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Literature: Catch-22
aka: Catch- 22
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. 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.

Catch-22 is a 1961 novel, a famous anti-war satire by Joseph Heller, later made into a film. It focuses on Yossarian, a USAAF bombardier on the Italian Front during World War II, who would very much like to not be on the Italian Front during World War II. It is considered one of the greatest books of the Twentieth Century and at the same time is often gut-bustingly funny.

The plot mostly consists of an assortment of random events on base, shifting focus across several characters, but mostly focusing on the main hero Yossarian. Most events highlight the absurdities of life, especially government and war. Many details that seem random become significant later on, often with much darker implications.

This novel originated the expression "catch-22" to describe "a no-win situation" or "a double bind". The number 22 itself has no actual significance and seems to have been chosen arbitrarily. The original title was Catch-18, and that didn't have any significance either. It was changed so as to avoid confusion with Mila 18, which was published shortly beforehand.

A 1970 film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols and featuring an All-Star Cast, was a commercial and critical flop. There was also a TV pilot made with Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian, but it was never bought. A sequel, Closing Time, was written by Heller and published in 1994. It flopped as well.

This book provide examples of the following tropes:

  • Absurdism: One of the best-known examples of an absurdist novel.
  • The Ace: Appleby, who always does what he is supposed to and always succeeds at what he does, causing everyone to not like him.
  • Affably Evil
    • Milo Minderbinder, a ruthless profiteer, but one who does attempt to protect Yossarian from the very bureaucracy that he feeds, by aiding his mission to rescue Nately's prostitute's young sister - only to depart abruptly upon hearing of yet another new business opportunity.
    • Aarfy, a rotund, absentminded, childishly-naive college boy, who has a strong sense of principles, is nostalgic about his fraternity days, and constantly smokes his pipe. He's also a sociopathic social climber, a serial rapist, and a murderer. At one point, he even goes so far as fondly recounting the kidnapping, gangrape, and robbing of two high school girls by him and his frat brothers to Nately. He seems to sincerely believe that Nately will respect this.
    • Lt Col Korn, the brains behind the blustering Cathcart, is about the most affable antagonist in the book, possibly because he knows he's evil.
  • Alliterative Name: The book is plagued with them: Doctor Dan Daneeka, Colonel Carl Cathcart, Milo Minderbinder and most famously, Major Major Major Major.
  • Almighty Janitor: Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. He's just a mail clerk, but he can throw away any order he doesn't like, making him the most powerful man in the Air Force.
  • Anachronic Order
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Arc Words:
    "Help him, help the bombardier!"
    "...I'M the bombardier!"
    "Then help HIM, help HIM!"
    • "I'm cold."
    • "Are you crazy?"
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Yossarian brings a meeting to a crashing halt with what seems to be a prank question, "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that this is THE key question of the book.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Clevinger is tried for "breaking ranks while in formation, felonious assault, indiscriminate behavior, high treason, provoking, being a smart guy, listening to classical music, and so on."
  • Ax-Crazy: Nately's whore.
  • Badass: Of all people, Doc Daneeka is this due towards the fact that, during the time within which Milo bombs the campus for the sake of his "society", his first action would be to scour the fields and define/confirm the damages of, and even sometimes give treatment, to every soldier he sees coldly, calmly, and efficiently.
  • Bandage Mummy: a fully-bandaged wounded flier has one tube going in and one tube going out, and once a day the bottles of fluid attached to each tube are switched around. At least one person makes the claim that nobody's in there, but nobody believes him.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Lieutenant Scheisskopf = Lieutenant Shithead auf Deutsch.
    "I don't know anything about plays," Colonel Scheisskopf broke in bluntly.
    General Peckem looked at him with amazement. Never before had a reference of his to Shakespeare's hallowed Hamlet been ignored and trampled upon with such rude indifference. He began to wonder with genuine concern just what sort of shithead the Pentagon had foisted on him.
  • Black Comedy: The seminal work of the genre — in fact, the phrase was allegedly coined to describe Catch-22.
  • Blessed with Suck: Chief White Halfoat's family only settles over oil deposits. The suck part is that the oil companies figured this out and kept booting them off whatever land they stopped on.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Milo. He'd probably be one of the novel's more reprehensible characters (quite an achievement) if you could define him by human morality at all.
  • Captain Crash: Orr, deliberately.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: The Trope Namer. Done over and over and over, as befits the work that coined the term.
    • Yossarian can be exempted from flying more bombing missions if the doctor does a mental evaluation and declares that he's crazy. But for the doctor to make that declaration, Yossarian would have to request an evaluation. Requesting an evaluation because he doesn't want to fly more bombing missions proves that he's not crazy, because not wanting to risk your life repeatedly isn't crazy at all.
    • An Italian peasant woman deals with soldiers had claimed that the actual text of Catch-22 did not have to be revealed when carrying out orders related to it, meaning that "they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." (In simple terms, "We don't have to provide a citation of the rule that allows us to do this because the rule that we're claiming allows us to do this says we don't have to provide a citation of it.")
    • Captain Black issued an order that everyone had to sign a "loyalty oath", but did not allow Major Major to sign it, then began harassing him because he hadn't signed it and, when Major Major asked to be allowed to sign it, Captain Black continued to refuse to allow him to sign it on the grounds that he hadn't signed it when the order was first issued.
    • Major Major uses it himself, giving his aide orders that no one is allowed to see him while he's in his office. But people must be allowed in sometimes, so he orders his aide to allow them to see him when he's not in his office. (When he sees someone coming who he doesn't want to deal with, but who outranks him, and therefore could countermand his order to his aide, he jumps out the window and flees into the forest, hiding until they leave.)
  • Catchphrase
    • McWatt's is "Oh well, what the hell."
    • Milo's has, "What's good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country!" and "...and everybody has a share."
    • Aarfy: "Old Aarfy has never paid for it", in reference to sex/prostitution. See Chekhov's Gun below.
    • Doc Daneeka: "You think you've got troubles? What about me?"
  • Cerebus Syndrome: Done intentionally.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: After Yossarian tells Nately's Whore about Nately's death, she keeps showing up out of nowhere and trying to kill him, including in the very last line of the book.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Just about everything seemingly random actually comes back as a running joke, or with a deeper or darker meaning.
    • Orr's constant crashing of his planes and unexplained battering at the hands of his prostitute turn out to have been instruments in his plot to escape to neutral Sweden; in the final chapter, Yossarian realizes that many of the stranger encounters between the two were attempts by Orr to recruit Yossarian to join him.
    • Aarfy's insistence that he never has and never will pay for sex appears again in a much darker way towards the end, when he rapes and kills the innocent deaf maid Michaela despite the profusion of prostitutes in the city.
    • Chaplain Shipman (Tappman in the movie and subsequent American editions of the book) has a plum tomato pushed upon him by Colonel Cathcart; later, this becomes the bulk of the case presented against him by the military police, another example of the novel's major theme of bureacratic madness.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Catch-22 itself seems to operate on this: "Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse..."
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Lots of it in the final chapters.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Milo Minderbinder, morality becomes a casualty of the profit motive, most notably when Milo begins to organise attacks for the benefit of the Germans, whose ultimate absurd conclusion is the bombing of his own base)
  • Crapsack World: Obvious by the end of the book.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Orr, and arguably Nately's whore.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right. The major reveal at the end.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Yossarian has a medical condition which keeps him just sick enough to get out of duty, but not sick enough to be sent home (another Catch-22).
  • Dada Horror: The novel and its various "Catch-22" situations become less and less funny as the narrative progresses, culminating with Arfy raping and murdering a girl through applying "Catch-22" logic to his sexual approach.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Old Man in whorehouse.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Nately's whore.
  • Determinator: Nately's whore, after learning of Nately's death from Yossarian, starts hunting him up and down Italy. She even chases him back at the base a couple times too. Even after he bundles her into a plane, straps a parachute on her and drops her behind enemy lines.
  • Department of Redundancy Department
    • "'I yearn for you tragically. A.T. Tappman, Chaplain, U.S. Army.' A.T. Tappman was the group chaplain's name."
    • Major Major (middle name: Major), who is named as such because his father thought it would be funny. This later causes an IBM Machine to promote him to Major, leading to his full title being Major Major Major Major.
    • "I didn't know they were any other Captain Yossarians. As far as I know, I'm the only Captain Yossarian I know; but that's only as far as I know."
  • Dissonant Serenity: Aarfy.
  • Draft Dodging
  • Driven to Suicide: McWatt, after accidentally killing Kid Sampson
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Many characters die without much fanfare.
  • Eagleland: Nately firmly believes in Eagleland type 1, and argues with the Old Man over it.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Towards the end, when Yossarian names all his friends that died during the last hundred pages. Especially impactful since it happened so gradually that readers aren't supposed to notice until this point.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Many characters are known only by a short phrase describing them, such as: Nately's whore, Nately's whore's kid sister, Nately's whore's pimp, the Texan, the Soldier in White, the Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice, the C.I.D. Men, the Maid in the Lime-Colored Panties, and Dreedle's Girl.
  • Fatal Flaw: Everyone has one. Cathcart's hunger for fame, Aarfy's crippling fear of "paying for it", and so on. Milo's is most noticeable: his greed has consumed him to the point he is physically unable to pass up a chance at money.
  • Gambit Pileup: Peckem, Dreedle, Cathcart, and Korn.
  • General Failure: Everyone in charge, to the point that Yossarian realizes in the end that if he were to desert, no one could stop him. So he does.
  • Gilligan Cut: A rare literary example occurs when the narrator asserts that everybody likes Appleby. The next line is Yossarian saying, "I hate that son of a bitch."
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Kid Sampson
  • Happily Married: The Chaplain
  • Hoist by His Own Petard
    • Doc Daneeka spends the entire book complaining that he was drafted just as his medical practice was becoming profitable. The reason it became profitable, naturally, is because every other doctor in Staten Island was drafted.
    • Having his name added to flight crew manifests when he isn't aboard the flight, so he can get flight pay, leads to a situation where he is declared legally dead, despite being obviously alive.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Played straight by Corporal Whitcomb and Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife, but averted by Yossarian, Nurse Duckett, and (near the end) even the Chaplain.
  • Hope Spot: Dobbs's plans to murder Cathcart. As soon as Yossarian is willing to cooperate with him, Dobbs's plane crashes into Nately's, reulting in both Dobbs and Nately dying overseas.
  • Hypocritical Humor: "Racial prejudice is a terrible thing, Yossarian. It really is. It's a terrible thing to treat a decent, loyal Indian like a nigger, kike, wop or spic." — Chief White Halfoat
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Snowden
  • Implacable Man: Major —— de Coverley.
  • In Medias Res
  • Insane Troll Logic
    • Intentional, and Catch-22's trademark brand of humor so much that a logical paradox was named after it (the catch-22, of course).
    • Yossarian and Co throw the uniforms of several Generals out the window while they are naked, because if they are naked they can't prove they are generals so Yossarian won't have to take orders from them. Even the Generals think this is a workable strategy.
  • Jerkass: Captain Black, General Dreedle, Corporal Whitcomb.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: Much of the narrative is in Anachronic Order, and brief mentions of events elaborated upon later in the book (that don't make any sense at the time) appear constantly.
  • Kangaroo Court: Clevinger's trial at the hands of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who was his prosecutor, defender and one of the judges. And Clevinger was only put on trial because Lieutenant Scheisskopf thought he was being a wise guy.
  • Karma Houdini: Milo Minderbinder, who ends up a fabulously rich businessman. Also Aarfy, who ends up literally getting away with rape and murder.
  • Last Name Basis:
    • You can read the entire book and miss Yossarian's first name; indeed, you might think Yossarian is his first name. It's only mentioned twice: at the end of the "Catch-22" chapter and early in the "Snowden" chapter (it's John).
    • Major _______ de Coverly is so intimidating that no one is even brave enough to ask his first name.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: All well-defined, and most with chapters named after them (although the proportion of each chapter that is devoted to its title character varies). Scheisskopf, and Magnificent Bastard Milo Minderbinder are the only characters who get more than one chapter titled after themselves.
  • Male Gaze: The camera focus when Col. Cathcart is chasing a girl down the streets.
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Probably every character with the exception of the Chaplain, who wasn't a virgin either (he was happily married, so was the only one who didn't fool around).
  • Meaningful Name: More than a few.
    • Lieutenant Scheisskopf's name means "Shithead" in German, and he fits the bill.
    • Snowden is remembered for complaining of being cold.
    • Orr rows away.
    • Yossarian's exotic name indicates his status as an outsider (and is almost an anagram of "Assyrian", his ethnicity according to other characters). And he's likely called an Assyrian because of the anagram. The name actually sounds more Armenian, and the character is Armenian in the sequel. Both Yossarian's name and claims about ethnicity are obscure reference to an Armenian American author William Saroyan who wrote a great deal about Assyrians. Since no one got it from the original, some more transparent hints were included in the sequel. Doesn't look like they were transparent enough.
  • Missing Steps Plan
    • This is deconstructed, as Milo Minderbinder's step one is to buys up an entire crop of Egyptian cotton. Then he spends several chapters trying to figure out step two: how to profit from it, including an attempt to coat the cotton in chocolate and trying to sell it as food.
    • This is also how everyone views the fact that he buys eggs for more then he sells them for but still makes a profit. He later lets Yossarian in on the secret, he's buying and selling the eggs from himself at that point, through front companies, so it doesn't matter what the prices are at that point. This keeps the competitors out of the business, as they don't see any profit in it.
  • Mood Whiplash
    • A whole lot, but a prominent example is when Kid Sampson and McWatt die, one gruesomely. When everyone thinks Doc Daneeka is dead too, it gets funny again in just about two paragraphs.
    • Given how darkly funny the rest of the book is, the dark and extremely unfunny chapter "The Eternal City" is a kicker.
  • Morality Pet: Yossarian is Milo's. Yossarian helped him save his business from Milo's flawed cotton plan, so Milo does his best to look out for him. Subverted when Milo sells Yossarian out so he can continue to stay out of the fighting.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: The hospital ward where Yossarian stays at the start of the novel slowly empties out as everyone decides to stop faking their illnesses and leave. "All except the C.I.D. Man, who caught a cold from the captain and came down with pneumonia."
  • The Neidermeyer: God, where do we even start. Most characters above the rank of Major tend to count, particularly General Peckem, Colonel Cathcart and Scheisskopf.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Aarfy
  • Noodle Incident: Because chapters are non-chronological, for most of the book, several major events remain noodle incidents.
    • Great Big Siege of Bologna
    • The Loyalty Oath Crusade
    • The Avignon mission. They are eventually described, though.
    • The last and most important being Snowden's death, described in the second-to-last chapter.
    • The thing Orr did to make a whore hit him repeatedly with her shoe is presented as this, complete with numerous Unreveals. Subverted when Yossarian finally works it out in the last few pages. "Because he was paying her to, that's why!" He was trying to get hurt badly enough to stay out of combat; when it didn't work, he faked his last crash and made his way to Sweden.
    • The Dead Man in Yossarian's Tent is a particularly tragic one
  • No Name Given: Major —— de Coverley, whose face is so forbidding that no one dares ask his first name.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: The eponymous Catch-22 keeps this from being a workable solution for Yossarian.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Orr. Oh yes.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Most of the higher-ups in the Air Force, such as General Peckam and Colonel Cathcart. Ex-P.F.C Wintergreen is a particularly extreme example — despite being a lowly mail clerk, he has become one of the most powerful men in the military because whenever he doesn't like an order someone sends, he just throws it away. Wintergeen claims he was about to cancel the Normandy Invasion until Eisenhower committed more armor.
  • Only Sane Man: Yossarian, but in a strange way: it's because he realizes that everyone (himself included) is crazy. It turns out that Orr shares Yossarian's desire to escape the military. He was just smart enough to figure out a way much faster. Subverted by McWatt, who is described as "the craziest combat man of them all, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war."
  • Overt Operative: "The men knew he was a C.I.D. man because he confided to them he was and urged each of them not to reveal his true identity to any of the other men to whom he had already confided that he was a C.I.D. man."
  • Patriotic Fervor: Captain Black forces this on his men. At first he makes them sign loyalty oaths. Then, multiple loyalty oaths. He himself, had someone sign hundreds on his behalf to show how he was more loyal than everyone else. He also forced his men to frequently pledge allegiance and sing "The Star Spangled Banner".
  • Pet the Dog: Yossarian's attempts at finding Nately's Whore's Kid Sister after Rome is bombed, the Chaplain's attempts to get Colonel Cathcart to stop raising the number of missions, and in hindsight everything Orr does.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Cathcart, who has no understanding of anything beyond an immature sense of what's good and bad for his Army career ("Black Eyes" and "Feathers in His Cap")
  • Posthumous Character: The dead man in Yossarian's tent.
  • Private Military Contractors: M&M Enterprises becomes this, as Milo gets contracted by the Americans and the Germans to bomb targets and defend them, even bombing his own base.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Nately's whore is something of an ex-girlfriend, especially after Nately dies.
  • Punny Name: Colonel Korn
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Yossarian
  • Real Joke Name / Repetitive Name: Major Major Major Major. Not even he had known he was named that until he enrolled in kindergarten. The news kills his mother.
  • Reassignment Backfire: General Peckem keeps trying to get combat operations transferred under his command in Special Services. However, when he is reassigned to General Dreedle's position, he finds that this has occured. However, since his former second in command is now head of Special Services, Scheisskopf is promoted to Lieutenant General and, thus, is now Peckem's superior.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Doc Daneeka. But no-one will correct the official records.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: The two CID men investigating Washington Irving are totally in the dark about each other's identities, and their investigations are hampered by their attempts to catch each other.
  • Scar Survey: A subversion of the typical "badass soldier revealing his past" — Yossarian asks Luciana about the scars on her back. She tells him that she got them as a bystander in an American air raid.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying
  • Shrouded in Myth: Major —— de Coverly. No one even knows his first name.
  • Significant Anagram: Perhaps, as the surname Yossarian can be formed by rearranging his purported ethnicity Assyrian and adding the letter o. But since he's Armenian as of closing time, it's also likely that this is false significance and confusion on the part of the others around him.
  • Smug Snake: Peckem, Korn
  • Snowball Lie: The "Washington Irving" pseudonym.
  • Some of My Best Friends Are X: Enlisted Men. Cathcart says this to the Chaplain when stating that he wants to keep enlisted men out of the prayers. The best part is when Cathcart tells the Chaplain, "After all, you wouldn't want your sister to marry one", and the Chaplin replies his sister is an enlisted man, a Sergeant in the Women's Army Corps (WAC).
  • Soldiers at the Rear
    • Ex-PFC Wintergreen always manages to avoid being sent into combat by manipulating the discipline system. Many of the other characters would do the same if they thought they could pull it off.
    • Milo Minderbinder also avoids combat. His superiors literally grant him the medals from other men's actions while Milo stays safely in the rear.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: Major —— de Coverley
  • Straw Nihilist: Old Man in whorehouse.
  • Take a Third Option: The ending, with Yossarian finally beating a Catch-22 by deserting.
  • Television Geography: A deliberate case; Pianosa is too small for a major military complex and has no permanent residents — it is actually home to a maximum-security prison. The author tells you right up front that it is fictional.
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance
    • Major Major Major Major looks like Henry Fonda. Some characters even think he is Henry Fonda.
    • Heller claimed to have written this with a movie adaptation in mind — he wanted Major Major to be played either by Henry Fonda or someone who looked absolutely nothing like Henry Fonda. When a movie was made in 1970, they went the latter route with the casting of Bob Newhart.
  • Those Two Guys: Gus and Wes, the medical men under Doc Daneeka. Also, Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, although they have more plot significance.
  • Twist Ending
  • Un-Person: Doc Daneeka gets declared killed in action when a plane he was listed to have been on crashes. He can't convince anyone that he isn't dead.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Ficky-fick"
  • Vetinari Job Security: Milo can't be forced to go on missions like the others, because his nigh-indispensable trading empire is too complex for anyone but him to run.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Considering how loved Milo is in so many countries, and his amoral behavior could place him as a villain, he fits this.
  • War for Fun and Profit: Milo Minderbinder. He is an archetypal War Profiteer.
  • Wham Line: Many of the book's most important twists are described within the constraints of a sentence.
  • What, Exactly, Is His Job?: No-one knows what Major —— de Coverly's official function is, and no-one is game enough to ask him.
  • Yandere: Nately's whore

The Casual VacancyLit FicThe Catcher in the Rye
A Canticle for LeibowitzLiterature of the 1960sCat's Eye
Carrera's LegionsMilitary and Warfare LiteratureClear and Present Danger
Castle PerilousComic LiteratureCheaper by the Dozen
The Dam BustersWorks Set in World War IIMemphis Belle

alternative title(s): Catch22; Catch- 22
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