Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 can be summarized by the last two sentences on page 305: “‘They’re not going to send a crazy man out to be killed, are they?’ ‘Who else would go?'” This sentiment is at the core of Catch-22. The book is filled to the brim with the notion of the catch-22, and it manifests itself in many different ways and locations. But the catch-22 is not just a feature of the novel, rather it is a (if not the) defining characteristic of our time with Yossarian.
It is fitting that the title of Heller’s novel is Catch-22. The idea of catch-22 is a lose-lose scenario, where no matter what you do, you can’t win. It is first introduced on page 46: “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” (46). It is this catch which keeps all the men in Yossarian’s outfit flying their missions when Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of required missions. It is an excellent example of bureaucratic meddling (which is also a recurring theme), but it also pops up in other situations in the book. It shows up in a social context when Yossarian asks Luciana to marry him. Yossarian summarizes the situation: “You won’t marry me because I’m crazy, and you say I’m crazy because I want to marry you?” (159). Heller uses the idea of catch-22 to great effect. It helps the reader see things the way Yossarian does. He feels that he is surrounded on all sides by people who want to kill him, people who want him to fly more missions, and people who won’t ground him for being sane enough to not want to fly more missions. The reader gets this feeling of being surrounded by numerous instances of catch-22. Every few pages there is another example of a new trap (such as Major Major Major Major’s open door policy only in effect when he isn’t in his office). Not only does this skillful repetition help the reader identify with Yossarian, but it is also a strong unifying theme within the novel. As a reader it is pleasing to find the different catches scattered throughout, and the consistency of the recurring catches is helpful considering that the novel does not always progress chronologically. While the idea of catch-22 is not the only consistent piece of the story, it does follow Yossarian no matter where he runs.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.