Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Original Title: Catch-18
Written by: Joseph Heller
Central Theme: The absurdity of life
Synopsis: The misadventures of a reluctant soldier during the World War II
Genre(s): Black Comedy (the seminal example), Satire, War story
First published: November 10, 1961
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"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own 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 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."

Catch-22 is a 1961 novel, a famous anti-war satire by Joseph Heller, later made into a film. It focuses on Yossarian, a USAAF bombardier on the Italian Front during WWII, who would very much like to not be on the Italian Front during World War II. It is considered one of the greatest books of the Twentieth Century and at the same time is often gut-bustingly funny. Classics can be fun to read; who knew?

Plot mostly consists of an assortment of random events on base, shifting focus across several characters, but mostly focusing on the main hero Yossarian. Most events highlight the absurdities of life, especially government and war. Many details that seem random become significant later on, often with much darker implications.

This novel originated the expression "catch-22" to describe "a no-win situation" or "a double bind" of any type. The number 22 itself has no actual significance and seems to have been chosen arbitrarily. The original title was Catch-18, and that didn't have any significance either. It was changed so as to avoid confusion with Mila 18, which was published shortly beforehand.

A 1970 film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols and featuring an All-Star Cast, was a commercial and critical flop. There was also a TV pilot made with Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian, but it was never bought. A sequel, Closing Time, was written by Heller and published in 1994. It flopped as well.

Tropes used in Catch-22 include:
  • Absurdism: One of the best-known examples of an absurdist novel.
  • The Ace: Appleby, who always does what he is supposed to and always succeeds at what he does, causing everyone to not like him.
  • Affably Evil:
    • Milo Minderbinder, a ruthless profiteer, but one who does attempt to protect Yossarian from the very bureaucracy that he feeds, by aiding his mission to rescue Nately's prostitute's young sister - only to depart abruptly upon hearing of yet another new business opportunity.
    • Aarfy, a rotund, absentminded, childishly-naive college boy, who has a strong sense of principles, is nostalgic about his fraternity days, and constantly smokes his pipe. He's also a sociopathic social climber, a serial rapist, and a murderer. At one point, he even goes so far as fondly recounting the kidnapping, gangrape, and robbing of two high school girls by him and his frat brothers to Nately. He seems to sincerely believe that Nately will respect this.
  • Almighty Janitor: Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. He's just a mail clerk, but he can throw away any order he doesn't like, making him the most powerful man in the Air Force.
  • Also Sprach Zarathustra: Played in the movie when Luciana is introduced.
  • Anachronic Order
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Arc Words:

"Help him, help the bombardier!"
"...I'M the bombardier!"
"Then help HIM, help HIM!"

  • Armor-Piercing Question: Yossarian brings a meeting to a crashing halt with what seems to be a prank question, "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that this is THE key question of the book.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Clevinger is tried for "breaking ranks while in formation, felonious assault, indiscriminate behavior, high treason, provoking, being a smart guy, listening to classical music, and so on."
  • Ax Crazy: Nately's whore.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Lieutenant Scheisskopf = Lieutenant Shithead auf Deutsch.

"I don't know anything about plays," Colonel Scheisskopf broke in bluntly.
General Peckem looked at him with amazement. Never before had a reference of his to Shakespeare's hallowed Hamlet been ignored and trampled upon with such rude indifference. He began to wonder with genuine concern just what sort of shithead the Pentagon had foisted on him.

  • Black Comedy: The seminal work of the genre -- in fact, the phrase was allegedly coined to describe Catch-22.
  • Blessed with Suck: Chief White Halfoat's family only settles over oil deposits. The suck part is that the oil companies figured this out and kept booting them off whatever land they stopped on.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Milo. He'd probably be one of the novel's more reprehensible characters if you could define him by human morality at all.
  • Captain Crash: Orr, deliberately.
  • Catch Phrase:
    • McWatt's is "Oh well, what the hell."
    • Milo's has, "What's good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country!" and "...and everybody has a share."
    • Aarfy: "Old Aarfy has never paid for it", in reference to sex/prostitution. See Chekhov's Gun below.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: Done intentionally.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: After Yossarian tells Nately's Whore about Nately's death, she keeps showing up out of nowhere and trying to kill him, including in the very last line of the book.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Just about everything seemingly random actually comes back as a running joke, or with a deeper or darker meaning.
    • Orr's constant crashing of his planes and unexplained battering at the hands of his prostitute turn out to have been instruments in his plot to escape to neutral Sweden; in the final chapter, Yossarian learns that previous oblique encounters between the two were attempts by Orr to recruit Yossarian to join him.
    • Aarfy's insistence that he never has and never will pay for sex appears again in a much darker way towards the end, when he rapes and kills the innocent deaf maid Michaela despite the profusion of prostitutes in the city.
    • Chaplain Shipman (Tappman in the movie and subsequent American editions of the book) has a plum tomato pushed upon him by Colonel Cathcart; later, this becomes the bulk of the case presented against him by the military police, another example of the novel's major theme of bureacratic madness.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Catch-22 itself seems to operate on this: "Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse..."
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Lots of it in the final chapters.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Milo Minderbinder, though he's more amorally True Neutral than outright evil, since he is solely driven by profit and not morality. That said, morality becomes a casualty of the profit motive, most notably when Milo begins to organise attacks for the benefit of the Germans, whose ultimate absurd conclusion is the bombing of his own base)
  • Crapsack World: Obvious by the end of the book.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Orr is one.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right. The major reveal at the end.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Yossarian has a medical condition which keeps him just sick enough to get out of duty, but not sick enough to be sent home (another Catch-22).
  • Dada Horror: The novel and its various "Catch-22" situations become less and less funny as the narrative progresses, culminating with Arfy raping and murdering a girl through applying "Catch-22" logic to his sexual approach.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Nately's whore.
  • Determinator: Nately's whore, after learning of Nately's death from Yossarian, starts hunting him up and down Italy.
    • She even chases him back at the base a couple times too.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: "'I yearn for you tragically. A.T. Tappman, Chaplain, U.S. Army.' A.T. Tappman was the group chaplain's name."
  • Dissonant Serenity: Aarfy; also see Chekhov's Gun above.
  • Draft Dodging
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Many characters die without much fanfare.
  • Dueling Movies: The adaptation was released in the same year as |M*A*S*H.
  • Eagle Land: Nately firmly believes in Eagleland type 1, and argues with the Old Man over it.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Towards the end, when Yossarian names all his friends that died during the last hundred pages. Especially impactful since it happened so gradually that readers aren't supposed to notice until this point.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Many characters are known only by a short phrase describing them, such as: Nately's whore, Nately's whore's kid sister, Nately's whore's pimp, the Texan, the Soldier in White, the Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice, the C.I.D. Men, the Maid in the Lime-Colored Panties, and Dreedle's Girl.
  • Fatal Flaw: Everyone has one. Cathcart's hunger for fame, Aarfy's crippling fear of "paying for it", and so on. Milo's is most noticeable: his greed has consumed him to the point he is physically unable to pass up a chance at money.
  • Fatal Method Acting: The film's second unit director fell off a plane during the shoot.
  • Gambit Pileup: Peckem, Dreedle, Cathcart, and Korn.
  • General Failure: Everyone in charge, to the point that Yossarian realizes in the end that if he were to desert, no one could stop him. So he does.
  • Half the Man He Used To Be: Kid Sampson.
  • Happily Married: The Chaplain
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Thanks to an All-Star Cast, the movie has this
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Doc Daneeka spends the entire book complaining that he was drafted just as his medical practice was becoming profitable. The reason it became profitable, naturally, is because every other doctor in Staten Island was drafted.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Played straight by Corporal Whitcomb and Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife, but averted by Yossarian, Nurse Duckett, and (near the end) even the Chaplain.
  • Hope Spot: Dobbs' plans to murder Cathcart. As soon as Yossarian is willing to cooperate with him, his plane crashes into Nately's and they both die overseas.
  • Ho Yay: Most notably the first two lines of the novel: "It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him."
  • Hypocritical Humor: "Racial prejudice is a terrible thing, Yossarian. It really is. It's a terrible thing to treat a decent, loyal Indian like a nigger, kike, wop or spic."-Chief White Halfoat
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Snowden.
  • Implacable Man: Major ---- de Coverley.
  • In Medias Res
  • Insane Troll Logic: Intentional, and Catch-22's trademark brand of humor so much that a logical paradox was named after it (the catch-22, of course).
  • Jerkass: Captain Black, General Dreedle, Corporal Whitcomb.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: Much of the narrative is in Anachronic Order, and brief mentions of events elaborated upon later in the book (that don't make any sense at the time) appear constantly.
  • Kangaroo Court: Clevinger's trial at the hands of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who was his prosecutor, defender and one of the judges. And Clevinger was only put on trial because Lieutenant Scheisskopf thought he was being a wise guy.
  • Karma Houdini: Milo Minderbinder, who ends up a fabulously rich businessman. Also Aarfy, who ends up literally getting away with murder.
  • Last-Name Basis: You can read the entire book and miss Yossarian's first name. Indeed, you might think Yossarian is his first name, it's John.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: All well-defined, and most with chapters named after them (although the proportion of each chapter that is devoted to its titular character varies). Scheisskopf, and Magnificent Bastard Milo Minderbinder are the only characters who get more than one chapter titled after themselves.
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Probably every character with the exception of the Chaplain, who wasn't a virgin either (he was happily married, so was the only one who didn't fool around).
  • Meaningful Name: More than a few. Lieutenant Scheisskopf's name means "Shithead" in German, and he fits the bill. Snowden is remembered for complaining of being cold. Orr is eventually revealed to have the clearest "vision" of anyone on base. Yossarian's exotic name indicates his status as an outsider (and is almost an anagram of "Assyrian", his nationality according to other characters).
  • Mood Whiplash: A whole lot, but a prominent example is when Kid Sampson and McWatt die, one gruesomely. When everyone thinks Doc Daneeka is dead too, it gets funny again in just about two paragraphs.
    • Given how darkly funny the rest of the book is, the dark and extremely unfunny chapter "The Eternal City" is a kicker.
  • Morton's Fork: The Catch-22 order is probably the most famous modern example.
  • My Friends and Zoidberg: The hospital ward where Yossarian stays at the start of the novel slowly empties out as everyone decides to stop faking their illnesses and leave. "All except the C.I.D. Man, who caught a cold from the captain and came down with pneumonia."
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Aarfy.
  • Noodle Incident: Because chapters are non-chronological, for most of the book, several major events remain noodle incidents, such as the Great Big Siege of Bologna, the Loyalty Oath Crusade, and the Avignon mission. They are eventually described, though.
    • The last and most important being Snowden's death, described in the second-to-last chapter.
    • The thing Orr did to make a whore hit him repeatedly with her shoe is presented as this, complete with numerous Unreveals. Subverted when Yossarian finally works it out in the last few pages. "Because he was paying her to, that's why!" He was trying to get hurt badly enough to stay out of combat; when it didn't work, he faked his last crash and made his way to Sweden.
  • No Name Given: Major ---- de Coverley, whose face is so forbidding no one dares ask his first name.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Most of the higher-ups in the Air Force, such as General Peckam and Colonel Cathcart. Ex-P.F.C Wintergreen is a particularly extreme example -- despite being a lowly mail clerk, he has become one of the most powerful men in the military because whenever he doesn't like an order someone sends, he just throws it away. Wintergeen claims he was about to cancel the Normandy Invasion until Eisenhower committed more armor.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: The titular Catch-22 keeps this from being a workable solution for Yossarian.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Orr. Oh yes.
  • Only Sane Man: Yossarian, but in a strange way: it's because he realizes that everyone (himself included) is crazy. It turns out that Orr shares Yossarian's desire to escape the military. He was just smart enough to figure out a way much faster. Subverted by McWatt, who is described as "the craziest combat man of them all, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war."
  • Overt Operative: "The men knew he was a C.I.D. man because he confided to them he was and urged each of them not to reveal his true identity to any of the other men to whom he had already confided that he was a C.I.D. man."
  • Patriotic Fervor: Captain Black forces this on his men. At first he makes them sign loyalty oaths. Then, multiple loyalty oaths. He himself, had someone sign hundreds on his behalf to show how he was more loyal than everyone else. He also forced his men to frequently pledge allegiance and sing 'The Star Spangled Banner'
  • Pet the Dog: Yossarian's attempts at finding Nately's Whore's Kid Sister after Rome is bombed, the Chaplain's attempts to get Colonel Cathcart to stop raising the number of missions, and in hindsight everything Orr does.
  • Posthumous Character: The dead man in Yossarian's tent.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Nately's whore is something of an ex-girlfriend, especially after Nately dies.
  • Punny Name: Colonel Korn
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Yossarian.
  • Real Joke Name/Repetitive Name: Major Major Major Major. Not even he had known he was named that until he enrolled in kindergarten. The news kills his mother.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: The two CID men investigating Washington Irving are totally in the dark about each other's identities, and their investigations are hampered by their attempts to catch each other.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Doc Daneeka. But no one will correct the official records.
  • Scar Survey: a subversion of the typical "badass soldier revealing his past" - Yossarian asks Luciana about the scars on her back. She tells him that she got them as a bystander in an American air raid.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying
  • Significant Anagram: Perhaps, as the surname Yossarian can be formed by rearranging his purported nationality Assyrian and adding the letter o.
  • Smug Snake: Peckem and Korn.
  • Snowball Lie: The 'Washington Irving' pseudonym.
    • Are you sure it wasn't 'Irving Washington'?
    • Or 'John Milton'?
    • Or 'Milton John'?
  • Some Of My Best Friends Are Enlisted Men: Cathcart says this to the Chaplain when stating that he wants to keep enlisted men out of the prayers.
    • The best part is when Cathcart tells the Chaplain, "After all, you wouldn't want your sister to marry one", and the Chaplin replies his sister is an enlisted man, a Sergeant in the Women's Army Corps (WAC).
  • Soldiers at the Rear: Ex-PFC Wintergreen always manages to avoid being sent into combat by manipulating the discipline system. Many of the other characters would do the same if they thought they could pull it off.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: Major ---- de Coverley
  • Step Three: Profit: this is deconstructed, as Milo Minderbinder's step one is to buys up an entire crop of Egyptian cotton. Then he spends several chapters trying to figure out step two: how to profit from it, including an attempt to coat the cotton in chocolate and trying to sell it as food.
    • This is also how everyone views the fact that he buys eggs for more then he sells them for but still makes a profit. He later lets Yossarian in on the secret, he's buying and selling the eggs from himself at that point, through front companies, so it doesn't matter what the prices are at that point. This keeps the competitors out of the business, as they don't see any profit in it.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: Nately's whore.
  • Take a Third Option: The ending, with Yossarian finally beating a Catch-22 by deserting.
  • Television Geography: A deliberate case; Pianosa is too small for a major military complex and has no permanent residents -- it is actually home to a maximum-security prison. The author tells you right up front that it is fictional.
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance: Major Major Major Major looks like Henry Fonda. Some characters even think he is Henry Fonda.
    • Heller claimed to have written this with a movie adaptation in mind -- he wanted Major Major to be played either by Henry Fonda or someone who looked absolutely nothing like Henry Fonda. The movie eventually went the latter route.
  • Those Two Actors: For the movie, just try watching scenes between Colonel Cathcart and Chaplain Tappmann without thinking of another film Martin Balsam and Anthony Perkins did ten years before
  • Those Two Guys: Gus and Wes, the medical men under Doc Daneeka.
  • Twist Ending
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Ficky-fick"
  • Vetinari Job Security: Milo can't be forced to go on missions like the others, because his nigh-indispensable trading empire is too complex for anyone but him to run.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Considering how loved Milo is in so many countries, and his amoral behavior could place him as a villain, he fits this.
  • Wham! Line: Many of the book's most important twists are described within the constraints of a sentence.
  • Yandere: Nately's whore.