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.