Catch-22 Summary

Joseph Heller


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Catch-22 Summary

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Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, follows WWII bombardier Captain John Yossarian and his squadron, a group based on the fictional island of Pianosa. The soldiers attempt to fulfill the continually increasing number of missions required in order to return home, all the while avoiding combat missions that appear to lead to certain death. Yossarian is an atypical hero, avoiding risk and danger at all costs and barely acknowledging any distinction between the enemy at war and his commanding officers, both of whom he views as a threat to his safety. His attempts to avoid danger often involve a range of morally ambiguous shenanigans, forming a morbid type of humor amongst the tragedy. The logical term “catch-22” is utilized in several paradoxical instances throughout the book, but the main paradox lies the bureaucratic rule called the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade: if a man willingly flies into dangerous combat missions, he must be considered insane, but if he completes the request to be relieved of these dangerous missions, the act of completing the request proves that he is sane and therefore, may not be excused.

Catch-22 develops powerfully anti-war themes, including: the total power of bureaucracy as well as bureaucratic absurdity; the inevitability of death and the futility of war; the military distortion of justice; nihilism and cynicism; paradoxes and impossibility; miscommunication; and greed. Stylistically, it combines a memorable linguistic style involving satirical parody, the unusual third-person omniscient narration with multiple points of view, and a non-chronological story sequence.

The first distinct section maintains chronology in the year 1944 and begins with Yossarian faking a liver condition in a hospital, messing around with his letter-censoring responsibilities, and making friends with Dunbar and “the soldier in white”, an unrecognizable figure wrapped head-to-toe in hospital gauze. There are also two nurses who don’t like Yossarian, and a bigoted Texan who annoys every other patient into heading back into warfare. Yossarian and Clevinger discuss the war: Clevinger points to patriotism and honor; Yossarian to the people shooting at him and the senselessness of war. Colonel Cathcart raises the required number of missions just before Yossarian can complete enough to go home. He pleads with Doc Daneeka to be grounded, who then explains the aforementioned catch-22. Many characters are introduced, including Milo Minderbinder, who attempts to persuade Yossarian to join his black market dealings; Nately, a blindingly patriotic soldier; McWatt, an unusually cheerful pilot; Major Major Major Major, an unfortunate, mediocre, order-following man, and many others.

Chronology starts to disappear as the novel focuses primarily on the flashback of “The Great Big Siege of Bologna,” during which Yossarian lies again to avoid flying over the target. The tone of the novel becomes decidedly darker, many soldiers either dying or suffering unfortunate circumstances. After the bombing of Bologna, Yossarian spends a night with a woman named Luciana in Rome, reaffirming his promiscuous nature.

The novel returns to the present, 1944, in the hospital, although from here the order of events becomes much less distinct. The required number of missions is now fifty-five. The chaplain attempts to speak for those soldiers who have completed their required missions and want to be sent home, but is refused by Cathcart. Nately and an old Italian man argue about patriotism, dying for one’s country, and war. A short flashback chronicles the origin and growth of Milo Minderbinder’s vast international control over the black market.

Once again we return to the narrative present, where the chaplain is troubled and discouraged, beginning to doubt everything, even God. One of the only moments that the men actually rebel against the administration occurs when Peckem orders an attack on a small village, but the men don’t want to do it. They end up doing it anyway. A disaster involving Kid Sampson being sliced in half by a too-low propeller upsets Colonel Cathcart enough to raise the required missions to sixty-five, and soon after, seventy.

The last and longest definitive section of the novel remains in the story’s present, but takes a more contemplative and disturbing view on the horrific nature of war. Cathcart raises the mission number to eighty, and there is a particularly brutal mission which kills twelve, including Nately. Yossarian begins to change along with the writing style, feeling the stark injustice of the rising number of missions, as more and more soldiers die. He walks backwards everywhere so that no one can sneak up on him. He visits Rome again, which has been destroyed by war, then has a significant realization that the catch-22 does not exist, but it doesn’t matter because everyone believes it does. The scenes are overcome with grotesque sights in the night: soldiers are dying; women are being raped and children beaten; and broken teeth lie in the streets, but Yossarian does not help anyone. This section is by far the most violent, vivid, and raw account of the tragedies and horrors, and is the emotional climax of the novel. It culminates finally in the rape and murder of the woman Michaela, who symbolizes total innocence.

Yossarian has been refusing to fly. Cathcart and Korn offer two choices; prison, or a deal in which Yossarian must pretend to like his commanders. Eventually he decides against this deal and his own catch-22. The last scene ends on an oddly optimistic note as Yossarian runs out the door, fleeing to neutral Sweden territory.

Although Heller himself had been a bombardier during the Second World War, completing sixty missions and using this experience as inspiration for his novel, he has stated his criticisms of both war and government came more from the Korean War and the Cold War. It is therefore noteworthy that this clash of different decades presents itself in the novel in anachronistic elements, such as computers (IBM machines). Although the novel had a discordant reception, it has since developed a cult following and been declared one of the most important books of the twentieth century, giving the most accurate depiction of the military in literature.