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About the Book
Yossarian is a paranoid American bombardier stationed off the Italian coast during World War II who believes that everyone is out to kill him. Fearing he will be killed during a bombing run, Yossarian takes desperate measures to avoid flying, such as checking himself into a hospital with a fake liver condition and moving the bomb line on the map of Italy, which postpones the bombing mission to Bologna. Yossarian and his comrades are in a Catch-22: They can be grounded on the basis of insanity; however, if they ask to be grounded because of insanity, their concern for their safety proves their sanity. While Yossarian’s desire to get out of the war is the story’s focal point, Heller’s satirical narrative also relays the antics of Yossarian’s comrades—the men of the 256th Squadron—and positions those antics amid such themes as war, hypocrisy, justice, death, government bureaucracy, and greed. Teeming with Catch-22 situations, the ultimate “catch” for Yossarian is a test of his own integrity. Should he stand by truth and face court-martial or should he turn his back on his comrades and become a hero?
About the Author
Joseph Heller, an American satirical novelist, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian Jewish immigrants, in 1923. After graduating from a Coney Island high school, Heller worked momentarily in an insurance office and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he was trained as a bombardier during World War II. Heller flew sixty missions in Corsica, a Mediterranean island, and earned a Presidential Unit Citation before leaving the military in 1945. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from New York University and later earned a master’s from Columbia University. Heller attended Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar and then assumed a position as an English instructor at Pennsylvania State University for a brief time. Heller went on to hold various other jobs while pursing his writing career. Catch-22 became an American classic in the latter half of the twentieth century and elevated Heller as one of the most widely regarded post–World War II satirists. Heller went on to publish Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979), and Closing Time (1994), a sequel to Catch-22, as well as short stories, plays, screenplays, and the 1998 memoir Now and Then.
How does a phrase like “Catch-22” work its way into the fabric of a culture?
1. A complex, chaotic structure makes the novel difficult to follow. How might this structure parallel, represent, and/or elevate themes in the story? How does Heller piece together the chronology of events?
2. Heller’s dialogue style is reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” comic routine of the 1940s. How does Heller use this back-and-forth disorderly logic to develop character?
3. Chapters tend to be named for individuals in the story; however, titles are deceptive because they tend to be about other characters. Why might Heller have named chapters after one character but have written them about another?
4. Yossarian shares a tent with a “dead man.” What role does this mysterious character play?
5. Chief White Halfoat is illiterate, yet he is assigned to military intelligence. Identify and discuss other examples of Heller’s cynicism toward the government and/or other institutions.
6. Choose a poignant passage/scene. How does Heller make this passage/scene work (e.g., how does he evoke emotion in the reader)?
7. Of the multiple characters in the story, which are you drawn to the most? Why? Are there any completely moral characters in the story? Explain.
8. Major Major is described as “the most mediocre of men.” What do the events in his past and present life tell us about humanity and destiny?
9. Both Captain Wren and Captain Piltchard are described as “mild” and “soft-spoken” officers, and they love the war. Why might their personalities be fitting for someone who loves the war?
10. Yossarian returns to the hospital several times. What role do the hospital settings play in the story? In what way might the hospital settings foil the bombing/war scenes? In what way might they be reflective times for Yossarian? For other characters?
11. Compare and contrast Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn. Are they both hypocrites? Why or why not?
12. Circumstances surrounding Snowden’s death are revealed slowly. What does his death mean to Yossarian? To others?
13. Discuss the significance of déjà vu in the story and how it relates to religious faith.
14. While much of the novel is military satire, the story does delve into the private sector. How might Mrs. Daneeka be a satirical character?
15. One of the ironies of the story occurs at the end in which Yossarian has an opportunity to go home a hero. In essence, he has the system in a Catch-22. Explain.
16. Discuss whether the ending of Catch-22 is uplifting or downbeat. Is it a victory or a defeat?
17. Most of the characters in Catch-22 are over-the-top in the sense that, in many ways, they are caricatures of themselves. What must Heller have known about humanity to make them all so recognizable?
18. What do you believe is Heller’s view of a capitalistic society?
19. Is Catch-22 a comic novel or a story of morality? Explain.
20. What does Catch-22 say about war?
21. Discuss the literary significance of Catch-22 and its relevance in the twenty-first century.
22. How does Catch-22 compare to other war stories you have read? How does it compare to other satires
23. How might Catch-22 be described as an allegory?
24. Discuss how the novel can be described as a struggle between the individual and an institution.
25. Discuss the meaning of sanity as it applies to the story. Guide prepared by Pam B. Cole, Professor of English Education & Literacy, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA.
Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn in 1923. In 1961, he published Catch-22, which became a bestseller and, in 1970, a film. He went on to write such novels as Good as Gold, God Knows, Picture This, Closing Time, and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. Heller died in 1999.