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Joseph Heller


Study Questions & Essay Topics

Study Questions

1. Throughout the novel, the idea of Catch-22 is explained in a number of ways. What are some of them? Do any of them represent the real Catch-22, or are they all simply examples of a larger abstract idea? If Catch-22 is an abstract concept, which explanation comes closest to it?

For most of the novel, Catch-22 defines the maddening, paradoxical thought processes by which the military runs its soldiers’ lives; any time Yossarian spies a potential way out of the war, there is a catch, and it is always called Catch-22. Doc Daneeka offers the first explanation: requests to go home are only honored for the insane, but anyone who would ask to be taken off combat duty must necessarily be sane. Another example is Captain Black’s Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade: men are required to sign loyalty oaths before they can eat, but they are not forced to sign loyalty oaths because they are always free to not eat. The officials reason that Major Major must be a communist because he has not signed a loyalty oath, but he is not allowed to sign a loyalty oath because Captain Black won’t let him.

This kind of thinking enables the war, and it permeates the novel, even in settings outside the official grasp of Catch-22. Luciana, for instance, will not marry Yossarian because he is crazy, and she knows he is crazy because he wants to marry her. If he did not want to marry her, he would not be crazy, and then she could marry him. The most penetrating explanation of Catch-22 is also the last that the novel offers—when the old woman outside the whorehouse in Rome says that Catch-22 indicates that “they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” She says that Catch-22 is fundamentally inscrutable: the law says that those in power do not have to show Catch-22 to anyone, and the law that says so is Catch-22. This statement confirms what Yossarian has always known: Catch-22 does not really exist; it is merely a justification for the strong to use against the weak. It is the abstract mechanism at the heart of Catch-22, the mechanism by which the military can force human beings with the desire to live into endlessly dehumanizing situations in which they are likely to be killed. The unanswerable paradox of unearned power means that those in power can do anything that the subjects of that power cannot stop them from doing.

2. Discuss Milo. Does the fact that he seems to exist outside military authority make him a positive figure or a negative one?

In one sense, Milo is a crusader against the arbitrary regulations of the military bureaucracy. He ignores the army’s regulations and borrows both planes and supplies in order to increase his profits. Unlike many of the men, who feel powerless in the face of the authorities, Milo exists completely outside the bureaucracy and seems to get away with it.

But, while Milo certainly represents an individual’s triumph in the face of a dehumanizing organization, he also lacks morals and consideration for others. He is a perfect symbol of what is wrong with free-market capitalism: it encourages men to profit from the losses of others. A minor example of Milo’s selfishness is the way he makes Yossarian and Orr sleep in the plane while he himself sleeps in luxurious palaces; a major example is the way he claims that “everyone has a share” in his syndicate, only to keep all the profits for himself. By the end of the novel, Milo is selling chocolate-covered cotton—a product more meaningless than anything the army’s bureaucracy could dream up. In a sense, as he has gained power, Milo has become like the authoritarian forces he defies, sacrificing real value for personal gain.

3. What role do women play in Catch-22?

Because all of the enlistees in Yossarian’s squadron are male, women play only a minor role in the novel. They act as barometers by which we can measure the qualities of the men who interact with them. Yossarian, for example, falls passionately in love with every woman he meets—a symptom of his desperate desire to seize as much of life as possible before he dies. One example of this desire occurs at the Avignon briefing, where Yossarian starts an epidemic of moaning because he realizes that he will never get the chance to sleep with General Dreedle’s beautiful assistant.

Women are also markers of the deep immorality and tragedy of war. Luciana, very beautiful and earnest, is deeply ashamed of a scar on her back that she got during an air raid. Nately’s whore has been forced by the war to go into prostitution; she is utterly indifferent to everything until she falls in love with Nately, and he is killed almost immediately afterward. She then seeks revenge on Yossarian, who brings her the bad news about Nately, and keeps trying to stab him. She acts as proof that evil is not without consequence and that the pain that war inflicts on the world will not simply disappear.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Think about chronology in the novel. How does the disordered, tangential presentation of events affect the flow of the story? What devices does Heller employ to allow the reader to piece together the order of events? What kind of unified narrative, if any, ultimately emerges? What does this portrayal say about the idea of time in Catch-22?

2. Discuss the chaplain. How does his religious faith develop and change as the story progresses? What does his timidity say about the power of moral absolutes in the world of the military? What is the significance of his sensation of déjà vu?

3. Think about the novel’s use of setting and scene. What effect do the rapid shifts between the base and the hospital, or between Pianosa and Rome, have on the presentation of the story? What does each location seem to represent?

4. What does Snowden’s death mean to Yossarian?

5. How does Catch-22 differ from other war stories?

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