Catch-22 is a bitterly satirical anti-war novel by Joseph Heller (1961).
It deals with American bombardier John Yossarian. Yossarian is stationed on the Italian island of Pianosa during World War II. He attempts to get out of flying more combat missions by pretending to be crazy. The problem is, only a sane man would want to get out of combat; therefore, Yossarian cannot be considered crazy.
The novel is notable for its staggered chronology, and the fact that each chapter is named after and follows one of the large cast of characters. Heller uses the staggered chronology to slowly reveal more background to Yossarian's antics which, while seeming silly or insane at first, end up evoking horror.
In the beginning, Yossarian is in the hospital faking a liver disease. He is so irritated by a narrow-minded Texan that he soon returns to his quarters. His tent mate, Orr, uses outstanding mechanical talents to improve the living conditions. In a flashback, at Ferrara, Yossarian is an inexperienced bombardier hoping to succeed in his mission so it will not be repeated. Having failed to release his bombs on the first run, Yossarian decides to take a second pass. He succeeds, but a young pilot named Kraft is killed. Although Yossarian is promoted to captain and awarded a medal, the death haunts him. When the squadron eventually must bomb Bologna a second time, Orr is shot down and presumed lost at sea. On the mission over Avignon, Yossarian’s plane is badly damaged and a gunner named Snowden is severely wounded. The squadron’s mess officer is an entrepreneurial whiz named Milo Minderbinder, who uses squadron funds to purchase black-market products, and builds an enormous syndicate. He eventually contracts with both sides of the war and goes so far as to arrange an air raid on his own base for profit. One day, while flying his plane low over the beach, McWatt accidentally slices Kid Sampson in two. Nately insists on flying extra missions so that he can stay near the prostitute he loves, and is killed the next time out. When Yossarian reports the tragedy to her in Rome, she attacks him repeatedly, even after he returns to Pianosa. Yossarian decides to no longer fly missions and Colonels Cathcart and Korn call him in and say that he can return home if only he will speak well of the commanding officers and abandon the men of the squadron. Yossarian agrees and is again assaulted by Nately's Whore when he steps outside. In the hospital, Yossarian decides to go back on the agreement and plans to rescue Nately’s Whore’s kid sister from the streets of Rome and flee to Sweden where Orr has turned up after cleverly using his plane crash as a way to escape. Yossarian hopes to find himself by losing himself, to seek a separate peace, to run toward life by escaping the madness of war.
Heller wrote a sequel entitled Closing Time, published in 1994.
Catch-22 was made into a film of the same name, which was released in 1970.
As an expression
The term "Catch-22" has entered popular language to mean an unwinnable situation. More specifically, a catch-22 is a situation in which a desirable outcome has two conditions precedent, one of which rules out the other, so that the desirable outcome can never be attained. A catch-22 is thus similar, but not identical, to a deadlock, in which two or more events are conditions precedent to one another. A catch-22 also loosely resembles a Morton's fork, which is also an unwinnable situation, although the two situations are unwinnable for different reasons.
The differences are as follows:
- If and only if P and Q, then R (R being the desired outcome).
- If P, then not Q.
- Therefore, not R.
- If not P previously, then not Q.
- If not Q previously, then not P.
- Therefore, neither P nor Q.
- Morton's fork:
- If P, then Q (Q being an undesirable outcome).
- If not P, then (somehow) also Q.
- Therefore, Q.
- Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.
- Falstein, Louis. Face of a Hero, 1950. The book is very similar to Catch-22.