Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
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.