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Catch-22 | Study Guide

Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Chapter 1 of Catch-22, why is the main character introduced in an unconventional way, and how does the nonlinear narrative represent war?

The main character in Catch-22 is Captain Yossarian, whose first name is not provided in Chapter 1. The narrative in this chapter does not make it immediately clear what Yossarian's role in the novel will be. In fact, Chapter 1 does not introduce the plot in any kind of conventional way. The opening two sentences seem to indicate that the book's protagonist will be the chaplain, who doesn't appear until the last half of the chapter. Other characters enter the narrative without any backstory, as if the reader already knows who they are. To make things even more complicated, much of the dialogue makes no sense, and some of the "action" is referred to without being described. All of this is according to the author's plan. Catch-22 is not told in a linear or chronological fashion. The narrative takes place over three time periods and often shifts without warning. To a certain degree, the readers are expected to keep track of details and forge their own path toward making sense of the story. In another way, the nonlinear narrative represents the nonsensical world of the novel and of war. Without order, there is chaos. This narrative style is indicative of postmodern literature.

In Chapter 2 of Catch-22, why are so many characters described as being crazy?

Yossarian believes that he is the only sane person in the world he inhabits, which is a world defined by war. By his own reasoning, anyone who calls Yossarian crazy is actually crazy himself. Yossarian thinks he's the only person who understands that someone is always hatching a plot to kill him. Because total strangers want him dead and are in fact actively trying to kill him—and because his superiors continually put him in mortal danger—it could be argued that Yossarian is correct in his thinking. In a sense, however, the people around him are also sane, even if they believe the war makes sense. The reader is not expected to think that any of the characters are actually mentally ill. In Catch-22 what's really insane is the whole concept of war.

In Catch-22, why is Chapter 3 called "Havermeyer" when Havermeyer plays only a tiny part in the chapter?

Almost every chapter in Catch-22 is named for a character in the book. Even so, almost every chapter mainly deals with someone or something other than the character mentioned in its title. All the reader learns about Havermeyer in Chapter 3 is that he is a lead bombardier who never misses his target but who endangers everyone who flies with him because he refuses to take evasive action after bombing raids. As a bombardier, Yossarian is seen as Havermeyer's opposite. Although Havermeyer does not play a starring role in Chapter 3, he personifies the way war destroys the souls of its participants. The chapter ends with a disturbing description of Havermeyer's nightly attacks on field mice with his huge .45 gun and the pleasure this activity gives him. The traits that make him a model bombardier have turned him into a sadist.

In Chapter 4 of Catch-22, how does Dunbar use his obsession with death to develop a technique for living as long as possible?

Dunbar is a friend of Yossarian's from another squadron. Like Yossarian, he is obsessed with death. His method of dealing with that dread is to live as boringly as possible so that time will appear to pass very slowly. For instance, he loves skeet shooting because he actually hates it—which makes skeet shooting seem endless. "You're inches away from death every time you go on a mission," Dunbar says. "How the hell else are you ever going to slow time down?" When Clevinger wonders why anyone would want a seemingly endless life that's filled with unpleasant conditions, Dunbar asks, "What else is there?" He is another tragic example of what war does to a person's psyche.

In Chapter 5 of Catch-22, how is a catch-22 described?

The term catch-22 is used to describe a conflict in which the only solution is the one thing that prevents the solution; thus, there is no good result. An example: you can't get a job without experience, but you need a job to get experience. In the novel the essential catch-22 is this: if Yossarian can prove he's crazy, he'll get to go home, but because any sane soldier would want to go home, there is no way Yossarian can prove he's crazy. Throughout the book the term catch-22 is sometimes used more expansively to refer to an unexpected loophole, an inconsistency, or a cruel action by superior officers.

In Chapter 5 of Catch-22, what does Yossarian consider the "single fault" in a B-25 plane? Why does it bother him?

For Yossarian the only thing wrong with a B-25 bomber is its tight crawlway—the "narrow, square, cold tunnel" separating the bombardier's compartment in the nose of the plane from the nearest escape hatch. There's no escape hatch in the bombardier's compartment, so if he ever needs to parachute out of the plane, Yossarian has no choice but to squeeze through the crawlway. He dreads getting stuck or being trapped behind someone else who's stuck. This pairs one fear with another: the fear of having to jump out of a plane that is about to crash and the feeling of not knowing if he will be able to make it out in time.

In Chapter 6 of Catch-22, Hungry Joe is described as the biggest hero in the air force. Why then does Hungry Joe have screaming nightmares?

Hungry Joe is the biggest hero in the air force because he's flown more combat missions than any other pilot. Every time he thinks he's flown enough missions to be sent home, Colonel Cathcart raises the number of required missions. Hungry Joe finally cracks under the strain of waiting for the orders that would send him home. He screams in his sleep whenever he isn't flying combat missions. When he returns to combat duty, he stops having nightmares. Hungry Joe needs to be fighting in order to avoid the nightmares. In essence, he is having to experience the horrors of war to escape the horrors in his mind.

What does Milo's first transaction in Chapter 7 of Catch-22 suggest about the way he does business?

Milo Minderbinder is a likable guy, but he's crooked. His eyes look in different directions; his conscience looks the other way whenever he transacts a deal. To prove that he can be trusted, he borrows a package of pitted dates from Yossarian, promising that there will be "a little something extra" for Yossarian when the deal is done. And there is something extra: one-quarter of McWatt's torn bedsheet. Milo finds a thief to steal the sheet, promising him the dates as payment. He tears the sheet in half and returns half to McWatt "because it was all yours to begin with." He gives one-quarter of the sheet to Yossarian and keeps a quarter for himself as a reward for his initiative; he also returns the dates to Yossarian. Because the thief spoke no English and Milo never actually promised him the dates, Milo considers that they're all better off than before. Except for the thief, "and there's no sense worrying about him." Nothing about the transaction makes sense, and no one actually benefits from it. Milo's way of conducting business reveals his dishonesty and a lack of integrity. He seeks to benefit from any transaction, often at the expense of others.

In Chapter 8 of Catch-22, what does Lieutenant Scheisskopf's fanatic interest in parade competitions reveal about him?

Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who runs the squadron of aviation cadets where Yossarian trains, cares only about the weekly parade competitions at the flight school. He ignores his wife to study parade tactics; he wishes he could nail his men to long wooden planks so they'd march straight. His biggest accomplishment is training his squadron to march without waving their hands, for which they win first prize. Lieutenant Scheisskopf is uninterested in teaching the cadets anything that would help them in combat. He and the other senior officers care only about making the cadets look good so they'll win prizes for the senior officers. This reveals that Scheisskopf prioritizes the image of the military over its substance and true purpose. It also exposes a breakdown within the military system. When senior officers spend more time worrying about the appearance of soldiers rather than their training, this puts the soldiers at a much greater risk in a combat situation.

In Chapter 9 of Catch-22, how is Major Major's career affected by a computer error?

Although computers weren't used in World War II—and Joseph Heller knew that very well—Major Major is promoted because of a computer error. This deliberate anachronism points to the fact that Heller's intent in writing Catch-22 was not to satirize World War II but the 1950s. Heller wanted to make fun of the misbegotten U.S. war in Korea, the McCarthy hearings, and the increasingly powerful bureaucracy that was beginning to control people's lives. Computers, which were just coming into use in the 1950s, were one of the main enablers of bureaucracy. Intended to simplify office routine, they complicated it instead. Because of a computer error, Major Major, a man with very limited skills and no charisma, was elevated beyond his capacity to do the job.

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