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Catch-22 | Study Guide

Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 | Themes


The insanity of war and the specter of death are the central themes of Catch-22. War is so crazy that it unhinges everyone it touches—especially the military. Yossarian struggles to make sense of something senseless. He's also caught up in the futile struggle to avoid death: "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt."

War probably won't vanish; death certainly won't. However, the book's underlying message is not "so we might as well give up." Heller suggests that there is a way to fight even insuperable obstacles—as long as it is understood that doing so won't make them go away.

Insanity of War

This craziness of war pervades the novel. For his own peace of mind, Yossarian decides that he must be the only sane person in a world of madmen. After all Catch-22 (the paradoxical rule that symbolizes Yossarian's frustration in the novel) makes no sense, and yet the entire army seems to revolve around it.

In Chapter 29 the military is presented at its most cruelly illogical. Yossarian's squadron is ordered to bomb a small Italian mountain village in order to create a roadblock against the Germans. The villagers have not been warned. The U.S. military doesn't care how many people die. All that matters is creating a roadblock that the Germans will clear in two days anyway.

Milo Minderbinder constantly brags about buying eggs for seven cents and selling them for a profit at a nickel. This is of course impossible, and yet somehow Milo amasses a huge fortune doing business this way.

Senseless Death

Yossarian's struggle to make sense of death and to "live forever or die in the attempt" drives the action of the book. Snowden's death is the trigger for his loss of nerve. Yossarian is haunted by the fact that he couldn't save Snowden. No one could have saved Snowden—he'd been fatally injured—but Yossarian blames himself for not having realized the nature of his wounds earlier.

When Aarfy rapes and murders a housemaid, Yossarian despairingly asks him why. Aarfy explains that he had to kill her once he had raped her, or she might have gone around saying bad things about him. Yossarian wonders why Aarfy didn't go to a prostitute if he wanted sex so badly. "I never paid for it in my life," brags Aarfy.


Every experienced soldier in the novel has lost the sense of patriotism he once had. None of the superiors can be trusted, and even the chaplain is losing his faith.

Yossarian can hardly tolerate the four young airmen who move into his tent, who are grateful for the chance to see what war is really like. Yossarian resolves to be patient with them. He knows that, once a couple of them have been killed, they'll come around to his point of view.

Major Danby holds onto his convictions until almost the end of the book. When Yossarian asks how he can work alongside men like Cathcart and Korn, Danby answers that he does it to help his country. Yossarian replies that the war is all but over and that the United States no longer needs Danby's help. "I try not to think of that," Major Danby admits, which seems to indicate that he knows Yossarian is right.

The one character who seems to hang onto his idealism is Nately. In Chapter 23 he has a long argument with a cynical and degenerate brothel owner. Nothing the older man says can shake Nately's patriotic pride in America. In Chapter 35 Nately is apparently well aware that staying in Pianosa puts his life at risk. It's a risk he's willing to take to be near his girlfriend.

Meaningless Military Power

The shattering incompetence of the military is seen repeatedly in characters such as Major Major, Doc Daneeka, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who is constantly promoted although all he knows how to do is run military parades.

Major Major is promoted (to major) by a computer error. Aware of his inadequacies, he announces that no one is allowed to see him in his office when he's in his office. He also puts on an obvious disguise whenever he does leave his office.

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