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Book Review

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Capt. John Yossarian is serving as a bombardier with the U.S. Army Air Corps on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa during World War II. Yossarian doesn’t understand why thousands of people are trying to kill him. Not only do strangers shoot at his plane whenever he drops bombs on them, but his superior officers also put his life at risk to further their own advancement. Col. Cathcart repeatedly increases the number of missions that the men in the 256th squadron must fly, and Yossarian becomes increasingly fearful that he will be killed in action.

There’s a seemingly simple escape. Doc Daneeka is required to ground anyone who is insane. Since no sane man would continue to voluntarily fly such dangerous missions, all Yossarian has to do is request that he be relieved of duty. But there’s a catch. By requesting to be grounded, he is proving his sanity and is therefore required to continue flying. That catch is Catch-22.

Yossarian copes by taking regular holidays in the hospital, nursing a possible liver condition that causes no real discomfort but keeps his temperature sufficiently high enough to avoid suspicious doctors. He prides himself on his ability to avoid dying, not necessarily dropping bombs accurately. He also feels accomplished when he avoids work in general.

The plot unfolds in a nonchronological manner, as the narrator focuses on dozens of men from the 256th squadron — many of who are killed throughout the course of the book — and how their stories intersect with Yossarian’s. Yossarian, who chose to become an airman because he incorrectly believed the war would be over before he finished training, endures endless marches under the command of then-Lt. Scheisskopf, who is later promoted to general because he invented a new way of marching.

Once in Pianosa, Yossarian lived in a tent with Orr, a mechanically inclined pilot, who was shot down but miraculously survived many missions. Yossarian is a willing participant in his colleagues’ drunken and sexual escapades, which often turn violent. He falls in love with many of his sexual partners, most notably Luciana — a woman he meets while on leave in Rome and to whom he proposes but is rejected — and Nurse Duckett. He also joins volunteer mess officer Milo Minderbinder on his absurdly capitalist trips around the globe.

He receives a medal after bombing a bridge, despite making a grave error that leads to the death of one of his fellow airmen. All the while, more of his friends and acquaintances are killed, and he continues to make fruitless efforts to be relieved of duty. Yossarian struggles to stay sane as he becomes increasingly disturbed by the corruption and self-serving carelessness of his commanding officers and the absurdities and horrors of war.

While visiting a bombed and ruined Rome after his friend Nately’s death in an unsuccessful attempt to find and rescue the younger sister of Nately’s prostitute turned girlfriend (who, upon hearing of Nately’s death, attacks Yossarian and tries repeatedly to murder him), Yossarian realizes that Catch-22 doesn’t exist and never existed. But because everyone thinks it does, it is even more impossible to escape.

After flatly refusing to fly any more missions, Yossarian is offered the chance to return to the U.S. in exchange for public flattery of Col. Cathcart and his other commanding officers. Yossarian is then stabbed by Nately’s girlfriend and hospitalized. The plot flashes back to the death of Snowden, a member of Yossarian’s crew, who was fatally and gruesomely wounded on a bombing mission and who died after Yossarian attempted to offer first aid, before realizing the full extent of his injuries.

While trying to decide whether to be court martialed or accept the colonel’s odious deal, Yossarian learns that his tent-mate Orr is alive in Sweden. Despite the fact that it would almost be geographically impossible for him to travel from Pianosa to Sweden, Yossarian decides to desert with Nately’s knife-wielding girlfriend on his heels.

Christian Beliefs

At one time, Yossarian believed he had God on his side.

Prayer is described as an act that is at best ineffectual, at worst dangerous. Col. Cathcart, scheming to use an upbeat prayer that doesn’t mention God or religion as a means to get into The Saturday Evening Post, asks the chaplain if he could lead a short prayer for a tighter bomb pattern — a meaningless metric that doesn’t increase the efficacy of the mission but produces a better photograph.

However, he decides against holding prayer meetings when the chaplain replies that the atheists will have to be excused and the enlisted men be allowed to join, or God may choose to punish them with a looser bomb pattern.

When asked if prayer does any good, the chaplain says that it takes his mind off his troubles and gives him something to do. He feels guilty for praying for his friends’ safety after learning that a dozen men have perished. He thinks by praying for him, he inadvertently was praying for the deaths of men he never met. The squadron prays for rain.

While walking through Rome, which has been impoverished and destroyed by bombs, Yossarian is so overcome by the scope of violence and human misery that he feels he understands how Christ must have felt.

Maj. Major’s father is described as a devout, God-fearing, Calvinist farmer who does not farm alfalfa and who relies on government handouts while quoting Scripture and quasi-Christian truisms to others. But he is abusive to his family. Maj. Major keeps the Ten Commandments perfectly and is directly and indirectly rewarded with a life of shame, isolation, abuse and misery.

The chaplain is shunned because of his faith. Both the chaplain and Maj. Major lie and find sinning to be good. The chaplain questions his faith and ultimately decides to retain his belief, but only because of two events that he perceives as divinely mysterious but which the reader knows have purely natural origins. He often feels helpless to assist others and is unable to stand up for himself against his verbally abusive atheist assistant.

Belief in the Christian God is combined with loyalty to America and other sayings and conundrums, such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The chaplain believes in an Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God. The violent, immoral Gen. Dreedle wonders how the men will learn to believe in God if the chaplain doesn’t come to the officers’ club. The chaplain lives in a tent because the officers are OK with having a liaison with God but don’t want the Lord hanging around all day.

Appleby believes in God, motherhood and the American way of life despite never thinking about any of those things. When the airmen express that they believe bombing a particular village is cruel, Cathcart encourages them to bomb for God. Cathcart and Korn ask Yossarian if he is for or against them in a deliberate echo of Jesus’ statement. When Yossarian looks at the big picture, he doesn’t see heaven, saints or angels, just people profiting from other people’s tragedies.

Maj. de Coverly is described as having a “Jehovean” bearing. He is wounded when an old man, whom the narrator compares to Satan, throws a rose and hits him in the eye after kissing him on both cheeks. When the chaplain comes to Col. Cathcart with concerns about Yossarian’s well being, Cathcart says that Yossarian should trust in God.

The chaplain is an Anabaptist, but most of the soldiers call him “father.” Clevinger accuses Yossarian of having a Jehovah complex. Men debate whether heaven exists and whether there are atheists in foxholes.

Kraft is killed on the seventh day of a bombing mission — while God is reportedly “resting.”

Other Belief Systems

Atheism is a recurring motif throughout the novel. While spending Thanksgiving having sex in a hotel room, Yossarian and Col. Scheisskopf’s wife fall into an argument about what the God neither of them believes in is like. Among other things, Yossarian describes God as an immortal blunderer, a warped, evil, clumsy, uncouth, country bumpkin.

He wonders why a supposedly all-powerful God would create a world that includes tooth decay, incontinence and pain. Yossarian fantasizes about grabbing God by the neck and making Him pay for what he sees as the stupid mess God made of creation. Scheisskopf’s wife, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in a God who is good, just and merciful, and who, despite not existing, may still punish Yossarian for his views.

Yossarian’s belief in an immoral, incompetent, nonexistent God is echoed in the novel’s climax when Snowden literally spills his guts and reveals his secret — that man is matter and will fall or burn like any other material thing. Once their spirits have been extinguished, Yossarian believes that human beings are no different than garbage.

Dunbar says there is no God. When asked why he would want to live a long life that includes intervals of boredom and misery, he replies by asking if there is anything else. Yossarian tells Clevinger that his commanding officers hate Jews. When Clevinger replies that he’s not Jewish, Yossarian replies that it doesn’t matter. Milo is worshiped as a god in various cultures throughout the world.

A lecherous old man who lives in a brothel considers himself very moral, despite adhering to no principles or loyalties other than to what will best serve him in the moment.

Yossarian prays (but not necessarily to God) for safety, for bombs to fall, for one friend to be quiet, for another to stop voluntarily flying missions and for a woman to have sex with.

Authority Roles

The authority figures in this book are corrupt, incompetent, or — because of some personal or systemic flaw — virtuous but powerless to effect any meaningful action. The commanding officers scheme and threaten violence and their petty, perpetual rivalries take precedence over any leadership role or assistance they might be expected to offer their subordinates. They delegate as much work as possible to the lowest levels and marvel that the military machine can keep running smoothly while they do almost nothing.

Col. Cathcart and Col. Korn, upon learning of Kraft’s death and Yossarian’s error, decide to cover up the mistake by promoting Yossarian to captain and awarding him a medal. Cathcart is hopeful that men will die so he can send form letters of condolence to their families. This eventually backfires, when a clearly very alive Doc Daneeka is incorrectly reported as being aboard a downed plane and his wife is sent a form letter in error. Cathcart attempts to prove his own courage by volunteering his men for the most dangerous missions.

Doc Daneeka is a healthy hypochondriac who cares only about making a profit. He is unwilling to use any of his influence to help the men under his care, except once he briefly but bravely offers emergency medical assistance to the wounded. Everyone sent to the hospital for any reason is given a laxative and gets his gums and toes painted purple with gentian violet.

Incompetent doctors argue and consider making unnecessary incisions to resolve a bet made before doing a surgery on Yossarian. A psychiatrist assigned to Yossarian offers little in the way of treatment, preferring only to talk about himself. Dr. Stubbs wonders what the point of saving lives is, if everyone is going to die someday anyway.

Capt. Black spearheads a loyalty oath crusade where the men are required to sign unending loyalty oaths, sing multiple choruses of the Star Spangled Banner and pledge allegiance innumerable times before receiving food or doing any military service.

Maj. Danby tells Yossarian that Cathcart and Korn can make as many official reports as they like so they can use whichever ones they need. He also explains that it would be for the good of the country if Yossarian were imprisoned, even though he is innocent of the charges against him.

At Clevinger’s farce of a trial, the perversion of justice and authority is on full display. Scheisskopf is the prosecutor and the defending officer and a judge, and the members of the board that chair the trial bicker and threaten throughout. They find Clevinger guilty because if he were innocent he wouldn’t have been charged. They describe justice as sneaky and violent.

Clevinger realizes that even though his superior officers are technically on his side, there is no German soldier who could possibly hate him more than they do. This mockery of justice and due process is echoed near the end of the novel when the chaplain is interrogated for possessing a cherry tomato and other fabricated charges. When Aarfy rapes and murders a maid, he is treated with impunity by the authorities, while Yossarian is arrested for being on leave without papers.

Milo Minderbinder’s highest allegiance is to capitalism and profit. People on both sides of the war and around the world pay him to procure luxury foodstuffs for them. This appears to benefit everyone at first, but after Milo forms an international syndicate, he begins accepting bombing and reconnaissance missions from both the Allied and Axis powers. Most notably, he bombs his own squadron, wounding and killing many.

Outrage, quickly mollified by bribery, results in him continuing to operate with impunity, stealing emergency and first aid supplies, buying and selling from himself, seeking government assistance and making a bad deal to purchase Egyptian cotton that leads to him trying to convince the soldiers to eat chocolate covered cotton despite its obvious indigestibility.

Lt. Scheisskopf is described as a military genius because he develops a way for men to march without using their arms.

The chaplain feels helpless to help anyone. Gen. Peckem enjoys hearing himself talk about himself. Policemen are violent and corrupt. War is described as a force that liberates children from their parents. The military machine itself is riddled with pointless procedures, nonsensical decisions and little regard for human life.

Profanity & Violence

There are a handful of racial slurs including two uses of the n-word, half a dozen instances of b–ch and many of son of a b–ch. A–, h—, b–tard and various amalgamations of the word s—, not including the name of Lt. turned Col. turned Gen. Scheisskopf, which when literally translated means s—head, are used.

God’s name appears with the word d–n a lot, and d–n appears by itself quite a few times, also. The names of God, Christ and Jesus are taken in vain often. There are half a dozen uses of the devil in the context of profanity, a number of crude slang words for sexual activity and various body parts. Prostitutes are referred to as whores, and the f-word is used.

Violence against women, including sexual assault and rape, is a motif that recurs throughout the novel. Aarfy fondly remembers his fraternity kidnapping two underage girls and holding them captive while raping them repeatedly over the course of a number of hours, then physically assaulting them, stealing their belongings and throwing them out into the street. Later in the novel, Aarfy rapes a maid, holds her captive in a closet and then murders her by throwing her out a window. An unknown woman is presumably raped despite her inebriated protests.

Men are killed and wounded, including many of Yossarian’s friends and acquaintances. Their deaths are described in varying levels of detail. Two particularly vivid scenes include the deaths of Kid Sampson and McWatt and the death of Snowden. Kid Sampson is killed when he jumps up toward McWatt’s plane as it flies close to the ground and is shredded by the propeller. Only his legs remain intact and none of the men are willing to retrieve them, so they bloat and rot on the beach. McWatt, horrified by the accident, commits suicide by flying his plane into a mountain. Snowden dies in the rear of a plane after Yossarian dresses a gaping wound in his thigh only to realize that he has been wounded in the torso so badly that when Yossarian cuts open his flak suit all of Snowden’s organs spill out onto the plane floor. Yossarian is unable to do more than cover Snowden’s body with his parachute as he slowly dies, complaining of being cold. Dobbs accidentally flies his plane into Nately’s; both men are killed.

Men fight with fists and weapons, sustaining wounds that are sometimes serious enough to land them in the hospital. (Although in the satirical world of this novel, being in the hospital is not necessarily synonymous with injury or illness.) Yossarian occasionally fantasizes about, threatens or attempts to violently murder other soldiers — usually out of fear or annoyance — including Orr (for repairing a stove valve) and McWatt (for flying too low to the ground). However, when confronted with the very real opportunity to help Dobbs murder Col. Cathcart and thus possibly save his own life, Yossarian finds himself unable to participate or even lend his approval to the plan.

Milo bombs and strafes his own squadron with predictably horrific consequences for everyone on the ground, but none for him. When Doc Daneeka questions the morality of bombing, he is appeased by the bribe of a lawn chair. The chaplain experiences nightmares and intrusive thoughts about his wife and children dying in vivid and gruesome ways. In a bombed and ruined Rome, a young boy is brutally beaten while spectators look on. A dog is beaten with a stick. Yossarian walks on human teeth and pools of blood.

Nately’s prostitute turned girlfriend, upon hearing of Nately’s death, attacks Yossarian with a number of household objects and injures him. Despite impossible odds, she chases him around Europe with successively larger knives in a series of murderous attempts that are still ongoing at the novel’s end.

A rotting corpse washes up on the beach. Havermeyer shoots field mice for sport. A prostitute beats Orr with the heel of her shoe hard enough to give him a concussion. Doc Daneeka fondly reminisces about performing abortions for profit. Hungry Joe tries to shoot Huple’s cat for sleeping on his face after dreaming that Huple’s cat was sleeping on his face.

Hungry Joe eventually dies — suffocated in the night by Huple’s cat. Gen. Dreedle threatens to shoot people. Flume is so afraid of Chief White Halfoat’s threat to slit his throat that he abandons his tent and lives in the woods. Yossarian mentions slave traders, who disembowel and eat children.

Sexual Content

The novel begins by saying that Yossarian falls in love with the chaplain, but in fact the two enjoy a nonsexual friendship. In addition to consensual and purchased sexual activity that the men engage in on a regular basis, and which sometimes ends in violent confrontations, Yossarian and his fellow soldiers grope women without their permission and against their will.

Sexual acts, including intercourse, and female nudity are described in graphic, crude and gratuitous detail. Sex is purchased from prostitutes, and young girls are offered food and lodging in exchange for sex. Some of the sexual activity is consensual. Other sexual activity constitutes sexual assault.

In addition to the sexual content described above which occurs frequently and repeatedly throughout the novel, some of the more notable incidents include the following:

Yossarian has sex with a number of partners throughout the novel. He fantasizes about having a threesome with a countess and her daughter-in-law. He also fantasizes about a general’s sexual partner, moaning audibly during a briefing session. He falls in love with many of the women he has sex with and views this emotional connection negatively. After having sex with Luciana, a girl he meets in Rome, he proposes. She refuses him, insisting that no one would want to marry a woman who isn’t a virgin.

He gropes Nurse Duckett against her will and later has a consensual sexual relationship with her. During a sexual encounter with Lt. Scheisskopf’s wife, he bemoans that there are so many women in the world that he will never be able to have sex with.

Aarfy refuses to sleep with women he sees as nice girls and attempts to change their behavior. However, he fondly remembers kidnapping, raping and assaulting high school girls when he was a member of a college fraternity. He also rapes, kidnaps and then murders a maid without guilt or consequence. An unknown woman is presumably raped despite her inebriated protests.

Nately falls in love with a prostitute. She is indifferent to his affections until she gets a good night’s sleep. However, even after she begins to reciprocate his affection and is offered financial support by Nately, she refuses to wear clothes while around other men and continues to prostitute herself. Nately is disturbed by her liaisons with other men, especially those with Capt. Black, who deliberately seeks her out to torment Nately.

Her 12-year-old sister also aspires to be a prostitute, is often nude and deliberately interrupts their sexual encounters on a number of occasions. Nately wants the three of them to become a respectable family and tries to get his colleagues to get married and settle down. However, he is killed in action before his dream can become a reality. Yossarian tries but is unable to locate Nately’s prostitute’s younger sister and tries but is unable to avoid Nately’s prostitute, as she makes many attempts on his life after he informs her of Nately’s death.

Milo makes an ongoing joke about underage prostitutes. A police commissioner wrongly assumes that Yossarian is seeking to rape young girls and suggests a place where he might find some. A maid with lime green panties is described as virtuous because she will have sex with anyone without even hesitating long enough to put down her mop or broom.

Men swim naked. Yossarian, after deciding that he no longer wants to wear a uniform, wears nothing at all. Lust and sexual desire are described as being in heat. Hungry Joe is continually trying to take lewd photos of women against their will, but none of the photos ever turn out.

Doc Daneeka shows a young married couple how to have intercourse using rubber anatomical models. Maj. Major is so virtuous that the communists think he is a homosexual, and the homosexuals think he’s a communist. References to BDSM sexual practices are made.

Discussion Topics


Additional Comments

Content: The problematic content in Catch-22 is extensive; this review only addresses a portion of it.

Dishonest behavior: McWatt fudges the flying records for Doc Daneeka, leading to him being declared dead when he is still very much alive. Generals and colonels act proud of things they should be ashamed of. There is an instance of nepotism, and Doc Daneeka encourages his patients to pay in cash so he can avoid paying taxes.

Drug/alcohol abuse: Soldiers smoke cigarettes. Characters abuse alcohol. Some become so drunk they vomit and pass out. Chief White Halfoat crashes a stolen car while drunk driving.

Satire: Throughout the novel, the narrator describes characters and plot points in an exaggerated, satirical manner. While some events, such as the death of Snowden, are plausible and told in graphic and gory detail, others, such as Milo’s impossibly complex global syndicate or Nately’s prostitute turned girlfriend’s murderous attempts, are impossibly nonsensical. Sometimes the absurdity lends itself to humor. At other times hyperbole is used to highlight more serious themes.

Literary significance: Catch-22 is considered to be one of the most significant American novels of the 1900s.

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