The novel follows Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier, and a number of other characters. Most events occur while the airmen of the fictional Fighting 256th (or "two to the fighting eighth power") Squadron are based on a fictional version of the island of Pianosa, west of Italy. Many events in the book are repeatedly described from differing points of view, so the reader learns more about the event from each iteration, with the new information often completing a joke, or setup, the punchline of which was told several chapters previous. The narrative often describes these events out of sequence, and are referred to as if the reader already knows about them.
A magazine excerpt from the novel was originally published as Catch-18, but Heller's agent, Candida Donadio, requested that it change the title of the novel so it would not be confused with another recently published World War II novel, Leon Uris's Mila 18. The number 18 has special meaning in Judaism (it means life in Gematria) and was relevant to early drafts of the novel which had a somewhat greater Jewish emphasis.
The title Catch-11 was suggested, with the duplicated 1 paralleling the repetition found in a number of character exchanges in the novel, but due to the release of the 1960 movie Ocean's Eleven this was also rejected. Catch-17 was also rejected, so as not to be confused with the World War II film Stalag 17, as well as Catch-14, apparently because the publisher did not feel that 14 was a "funny number". Eventually the title came to be Catch-22, which, like 11, has a duplicated digit, with the 2 also referring to a number of déjà vu-like events common in the novel.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
Much of Heller's prose in Catch-22 is circular and repetitive, exemplifying in its form the structure of a Catch-22. Heller revels in paradox, for example: The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him, and The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with. This atmosphere of apparent logical irrationality pervades the whole book.
Other forms of Catch-22 are invoked throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. At one point, victims of harassment by military police quote the MPs as having explained one of Catch-22's provisions so: Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating. An old woman explains: Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing. This nightmare of a bureaucracy crushing the individual with absurdity is similar to the world of Kafka's 'Trial', and Orwell's '1984', the concept of 'doublethink' having definite echoes in Heller's work.
Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of brute force with specious legalistic justification is one of the book's primary motifs.
The motif of bureaucratic absurdity is further explored in 1994's Closing Time, Heller's sequel to Catch-22. This darker, slower-paced, apocalyptic novel explores the pre- and post-war lives of some of the major characters in Catch-22, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Yossarian and tailgunner Sammy Singer.
Another theme is the turning on their heads of our notions of what people generally think of as morally right or wrong, particularly patriotism and honor, which, because they are simplistic ideas, lead most of the airmen to accept abusive lies and petty rules of bureaucrats, though Yossarian is modeled whole-heartedly disregarding all such notions. When Major Major asks why he wouldn't fly more missions, Yossarian answers:
"That’s nothing to be ashamed of," Major Major counseled him kindly. "We’re all afraid."
"I’m not ashamed,’ Yossarian said. ‘I’m just afraid."
Several themes flow into one another, for example, 'that the only way to survive such an insane system is to be insane oneself,' is partially a take on Yossarian's answer to the Social dilemma (that he would be a fool to be any other way); and another theme, 'that bad men (who sell out others) are more likely to get ahead, rise in rank, and make money,' turns our notions of what is estimable on their heads as well.
Heller suggests that bureaucracies, especially when run by bad or insane men, lead the members of the organization to trivialize important matters (e.g., those affecting life and death), and that trivial matters (e.g., clerical errors) assume enormous importance. Everyone in the book, even Yossarian at the beginning, is behaving insanely in their clerical decisions.
While the (official) enemy are the Germans, no German ever actually appears in the story as an enemy combatant. As the narrative progresses, Yossarian comes to fear American bureaucrats more than he fears the Germans attempting to shoot down his bomber. This ironic situation is epitomized in the single appearance of German personnel in the novel, who act as pilots employed by a private entrepreneur working within the U.S. military. This predicament indicates a tension between traditional motives for violence and the modern economic machine, which seems to generate violence simply as another means to profit, quite independent of geographical or ideological constraints.
Among the reasons Yossarian fears his commanders more than the enemy is that, as he flies more missions, the number of missions required before he can go home is continually increasing: he is always approaching the magic number, but he never reaches it. He comes to despair of ever going home and is greatly relieved when he is sent to the hospital for a condition that is almost jaundice. In Yossarian's words:
The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live. (Chapter 12)
List of motifs:
The development of the novel can be split into multiple segments. The first (chapters 1-12) broadly follows the story in during present day time, though the story is fragmented between characters. The second (chapters 12-20) flashes back to focus primarily on the "Great Siege of Bologna" before once again jumping to the present in the third part (chapter 20-25). The fourth (chapters 25-28) flashes back to the origins and growth of Milo’s syndicate, with the fifth part (chapter 28-32) returning again to the narrative present but keeping to the same tone of the previous four. In the sixth and final part (chapter 32 on) while remaining in the present time the novel takes a much darker turn and spends the remaining chapters focusing on the serious and brutal nature of war and the world we live in.
While the previous five parts develop the novel in the present and by use of flash-backs, it is in chapters 32-41 of the sixth and final part where the novel significantly darkens. Previously the reader had been cushioned from experiencing the full horror of events, but now the events are laid bare, allowing the full effect to take place. The horror begins with the attack on the undefended Italian mountain village, with the following chapters involving despair (Doc Daneeka and the Chaplain), disappearance in combat (Orr and Clevinger), disappearance caused by the army (Dunbar) or death (Nately, McWatt, Kid Sampson, Dobbs, Chief White Halfoat and Hungry Joe) of most of Yossarian’s friends, culminating in the unspeakable horrors of Chapter 39, in particular the rape and murder of Michaela, who represents pure innocence.
The analogy is explicitly suggested by Colonel Korn:
"Who does he think he is — Achilles?" Colonel Korn was pleased with the simile and filed a mental reminder to repeat it the next time he found himself in General Peckem's presence.
The comparison is made more subtly in a description of the chaplain's feeling of déjà vu:
But the chaplain's impression of a prior meeting was of some occasion far more momentous and occult than that, of a significant encounter with Yossarian in some remote, submerged and perhaps even entirely spiritual epoch in which he had made the identical, foredooming admission that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do to help him.
Heller here alludes to Book XI of Homer's epic, the Odyssey, in which the hero Odysseus has descended to the spirit world of Hades and met the dead Achilles. Achilles asks Odysseus for news of the living, which Odysseus provides. In contrast, the chaplain cannot help Yossarian.
The differences between Achilles and Yossarian are explained by other literary influences for Yossarian's character:
They couldn’t touch him because he was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. He was Bill Shakespeare. He was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; he was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Sweeney in the nightingales among trees.
"You're crazy," Clevinger shouted vehemently, his eyes filling with tears. "You've got a Jehovah complex." "I think everyone is Nathaniel." Clevinger arrested himself in mid-declamation, suspiciously, "Who's Nathaniel?" "Nathaniel who?" inquired Yossarian innocently. Clevinger skirted the trap neatly. "You think everybody is Jehovah. You’re no better than Raskolnikov — " "Who?" " — yes, Raskolnikov, who — " "Raskolnikov!" " — who — I mean it — who felt he could justify killing an old woman — " "No better than?" " — yes, justify, that’s right — with an ax! And I can prove it to you!" Gasping furiously for air, Clevinger enumerated Yossarian’s symptoms: an unreasonable belief that everybody around him was crazy, a homicidal impulse to machine-gun strangers, retrospective falsification, an unfounded suspicion that people hated him and were conspiring to kill him.
Near the climax of the novel, during Yossarian's harrowing walk through Rome, the comparison with Raskolnikov is again made:
He heard snarling, inhuman voices cutting through the ghostly blackness in front suddenly ... On the other side of the intersection, a man was beating a dog with a stick like the man who was beating the horse with a whip in Raskolinov's dream. Yossarian strained helplessly not to see or hear ... A small crowd watched. A squat women stepped out and asked him please to stop. "Mind your own business" the man barked gruffly, lifting his stick as though he might beat her too ... Yossarian quickened his pace to get away, almost ran ... At the next corner a man was beating a small boy brutally in midst of an immobile crowd ... Yossarian recoiled with sickening recognition. He was certain he has witnessed that same horrible scene sometime before. Déjà vu?
So many things were testing his faith. There was the Bible, of course, but the Bible was a book, and so were Bleak House, Treasure Island, Ethan Frome and The Last of the Mohicans. Did it then seem probable, as he had once overheard Dunbar ask, that the answers to riddles of creation would be supplied by people too ignorant to understand the mechanics of rainfall? Had Almighty God, in all His infinite wisdom, really been afraid that men six thousand years ago would succeed in building a tower to heaven?
New Testament references to the life of Christ abound in the final chapters. When Yossarian returns to "The Eternal City," he finds it a hell, filled with starving children, beggars, people beating and raping each other. He then returns to the base and is offered salvation, ala Christ and the devil, by Colonel Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn. They will send him back to America if he will only agree to like them. (The Devil offered Christ salvation if he would bow down and worship him.) As Yossarian is leaving their office, he is stabbed by Nately's whore, stabbed in the rib cage as Christ was on the cross. Yossarian, like Christ, achieves resurrection when he learns that Orr has not died but has rowed to Sweden. This gives Yossarian the power to rise up and head for Sweden and safety himself.
Also mentioned are Moby-Dick, the works of psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing read by the sexually obsessed Mrs Scheisskopf, and allusion to William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice when describing the Chaplain as an outsider:
If they pricked him did he not bleed? ... It seemed never to have occurred to them that be, just as they had eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses and affections, that he was fed by the same food...
Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.
References to nineteenth century American author Washington Irving also feature, with Yossarian, Major Major, and Corporal Whitcomb all forging documents with his name at some point. The 17th-century English poet John Milton's name is briefly used for the same purpose.
T.S. Eliot's name is mentioned by Ex-PFC Wintergreen as a poet that makes money (sparking a paranoid chain of phone calls between Generals Peckem and Dreedle)
Reviews in publications ranged from the very positive; The Nation ("was the best novel to come out in years"), the New York Herald Tribune ("A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book") and the New York Times ("A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights") to the highly negative; The New Yorker ("doesn't even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper," "what remains is a debris of sour jokes") and from another critic of the New York Times ("is repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest").
Although the novel won no awards at publication, and some highly respected critics such as Sid Feddema thought that the novel "was destined to fade into irrelevance in a decade or so," it has stood the test of time and now is seen as one of the most significant novels of the 20th century.