Catch-22 | Study Guide

Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 | Quotes


He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.

Narrator, Chapter 3

"He" is Yossarian. The guiding principle of Yossarian's life is that he doesn't want to die. Most people don't, of course, but Yossarian continually obsesses about his death. He is especially afraid that he will die while flying a combat mission. Avoiding combat missions (and anything else that might kill him) is his major life goal.


There was only one catch and that was Catch-22.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Given the book's title, we can expect that the phrase "catch-22" is going to resonate powerfully in the book. Here, using the phrase for the first time in the novel, Doc Daneeka explains why Yossarian will never be able to get out of flying combat missions. He can only be grounded if he's crazy, but wanting to be grounded—to be kept out of danger—proves that he's sane. In all its permutations, catch-22 defines the lunacy of military life because there is not actually only one catch; over and over, characters find themselves in paradoxical situations that are impossible to navigate rationally, some of which have mortal consequences.

Yossarian thinks catch-22 is just a concept—a definition of the way the system works—but for his superiors, catch-22 is a principle that justifies taking any action they want.


The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.

Narrator, Chapter 8

For the novel as a whole, the passage refers to the backward logic of the characters and the military effort seeking ways to justify their actions.

More specifically, this passage relates to Clevinger's trumped-up arrest in cadet school. Although he has no idea what he's being charged with, his superiors have decided he's guilty even before he goes to trial.


Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.

Narrator, Chapter 9

Poor Major Major qualifies for all three of these conditions. He's a walking nonentity, and he knows it. When he's promoted to squadron commander, the other soldiers shun him. In the army, being well-intentioned counts for nothing. At the same time, even a nobody can be promoted beyond their level of competency. Borrowing again from William Shakespeare, Heller replicates the syntax from this classic quote: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Heller's twist represents one of the ironies in the novel, the contrast between mediocre and great.


It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead.

Yossarian, Chapter 12

This is Yossarian's answer when he's asked which is more important: winning the war or winning the war and staying alive. Yossarian has lost the unquestioning patriotism that inspires so many of his companions. He also expresses the grim reality that the dead cannot care about the end result of war.


I don't make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.

Milo Minderbinder, Chapter 22

Though Milo Minderbinder's syndicate makes sense only to Milo, he explains it with such sleight of hand that everyone wants a share in it. Even the Axis countries eventually become his customers. Milo uses the words "everybody has a share" as a blanket justification for anything that will make him a profit. From there, it's not much of a jump to his trademark: "What's good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country."


Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for.

The old man, Chapter 23

These words are spoken by the dissolute old man who runs the Roman brothel where Nately's whore works. When he and Nately have a long debate about principles, the old man out-argues Nately at every turn. Still, he's unable to shake Nately's idealism—so maybe Nately wins after all.


Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced.

Colonel Cathcart, Chapter 31

For shallow heartlessness, nothing could exceed the form letter of condolence that's sent out with Colonel Cathcart's name on it. In a culture that values efficiency above everything else, even sympathy must be streamlined. The salutation nods to not just the impersonal nature of the colonel's sympathy but also the impersonal nature of war and the tragedies of war.


What the hell does it mean when they disappear somebody?

Yossarian, Chapter 34

No one knows, but it's what the higher-ups do with Dunbar. One day he's inciting riot in a hospital ward; the next he's gone without explanation. No one ever sees him again. Of course, disappearing is how Orr actually escapes. And in a way, Yossarian simply disappears at the end of the novel.


Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. ... The spirit gone, man is garbage.

Narrator, Chapter 41

Sitting helplessly next to the dying Snowden changes everything for Yossarian. Mortality in all its horror lies right in front of him. From that day on, Yossarian stops being brave.


Yossarian jumped.

Narrator, Chapter 42

When Major Danby tells Yossarian he will have to keep on his toes and will have to jump in order to avoid capture, Yossarian promises to jump. On Danby's shouted command, Yossarian then physically jumps—saving his life, as Nately's whore is hiding with a knife just outside the door.

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