independent of geographical or ideological constraints. Heller emphasises the danger of profit seeking by portraying Milo without "evil intent." Milo's actions are portrayed as the result of greed, not malice.
Heller wanted to be a writer from an early age. His experiences as a bombardier throughout World War II inspired Catch-22; Heller later said that he "never had a bad officer." In a 1977 essay on Catch-22, Heller stated that the "antiwar and antigovernment feelings in the book" were a product of the Korean War and the 1950s rather than World War II itself. Heller's criticisms aren't intended for World War II but for the Cold War and McCarthyism.
The influence of the 1950s on Catch-22 is evident through Heller's extensive use of anachronism. Though the novel is ostensibly set in World War II, Heller intentionally included anachronisms like loyalty oaths and computers (IBM machines) to situate the novel in the context of the 1950s. Many of the characters are based on or connected to individuals from the 1950s:
- Milo Minderbinder's maxim "What's good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country" alludes to former president of General Motors Charles Erwin Wilson's statement before the Senate "What's good for General Motors is good for the country."
- The question of "Who promoted Major Major?" alludes to Joseph McCarthy's questioning of the promotion of Major Peress, an army dentist who refused to sign loyalty oaths.
In 1998, a few critics raised the possibility that Heller's book had questionable similarities to Louis Falstein's 1950 novel, Face of a Hero. Falstein never raised the issue between Catch-22's publication and his death in 1995 and Heller claimed never to have been aware of the obscure novel. Heller said that the novel had been influenced by Céline, Waugh and Nabokov. Many of the similarities have been stated to be attributable to the authors' experiences, both having served as U.S. Army Air Forces aircrew in Italy in World War II. Notwithstanding their themes and styles are different.
Strictly speaking, a "Catch-22" is "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule." For example, losing something is typically a conventional problem; to solve it, one looks for the lost item until one finds it. But if the thing lost is one's glasses, one can't see to look for them - a Catch-22. The term "Catch-22" is additionally used more broadly to mean a tricky problem or a no-win or absurd situation.
In the book Catch-22 is a military rule typifying bureaucratic operation and reasoning. The rule isn't stated in a general form, but the principal example in the book fits the definition above: If one is crazy, one doesn't have to fly missions; and one must be crazy to fly. But one has to apply to be excused, and applying demonstrates that one isn't crazy. As a result, one must continue flying, either not applying to be excused, or applying and being refused. The narrator explains:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and can be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved quite deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)
Other forms of Catch-22 are invoked throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. At one point, victims of harassment by military police quote the MPs' explanation of one of Catch-22's provisions: "Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating." An Additional character explains: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."
Yossarian comes to realise that Catch-22 doesn't actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it doesn't exist, there's no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of force with specious and spurious legalistic justification is one of the book's primary motifs.
The motif of bureaucratic absurdity is further explored in 1994's Closing Time, Heller's sequel to Catch-22. This darker, slower-paced, apocalyptic novel explores the pre- and post-war lives of a few of the major characters in Catch-22, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Yossarian and tailgunner Sammy Singer.
Catch-22 contains allusions to a large number of works of literature. Howard Jacobson, in his 2004 introduction to the Vintage Classics publication, wrote that the novel was "positioned teasingly ... between literature and literature's opposites – between Shakespeare and Rabelais and Dickens and Dostoevsky and Gogol and Céline and the Absurdists and of course Kafka on the one hand, and on the additional vaudeville and slapstick and Bilko and Abbott and Costello and Tom and Jerry and the Goons (if Heller had ever heard of the Goons)." One critic argues that it is Kafka's influence that can be seen most strongly in the novel:
- Like Kafka's heroes, Yossarian is riddled with anxiety and caught in an inexorable nightmare – in his case created by Colonel Cathcart and the inevitability of his raising the number of missions he has to fly.
The idea for Catch-22 was based on Joseph Heller's personal experience in World War II. The feelings that Yossarian and the additional bomber pilots felt were taken directly from problems he suffered while on duty. Heller flew 60 bombing missions from May to October in 1944. Heller mentions that he should have been killed three times over, after the average death rate was five percent per mission. Heller was able to make it out of the war, but the experience tortured him and it took until 1953 before he could start writing about it. The war experience turned Heller into a "tortured, funny, deeply peculiar human being".
After publication in 1961, Catch-22 became quite popular among teenagers at the time. Catch-22 seemed to embody the feelings that young people had toward the Vietnam War. A common joke was that every student who went off to college at the time took along a copy of Catch-22. The popularity of the book created a cult following, which led to more than eight million copies being sold in the United States. There are a large number of who feel that "the comic fable that ends in horror has become more and more clearly a reflection of the altogether uncomic and horrifying realities of the world in which we live and hope to survive."
Explanation of the novel's title
The title is a reference to a fictional bureaucratic stipulation which embodies forms of illogical and immoral reasoning. The opening chapter of the novel was originally published in New World Writing as Catch-18 in 1955, but Heller's agent, Candida Donadio, requested that he change the title of the novel, so it wouldn't be confused with another recently published World War II novel, Leon Uris's Mila 18. The number 18 has special meaning in Judaism (it means Alive in Gematria; see Chai) and was relevant to early draughts of the novel which had a somewhat greater Jewish emphasis.
The title Catch-11 was suggested, with the duplicated 1 paralleling the repetition found in a number of character exchanges in the novel, but because of the release of the 1960 movie Ocean's Eleven, this was additionally rejected. Catch-17 was rejected so as not to be confused with the World War II film Stalag 17, as was Catch-14, apparently because the publisher didn't feel that 14 was a "funny number." Eventually the title came to be Catch-22, which, like 11, has a duplicated digit, with the 2 additionally referring to a number of déjà vu-like events common in the novel.
Publication and movie rights
Catch-22 was sold to Simon & Schuster, where it had been championed by editor Robert Gottlieb, who along with Nina Bourne, would edit and oversee the marketing of the book. Gottlieb was a strong advocate for the title along with Peter Schwed and Justin Kaplan. Henry Simon, a vice-president at Simon & Schuster, found it repetitive and offensive. The editorial board decided to contract the book when Heller agreed to revisions—he signed for $1,500.
Officially published on 10 October 1961, the hardcover sold for $5.95. The book wasn't a best-seller in hardcover in the United States. Though it sold 12,000 copies by Thanksgiving, it never entered the New York Times Bestseller List. Catch-22 received good notices and was nominated for the National Book Award in March 1962. (Heller lost out to Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.) It went through four printings in hardcover, but only sold well on the East Coast. The book never established itself nationally until it was published in paperback for 75 cents.:224–230
Upon publication in Great Britain, the book became the #1 best-seller.:233 Don Fine of Dell Paperbacks bought the paperback reprint rights to Catch-22 for $32,000. Between the paperback's release in September 1962 and April 1963, it sold 1.1 million copies.:238–240 In August 1962, Donadio brokered the sale of movie rights to Columbia Pictures for $100,000 plus $25,000 to write a treatment or a first draught of a screenplay.:234
The initial reviews of the book ranged from quite positive to quite negative. There were positive reviews from The Nation, ("the best novel to come out in years"), the New York Herald Tribune ("A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book") and The New York Times ("A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as a large number of readers as it delights"). On the additional hand, The New Yorker, ("doesn't even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper", "what remains is a debris of sour jokes") and a second review from the New York Times ("repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its a large number of interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest") disliked it. One commentator of Catch-22 recognised that "many early audiences liked the book for just the same reasons that caused others to hate it" The book had a cult following though, especially among teenagers and college students. Heller remarks that in 1962, after appearing on the Today show he went out drinking with the host at the time, John Chancellor, who handed him stickers that Chancellor got privately printed reading "YOSSARIAN LIVES". Heller additionally said that Chancellor had been secretly putting them on the walls of the corridors and executive bathrooms in the NBC building.
Although the novel won no awards upon release, it has remained in print and is seen as one of the most significant American novels of the twentieth century. Scholar and fellow World War II veteran Hugh Nibley said it was the most accurate book he ever read about the military. Since its release in 1961, the book has sold 10 million copies.
- The Modern Library ranked Catch-22 as the seventh (by review panel) and twelfth (by public) greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century.
- The Radcliffe Publishing Course rank Catch-22 as number 15 of the twentieth century's top 100 novels.
- The Observer listed Catch-22 as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time.
- TIME puts Catch-22 in the top 100 English-language modern novels (1923 onwards, unranked).
- The Big Read by the BBC ranked Catch-22 as number 11 on a web poll of the UK's best-loved book.
- Catch-22 was adapted into a feature film of the same name in 1970, directed by Mike Nichols.
- Catch-22 play: Aquila Theatre produced a stage adaptation of Catch-22, based on Heller's 1971 stage adaption. It was directed by Peter Meineck. This production toured the USA in 2007/8 with a Bexhill on Sea production in the fall of 2008.
- A pilot for a comedy series based upon Catch-22 was made and televised in 1973, with Richard Dreyfuss in the starring role of Capt. Yossarian.
This list covers the first and most recent printed publications by the original publisher Simon & Schuster as well as all additional formats. Other print publishers include Dell, Corgi, Vintage, Knopf, Black Swan, Grasset & Fasquelle and Wahlström & Widstrand.
The original manuscript is held by Brandeis University.
- 1961, Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-671-12805-1, pub date June 1961, Hardback
- 1961, Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-440-51120-8, advance Paperback with signed bookplate
- 1978, Franklin Library ISBN 0-8124-1717-8, signed limited edition Leather Bound
- 1996, Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-684-83339-5, pub date September 1996 Paperback
- 1999, Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-684-86513-0, pub date October 1999, Hardback
- 1980, Books On Tape ISBN 0-7366-8962-1, unabridged Audio Cassette reader Wolfram Kandinsky
- 1984, Caedmon Audio ISBN 0-694-50253-7, Audio Cassette
- 1990, Books On Tape ISBN 0-7366-9085-9, unabridged Audio CD reader Jim Weiss
- 1994, DH Audio ISBN 0-88646-125-1, abridged edition Audio Cassette reader Alan Arkin
- 2007, Caedmon ISBN 978-0-06-126246-3, unabridged Audio CD reader Jay O. Sanders
- 2008, Hachette Audio ISBN 978-1-4055-0387-7, unabridged Audio CD reader Trevor White