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Joseph Heller


Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Absolute Power of Bureaucracy

One of the most terrifying aspects of Catch-22 is the fact that the lives and deaths of the men in Yossarian’s squadron are governed not by their own decisions concerning dangerous risks but by the decisions of an impersonal, frightening bureaucracy. The men must risk their lives even when they know that their missions are useless, as when they are forced to keep flying combat missions late in the novel even after they learn that the Allies have essentially won the war. The bureaucrats are absolutely deaf to any attempts that the men make to reason with them logically; they defy logic at every turn. Major Major, for example, will see people in his office only when he is not there, and Doc Daneeka won’t ground Yossarian for insanity because Yossarian’s desire to be grounded reveals that he must be sane.

Several scenes of interrogation add to the bureaucracy’s frustrating refusal to listen to reason. In one such scene, Scheisskopf interrogates Clevinger but will not let Clevinger state his innocence because he is too busy correcting Clevinger’s way of speaking. In another such scene, the chaplain is taken into a cellar and accused of a crime, but the men interrogating him do not know what the crime is—they hope to find out by interrogating him. In these and other instances, Yossarian’s companions learn that what they do and say has very little effect on what happens to them. All they can do is learn to navigate their way through the bureaucracy, using its illogical rules to their own advantage whenever possible.

Loss of Religious Faith

Even the chaplain begins to doubt his faith in God by the end of Catch-22. His disillusionment stems in part from Colonel Cathcart’s constant attempts to use the outward manifestations of religion to further his own ambition. Heller’s treatment of the subject of God is most focused in the Thanksgiving discussion between Yossarian and Scheisskopf’s wife. Both are atheists: Mrs. Scheisskopf does not believe in a just and loving God, whereas the God in whom Yossarian does not believe is a bumbling fool. Yossarian points out that no truly good, omniscient God would have created phlegm and tooth decay, let alone human suffering. Yossarian has experienced so many terrible things that he cannot believe in a God who would create such a wide array of options when it comes to pain and death. But the loss of faith in God does not mean a world without morals for the characters. Instead, it means a world in which each man must make his own morals—as Yossarian does when he chooses to desert the army rather than betray his squadron.

The Impotence of Language

In the first chapter of Catch-22, we see Yossarian randomly deleting words from the letters that he is required to censor while he is in the hospital. At first, this act seems terrible: the letters are the men’s only way of communicating with loved ones at home, and Yossarian is destroying that line of communication. As we learn more about Yossarian’s world, however, we see that the military bureaucracy has taken the communicative power out of language. As Snowden dies in the back of the plane, all that Yossarian can think of to say is “there, there,” over and over. He knows his words have no power to comfort Snowden, but he does not know what else to do. Faced with the realities of death and the absurdity of its circumstances, language seems unable to communicate any sort of reassurance.

While language has no power to comfort in the novel, it does have the power to circumvent logic and trap the squadron in an inescapable prison of bureaucracy. Catch-22 itself is nothing but a bunch of words strung together to circumvent logic and keep Yossarian flying missions. Catch-22 even contains a clause that makes it illegal to read Catch-22, demonstrating how absolutely powerful the concept of Catch-22 is. Yossarian knows that since it is nothing but words, Catch-22 does not really exist, but within the framework of the bureaucratic military, he has no choice but to accept the illogical prison in which these words place him.

The Inevitability of Death

Yossarian’s one goal—to stay alive or die trying—is based on the assumption that he must ultimately fail. He believes that Snowden’s gory death revealed a secret: that man is, ultimately, garbage. The specter of death haunts Yossarian constantly, in forms ranging from the dead man in his tent to his memories of Snowden. Furthermore, Yossarian is always visualizing his own death and is absolutely flabbergasted by the total number of ways in which it is possible for a human being to die. But Yossarian’s awareness of the inevitability of death is not entirely negative: it gives him a sense of how precious life is, after all, and he vows to live for as long as possible. He also lives more fully than he would without his constant consciousness of life’s frailty. He falls in love constantly and passionately, and he laments every second that he cannot spend enjoying the good things in the world.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

One version of Catch-22 keeps Yossarian flying combat mission after combat mission: Doc Daneeka cannot ground him for insanity unless he asks, but if he asks to be grounded, then he must be sane. In this sense, Catch-22 is a piece of circular reasoning that keeps Yossarian trapped in a paradox that determines whether he lives or dies, even though it is made only of words. But Catch-22 has many other permutations, most notably in the final, general principle stated by the old Italian woman in the ruined brothel: “they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” This description of Catch-22 proves what Yossarian has known all along: Catch-22 does not really exist. It is just a name made up for an illogical argument that justifies what is really going on. Behind Catch-22 stands an unswerving principle: might makes right.

Catch-22 also manifests itself even when it is not explicitly named. Both the doctor and the chaplain have been caught up in their own versions of Catch-22, since war drastically undermines the premises of their professions and yet calls upon them to practice those professions in the name of war. Even Heller’s style is in a way a Catch-22; the dialogue leaps haphazardly from one comment to another, often arriving at a point exactly opposite of that which the person speaking is trying to express.

Number of Missions

Colonel Cathcart wants to be promoted to general; to gain promotion, he constantly raises the number of missions that the men are required to fly before they can be discharged. The number of missions increases as time goes on, providing us with one of the few ways we have of keeping track of the chronology of Catch-22. The number of missions is also the primary trap from which the men in the squadron are unable to escape: each time Hungry Joe completes his missions or Yossarian comes near completing them, the number is raised yet again. The utter futility of trying to get out of the system the honest way, by flying the required number of missions, is what prompts Orr and Yossarian to seek alternative methods of escape.

Washington Irving

First signed as a forgery by Yossarian in the hospital, the name Washington Irving (or Irving Washington) is soon adopted by Major Major, who signs the name because the paperwork with Irving’s name on it never comes back to him. Washington Irving is a figment of the imagination who is, in a sense, the perfect person to deal with bureaucracy: because he does not exist, he is ideally suited to the meaningless shuffle of paperwork.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Chocolate-Covered Cotton

Aided by Yossarian, Milo comes up with the idea of selling chocolate-covered cotton to the government after he discovers that there is a glut of cotton in the market and that he cannot sell his own cotton. Milo’s product hides the lack of substance beneath an enticing exterior, showing the way in which bureaucracy can be fooled by appearances and is unable to measure actual substance or real merit.

The Soldier in White

The soldier in white, a bandage-wrapped, faceless, nameless body that lies in the hospital in the first chapter of the novel, represents the way the army treats men as interchangeable objects. When, months after his death, he is replaced by another, identical soldier in white, everyone assumes it is the same person.

Aerial Photographs

When the men go on bombing missions, they often later learn that the real purpose of the mission was either to make an explosion that would be beautiful when it showed up on aerial photographs or to clear out foliage so that better aerial photography will be possible. The photographs themselves, then, stand for the way in which the dehumanization of war—in this case, the detachment of the upper levels of military bureaucracy from the tragedy of war—allows for its horrors to be seen merely for their aesthetic effects.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



The doctor won’t ground Yossarian for insanity because Yossarian’s ___ reveals that he must be sane.
Desire to be grounded
Successful piloting
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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