62 pages 2 hours read

Joseph Heller


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1961

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Summary and Study Guide


Catch-22 is a 1961 satirical novel by Joseph Heller, whose experiences in the US Air Force during World War II inspired the narrative. The novel is set during World War II and portrays the absurd experiences of a group of Army pilots stationed in Italy. In addition to being hailed as one of the most seminal novels of the 20th century, Catch-22 has become an idiomatic expression for a certain kind of conundrum, a paradoxical dilemma for which there is no solution or escape due to the dilemma’s inherent contradictions. The paradox, in the novel, is a central conflict: The protagonist, a B-25 bombardier, wants to feign psychiatric delusions so that his officers will ground him from perilous flying assignments—but his desire to avoid combat allegedly proves his rationality, thus confounding his malingering and keeping him on assignments. The novel has been adapted for film, television, and theater. In 1994, Heller published the sequel, Closing Time.

Be advised that Catch-22 depicts graphic violence, sexual assault, and substance use. This guide uses the 2011 Simon & Schuster eBook edition.

Plot Summary

Yossarian is a captain in the United States Army Air Force. He is stationed on Pianosa, an island near the Italian coast, during the late stages of World War II. Yossarian’s goal is to fly as few combat missions as possible, but his life—and the lives of everyone on the base—are defined by the administrative and bureaucratic absurdities that confuse the men and threaten their lives. The superior officers frequently send the men on dangerous but seemingly inconsequential missions. As the pilots are permitted to return home to the United States after completing a certain number of combat flights, Yossarian carefully counts each and every flight. However, the commanding officers raise the flight quota whenever anyone nears completing their tour of duty. As a result, no men can return home. Yossarian finds himself caught amid the chaos and violence, his only goal being to survive.

The narrative is nonlinear, jumping back and forth through time and occasionally describing the same events from different perspectives to gradually supply completing details. These temporal shifts, however, are tacit, leaving the reader to independently piece together a chronological timeline. This study guide explicitly denotes the major shifts.

While the plot’s events span 1942-1944, the novel opens in 1944 with Yossarian in a hospital; he’s invented a problem with his liver to avoid flying missions. Tappman, the Army chaplain, visits Yossarian in the hospital. Unlike most of the officers, Yossarian is not hostile or rude toward Tappman. Other characters in the novel include Orr, who shares a tent with Yossarian and is famously able to crash land his damaged aircraft; McWatt, a talented pilot who causes trouble by flying low and close to the camp; Nately, a young officer who comes from a wealthy background and falls in (unrequited) love with an Italian sex worker; and Clevinger, a highly educated pilot who later vanishes together with his plane.

Yossarian talks to one of the camp medics about finagling a diagnosis of a mental health condition to exempt him from flying missions; Yossarian wants to be declared “crazy” so that he can safely stay on the base. Doc Daneeka explains that this is not possible due to one of the military’s inherently paradoxical stipulations: Any rational man would ask not to fly missions, so anyone trying to evade missions is therefore not “crazy.” The only people who are truly “crazy” are those who willingly fly missions. Daneeka refers to this paradox as a “Catch-22.” When Yossarian complains about the constantly rising number of completed missions needed to return home, his superior Colonel Cathcart doesn’t care. Cathcart and his intelligent assistant Korn are interested only in medals and promotions for themselves. Meanwhile, their superior officers have their own self-interested motivations, such as dalliances or arbitrary aesthetic preferences for tight bombing patterns.

The narrative jumps back in time two months to when Yossarian and the other pilots are given a mission to fly to Bologna, north of their base near Rome. Yossarian nearly dies during the mission when his plane is struck by enemy fire. After returning to the base, Yossarian sneaks away to Rome. He meets a woman named Luciana in the Italian capitol and spends the night with her. When he returns to the base, he learns the mission quota has increased again, and he immediately leaves for the hospital with his fabricated liver problem; the narrative has returned to the same chronological point at which the novel began.

From this point forward, the narrative jumps around somewhat erratically, but soon after Yossarian visits this hospital, life on the base becomes darker and more ominous. Deaths become more frequent, and some pilots simply vanish and never return. Not all these disappearances are due to enemy activity. Yossarian knows a man named Dunbar whom American generals target because he complains about the frequency of the dangerous but purposeless missions. Dunbar is deliberately “disappeared” during one mission by the commanding officers, and he is never mentioned again.

Other pilots also encounter issues. Yossarian’s tentmate Orr crash lands another damaged plane, and he disappears after floating out to sea on a safety raft. When the mischievous pilot McWatt flies low over the camp in another of his pranks, he accidentally kills another man named Kid Sampson. Feeling guilty, McWatt kills himself by deliberately crashing into a mountain. The wealthy young officer Nately finally wins the love of the Italian sex worker whom he adores—only to die on his next mission. Because this sex worker blames Yossarian when he informs her of Nately’s death, she tries to stab him each time she sees him. Milo Minderbinder is a mess hall officer who runs a secret black-market operation on the base. He claims to share his illicit profits, and people praise him for delivering food to needy victims of the war, though he makes great personal profit and never intends to share the proceeds of his elaborate operation.

Chaplain Tappman builds on Yossarian’s campaign to actually allow the pilots to return to the United States when they have completed the requisite number of missions. However, his efforts are ignored or rejected by Colonel Cathcart and the others in charge of the military. The chaplain becomes the focus of an official investigation into forged letters, which bear the name Washington Irving; though no one knows this, Washington Irving is an invention of Yossarian, who forged the name on envelopes when he was bored and sorting mail. The innocent Tappman is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. While in custody, the chaplain undergoes a crisis of faith, but he emerges with his faith intact—renewed—and, once he is released, uses it to continue Yossarian’s campaign. After Nately’s death, Yossarian slowly comes to believe that his superior officers’ behavior is no longer a bureaucratic absurdity; after so much pain and death, he is convinced that the military is immoral. With the war almost over, he does not believe the men should be placed in such unnecessary perils when they should already be at home. He refuses to fly missions. He has flashbacks to a traumatic mission on which a young man named Snowden died in his arms.

Yossarian visits a devastated Rome, exploring the ruined city. He witnesses violence, rape, and murder. He is arrested for being in the city without the correct paperwork, and he is taken back to the base, where he tells the officers that he will no longer accept their assignments. Colonel Cathcart and Korn tell him that he can either be court martialed or be sent home; however, he can only be sent home if he pretends to be friendly toward his commanding officers. Yossarian talks to the chaplain, who suggests that accepting the deal would not be morally correct while the other men are still forced to fly.

Yossarian searches for a different way to escape his predicament. He thinks about deserting the Army and escaping to neutral Sweden; he heard a rumor that Orr may have survived and washed up on the Swedish shore. Believing that his friend escaped, Yossarian plans to join Orr. Once in Sweden, Yossarian can wait for the end of the war. The story ends with Yossarian running toward the exit, determined to put his plan into action. He is attacked by the sex worker again.