Skip over navigation

Catch-22

Joseph Heller

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 38–42

Key Facts

1.
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 would have 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

This passage from Chapter 5 marks the novel’s first mention of the paradoxical law called “Catch-22.” Over the course of the novel, Catch-22 is described in a number of different ways that can be applied to a number of different aspects of wartime life; here, however, Catch-22 affects Yossarian most specifically. Catch-22 is alarmingly persuasive; even Yossarian accepts what seems to be its logical infallibility. But Catch-22 is an abstract thing; we find out later that Yossarian believes that Catch-22 does not really exist. It is a trap made up of words, and words are faulty things, often misrepresenting reality. What is so upsetting about the way Catch-22 is applied throughout the novel is that real men are sent into real peril based on a few unreal and unreliable words.

2.
These three men who hated [Clevinger] spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he saw their loveless faces set immutably into cramped, mean lines of hostility and understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or planes or submarines, not in the bunker behind the machine guns or mortars or behind the blowing flame throwers, not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Hermann Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more.

In this passage from Chapter 8, Clevinger has just faced a hearing in which Lieutenant Scheisskopf and two other officers convict him of an infraction that he did not commit and sentence him to punishment duty. Their hatred of him forces him to come to terms with one of the central ironies of Catch-22: the force that drives men from opposing armies to shoot at and kill each other has nothing to do with personal hatred. It seems strange to Clevinger that men who want to kill him do not hate him, whereas men who are ostensibly his allies hate him deeply.

3.
One of the things [Yossarian] wanted to start screaming about was the surgeon’s knife that was almost certain to be waiting for him and everyone else who lived long enough to die. He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, loss of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end.

This quote from Chapter 17 demonstrates that the war, in confronting Yossarian daily with the possibility of his own death, has not hardened him to fear; instead, it has made him much more aware of the value and fragility of life. He cannot stop thinking about all the ways in which he could possibly die—in addition to antiaircraft fire, there are plenty of diseases that could kill him. In this passage, Yossarian also dwells on the inevitability of death. He feels trapped in the army; Catch-22 prevents him from escaping it. But the fact that he must someday die is an even greater and more inescapable trap, for even if he manages to wiggle out of the prison of the army, he will still have to face his death eventually.

4.
“Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”
The chaplain was apologetic. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”
“Then let’s get some new ones.”

In this conversation in Chapter 19, Colonel Cathcart and the chaplain discuss the possibility of saying a group prayer before each mission. Cathcart wants to start saying the prayers because he thinks it will get him mentioned in the Saturday Evening Post; later, he abandons this idea when he hears that the enlisted men will have to be included along with the officers. By asking to exclude religion from the prayers, Cathcart shows that he is interested in religion only as a tool for his own advancement. Actual faith in God has nothing to do with the chaplain’s purpose—at least as far as Cathcart is concerned. Throughout Catch-22, the chaplain struggles to maintain his faith, and he is confronted again and again by men who want to use religion as a tool without understanding the value of real faith.

5.
Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

This passage occurs in Chapter 41 during the final description of Snowden’s death, in which Snowden’s entrails spill out of his stomach and onto the floor. Snowden’s death causes Yossarian to realize that, without the spirit, man is nothing but matter. Yossarian feels cold, which allows him to identify with Snowden; in Snowden’s entrails, Yossarian can see the prediction of his own death. The final sentence of this passage, “Ripeness is all,” contains a small message of hope, implying that man can, for a brief period, be truly alive. It is this kind of ripeness that Yossarian clings to by trying to keep himself alive and, eventually, by deserting the army.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us