|Cover artist||Paul Bacon|
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster|
|10 November 1961|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|Pages||453 (1st edition hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3558.E476 C3 2004|
|Followed by||Closing Time (1994)|
Catch-22 is a satirical 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 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 other airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home.
The development of the novel can be split into segments. The first (chapters 1–11) broadly follows the story 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.
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 cannot see to look for them — a Catch-22. The term “Catch-22” is also 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 is not stated in a general form, but the principal example in the book fits the definition above: If one is crazy, one does not have to fly missions; and one must be crazy to fly. But one has to apply to be excused, and applying demonstrates that one is not 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 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 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 very 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.” Another character explains: “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”
Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not 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 does not exist, there is 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 some of the major characters in Catch-22, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Yossarian and tail gunner Sammy Singer.
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.