Joseph Heller Catch-22 The phrase “catch-22” describes a contradictory, “no-win” situation and offers a critique of bureaucracy



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Joseph Heller
Catch-22


The phrase “catch-22” describes a contradictory, “no-win” situation and offers a critique of bureaucracy
The only freedom we have is the freedom to say no.”
Why is he important?

  • His novel, Catch-22, is considered to be the best post World War II satirical novel;

  • Exemplifies an American version of absurdism, which is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to humanity.

  • His protagonist, Yossarian, is an example of a modern American anti-hero, who rejects traditional values of Modernism (specifically, a faith in rationality).

    • Yossarian is an anti-hero because his primary goal is self-preservation in a world where men are asked to risk their lives again and again for reasons that are unimportant. In a world where life is so undervalued, there is heroism in self-preservation


The Novel Itself

  • Set in World War II and events in the book are described from different points of view and out of sequence

    • Catch 22: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 not 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 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” [Yossarian] observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneka agreed.



  1. Themes: the absurdity of living by the rules of others. Rules left unchecked will take on a life of their own forming a bureaucracy in which important things are trivialized and trivial matters are important. The only way to survive such an insane system is to be insane oneself.

  2. Relies on humor to convey the insanity of war

  3. The novel upholds the value of the individual in the face of the impersonal, collective military mass

  4. The folly of patriotism and honor, which leads most of the airmen to accept Catch-22 and the lies of the bureaucrats



  1. The Vietnam War made Catch-22 an antiwar classic. How was the Vietnam War a “catch-22” situation?

  2. Some critics have said that Yossarian is one of the first characters in modern American literature to fight against a powerful system. Imagine yourself in his position. Would you make the same choices he did? Why or why not? Does it make sense to fight powerful systems like the military? Can you think of any causes that might be worth fighting for?

  3. According to Heller, “The only freedom we really have is the free to say no.” Explain what you think he means by this statement; then debate its philosophical merits. Do you agree or disagree with him? Support your opinion with examples from historical and personal experience. For example, how does the above statement compare with the “just say no” catchphrase from the war against drugs?

  4. Analyze the impact of Heller’s choice of a satiric writing style on his novel. Would the book have been as effective if it had been written in a more serious manner? How might readers’ responses to the novel have been different? Would the book have the same meaning if the style were different?

  5. Would Catch-22 have been as popular if it had been published during World War II, rather than almost two decades after it ended? How might readers’ reactions to it have differed? Would it still have become a classic of American literature? Discuss how the time in which a book is published might or might not affect its success.

  6. Catch-22 is strongly critical of many societal institutions, including medicine, business, religion, government, and the military. Are Heller’s criticisms still valid? How do your experiences with large societal institutions—such as the public school system, your church, your community—compare with those in Catch—22?

Have students critique the rules and regulations of the societal institutions that touch their lives. Begin by brainstorming a list of the institutions or systems that have an impact on them—school, work, family, church, community—and then think about the documents that outline the institutions’ or systems’ rules for functioning. Review the rules and evaluate them for fairness and logic. Discuss why the institutions in their lives have or don’t have the type of illogical and unjust rules that the soldiers in Catch-22 must live with.


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