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Literature / Catch-22

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"That's some catch, that 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."

A satirical antiwar novel written by Joseph Heller and published in 1961, Catch-22 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 Leon Uris' 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 1973 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. In 2019, a six-episode miniseries adaptation of the book was released on Hulu.

For the type of no-win situation the phrase "catch-22" has come to refer to, see Catch-22 Dilemma.


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.
  • Adaptational Expansion: A good portion of the 2019 miniseries focuses on the main characters as cadets in Santa Ana before they go to war in Pianosa, something only lightly touched upon in the novel.
  • An Aesop:
    • War is insane. And the only people crazy enough to willingly participate in a war are the people far too crazy to be trusted to make their own decisions. Ostensibly about World War II, but there's a reason it was immensely popular during The Vietnam War.
    • The book also has a deeper anvil dropped about the individual's responsibility for the evils of the modern world. Almost every character death could have been prevented by Yossarian, had he actually done anything, and his friends continue to die around him until he finally balls up and sticks it to The Man.
  • Affably Evil
    • Milo Minderbinder, a ruthless profiteer, but one who does attempt to protect Yossarian from the very bureaucracy that he feeds. He even aids Yossarian in his mission to rescue Nately's prostitute's young sister only to abruptly depart upon hearing of yet another new business opportunity.
    • 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.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Cathcart and Korn want promotions and are willing to get countless soldiers killed to impress their superiors to make it happen. When Yossarian asks them why they want to get promoted so badly, they both seem to be genuinely confused by the question.
  • Anachronic Order: The novel hops around considerably in time, and the only way to track what's happening chronologically is by how many missions Colonel Cathcart wants at any given moment.
  • Anyone Can Die: Most definitely played straight.
  • Arc Words
    "Help him, help the bombardier!"
    "...I'm the bombardier! I'm fine!"
    "Then help him, help him!"
    • "I'm cold."
    • "Are you crazy?"
    • "Yossarian, imagine if everyone felt that way." "Then I'd be a damn fool not to".
  • 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."
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Lieutenant Scheisskopf gets his Meaningful Name from a common mistake about German. It supposedly means "shithead" (by combining scheiße, "shit", with kopf, "head"), but this word doesn't actually exist in German: the equivalent term is "Arschloch".
  • Ax-Crazy: Nately's whore.
  • Bandage Mummy: The Soldiers in White, 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.
    • Orr is Swedish for "grouse", a bird known as a poor flyer. After his last crash, he escapes to Sweden.
  • 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 be one of the novel's more reprehensible characters (quite an achievement) if you could define him by human morality at all. He views things less in terms of "good vs. bad" and more in terms of "profitable vs. unprofitable" — that is to say, not only does he believe that anything which is good for the free market is good, but he doesn't comprehend how anything that's good for the free market could possibly be bad. What's especially horrifying is that this attitude becomes the prevailing attitude of the army and the entire American administration: when Milo contracts with the Germans to bomb his own airfield, and is subsequently court martialled for treason, he gets away with it by convincing the court that it would be wrong to punish him because he was just being a good capitalist, and capitalism made America great. What clinches this argument is the sheer size of the profit Milo made on the deal, which convinces the investigating committee that it's fine to kill American personnel if to do so will make a profit.
    • The Old Man in Brothel. His ethical concepts appear utterly disgusting [at least to Nately], but they are both consistent and flawless.
  • Blue Blood: "The Natelys have never done anything for their money." So Lt. Nately's mother takes pride in telling him.
  • Brick Joke: Description of major Major: "[...] he was suspected by the homosexuals of being a Communist and suspected by the Communists of being a homosexual." Later Captain Black: "[...] when they remarked that Major Major was somewhat odd, Captain Black announced that he was a Communist."
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Wintergreen, who remains indispensable to the top brass despite being repeatedly busted back down to private.
  • Captain Crash: Orr, deliberately.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Colonel Korn describes himself as a "man of no moral character at all".
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: The Trope Namer. Done over and over and over, as befits the work that coined said 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.)
    • Colonel Korn got so fed up with Yossarian ruining educational sessions with pointless questions that he decided to put a stop to it by making it a rule that the only people allowed to ask questions during educational sessions were the ones who don't ask questions during educational sessions. He then got rid of the sessions altogether, since everyone agreed that you couldn't educate people who never asked questions.
    • A prostitute laments that no man would want to marry her, because she's not a virgin. But when a man professes a willingness to marry her, she flatly turns him down — on the grounds that she's not a virgin.
  • Catchphrase
    • McWatt's is "Oh well, what the hell."
    • Milo 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 bureaucratic madness.
    • Dunbar started out as a guy who wanted to be as bored as possible so he would prolong his life so of course he gets "disappeared" after he starts being excited and emotional about injustice.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Averted with the Chaplain, an Anabaptist, whom everybody calls "Father" nonetheless.
  • 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 to him, 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).
  • Corrupt Quartermaster: Milo Minderbinder gets his start as one of these.
  • Court-Martialed: Happens to Clevinger on a military version of a Kangaroo Court.
  • 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 Aarfy raping and murdering a girl through applying "Catch-22" logic to his sexual approach.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Old Man in whorehouse.
  • Deadly Euphemism: Aarfy said "he has never paid from sex". Turns out he is a psychopathic rapist and murders later a woman he has just raped.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Nately's whore.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: Captain Black's Great Loyalty Oath Crusade required that soldiers sign loyalty oaths, recite the pledge of allegiance, and sing the national anthem numerous times before being allowed to eat - and then do it some more to get access to the condiments. People who didn't (or who weren't allowed to because the Captain didn't like them) were not allowed to be served at the mess. Eventually Major —— de Coverly pulls rank and forces him to stop.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Milo may be some kind of amoral personification of capitalism itself, but he will not make business with Communist states like Russia (likely because they stand in complete opposition to his ideal of free trade).
  • 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 C.I.D. Men, the Maid in the Lime-Colored Panties, the Old Man in Rome, Dreedle's Girl.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Major —— de Coverly has one, which is part of why he looks so commanding that everyone is too afraid to ask his first name. It turns out that he got the eyepatch after an irreverent old man thought he looked too haughty and tossed a flower in his eye.
  • Faking the Dead: Orr pretends to have died in a plane crash to avoid getting caught when he escapes to Sweden. It's implied that a number of other characters who "died" were actually faking it, including Clevinger — only Kid Sampson and McWatt can be definitively said to be dead for real.
  • 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.
  • Faux Affably Evil: 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, gang rape, and robbing of two high school girls by him and his frat brothers to Nately. He seems to believe sincerely that Nately will respect this.
  • Foil: Dunbar shares Yosarrian's desire for self-preservation and caustic sense of humor which makes them fast friends. However, his main focus is prolonging his life through a sense of boredom as he already knows he's going to die eventually (unlike Yossarian's desperate fear of death). Eventually, he goes mad in the hospital ward and "disappears" for the rest of the novel, which hints at a potential fate for Yossarian.
  • 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.
  • General Ripper: Cathcart is only an aspiring general, but Yossarian considers him his true enemy for constantly raising the threshold for discharge in the 256th — which inevitably results in many more deaths in action.
  • The Generic Guy: Exaggerated with Major Major. Everyone who meets him finds it remarkable how unremarkable he is.
  • Giftedly Bad: Colonel Cargill.
    Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. His prices were high, for failure often did not come easily. He had to start at the top and work his way down, and with sympathetic friends in Washington, losing money was no simple matter. It took months of hard work and careful misplanning. A person misplaced, disorganized, miscalculated, overlooked everything and open every loophole, and just when he thought he had it made, the government gave him a lake or a forest or an oilfield and spoiled everything. Even with such handicaps, Colonel Cargill could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.
  • 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."
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: Yossarian has heard stories of slave traders in Africa kidnapping little boys and selling them to men who disemboweled and ate them. He wonders how the children go through that without showing any sign of fear or pain — he assumes they must do it somehow; surely nobody could knowingly cause a child to suffer.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Kid Sampson is accidentally cut in half by McWatt's plane.
  • Happily Married: The Chaplain.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: The Soldier in White is so covered by bandages that no one knows anything about him or even if he's alive (or if there's even someone in there).
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Yossarian has this dynamic with at least a few characters; he and Dunbar often keep each other company in the hospital with schemes to preserve their lives through the war. Doc Daneeka and Milo also are quite amicable with Yossarian despite not really offering him any help.
  • 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.
    • General Peckem spends the entire book trying to get bomber units transferred to his command in Special Services so he can have authority over General Dreedle. This eventually occurs after Peckem takes over Dreedle's command. Unfortunately, this now means that he is now subservient to General Scheisskopf.
  • 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, resulting in both Dobbs and Nately dying overseas.
  • Hypocritical Humor
    Chief White Halfoat: 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.
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Snowden.
  • Immortality Seeker: Yossarian is "determined to live forever or die in the attempt".
  • Implacable Man: Major —— de Coverley.
  • In Medias Res
  • Insane Troll Logic:
    • Catch-22's trademark brand of humour, so much that a logical paradox was named after it (the catch-22, of course).
    • For example, Yossarian and company 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.
    • The Old Man in the Brothel. He proves how Italy will win the war because it is so weak
  • 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.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Despite Yossarian's bravado and seeming lackadaisical nature, he's actually incredibly upset about all the brutality, callousness and corruption of the military. Special mention goes to Dunbar, who was portrayed as a guy who wanted to prolong his life as long as possible by being as boring as possible, and later got so upset at the unnecessary bombing of an Italian village that he intentionally missed the target but also started getting riled up at the stupid and pointless orders of his superior officers.
  • 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 Coverley is so intimidating that no one is even brave enough to ask his first name.
  • Legally Dead: Doc Daneeka, who was in the habit of having his named added to flight rosters so he could get extra pay, and then one of the flights he was allegedly on crashed, so he was reported dead, and nobody with the authority to fix things would speak to him because he was legally dead.
  • Meaningful Name: More than a few.
    • Lieutenant Scheisskopf's name is a calque of "Shithead" into German,note  and he fits the bill.
    • Snowden is remembered for complaining of being cold.
    • Orr rows away. "Orr" is also Swedish for "grouse", a bird known as a poor flyer. He escapes to Sweden.
    • 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.
      • Armenians are, like Jews, a minority known for being an underdog. Joseph Heller himself was Jewish.
  • 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.
  • Moving the Goalposts: Colonel Cathcart keeps upping the number of missions that crews have to complete to be sent home whenever it looks like someone might actually make it. By the end of the book he had more than doubled the required mission count from what it was at the start, which started out being higher than the required mission count as specified by Army Air Corps regulations. Unfortunately, thanks to a Catch-22, the pilots can't complain about this to anyone of high enough rank to stop this (theoretically).
  • 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.
  • No Full Name Given: Major —— de Coverley, whose face is so forbidding that no one dares ask his first name.
  • 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 Un Reveals. 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 (Mr. Mudd) is a particularly tragic one.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: The eponymous Catch-22 keeps this from being a workable solution for Yossarian.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Orr. Big time.
  • 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. Wintergreen claims he was about to cancel the Normandy Invasion until Eisenhower committed more armor.
  • Oh, Crap!: General Peckem (and just about all the top military brass) have one when they realize Scheisskopf, a Cloud Cuckoolander Pointy-Haired Boss, has been promoted to authority over them—and wants them all to march in parades.
  • 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."
    • The chaplain is probably the most normal character in the book, although he's a bit paranoid.
  • 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".
  • The Peter Principle: Scheisskopf is the living embodiment of this as, despite not caring about anything other than parades, he gets repeatedly promoted until he's a General overseeing all combat operations in the area.
  • Pet the Dog: Subverted twice with Milo. First, he tries to persuade Cathcart to not force Yossarian to take his missions, but then gives up for reasons that make no sense whatsoever. Later, he goes with Yossarian to rescue Nately's whore's kid sister, but runs away the minute he finds a business opportunity.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Much of the story centers around the fact that most of the people in it are too busy focusing on their various personal obsessions to care about the pilots, the smooth running of the air base, and quite possibly the war itself.
  • 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. Also, Snowden, whose death is depicted a few times due to Anachronic Order.
  • 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
  • Rank Up:
    • Yossarian manages to persuade Colonel Cathcart to promote him to Captain after taking a second pass at Ferrara in spite of the fact that Cathcart was chewing him out for it.
    • Major Major is promoted to Major on his second day in the army by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Circumstances mean he cannot be promoted or demoted either.
    • Subverted with Wintergreen. Every time he manages to get promoted, he ends up getting busted back down to buck private. He even managed to make Sergeant at one point.
    • Scheisskopf ends up in charge of the whole wing because Peckem manages to get bombers assigned to Special Services and ends up in Dreedle's position, which is now subservient to Scheisskopf.
  • Rapid-Fire Interrupting: Happens any time someone is brought up on (usually nonsensical) charges. If the officers doing the questioning actually let someone else finish a sentence, they might have actually gotten some useful information out of the process.
  • Real Joke Name/Repetitive Name: Major Major Major Major. Not even he had known he was named that (he thought he was called Caleb) until he enrolled in kindergarten. The news kills his mother.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: While General Dreedle is a huge Jerkass, he also has no patience for the various bureaucratic nonsense that plagues Pianosa. Unfortunately, by the time the Chaplain thinks to appeal to Dreedle to stop Cathcart, Dreedle has been overthrown by the far less reasonable Peckem and Scheisskopf.
  • 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!
  • Serious Business: A major part of the book is the fact that most of the cast holds their personal objectives (such as personal profit, loyalty oaths, military parades and the identification of "Washington Irving") as this, and disregard the smooth operation of the base and the prosecution of the war as being inconsequential.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: A number of Yossarian's more amusing friends either die or simply disappear. There's Orr, who turns out to have paddled to a neutral country. Dunbar eventually goes mad and disappears altogether.
  • Shout-Out: Yossarian's question "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" is this to Francois Villon, whose poem "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" has the refrain "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!", translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "Where are the snows of yesteryear?"
  • Shrouded in Myth: Major —— de Coverley. No one even knows his first name.
  • Skewed Priorities: The entire story runs on this.
    Finishing last in three successive parades had given Lieutenant Scheisskopf an unsavory reputation, and he considered every means of improvement, even nailing the twelve men in each rank to a long two-by-four beam of seasoned oak to keep them in line. The plan was not feasible, for making a 90 degree turn would have been impossible without nickel alloy swivels inserted in the small of every man's back, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf was not sanguine at all about obtaining that many nickel alloy swivels from quartermaster, or enlisting the cooperation of the surgeons at the hospital.
  • 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 Chaplain replies his sister is an enlisted (wo)man, a Sergeant in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve.
  • 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
  • Spiritual Successor: Slaughterhouse-Five could be considered one. Both are rather similar in tone and subject matter, and contain satirical portrayals of World War II, although Catch-22 is more an absurdist look at the business and bureaucracy of war itself and Slaughterhouse-Five deals more with its aftermath. Heck, even their titles are similar.
  • Stepford Smiler: The 2019 miniseries makes it clear that McWatt is this.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: Captain Black justifies forcing people to sign meaningless loyalty oaths in order to be allowed to eat by arguing that those who don't are choosing to starve to death rather than proclaim loyalty to their country (never mind that he's not letting people he doesn't like sign). Likewise, Milo Minderbinder claims that he's a huge supporter of the free market and thus always makes sure there is an alternative to buying his products, which is why he lets the army men choose whether to buy food from him or starve to death.
  • 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, instead being home to a maximum-security prison. The author even tells you before the first chapter 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 the book 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. Not to mention Colonels Cathcart and Korn.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Averted, despite Yossarian actively fighting them. Aside from defending themselves with flak and trading with Milo, the Germans are a complete nonentity in the novel.
  • 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, and eventually comes to believe it himself.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Nately wants to make an honest woman out of the prostitute he's fallen for, but her family is dead set against it. They consider prostitution to be an excellent way to keep girls occupied and thus out of mischief.
  • 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.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Between the made-up or just not given names of the characters, it's easier to name all the characters that have average names as opposed to unique.
  • War for Fun and Profit: Milo Minderbinder 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?: Nobody knows what Major —— de Coverly's official function is, nor are they game enough to ask him.
  • Yandere: Nately's whore.

Alternative Title(s): Catch 22